Professor Bem Angwe is the Executive Secretary, National Human Rights Commission, NHRC. In this interview, he spoke on the scope of the commission's powers, the efforts of the commission in promoting, protecting and defending the rights of Nigerians and other national issues. Excerpt:
You have been Chief Executive Officer of NHRC for over a year. What has been your experience?
It has been an interesting one, given my background before I assumed this duty.
In all my life, I had always tried to work for humanity. I had worked for the benefit of human beings, defended the rights of Nigerians. Before I assumed duty here, apart from the fact that I was teaching human rights and humanitarian law, I was also serving humanity in other ways.
I had a non-governmental organisation that was basically aimed at providing free legal services for indigent Nigerians, so upon the assumption of duty here, I realised that what I was doing was only but preparatory to the challenges that I am now made to face here. I consider my coming here as an act of God, because I never thought I will head the commission.
I was contented being a lecturer, touching human lives at that level, but here is a calling from God and I find it very interesting. It is challenging, but it is good to give your best to humanity, to put your life down for the sake of working for fellow human beings.
The law establishing NHRC was amended in 2011 to enhance efficiency and autonomy in its operations, how has this impacted on your performance?
It is interesting to note that this institution was established by the military regime in Nigeria to show the world that Nigeria was also committed to the protection and promotion of human rights. However, given that scenario, the commission was not given all the powers that were envisaged and agreed upon by the international community under the principles which we refer today as the Paris Principles.
Under the Paris principles, all such national institutions were to be given autonomy, they were to be independent in their operations and were to have financial autonomy and security of tenure for the major operators, which include Chief Executive and the Commissioners.
However, NHRC was not given such powers at the time it was established. Happily, on the February 25, 2011, President Goodluck Jonathan signed into law a bill that was passed by the National Assembly, which today, had enhanced the powers of the commission.
In which areas did the amendment enhanced the powers of the Commission?
By this amendment, the Commission is today independent in its operations, it is not under the authority or control of any person in this country in carrying out its duties and mandates. In relation to that, we have financial autonomy in the sense that it is placed in first line charge of the consolidated revenue of the Federation and then, the security of tenure of the governing council members and that of the chief executive is also guaranteed to the extent that they cannot be removed from office except by the resolution of the National Assembly.
Again, the commission is empowered to take decisions that are enforced like the judgments of a High Court. To this end, the commission can bark and bite, which means that it has enforcement powers that will ensure that it does not only promote, protect, but also provides remedies to victims and aggrieved persons when such rights are violated. This is different from the commission that was in existence prior to amendment, which had no such enforcement powers.
What changes and innovations have you brought to the Commission since your appointment?
From the start, I knew that the Commission was operating in seven offices, one in the headquarters in Abuja and one in each of the six geo-political zones of the country. I realised again the powers that this commission has bearing in mind the fact that many Nigerians are not yet aware of their fundamental rights.
So, I felt that there was a need for the commission to do more to ensure that Nigerians become aware of their rights, ensure protection of such rights and in doing so, there was the need for the commission to give Nigerians access to its services. I noticed that it was not possible for the commission to give such access while we operate one office in each of the six geo-political zones.
I decided to expand the services of the commission and by the grace of God, this commission now has 24 offices and I hope that by the end of March this year, the Commission would have offices in the 36 states of the federation. If we have offices in the 36 states of the federation, there is no doubt that Nigerians will freely walk into any of our offices as they are doing now, to make their complaints which they don't necessarily need the services of a legal practitioner to do.
Even those who are not well educated have been coming to us, we reduce their petitions or complaints into writing and we investigate them accordingly. So I expanded the scope of operations of the commission, I also restructured the operations of the commission in such a way as to meet the needs of every Nigerian, particularly in the area of human rights protection.
In addition to that, I started carrying out enlightenment campaigns, creation of awareness and so on. Today, we are translating the basic human rights instruments in the constitution into major Nigerian languages, so that Nigerians will be able to read and understand their rights in their own languages.
I have also paid visits to major stakeholders and in addition to that, we have constituted a working team with the Nigerian Police to improve human rights protection in the country.
I wrote a letter to the Inspector - General of Police that there was need for the human rights commission to work in collaboration with the Police to improve the promotion and protection of the rights of Nigerians.
The IG had realised that and had promised to ensure that police officers that are engaged in the violation of human rights are not only disciplined, but are also relieved of their appointment and so far, he has kept his words, some police officers that have been identified as major culprits in human rights violations have not only been dismissed from the service, they are also facing prosecution today, so we are working together.
What other things are you doing to improve the human rights performance of the Police?
We are also embarking on a training programme for the Police, as I speak, we have signed a Memorandum of Understanding, where NHRC will be involved in teaching courses in all Police colleges in the country. We have requested for time, they have allotted time to us and in every of their courses, we are going to have a syllabus that will teach them protection and promotion of human rights.
In addition, we are also going to carry out massive capacity building on human rights and the modus of operation in a manner that ensures observance and respect for human rights by all members of police force, so it is a good development.
We have carried out prison audit, where we realised that more than 30 percent of Nigerians, who are in the prisons today are those on awaiting trial. We had also tried to figure out the factors that are responsible for this.
What were your findings?
Principally, we have realised that the criminal justice system in Nigeria needs to be reformed in such a way as to prevent many Nigerians, who are today awaiting trials at various prisons from having to go through the ordeals that they are currently going through.
The fundamental factor responsible for this is the police arresting people, putting them in detention or arraigning such suspect before the court without having the evidence to prosecute them. You find out that in many cases, when police arraign people before the courts, they seek adjournments on the ground that they are still investigating such matters.
So what are you doing about this?
We want a situation where, Nigeria will also take a cue from what is happening in other parts of the world, where police take time to carry out their investigations and when they are satisfied that a prima facie case had been established, they will then arraign such a person in court and from that point, they prosecute with evidence and the trial goes on.
So, this practice where you arrest people, detain them, take them to court, remand them in prison custody before looking for the evidence is not healthy because it does not guarantee that fundamental rights of citizens, which presume the accused persons to be innocent until the contrary is proved is observed.
The current practice seems to criminalise Nigerians in a manner that is not acceptable. In addition to that, we also discovered that most of the trials in Nigeria courts do not go on because of the issue of awaiting for Director of Public Prosecutions' advice.
So what is your reaction to this?
We have looked into this matter and found out that some people are not just doing their work and at the same time, the various ministries of justice across the country are grossly understaffed. The work that one person is expected to do is so enormous that it prevents him from bringing out the legal advice as promptly as he should have done, since so many of such cases are before him.