Nigeria and Death of Indignation

The following article was originally published in This Day. Chidi Anselm Odinkalu is senior legal officer for the Africa Program of the Open Society Justice Initiative.

The Context

Human rights advocacy seeks to sustain and deepen the human capacity for indignation in the face of willful violation, wrong doing, and injustice whether in the public or private sphere. As a civic enterprise, its purpose is to ensure accountability for such misbehavior wherever possible. Citizens may trigger processes of accountability but it is up to government to guarantee that these mechanisms—such as the bureaucratic machinery of government, political institutions of the legislature and the executive, elected public officials, the courts, the police, and law enforcement agencies—exist and actually work for the ends for which they are established. As human institutions, these institutions and their officials are surely entitled to suffer occasional lapses. Such lapses should be the exception not the rule. Where, however, lapses become the rule rather than the exception, the collective and individual capacities for indignation is in danger of elimination and, with it, the existence of organized society in which human life has value.

During Nigeria's long years of military misrule, its human rights advocacy groups earned domestic and international respectability for our preparedness to take risks and mobilize indignation against the denial of our collective entitlement to government constituted by popular will. Pioneered by the Civil Liberties Organization (CLO) in the second half of the 1980s, these groups are rightly credited with ensuring the termination of military mis-governance. Having brought military rule to an end, however, we seemed to have no game plan for this outcome. When civilian government returned in May 1999, the human rights advocacy groups caught a credibility and audibility crisis. The resulting restructuring of the policy, institutional, media, and public advocacy consumption patterns and markets threw us all into a tailspin. It seemed as if our capacity for indignation melted away when the soldiers changed their Khaki for Agbada or traded the mess for the boardroom.

Where previously we were forthright in monitoring and denouncing official misbehavior, we became tentative. Where we had a voice, we seemed to lose it. In the face of a president who claimed to embody all the virtues of civil society, found its vices in other people, and had a long honeymoon period unjustified by the dubious electoral arithmetic that saw him into power; a presidential retinue, a few of whose members used to be our friends and acquaintances, and several state governments comprised of people with whom many of us shared demonstrations and picket lines on the same side of the anti-military movement, the confusion of the human rights community appeared to be complete.

The transition from military misrule to its civilian replacement has posed challenges to all segments of Nigerian society, including the human rights advocacy community and civil society. These challenges include transformations in the tone and language of indignation at official misconduct, in the calibration of the relationship between ruler and ruled, in discerning the extent of the will of government to play by the rules of legitimate electoral engagement, and in the capacity of civil society to exploit the new opportunities created by the onset of a new dispensation. During this period, human rights monitoring and reporting has suffered. This context makes the launch of Clear and Present Danger a signal moment in the rediscovery and self-definition of Nigeria. As human rights and social conscience communities in the present dispensation. It marks the rebirth of a community on the road to finding its voice again, about to rediscover entitlement to be indignant at the overload indignities that characterize everyday Nigerian life.

The Text

Clear and Present Danger organizes and presents its narrative of human rights in Nigeria in 2004 in interlocking sequences of spaces of human and governmental activity. It identifies and focuses on three distinct spaces—the political, civil, and social spaces. Each successive space represents a distinct section (part) of the report. In its final part—Part D—the report synthesizes the interaction of these spaces in 2004 Nigeria, concluding that the country resembled a Zone of War, in which closely tracked governmental failures increasingly consigned both the citizenry and the organized political opposition to a helpless rage on the sidelines of the political process and threatens to replace military dictatorship with a civilian one. The resulting unavailability of options for meaningful citizen-government partnership, the report argues, led to endless crises, reinforced tendencies towards informal security formations and ethnic militias, condoned Third-Degree Policing, and set hitherto peaceful communities against themselves in episodes of inter-communal, inter-faith, and inter-ethnic conflicts.

The distress in the education system is replicated in the health sector. All available indicia in this sector appeared to degenerate or degrade in 2004. Maternal mortality got worse; domestic violence against Nigeria. As women continued to be an epidemic in need of inoculation, control or cure; political and generalized violence continued unabated as one of the highest causes of mortality and ill-health in the country; a federally commissioned Sentinel Survey indicated for the first time a national sero-prevalence above the tipping point of 5 percent for HIV/AIDS in Nigeria, the degrading of primary and specialist health care mechanisms accelerated, and the country reported an increase of over 100 percent year-on-year in the incidence of polio.

The many localized "wars" reported in the three chapters of Part D, are natural consequences of the failures chronicled in Parts A-C of Clear and Present Danger. Among these wars, the report devotes considerable space to and juxtaposes the government: as assault on a peaceful, organized labor besides its emollient response to the Niger Delta militias and the use of maximum policing against the cadres and formations of the Movement for the Actualization of a Sovereign State of Biafra, MASSOB, and Oodua Peoples Congress. It concludes that far from being law and order issues, these wars were symptoms of long-established patterns of repression that the present regime has either aggravated or declined to acknowledge.

