Fundamental Rights in Nigeria: To What Extent are they Fundamental?

(By Tanimola Anjorin)

We have found ourselves in a society where anyone can elevate their right to liberty, property or religion above another’s right and the sky will not fall. We have witnessed many of such instances or are even victims ourselves.  How many of us remember that Nigeria has a constitutional motto – “Unity and Faith, Peace and Progress”? This ought to be our guiding principle but we have its exact opposite playing out every split-second and there seems to be no sense of urgency to get us back on track.

Fundamental human rights are codified in Chapter IV of the 1999 Constitution (as amended). Although these rights are not absolute, they can however be enforced in our Courts.

Human rights are norms that help to protect all people from severe political, legal, and social abuse. Examples of human rights are the right to freedom of religion, the right to a fair trial when charged with a crime, the right not to be tortured, and the right to association. These rights exist in morality and in law at the national and international levels. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 also gives a fair list of these rights. All men are believed to be created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. These rights have been said to be primordial as most regard them as God-given natural rights. The origin of these rights can be traced to the Great Charter of 1215 which ultimately led to the making of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. In the words of Kayode Eso JSC in RANSOME KUTI & ORS V AG FEDERATION & ORS (1985) 2 NWLR PT. 6 P. 211 @ 230:

Fundamental rights are rights which stand above the ordinary laws of the land and which in fact is antecedent to the political society itself. It is a primary condition to a civilized society.”

The right to life although classified by the Nigerian Constitution as fundamental, does not have the slightest semblance to the concept in reality. This is clearly depicted by the activities of insurgents in the North-Western part of Nigeria, the perpetual fear of imminent attack across the country, and the continued joblessness and hopelessness of our teeming youth population. These defeat the essence of the right to life. In the words of Keith Yost: “Without life one cannot exercise liberty, and without liberty one cannot pursue happiness”. The right to life is a prerequisite for all other rights. Thus, the right to life is the primus inter pares of all fundamental human right. Some call it “the most basic of human rights.”

We have found ourselves in a society where anyone can elevate their right to liberty, property or religion above another’s right and the sky will not fall. We have witnessed many of such instances or are even victims ourselves.  How many of us remember that Nigeria has a constitutional motto – “Unity and Faith, Peace and Progress”? This ought to be our guiding principle but we have its exact opposite playing out every split-second and there seems to be no sense of urgency to get us back on track.

The issue is not, whether we choose to designate these rights as fundamental human rights, since we already have them in our laws but whether we choose to respect these rights individually and collectively as a people. Government agents have continued to infringe upon the rights of citizens (with or without good cause), but we cannot continue to be deceived that the Constitution is the grundnorm when the fundamentals of our so-called binding agreement is of no value to the leaders and the people. Well, the popular saying in law is that one cannot put something on nothing and expect it to stand.

The preamble of our Constitution tells a lie. It reads: “We the people of Nigeria having firmly and solemnly resolved to live in unity and harmony as one indivisible and indissoluble sovereign nation under God”. When and where? Apparently, everything deriving authority from this document is voidable. I choose the word voidable and not void because we may decide to ratify the document but our demeanor and disposition suggests otherwise.

Let us pretend that everything is fine with the document called the 1999 Constitution, do we assume that all is well with the applicability and practicability of same? Our government has failed us in the provision of basic needs such as food, security and welfare. Expectedly, a larger percentage of Nigerians live in poverty and to such people, the right to food is by far the most important right. This is what played out in the Ekiti Governorship election. We see customized bags of rice being distributed in the State of Osun as well. It is pathetic that the responsibility of our government to protect these rights is ignored and we have resigned to stomach infrastructure as a bailout. To what end? Our people are kept in perpetual poverty so that our recycled political class will remain unchallenged. I am not at all surprised about the news making the rounds that the presidency dished out 100 million naira to the families of the Chibok girls and we all have an idea of the role money has played in previous struggles in Nigeria.

The right to freedom of expression, right to peaceful assembly and association and right to freedom from discrimination are classified as fundamental rights but in practice, there have been actions antithetical to these basic ‘inalienable rights’. Our political leaders have overtly and covertly fanned the embers of religious discord and harass people to prevent them from expressing their thoughts. While these rights are inalienable, they are not absolute as one person’s right stops where that of another begins. The uncouth expressions of Asari Dokubo, Femi Fani-Kayode and some other persons who are known for uttering unguarded and inflammatory remarks can do no good to the alleged transformation agenda in particular, and our collective interest as a country. It is pathetic that ethnicity has crept into the psyche of the average Nigerian.

Having said that, I want to quickly add the remarks of the court in   MONKOM V. ODILI (2010) 2 NWLR PT. 1179 P. 458 where the court rightly observed:

“… the virus of ethnicity and tribalism is a general malaise everywhere in the country and it is incumbent on us all to recognize the evil in such a practice and make a firm resolve to condemn it in all its ramifications and consciously strive to shun it in our interactions and utterances.”

As an addendum, Section 15 of our Constitution expressly states that:

(4) “The State shall foster a feeling of belonging and of involvement among the various peoples of the Federation, to the end that loyalty to the nation shall override sectional loyalties.”

Inciting statements are being made daily – some in the South advocating for a Yoruba nation, others in the North giving mindless ultimatums to Southerners to vacate the North. All these breed ethnicity and the government seems less concerned. It is only in our clime that a sect will claim that the presidency ordered a special team to execute people on peaceful protest and there has been no statement from the presidency either affirming the statement or otherwise. The lives of innocent persons been shed daily is an affront to the concept of fundamental rights.

Every law student is conversant with right to dignity of human persons, personal liberty and fair hearing and those of us that are familiar with the activities of our law enforcement agents (in particular, the Nigerian Police Force), will confidently reiterate that a lot of re-orientation need to be done to sensitize them on the import and essence of these rights. When a society does not protect the rights of its citizens, it consequently undermines peace. We continually hope that these rights would be respected by our government and everyone can cultivate a sense of togetherness to forge a common future for this country.

While there is continuing pressure in other jurisdictions to expand the list of human rights, we await the day we can confidently assert that our government has given flesh and blood to this constitutional guarantee in practical terms. However, we owe ourselves the responsibility of knowing our rights and demanding for same in appropriate circumstances. By so doing, we would be playing our roles in ensuring that the fundamental nature of these rights is not just emphasized in theory.

Tanimola Anjorin-Ajose is a Lagos-based Arbitrator and Solicitor.

“Opinion pieces of this sort published on RISE Networks are those of the original authors and do not in anyway represent the thoughts, beliefs and ideas of RISE Networks.”

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