How Do You Make A Nigerian Understand And Accept Human Rights?



On the 10th of December 1948 at the Palais de Chaillot in Paris, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted. By some counts, it is the most translated document in the world.

Seventy years after, the concept is anything but universal. Not in war torn countries where resource wars have benefited a class of people. Not in States where conflicts based on racial and ethnic superiority persist.

And not in Nigeria, for reasons so numerous and recent. For one, take the arrest and parade of suspects.

Over the weekend, the interrogation video of an alleged Aisha Buhari impostor caused a disturbance. She was circled by cameramen and, apparently, officers of the Department of State Services. A number of publications had revealed her identity before then. Hence, it was not a bother that she covered her face with a purple veil with cameras approaching.

But a few zealous men and women in the room thought she was trying to evade public consciousness. What happened next was as ugly as it was reprehensible.

Amina Mohammed (or what else may be her real name) is a suspect for a significant crime. But like every suspect of even more serious offenses, she reserves the right to be treated as innocent till proven guilty.

Somehow, that concept remains a difficult ideal. After all, this is a country where people are often lynched on streets and rubber tyres thrown over their necks on the basis of an accusation. It was extremely shameful the way this lady was treated, but she is only a representation for worse mishandling accorded suspects around the country.

Despite her possible crime, her rights were violated. Like Deji Adeyanju’s were. Like many Nigerians over the years.

What then is the problem? What’s the gap in understanding the principle of human rights, or are the violations intentional? Can Nigeria’s human rights record be ascribed to cultural peculiarities or educational deficits?

Article 01 of the UDHR says:

” All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood”

It will be naive to assume everybody in the world believes this, and thus take it for granted. The above wasn’t even the first sample produced by the drafting committee. Were women like Hansa Mehta, Minerva Bernardino and Bodil Bergtrup not invited to the conference, the document would have began with “All men”, reflecting the worldview of its authors.

Hence, if enlightened 19th century Europeans who came up with the declaration still had to correct themselves, it is not difficult to see why less educated (and, in many areas, culturally conservative) Africans would have problems assimilating this automatically.

Does the average Nigerian share the view that he is equal in dignity with another? I would be inclined not to think so. There is substantial evidence of classicism (not necessarily economic) still prevalent in modern Nigeria. We have it in the Osu caste system in the South East and in festivals and coronations where human sacrifices are offered across the South West. The gap in social status in Northern Nigeria is so obvious; describing it is superfluous.

These are clear institutional custodians of inequality. But Nigerian society’s poor human rights record is probably most evident (and rooted) in the sociological dogma that elders and wealthy people can neither be questioned nor corrected. If humans in Nigeria were equal, you would never again hear someone reply a question or request with “do you know who I am?” simply because they are offended by the age of the enquirer. The propensity to react violently is palpable in such scenarios. And why not? You typically only intimidate someone you believe not to be an equal.

This is partly why it has been difficult to hold public officials accountable. It is somewhat revealed at our commotion traffic jams, and also shows up amongst government employees who do their jobs with little care. The inevitable effects of these are abuse, corruption and underdevelopment.

The video of Mrs Buhari’s impostor is a big deal, inextricably linked to other accountability issues in Nigeria. It is a human rights problem. Thankfully, majority of responses to it were expressions of disgust. It is good that social accountability organizations like BudgIT’s Civic Hive, have began campaigning against it.

Changing Nigeria’s record on human rights will come about through a combination of approaches. Cultural taboos will have to be intellectually and emotively dismissed. Technology will have a role in disseminating the revolution. Whatever the route, the major momentum will be the ability to ask questions, get answers and get redress when dissatisfied.

One more thing: Human rights are God-given, not government-given.

It doesn’t help the cause of human rights when politicians and policymakers make people dependent on what government should do for them, rather than building people with the capacity of doing more for themselves. The most successful human rights campaigns are those that push for the environment where individuals own rights to their property, are innovative with their resources, can generate and enjoy the rewards of their ingenuity (yes, I am still smarting at the answer on capitalism at TEDxYaba).

There can be no case for human rights where everybody is bound to and fearful of the strong arm of the State. Freedom of choice comes from a Higher Power who created all men and women equal and free; free to ask questions and deserving to be treated justly.

And there – that inextinguishable reality that our rights have been ours even before coming into this world, not dependent on family, skin colour, position or salary – is the consolation and motivation that makes the cause worth fighting for.


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