Human rights are the inalienable fundamental rights to which a person is inherently entitled to, simply because she or he is a human being.
Human rights are applicable everywhere and for everyone. These rights may exist as natural rights or as legal rights, in both national and international laws.
Such rights include right to life, freedom of speech, right to fair trial and right to liberty.
In 2011, Nigeria recorded a milestone in human rights protection, with the signing into law of some landmark human rights promotion bills by President Goodluck Jonathan.
The bills include the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) Amendment Act, 2011 which came into effect in March, 2011. The NHRC Amendment Bill had been waiting for approval for six years.
The Freedom of Information (FOI) Bill was also ratified by Jonathan on May 28, 2011, after it was passed into law by the National Assembly. The bill was before the assembly for 12 years as successive members failed to pass it.
In Lagos State, the House of Assembly passed the Lagos State Special Peoples Bill, 2010 into law, and it was signed on June 25, 2011, by Gov. Babatunde Fashola.
The bill provided that people living with disabilities should have equal rights with other citizens; it also provides for protection against discrimination, access to information and socio-economic environment.
It also provided that these people should receive special education and have special access to transport and healthcare. It also provided for the establishment of a dedicated office for disability affairs.
Also, the state government inaugurated a Child Rights Implementation committee on Oct. 14 for proper enforcement of the Child Rights Law enacted by the state.
In spite of these positive developments, however, the year 2011 witnessed some human rights problems or abuses.
Arbitrary arrests, prolonged pretrial detention, unlawful killing and torture, were still experienced in the year under review.
The October 11 arrest of four journalists with the Nation newspaper was described by many as arbitrary and unjust.
The arrested journalists are: Managing Editor, Northern Operations, Mr. Yussuf Alli; Abuja Bureau Editor, Mr Yomi Odunuga; Deputy Editor, Lawal Ogienagbon; and Group News Editor (Weekend Publications), Dapo Olufade.
The journalists were arrested with regards to the publication of a purported private letter from former President Olusegun Obasanjo to President Goodluck Jonathan about administrators of government agencies.
The civil society and the press openly criticized the arrests which, they said, breached the FOI Act.
The prolonged detention of ace comedian, Babatunde Omidina, better known as “Baba Suwe”, between October 12 and November 4, was also seen as a violation of human rights.
The comedian was arrested on October 12 at the Murtala Mohammed International Airport, Ikeja, by officials of the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) for allegedly ingesting banned substances.
Justice Yetunde Idowu of the Federal High Court held that Omidina was unjustly and unlawfully detained without a proof of evidence.
She gave a ruling on an application for enforcement of fundamental rights brought by Omidina against the NDLEA.
“I have read the NDLEA Act and I have seen no place that any Nigerian should be detained without being charged to court,’’ she said.
She also ruled that Section 35(1) of the Constitution granted every Nigerian the right to personal liberty.
Baba Suwe was later awarded N25 million in damages—for unlawful detention— by the court.
The suspension of the President of the Court of Appeal (PCA), Justice Ayo Salami, in August by President Goodluck Jonathan, in spite of a pending suit, also raised some questions about human rights enforcement and rule of laws in Nigeria.
Jonathan approved Salami’s suspension after it was recommended by the National Judicial Council, for allegedly lying against the former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Aloysius Katsina-Alu. A suit challenging the recommendation was still pending in court by the time Mr President gave his approval.
Again, the Nigeria Police Force constantly paraded suspected criminals before the public, even when investigations on their cases had not been completed.
This act was challenged on May 13,2011, by the Socio Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) and Access to Justice (AJ) which described it as unlawful and dehumanizing.
Both groups argued that the practice violated the doctrine of presumption of innocence as enshrined in the Nigerian Constitution.
According to reports, more than 35,000 inmates are currently detained in Nigerians prisons without trial; they are simply referred to as “awaiting trial” and some of them end up spending more years behind bars than they would have if convicted of the crime.
Justice Dorothy Inyamba Idem, the Chief Judge of Cross River State had to set free 24 inmates of the Federal Prison, Afokang, Calabar when she visited the prison.
She expressed dissatisfaction at the delayed prosecution of accused persons.
“It is a shame that in many cases that have been under investigation for over two years, we do not have records or case files on them, and people are being detained.
“This is tantamount to unlawful incarceration and in the circumstance, some of them have to be set free,” she had said.
Commenting on rights enforcement in the country, rights activist and lawyer, Mr Bamidele Aturu, urged adequate promotion of human rights in Nigeria as the country’s democracy deepened.
Aturu said: “It is about our nation and our democracy; about the need to promote and defend our fundamental human rights as a people.’’
He called on the law enforcement agencies to adequately protect the rights of the citizens while carrying out their duties.
Also SERAP, which sued the Federal Government before the ECOWAS Court of Justice in Abuja over Salami’s suspension, urged due process of law to promote human rights.
SERAP also called for access to justice and judicial independence to ensure rights protection.
In a suit it filed pursuant to the ECOWAS Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, SERAP had claimed that Salami’s dismissal contradicted the African Charter on Democracy, Elections, and Governance, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
On the parading of suspects by the police, Mr Adetokunbo Mumuni, Executive Director, SERAP, said it was not in line with civilised practice of criminal prosecution.
Mumuni had said: “ it is against the criminal procedure law. There is no part of the law that says that you should parade any suspect before charging him to court.
Similarly, Mr Leonard Dibia, Director of Programmes of the AJ, threatened to sue the Inspector-General of Police and the Commissioners of Police in the 36 states of the federation over the issue.
“We are looking for people who have suffered from this form of injustice; once we gather some of these persons and our legal team, we will be filing a suit to challenge this practice because it is not recognised by the law.
Meanwhile, the Minister of Interior, Abba Moro, has called for speedy trial of pending court cases to decongest the prisons.
The Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr Mohammed Adoke, has inaugurated a panel to work out the modalities for the decongestion of the nation’s prisons.
Akanni writes for News Agency of Nigeria (NAN).