Saving Nigerian lives through human rights
Quite often, I have found myself compelled to defend the fundamentals of human rights to supposedly educated people in Nigeria. The generic ignorance of foundational social concepts, particularly on the rule of law and the sanctity of human rights, is a clear demonstration of the declining quality of our ‘educated’ middle class. On one hand, this deterioration is a reflection of waning humanism in the international community. The ideal of universal humanity is rapidly collapsing under international tribalism and territorial squabbling, disguised as nationalism. As such, if Nigerians want to discard humanism, there is ample global precedent.
On the other hand, the Nigerian masses have rarely had the opportunity to understand or enjoy the dignity of being treated as human and so have no real basis for comparing ideals. Our governments have always obfuscated our entitlement to individual rights. Our history is a dreary narrative of travails: from colonial repression to civilian oppression to military brutality. And because Nigeria does not protect Nigerians equally, individuals have evolved their own group affiliations to protect themselves. Today, most Nigerians ascribe humanity only to their own affiliates: everyone else is considered sub-human and, therefore, deserving of the worst afflictions from nature, society and law. We have come to accept and rationalise the unjust detention, assault, displacement, and murder of ‘others’ by state agents. ‘Others’ being: those of a different religion, political party, ethnicity, ideology, social class, sexuality, or even gender. But, without the recognition of universal human rights, there can be no social equality, and without social equality, there can be no social justice. In the absence of social justice, corruption and patronage will continue to flourish.
A challenge is that we conflate human rights with ‘western’ culture. Our leaders are often quick to justify repression in the guise of being ‘African’. But – even if we ignore the fact that Africa is diverse and what is ‘African’ varies across space and time – history shows that western culture has rarely valued humanity or individual rights. Western history is a compilation of savagery against humanity: from genocide to religious wars to institutional slavery. Even now, those who think their skin colour confers inherent supremacy – racists – are reclaiming the United States.
Human rights protect those who are most exposed to such savagery. The rule of law developed as a concept to prevent the rise of oppressive systems and individuals. For instance, in a world where the ‘white man’ is privileged in society and economy, human rights protect the black person from discrimination. But we will not be treated equally abroad if we do not recognise our dignity at home.
The recognition of Nigerian dignity will not happen through misguided patriotism or fantastic proclamations of our national greatness. Our dignity will be secured only when we place a non-negotiable value on the life of every Nigerian citizen. And yet, even the right to life is now a privilege in Nigeria. Those who seem to enjoy human rights are those who can purchase it through their political or economic status. Naturally, this has stimulated the general, if the ironic, perception that human rights are a tool used by the powerful to escape justice. Consequently, we accuse human rights advocates of defending only the rich.
This thinking is wrong and unfair. Thousands of Nigerians – especially lawyers and social workers – across the country work for little or no pay in service of the poor and the powerless and their work rarely gets into the media. However, we must not confuse our ignorance of these activities for their absence. In any case, the goal of advocacy is not to deny rights to the powerful. It is to ensure that rights are equally recognised for everyone. This distinction is important. Revolutions may focus on attacking the powerful, but advocacy is about empowering the weak. We will dismantle privilege by ensuring that society and government respect and protect the rights of the underprivileged.
Sadly, many of us not only accept oppression as a natural state—for others—but we also kick against those who declare otherwise. I have watched, horrified, as some Nigerians align with the government to attack organisations that try to hold the government to basic standards of behaviour. We, the people, must not remain passive while local and international NGOs struggle to cajole the government into respecting Nigerian lives. We must not trade our rights to life, liberty and dignity for government solidarity and partisan affiliations. Maybe I am idealistic, maybe this dysfunction is a fundamental nature of our Nigerian state. Maybe not. What is clear to me is that—from Fela’s music to Fawehinmi’s advocacy—truth has often been offered to us for free, but it is the lies that find our ready cash.