A Human Rights Agenda for Nigeria
The former Governor of Lagos State, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, emerged as the winner of Nigeria’s closely watched presidential elections held in February 2023.
Despite repeated calls to Nigerian authorities to pursue accountability for past elections-related abuses and address widespread insecurity, the February elections were blighted by logistical failures and violence at the polls. Barring a potential opposition victory in petitions to overturn election results, President-elect Tinubu, who is scheduled to be sworn in on May 29, is due to inherit a set of complex national crises including worsening banditry in the Northwest, separatist agitation in the Southeast, and the ongoing Boko Haram insurgency in the Northeast. At this pivotal moment for Africa’s most populous democracy, President-elect Tinubu should place human rights at the center of both domestic and foreign policy considerations. At home, Tinubu should take aim at critical levels of insecurity, ensure protection for civilians and accountability for rights abuses, protect Nigerians’ rights to freedom of expression, and prioritize efforts toward the realization of an adequate standard of living for all. Abroad, Nigeria has a pivotal role to play – especially in the West Africa region – by supporting constitutional democracies and standing up for fundamental rights and democratic freedoms. President-elect Tinubu should promote the independence and respect for the rulings of African human rights institutions and regional courts, including the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Court of Justice. The following are suggested key priorities for the new administration to promote and protect human rights: 1. Promote a civilian protection agenda in conflict areas. Several armed groups and criminal gangs active in parts of the country jeopardize the safety of millions of Nigerians. In the Northwest, gangs of armed men and boys commonly called bandits carry out widespread killings, kidnappings, sexual violence, and looting. In the Northeast, the conflict between the Islamist armed group Boko Haram and the Nigerian security forces continues to exact a tremendous toll on civilians, millions of whom are displaced and in dire need of humanitarian aid. Within and around the areas surrounding the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), armed groups have increased their kidnappings and attacks, including a prison break near the seat of the federal government by the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP), a breakaway faction of Boko Haram. Anti-government groups apparently clamoring for secession in the Southeast endanger citizens as they kill and maim to enforce what they call a sit-at-home order, which requires people to stay home and shut down all public places including businesses and schools. Security forces responding to the security crisis across the country continue to be implicated in gross human rights abuses including arbitrary detention, extrajudicial killings, and apparently indiscriminate airstrikes.
The authorities have repeatedly failed to hold officers responsible for abuses to account. Recommendations 2. Respect and protect media freedom and the right to free expression. Various government actions indicate significant backsliding on media freedom and the right to free expression.
They include the 2021 ban on Twitter, which lasted for eight months; efforts to introduce a social media bill aimed among other things at criminalizing government critics; arrests and detention of critics and journalists; and sanctions on media outlets for critical reporting.
The incoming Tinubu administration should take steps to reverse course.
The administration also needs to address blasphemy accusations by individuals and groups which have led to mob killings, arrests, and prosecutions, including of children. Recommendations 3. Bolster the social safety net to tackle entrenched poverty and inequality.
The Covid-19 pandemic laid bare existing inequalities in countries worldwide. In Lagos, Human Rights Watch documented the economic impact of the pandemic on the urban poor, affecting their ability to realize their economic and social rights.
The absence of a functioning social security system meant that ad hoc government assistance, including cash transfers and food handouts, reached only a fraction of people who needed help. A study by the Nigerian bureau of statistics published in November 2022 indicates that over 133 million Nigerians, about 63 percent of the population, experience multidimensional poverty.
The Tinubu administration should apply lessons learned from the Covid-19 pandemic and strive to put measures in place to progressively realize the right to an adequate standard of living for all Nigerians. Recommendations 4. Address the needs of internally displaced people.
The incoming administration has a duty to promote and protect the rights of people displaced by the conflict with Boko Haram and other crises across the country including banditry in the Northwest.
The Nigerian government is obligated under regional and international law to meet the basic needs of internally displaced people and to seek lasting solutions to the problem of displacement by promoting pathways to voluntary return, local integration, or relocation in safe and dignified conditions. A recent Human Rights Watch report documented that hastily arranged camp closures violated internally displaced people’s rights in Borno State, the epicenter of the Boko Haram conflict. Authorities did not consult with impacted people or provide them with adequate information or sustainable alternatives prior to the camp shutdowns, leaving thousands in desperate situations. Recommendations 5. Create a foreign policy that centers human rights. Recent unconstitutional changes in government and a slow transition from military to civilian governance in Guinea, Mali, and Burkina Faso cast a pall over the future strength of constitutional democracies in West Africa.
The manipulation of constitutions by incumbent presidents to increase or extend term limits may lead to the violation of the rights and will of the people. Across the region, authorities need to balance combating armed Islamist insurgencies with counterterrorism operations that respect fundamental rights.
The Nigerian military and security forces have acted as judge, jury, and executioner in response to the trauma and brutality of terrorist attacks on civilians in the region. This undermines criminal justice processes, subverts the rule of law, and is contrary to international human rights law. Recommendations .
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