Quite often, I have found myself compelled to defend the fundamentals of human rights to supposedly educated people in Nigeria. A clear demonstration of the declining quality of our “educated” middle class is the generic ignorance of foundational social concepts, particularly on the rule of law and the sanctity of human rights. Nigeria—in 2016—is increasingly becoming a point of space and time where we revile knowledge and mock discourse.
This seems an appropriate reflection of the plunging humanism of the Euro-American world. The idea and ideal of a universal humanity is collapsing under international tribalism. The western world is retrogressing from post-war advances to its previous state of territorial squabbling, evoked as nationalism. It seems that if Nigerians want to discard humanism for some other interest, there is ample global precedent.
Yet, from another perspective, the Nigerian masses have rarely had the opportunity to understand, or enjoy, the dignity of being treated as human. Our governments have always obfuscated our entitlement to individual rights. Our history is a dreary narrative of travails: from colonial repression to civilian oppression to military brutality. Because Nigeria does not protect Nigerians equally, individuals have evolved group affiliations to protect themselves. Today, most Nigerians ascribe humanity only to those of “their” own affiliations. Everyone else is sub-human—and, therefore, deserving of the worst afflictions from nature, society and law. We have come to accept the unjust detention, assault, displacement, or even murder of “others” by state agents. Others, of course, are: those of a different religion, political party, ethnicity, or social class.
But, without the recognition of human rights there can be no social equality. Without social equality there can be no social justice. And without social justice, corruption and patronage will continue to flourish. A society cannot fully exploit the potential of its citizens until all members of that society are allowed their full expression as humans.
A challenge is that we conflate human rights with “western” culture. Our legislators are often quick to justify repression in the guise of being “African.” Let us ignore the fact that Africa is diverse and has varied across space and time. History shows that the West has rarely valued humanity or individual rights. Western history is a compilation of savagery in epic proportions: from genocide to religious wars to wholesale slavery. Even now—despite seeming mental advancement over the decades—those who think their skin colour confers inherent supremacy are reclaiming the United States.
Human rights protect the weak. The rule of law developed as a concept to prevent the rise of oppressive individuals. In a world where the “white man” dominates society and economy, human rights protect the black person. Yet, we are mistreated abroad because we have not ascribed dignity to ourselves at home. But we will not achieve dignity by vague proclamations of our greatness as a country. We will achieve national dignity by placing a non-negotiable value on the life of every citizen. Unfortunately, in Nigeria even the right to life has to be earned. Those who seem to enjoy human rights are those who have purchased them through political or economic currency. Naturally, this has stimulated the general, if ironic, perception that human rights are a tool used by the powerful to escape justice.
Concurrently, human rights advocates are often accused of defending only the rich and powerful. This is unfair. A lot of Nigerians—lawyers and social workers—work for little or no pay in the cause of the poor and the powerless. For example, I work with The Initiative for Equal Rights (TIERs) where other young people strive to help other Nigerians from unfair discrimination. Or, consider the good people at Justice and Empowerment Initiatives (JEI) who are constantly in court to help poor communities from oppression by the Lagos State Government. These are just a couple of examples from my own working life. All over Nigeria, thousands of workers are dedicated to the rights of the underprivileged. But it is rare for these cases and stories to get into the media. They are not as newsworthy or sensational as a Dasuki trial. We should not, however, confuse our ignorance of these activities for their absence.
It is simply unfortunate that, in a country where people ought to fight for the protection of rights, those who should be more enlightened have aided in propelling resentment against human rights advocates. Yet, the goal of advocacy is not to strip the powerful of their rights. It is to ensure that rights are equally recognised for everyone. This distinction is important. Revolution may focus on attacking the powerful, but advocacy is about empowering the weak. We will dismantle privilege by enforcing the rights of the underprivileged. If we focus, simply, on denying justifiable rights to the privileged, we will only end up creating a new set of equally powerful people.
It is unfortunate that we, the people, are passive while charities and international organisations try to cajole the government into respecting Nigerian lives. We seem to have fully traded our rights to life, liberty and the dignity of our persons for solidarity with our partisan affiliations. Today, we not only accept oppression as a natural state—for others—but we also kick against those who declare otherwise. I have watched, horrified, as some Nigerians align with the government to attack organisations that try to hold the government to basic standards of behaviour. Maybe I am idealistic. Maybe this dysfunction is a fundamental nature of our Nigerian state. Maybe not. What is clear to me is that—from Fela’s music to Gani Fawehinmi’s advocacy—truth has often been offered to us for free, but it is the lies that find our ready cash.
Originally published here in my weekly column for Sunday Punch.
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