As the world marks this year’s Human Rights Day on December 10, the United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon is urging everyone to intensify efforts to fulfil “our collective responsibility to promote and protect the rights and dignity of all people everywhere”. For the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights, it will commemorate its 20 years of existence with the theme, “Working for your rights”. It is a good opportunity to draw attention to those of our rights that we often overlook in Nigeria and hope thereby to jolt us to consciousness about them. The fact that these rights are routinely abused does not stop them from remaining human rights. It only means we have to take steps to assert them. In other words, we must work for them.
Many Nigerians, including government officials and their apologists tend to see human rights issues as esoteric or an alien concept that human rights “activists” make too much noise about. They often remind us that, “this is Nigeria”. By that, they apparently mean, we need to see the internationally-recognised human rights “within our own context”, a euphemism for saying we are not “ripe” for such standards or we should make do with sub-standards. Such an argument is puerile! If we see ourselves as part of the world community and we love to appropriate all the trappings of modernity, including state-of-the-art personal gadgets, toys, cars and yes, private jets, what is so difficult with accepting human rights and promoting and protecting them?
The Human Rights Day comes a day after the International Anti-Corruption Day. It is therefore important to remind us of how corruption, especially by government officials, breach our rights to human dignity. To the extent that money stolen from our collective purse by public officials robs us of good roads, quality education, potable water, access to good health facilities and even the right to freely choose our governments means that our human rights are trampled upon.
Apart from the various human rights instruments Nigeria has signed up to and is bound by, the Nigerian Constitution remains the most important source of human rights we must work for. I intend to draw attention to some of these here. Sections 33, 34 and 35 of the Constitution recognise the rights to life, dignity of the human person and personal liberty respectively. Those words seem very clear to understand.
Many see the breach of the right to life mainly from the context of deaths occurring from direct acts of violence such as those perpetrated by armed insurgents and religious anarchists on the one hand and security forces on the other hand. But we must remind ourselves of other under-reported or “uncelebrated” breaches to the right to life which the state must be made to account for. These include the hundreds and thousands that get killed in road accidents caused by a combination of bad or collapsed roads, poor enforcement of road safety regulations, failure to prosecute perpetrators and the general lack of concern for safety rules by the citizenry. How about the deaths resulting from the suicidal speeds and reckless use of public highways by government officials and their convoys as happened in the death of Prof. Festus Iyayi in an auto crash involving the convoy of the Okgi State Governor, Idris Wada, recently? The abuse of the right to life is also seen in the many reports of lives lost on our waterways because the boats carried more human and material weights than required and there were no regulatory authorities to enforce or the officials compromised safety for dirty lucre. The same is applicable to air disasters.
Working for our human rights means that we must demand diligent prosecution of the drivers and operators of vehicles that cause the accidents and killings as well as sanction of enforcement officials for dereliction of duty for every avoidable accident, whether or not occasioning death. And society must learn to sheath its sentiments when such prosecutions commence because people will always ask why a particular person is being tried when others in the past or in other areas of our national rot were not so prosecuted. Truly, such a defence is jejune, silly and takes us nowhere.
Another area the rights to life and of human dignity and are abused is in the failure of the health institutions. Too many deaths have occurred in Nigeria due to poor handling of medical cases, be they emergency, life-threatening or routine. This is often caused by outright corruption which means that even the essential drugs and facilities are not found in health facilities. In the cause of my work, I have come across health facilities in our rural communities that cannot effectively treat our commonest of ailments like malaria while childbirth remains one of the most live-threatening adventures in the country. It is time to hold the state to account for the failure to provide the basic facilities that guarantee health care. It would include prosecution for corruption in the sector and for dereliction of duty as well.
Similar to the above is the collapse of our education sector. Public schools, especially at the primary and secondary levels, are in a total shambles, not only in the rural communities but everywhere. In their current conditions, our public schools abuse the rights of children to life and human dignity and also prepare the children not to be able to stand up and demand such rights in the future, due to ignorance. If children in schools are not guaranteed safe environment, qualified teachers, adequate number of teachers, requisite books and teaching materials as well as proper furniture, they are simply prepared for a bleak future where they cannot cope with their peers within and outside the country.
It raises a very heavy burden in the mind as to the future of our country. I say this because I have seen what passes for public schools in different parts of the country. And it tells of one thing – the Nigerian state, as represented by our governments at all levels don’t really care about education. Most of the present government officials today went to public schools anyway and if the schools were of these present standards, we would not have had the requisite personnel to run our affairs as a country today.
We must therefore continue to demand that government puts in more money into critical sectors such as health and education. But much more than that, we demand that those budgets should go to the real items that would turn around the sector. What we need are facilities, equipment, qualified, efficient and committed personnel to deliver quality services. We demand a departure from the usual budget headings with huge allocations for “welfare package”; “refreshments and meals”; “publicity and advertisements”; “sporting activities”; “anniversaries/celebrations”; “honorarium and sitting allowance” and “international trainings”.
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