Human Rights in Nigeria: Policy, People, and the Police

Okechukwu Peter raises his fist in protest after he was arrested for speaking to reporters during the EndSARS anniversary demonstration in Lagos, Oct. 2021.

Though Nigeria transitioned from military rule to a constitutional democracy over two decades ago, it has struggled to appreciate, much less uphold, basic principles such as the rule of law and respect for fundamental human rights.

The country’s performance has been worrisome, to say the least. This is obvious if we glance at various global indexes related to human rights and freedoms. Nigeria is ranked ‘partly free’ by Freedom House in its 2021 global freedom and internet freedom report. According to the Fund for Peace’s human rights and rule of law index for last year, Nigeria is the 15th worst country in the world. The more generous CATO and Fraser Institute’s human freedom index ranks the country the 42nd worst and, when it comes to press freedom, Nigeria is ranked 120th out of 180 countries by Reporters Without Borders.

For a country that championed anti-apartheid causes as a core part of its foreign policy in the decades following independence, one that helped restore democracy in The Gambia in 2017, and one that has contributed significantly to peacekeeping missions across Africa, it’s a twisted turn of events that its own house is often not in order. Despite having comprehensive legal and policy frameworks and being a signatory to several international treaties that deal extensively with the issue, the local structures for enforcement are notably weak.

First, it is important to examine the role of the police as enforcers of the law and defenders of human rights, especially when they are criminally violated. A lot is wrong with the force, from the recruitment process to the lack of accountability and the retrogressive stereotypes perpetuated by the officers.

Many daunting and damning allegations have rocked the institution: extrajudicial killing, torture, victim-blaming, providing arms to criminal gangs, arbitrary arrests and detention, extortion, abandonment of duty posts, and the list goes on.

The worst part is the lack of impunity. Even when people abused by the police get court judgments after several years determining that they have been treated unfairly and ordering the state to pay damages, such judgments are often ignored. There have also been complaints of officers accused of brutality simply getting transferred to other units or commands within the force, rather than getting relieved and prosecuted accordingly.

Most recently, we have the case of Abba Kyari, a Deputy Commissioner of Police, who was indicted by the US Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) in a case of fraud involving Ramon Abbas (Hushpuppi). Many months after the allegations were made with evidence published, the high-ranking officer has yet to be extradited to face justice. Though he was said to have been suspended, later developments, especially his connection to a cocaine trafficking/diversion case, showed that he was still actively working as a law enforcement officer.

We must, however, also acknowledge that efforts are being made to reform the force. One great example is the Police Complaint Response Unit (CRU), which has been active on social media where it gathers complaints from the general public and provides feedback. The judicial panels of inquiry set up in various states following the End SARS demonstrations in 2020 are also a welcome development though there were reportedly delays in actually compensating victims who received judgment granting damages among other challenges. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has been doing some work in reorienting police officers too and getting justice for victims of police brutality, but a lot more still needs to be done in improving accountability.

As much as we appreciate the depths of the rot ravaging the system of policing, human rights abuses as perpetrated by the officers cannot be discussed in broad strokes or without nuance. A system that punishes virtue and rewards bad conduct, such as promoting or transferring officers only after palms have been greased, cannot be expected to respect human rights. The same goes for a system where personnel are grossly underpaid and are forced to find creative means of surviving and providing for their families. Worst, when security personnel are killed in service, their dependants often pass through hell to get their gratuities and entitlements. The conditions of work have to be improved if we want to see results and, of course, this cannot be done unless the government succeeds in generating adequate revenue, blocking leakages, and rightly prioritising expenses.

Cliché as it may sound, everyone does have a role to play in upholding the pillars of human rights in Nigeria: from the president and commander-in-chief of the armed forces to the civilian. Nigerians must stop using the police as their revenge or debt-collecting tool. They should continue to demand accountability through civic engagement, dialogue, and peaceful campaigns. The people must additionally start to treat each other with respect and dignity by avoiding vices such as ethnic profiling, hate speeches, and mob justice.

State governments, actors within the private sector, and international development partners should consider investing heavily in the human and material resources within Nigeria’s law enforcement architecture, and not leave the burden alone to the federal government. These groups can help with constant training, donation of equipment that can support accountability (such as dashboard cameras), special awards and recognition for good conduct, and so on. There is especially a huge vacuum in the area of record-keeping and surveillance. The absence of reliable documentation of cases and surveillance of field operations and interrogations makes it easy for the rights of civilians to be trampled upon. Similarly, the possible positive effects of decentralising the police force along regional or state lines on accountability and respect for human rights should be considered as debates on the topic continue.

Generally, we have to update our understanding of human rights beyond protection from physical abuse and enforced disappearance, the right to a fair hearing, and so on. In today’s world, the right to information and internet access is also crucial and inalienable. The right to privacy and data protection is equally important, and many others. So, as a country, Nigeria needs to unlearn a lot of things and pick up new habits that will improve people’s lives and wellbeing. And it starts with designing the system to function better, providing the needed resources for it to work, improving accountability and curbing impunity, and encouraging collaboration between various groups towards achieving the same goals.

This article was prepared as my contribution to a policy discussion at an ‘Agora by YouPAD’ event in Abuja, sponsored by Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES) Nigeria.

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'Kúnlé Adébàjò

'Kúnlé Adébàjò

An arcless half-a-wise-guy who happens to write. All you need to know is at: www.kunleadebajo.com.