Last week, there was a protest at the University of Port Harcourt. It seems the authorities of the school had decided to execute a No-fees-no-exams rule. Many of the students were not impressed. They had gone out to the streets to protest what they considered to be an unfair policy.
The students blocked the East-West road while protesting. The police tried to handle the situation and—as such things usually go in Nigeria—they killed two students.
True, the police public relations have shown the usual contrition. Still, I wonder if anti-riot personnel have a standing order to bring back a dead body from every outing. I assume that this will be a convenient deterrence policy for the government. It is almost certain that someone will die when protesting Nigerians confront armed personnel.
There is nothing new here. In February 2013, soldiers killed four students of the Nasarawa State University during a protest over school amenities. We can trace similar incidents all the way back to the 1960s. Legitimate grievances by students, workers, activists, religious sects, or ethnic movements have ended with police brutality.
Values differ. Some people weigh the preservation of public order or authority higher than the preservation of life. This is not surprising. Africans have been subdued through slavery, colonialism, and postcolonial dictatorships. Oppression has grafted our social psychology with a profound awe for authority—even at the cost of our lives or the lives of others.
Still, this is 2016 and Nigeria operates a democracy, at least in theory. It is inconceivable that citizens have to risk their rights to life when they exercise their freedoms of assembly and expression. We cannot continue to value public order higher than human life. The logic is simple: normality can return to an occupied street but, once taken, we cannot recover a human life.
From a legal perspective, the major culprits for this continued state of affairs are the “licence to kill” exceptions to the constitutional rights to life. Section 33(1) of the Nigerian Constitution states that no one should be intentionally deprived of their life. This directive, however, does not apply to those executed for a criminal offence under a court sentence. There is a range of debates on the morality of the death sentence, particularly in an era when governments can permanently incapacitate criminals without killing them. But that is a different discussion.
As though the death penalty was not exceptional enough, the Constitution then permits killing another human through the use of reasonable force in self-defence (which is understandable) and in trying to effect an arrest, prevent an escape from custody or, worse, suppress a riot, insurrection or mutiny. These further exceptions in the Constitution are worded as though the government is unable to control excesses in people without killing people off. This is a ridiculous philosophy for any self-respecting democratic government.
Nigerian courts have tried to whittle down the effect of these exceptions. In cases such as Adegboye Ibikunle vs State and Solomon Adekunle vs State, the Supreme Court rejected defences by policemen who justified their murders on grounds of reasonable force and “accidental discharge” respectively. But the courts can only do so much without directly overturning the Constitution. This is why there is little clarity on what constitutes the use of reasonable force outside the scope of self-defence. I doubt if any judge can reason that unarmed protesters—or even unarmed lawbreakers—deserve to die solely for protesting or for law breaking. Especially when, in the case of lawbreakers, the crime does not even carry a death sentence.
It is depressing that the most basic human rights—the right to life—continues to be low on the agenda of successive Nigerian governments. As I have noted elsewhere, it is the duty of the Nigerian government to ensure the protection of the right to life at all costs, and by all means. This duty is weightier than the current drama of budgetary allocations. It is more important than the economic crisis, and more necessary than diplomatic expeditions. In fact, the value of government is appropriately measured by how well it sustains the life of every Nigerian.
This measure is why sensible governments risk dozens of soldiers to save a single civilian. Naturally, such societies worship their soldiers, police, fire brigade and other lifesavers–people who volunteer to risk death so that others can live. It is ironic that, in Nigeria, those who volunteer to risk death are the ones who kill civilians at the slightest irritation. It is difficult to thank a Nigerian soldier.
Nigerians have to understand that the right to life is the core of every government policy. This applies to the rest of Africa. Protecting the right to life is not just about arranging security for some locations; it involves an unequivocal stance that the life of the Nigerian citizen is non-negotiable.
When we talk of change under the current Nigerian government, these are the things we mean. A reform in the official attitude to human life is the type of change that adds value. We need to reform the Constitution to reflect more humane values. The Buhari administration has the opportunity to remedy a century of devalued Nigerian lives. Democracy is, in principle, the government of the people by the people. If we are to develop our democracy, we have to start by developing our people. In the final analysis, human lives matter.
Originally published here in my weekly column for Sunday Punch.
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