By Eze Onyekpere
On a daily basis, the reports coming out of different parts of Nigeria present the reality of a county at war with itself, an ungoverned territory where life has become “brutish, nasty and short.” The Nigerian security story is not one of perception but the story of real flesh and blood, of people who are murdered and these victims have relatives who have the unfortunate task of burying and grieving over them. The body count has become embarrassing while all our claims to the ability to govern ourselves fall flat on the face of this failure of governance.
This discourse seeks to proffer a jurisprudential postulate of a few ideas which could possibly offer insights into this orgy of blood. The starting point is to confirm that the right to life is the most fundamental of the human and fundamental rights. Rights and duties are only for the living and as such, the right to life is the fulcrum upon which other rights revolve. Dead persons have no rights. Government primarily exists to protect life and property and to maintain law and order. It is the first duty and test of governance, development, civilisation and showcasing of our humanity. Any country, state or community where lives are lost as a matter of routine, that the living no longer gets shocked by the body count as happens in Nigeria, has lost it all. The leadership of the three arms of government in the executive, legislature and judiciary must come to a full understanding of the primacy of life. If they do, it will be the first step towards protecting the sanctity of life. All the political actors must come to a bi-partisan understanding of the challenge to the right to life so that decisions will not be subject to political manipulation.
In the three duties of the state in matters of human rights, including the right to life, the state must respect, protect and fulfil the right to life through ensuring that it takes no positive steps to deprive people of their right to life. The state should refrain from arbitrarily and unnecessarily interfering with the right to life. This is a negative obligation and may seem easy and straightforward. In this respect, using arbitrary gun licensing and ownership laws to deprive people of the means necessary for survival and self-protection from criminal elements may amount to an interference with this negative obligation. Also, attempts by the Federal Government to unduly challenge the mobilisation of human and material resources by states to support the local policing and security architecture may amount to the deprecation of this first obligation. Respect for life under this umbrella includes respect for the means of livelihood because no one can live without the means of living. Thus, any state action that unduly undermines the lawful and legitimate means of individuals and communities to survival may be tilting towards depriving the victims of their right to life. Even in war situations, contrary to the popular Nigerian belief arising from the civil war, starvation is not a legal or legitimate instrument of war. Officials behind such a campaign, if properly documented, may be liable to genocide and war crimes.
Also, all political actors who recruit and arm thugs and criminals during elections or use the official agencies such as the police and the army to perpetrate violence leading to death come up for strong condemnation. Overflowing evidence shows that light weapons are particularly very available during political campaigns for elective offices and the weapons have in fact been used for warlike political manouvres like the 2019 Rivers State elections. Who collects back the weapons bought for these criminally minded elements after the elections? When political leaders deliberately import non-Nigerians to swell up the numbers and vote for them, who ensures that those illegally allowed in leave and go back to their countries after the elections? Is it true that some of these criminals do not even speak English or any known indigenous Nigerian language as reported in the media coverage of some murders?
The second obligation, being the duty to protect, mandates the state to take steps to stop third parties from violating the right to life. These third parties could be natural or artificial persons. This appears to be the obligation that is most disrespected in Nigeria. It is the duty of the police and other security agencies to maintain law and order and protect the social dynamics and equilibrium of society. There is a state obligation to prevent the crime of murder through uniformed and undercover officers and agents. Where reports come from locals about impending attacks, there is also a state obligation, while verifying the information, to deploy more men and resources to protect the communities. In areas prone to attacks, there is the need for the combination of brain and brawn. Intelligence gathering, infiltrating the criminal gangs, especially now that they are known. In some parts of the country like the northwestern state of Katsina, the leaders of these criminal enterprises have also come out openly for negotiations and even signed a truce with the government – a truce they have gone back on while continuing their murderous pathways.
The third obligation is to fulfil which requires administrative, legislative and judicial interventions by the state through steps taken to the maximum of available resources for the realisation of freedom from murder. This obligation evokes a plethora of questions. How much have we voted for the protection of the right to life in our budgets? Assuming we have voted enough resources, how have they been utilised? Who monitors and reports on the use of security votes by governors in these states where bandits have virtually taken over? How is the procurement of arms and ammunition, security and defence equipment done? Is there value for money and transparency? Or is it an opportunity for the most senior cadre of the respective agencies to feed fat on the treasury? These questions if answered honestly will show that a good part of the resources dedicated to the protection of life have been frittered away by those entrusted to use them for the benefit of all. For procurement to be value for money, the acquired goods and services must serve the purpose for which they were acquired. Thus, if the budget vote is geared towards getting men and materials to stop or reduce murder to a minimum and after expending the vote, the challenge escalates, we cannot in all truth and honestly state that we derived value for money.
Policies and administrative actions that set free, for instance, Boko Haram murderers, in the name de-radicalisation and loosen them on society without sufficient evidence of their having repented and without any punishment for their sins and deprivations of the life of others, cannot in any way fulfil the right to life. It emboldens men and women who do not belong to this age and who are bereft of conscience to commit more murders.
If the Nigerian state meets its obligations under national and international human rights law, the right to life and other rights would be respected, protected and fulfilled.