In a landmark ruling, the ECOWAS Community Court of Justice in Abuja yesterday ordered the Federal Government to provide as of right, free and compulsory education to every Nigerian child.
The judgment followed the court's earlier ruling that all Nigerians are entitled to education as a legal and human right.
Nigeria is a signatory to ECOWAS protocols on Education and also, President Goodluck Jonathan is at present ECOWAS Chairman.
Efforts to get the Federal Government to react to the judgment were unsuccessful last night as the Attorney-General and Justice Minister Mohammed Adoke could not be reached for comments.
Delivering judgment in a suit instituted by the Registered Trustees of the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) against the Federal Government and Universal Basic Education Commission (UBEC), the court also ruled that UBEC failed to discharge its legal responsibility pursuant to its foundational instrument to monitor how states are spending and using states' natural wealth and resources in order to ensure that the resources are spent for the purposes for which they were meant.
The court also said the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC)'s report on the diversion of N3.5 billion from the UBE fund by certain public officers in 10 states of the country constituted only a prima-facie evidence of theft of the public funds until the officials involved are successfully prosecuted before national courts.
It submitted that the right to education could be enforced before the court and dismissed all objections brought by the Federal Government, through the UBEC that education is "a mere directive policy of the government and not a legal entitlement of the citizens".
The government had alleged, through UBEC, that "the court lacked jurisdiction to entertain the action filed by SERAP on the grounds that the Compulsory and Basic Education Act 2004 and the Child's Rights Act 2004 are Municipal Laws of Nigeria and not subject to the jurisdiction of the court because it is not a treaty of ECOWAS".
It also argued that the educational objective of Nigeria under the 1999 Constitution is non-justifiable or enforceable; and that SERAP had no locus standi to institute or maintain the action.
But the court in dismissing the government's argument on locus standi, said the authorities citied by both the government and SERAP support the viewpoints canvassed by them.
It further said public international law in general is in favour of promoting human rights and limiting the impediments against such a promotion.
Commenting on the ruling, SERAP's lawyer, Mr. Femi Falana, who filed and argued the case before the court with Adetokunbo Mumuni, said this was the first time an international court has recognized a state obligation to provide legally enforceable human rights to education to its citizens.
Falana stated that the ruling was a clear message to ECOWAS member states, including Nigeria and indeed all African governments, that the denial of this human rights to millions of African citizens would not be tolerated.
"We commend the ECOWAS Court for its ground-breaking judgment, which has permanently re-defined human rights jurisprudence in Africa. The ECOWAS Court has consistently demonstrated courage and industry in the discharge of its vital role in putting an end to violation of all human rights and impunity of perpetrators in the sub-region. We also acknowledge the important contribution of Dr. Kolawole Olaniyan of Amnesty Interna-tional in London, to the case.
"In the current climate, where economic and social rights are not deemed legally enforceable in Nigerian courts and where victims of violations of these human rights are denied access to an effective remedy, this unanimous judgment of the ECOWAS Court of Justice is a welcome landmark. It reaffirms that states are obliged to promote and ensure the universality and indivisibility of all human rights as recognized by the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights," he said.
Reacting to the ruling, human rights lawyer, Mr. Bamidele Aturu, said it was one the best decisions to have come out of the court.
Aturu stated that since the Federal Government ratified the ECOWAS treaty, it should honour it accordingly, wondering that if it could not provide free and compulsory education, "what else can it provide?"
In his own comment, a Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of Law, University of Benin, Mr. Edoba Omoregie, said since Nigeria is a signatory to a lot of international treaties and conventions including those of ECOWAS, it was imperative that the Federal Government respects the court order.
Edoba stated that because primary and secondary education is on the concurrent legislative list, the Federal Government could not unilaterally take the decision to implement free education without consulting the states.
Another lawyer, Chijioke Ogham-Emeka, welcomed the judgment, saying it was a shame that after 50 years of independence Nigeria could not provide free, compulsory and quality education for its children.
"I congratulate SERAP. I thank the ECOWAS Court. I only wish the judgment is enforceable but alas, the judgment will be like a political proclamation, just like judgments of the International Court of Justice, which even the US does not obey.
"The Nigerian constitution which is the supreme law says the government can only provide free education when it can. Plus that there is no right of action in Nigeria on what is called Economic and Social Rights (ECOSOC).
"So at the end, no matter the level of international obligation in ECOWAS treaties and protocols, our municipal constitution will prevail. Even if there is no tangible legal gain from this commendable judgment, it will remain a victory against the conscience of the state, its inept officials and the bourgeoisie, who do nothing but only send their children abroad for quality education. The judgment is bad wound to the conscience of Nigeria, as her unschooled children roam about the streets hawking goods," he said.