26 August 2009

Nigeria: 'Govt At All Levels Must Respect Citizens' Rights'

Lagos — All organs of government at all levels have been called upon to take concrete action to make democracy real by respecting the rights and upholding the dignity of every Nigerian.

Adoption of this method, coupled with human rights as focus of the justice system will help Nigeria begin to realise her potentials as a great nation.

These comments were made by the Director, Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, Abuja, Professor Yemi Akinseye-George, who unveiled a survey report on human rights at an event which took place recently in Abuja, with the support of the MacArthur Foundation.

To buttress his comments, the legal expert delved into eight Chapters of the 'Justice Sector Reform and Human Rights in Nigeria 1999-2009' bringing out cogent issues for address and redress.

According to him, Chapter One, which reviews the situation of access to justice and human rights in Nigeria prior to 1999 and notes that this era was characterised by the 'reign of impunity' and gross violation of human rights.

The chapter states that unless reform and other measures are implemented, the Nigerian justice sector would remain backward and antithetical to human rights.

The expert noted that the interference with the National Human Rights Commission, which has led to frequent changes of the Chief Executive, does not augur well for its independence.

It focuses on the deplorable human rights situation of women, children and other vulnerable people who continue to suffer human rights abuses despite the restoration of democracy in the country.

"The challenge of implementing social and economic rights of education, housing, health and social security remains daunting. The educational and the health sectors suffered a great deal from incessant strike actions in the period under review", Akinseye-George said.

It (chapter) makes some recommendations for advancing human rights in the country. These include reforming the system of administration of justice; poverty reduction; enlargement of the scope of justiciable rights through constitutional reform and judicial activism; and periodic reporting by the government of measures taken to implement socio-economic rights.

Chapter Three underscores the strategic importance of the judiciary in the scheme of democratic governance and the need for that organ of government to maintain its non-partisanship and independence in order not to lose its exalted status and influence.

Chapter Four notes that the police are an indispensable component of effective justice delivery system, and that hope was forlorn as the Police in the first ten years of democracy have continued to suffer under the certain fundamental shortcomings, which make any major reform a Herculean task.

These problems include defective constitutional structure, excessive political influence and manipulation by the ruling elite and other powerful individuals, deep seated corruption, nepotism and Ethnicity, poor remuneration and working conditions, poor accommodation.

Others include inadequate manpower, poor financing, training and education, poor equipment and low technical capacity, abuse of human rights, torture of suspects and impunity, failure of accountability, and the problem of holding charge and detention of persons without trial. Recommendations under this chapter seek measures concerning police remuneration, welfare and infrastructure, police accountability and monitoring, public health policy measures, legislative measures, and legislative/Political action.

It also called for record keeping and mode of investigation, welfare and training, police/public relations, and review of holding charge and remand procedure.

Chapter Five notes that the Nigerian prison system has had a long history of persistent abuses and violation of rights of inmates.

It also noted that all attempts to reform the prisons made in the last decade appear to have proved ineffective. These include National working group on the Reform of administration of criminal justice; prison decongestion programme of the Federal Ministry of Justice, and police Duty Solicitors Scheme, among others.

Chapter Six reports on the state of justice reform and human rights, particularly access to justice in the Federal Capital Territory and the four focal states of this project.

"The findings from the five focal jurisdictions are presented in this chapter. While considerable progress was recorded in these places during the period under review, we found that there remained a large room for improvement", Akinseye-George noted.

"Lagos State however, stands out in its consistent pursuit of a well-articulated plan for justice sector reform. In Lagos State, virtually every aspect of the justice system has either undergone one form of reform or the other", he added.

Chapter Seven notes the role of some of the Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) that have made significant contributions to the reform of the justice sector and human rights in the period under review.

Apart from this section however, there are references throughout the entire report to the specific interventions by different NGOs in bringing about the developments documented in this report. NGOs form an important segment of civil society, which is expected to checkmate the totalising power of the state but not to supplant it.

"NGOs must develop a programme of principled and constructive engagement with the agencies of state to avoid cooptation into the state project, while building strategic alliance with democratic forces in the political society to defend and sustain democracy", Akinseye-George noted.

Chapter Eight focuses on the work of development partners that have made significant contributions to the development of the justice sector and human rights.

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