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Stakeholders examine National Human Rights Commission’s struggles on its mandate

By Ameh Ochojila, Abuja and Silver Nwokoro, Lagos
13 July 2021   |   3:08 am
Tony Ojukwu’s job is not an enviable one. As the man at the helm of affairs of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), it is his responsibility to safeguard the rights of all Nigerians.

National Human Rights Commission

Tony Ojukwu’s job is not an enviable one. As the man at the helm of affairs of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), it is his responsibility to safeguard the rights of all Nigerians.

The NHRC, which he leads is legally mandated to deal with all matters relating to the protection of human rights in Nigeria as guaranteed by the 1999 Constitution, the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights, the United Nations Charter, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) and other international human rights treaties to which Nigeria is a party.

The 2010 amendment also gave the Commission quasi-judicial powers to summon persons, evidence and to award compensation and enforce its decisions. It also has the power to visit any place of detention to ensure that detainees’ rights are not violated.

But exercising its mandate has often brought the Commission into direct collision with powerful interests, local and foreign, besides the law enforcement agents. These interests most often, border on how to balance the use of state power for the protection of national interest, group and personal interests, as well as other issues relating to the rights of key populations (KPs).

These are the issues that Tony Ojukwu is yet to overcome as head of NHRC, since he assumed office as the Executive Secretary in May 2018.

However, Nigerian human rights lawyers have argued that the Commission has not been able to live up to its mandate for certain reasons, some of which include the influence of political leadership, lack of funds and lack of cooperation from other agencies of government.

They argued that even though the Commission finances were on the first line charge, the influence of the supervising ministry has stifled its financial freedom. They suggested that all the agencies of the government should have human rights desks for frequent submission of their reports to appropriate world bodies handling human rights issues.

An Abuja based legal practitioner, Monday Ikpe, suggested the creation of human rights trust funds as obtainable in other climes, as a way of tackling the ineffectiveness of the Commission. He explained that if such a trust fund were in place, it would enhance the Commission’s operation and reduce governmental control.

Other human rights activists suggest that more powers should be given to the Commission, stating that human right is an inherent right of every human being on the earth. According to them, any breach of human rights breeds injustice in society.

Also, a civil society group, People’s Initiative for Orientation (POICE), said the activities of the Commission had been largely limited to the cities and therefore need to target the hinterlands as well. Its Executive Director, Fanen Akor, said the Commission had not sufficiently reached the rural communities in educating the people on their rights. According to him, most of the Commission’s activities are urban-centred. He, therefore, suggested more collaborative efforts between the Commission and community-based civil societies, for better reach.

The people in the villages, he stated, know little about their rights and even when violated are not aware. From inception, the headache of the Commission was the people’s perception of it, he said.

“Starting from the days of the pioneer Executive Secretary, Prof. Mohammed Tabiu, the Commission had grappled with circumstances surrounding its birth. The pioneer Executive Secretary at the 20th anniversary of the Commission had said: ‘The question on the lips of many then was: ‘How was the military regime that was perceived as infringing on human rights be able to establish a body to protect human rights?’ This perception has made the Commitment to be described as a “toothless bulldog set up to serve the interest of its master,” Akor said.

To actualise its mandate, the Commission established offices across the 36 states of the country. It is today one of the few MDAs with offices in all the states of the federation, others being the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN), Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and National Orientation Agency (NOA). Ojukwu said it would be discriminatory if the office were not in other states. According to him, the Commission receives not less than a million complaints yearly.

It has heard about 150 cases of Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV) in a panel held across the six geopolitical zones of the country. On recent alleged police brutality, it has taken 270 cases, 60 considered, 15 concluded and awaiting final addresses, while 120 cases are at various stages of treatment.

According to Mr. Daniel Asomugha, a lawyer, the reason the Commission is not executing its mandate effectively is that it is a federal government agency, and the federal government most times through its agencies like the police, the DSS and military violate peoples rights. “So, how can a federal government agent violate a right and another federal government agent cure the same right? It is impossible! The NHRC should be something that is absolutely independent. Its position should be such that it enjoys absolute independence.

“One of the basic reasons it does not defend peoples’ right is that the fellow who appoints the man at the helm of affairs at the human rights commission is also the same person who appoints the head of the police. So, you cannot be a judge and a prosecutor.”

He argued that if the Commission becomes independent of the government, it would do better. “They get their funding from the government. They get everything from the government, so, how can they be against that same government when most times it is the government that violates people’s rights?” he queried.  

However, another lawyer, Mr Nathaniel Ngwu disagrees. According to him, the Commission is implementing it mandate, but the government is not obeying court orders. “They don’t obey our fundamental rights and they don’t obey the journalists. The bottom line is that this present government is not interested in the fundamental human rights of citizens.

“If you look at the removal of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, you will agree with me that there was no observation of rule of law. If you look at the “interception” of Nnamdi Kalu, you will notice that there was no respect to human rights. If you look at the judiciary, there is no observation of financial autonomy. The government at all levels are not interested in implementing the constitutional provision of the judiciary to be independent,” he pointed out.

Citing the recent Twitter ban as a violation of the rights of citizens, Ngwu said chapter 5 of the 1999 Constitution makes room for citizens to express their opinion freely, but lamented that the government with impunity violates such rights.