The conceptual template of the Clear and Present Danger is intellectually challenging. The organization of its narrative through a sequence of spaces in which governmental and human activity is organized in Nigeria enables the discerning reader to calibrate the changing unevenness of official benevolence and malevolence in Nigeria as human rights story in 2004. The lay-out of the report, with the generous use of pictures and columns, makes it quite reader-friendly. It is well sourced. It is not afraid to undertake analysis where necessary. Similarly, the report makes an effort to balance its narrative by acknowledging credit worthy official initiatives such as the increase of the education budget in 2004 or the establishment of a Police Performance Monitoring Unit by the Ministry of Police Affairs.

Operating within the factual parameters of Clear and Present Danger, however, it is quite easy to agree that a prison system with a clear majority of nearly two-thirds of its population as pretrial detainees indeed requires major surgery. But this fails to capture the real crisis of Nigeria's penal system. Nigeria's acknowledged average prison capacity of between 31-40,000 prisoners for a population of nearly 140 million persons, compares with South Africa's prison population of over 170,000 for a population of 45 million, or United Kingdom's 80,000 for a population of about 58 million. The real question that must be asked from such a comparison is: Why does Nigeria have so few prisoners? Do the answers lie in the high incidence of police killings and extrajudicial executions so well documented in the report? Are there more detainees in police cells that we are not counting? Does our justice system lack effective capacity to guarantee the integrity of human life and hold accountable those who offend against fellow humans and our society? To these latter questions, the report does not provide direct answers but contains enough evidence of institutionalized police and judicial malfeasance and ineffectiveness to suggest the answers must be in the affirmative.

The Subtext

The degree of excellence of a human rights report is by and large inversely proportional to the state of health of the governance environment that it describes. This is the tragic paradox of an excellent human rights report such as Clear and Present Danger. This report is so excellent we cannot be heard to say so. What can be said is that its publication marks the revival of a human rights and civic conscience community that is on the road to rediscovering its voice and ethical bearings. This is evident in the title of the report and in its enlarged remit. This year's document is a report on "the State of Human Rights and Governance" in Nigeria in 2004. The explicit extension of the remit of this report to cover governance acknowledges the organic interdependence of human rights and governance, and the necessary politicization of the former by the latter.

Clear and Present Danger represents the verdict of the Civil Liberties Organization on human rights in Nigeria in 2004. The report chronicles the evidence in support of this verdict. It is a verdict that the government and the ruling PDP will no doubt dispute. The bold decision to boil the contents of the report down to a clear opinion is bound to elicit mixed responses. It may even prove to be controversial. In the opinion of this reviewer, it is welcome and justified by the contents of the report. In coming down to this judgment, the CLO commits itself to a strategic priority in favor of improving state capacities and governance environment as determinants of the extent to which Nigerians may enjoy or be denied their human rights. In choosing this direction, the CLO has subtly redefined the purpose of its annual human rights report from a laundry list of incidents and gripes against unaccountable power, to a report and threat analysis for the attention of Nigerians and those who profess to lead it. There is no doubt a constituency that will read this report as an invitation to apocalypse that it is not. Quite the contrary, it is a rational conclusion drawn from clear premises. In justifying the title, CLO's president, Titus Mann, sums up that at the end of 2004, the civilian opposition was disarmed, political opposition incapacitated, dissent was repressed, the media and civil society was under attack, organized labor was being de-fanged, all of which gave rise to a clear and present danger of civilian dictatorship. As the report itself concludes: "the key threat in the year 2004 lay in the tendencies towards a civilian dictatorship Nigeria."

In the spirit of the subtle shift in the purpose of this report, it makes sense that its dissemination must not stop with its presentation to the Nigerian public. The CLO must take the further step of building a deliberate public advocacy program on this report and its contents. It is no use publishing this report if it elicits only denunciation from government and no demands on government for appropriate remedial measures. The CLO should go one step further and formally deliver copies of this report to the federal and state governments at parliamentary and executive levels with requests for them to respond to its contents. Next year's report should include the responses of government to this Clear and Present Danger. This report must also challenge the official National Human Rights Commission, now chaired by Justice E. O. Ayoola, to institute and publish its own annual report of human rights in Nigeria. An official report on human rights and governance in Nigeria has clearly become long overdue.

What must not happen, however, is for this report to become one more index of the death of our individual and collective capacities for indignation. As evidence of our collective cognitive overload, the stock Nigerian response to the injustices and violations that are the hallmark of everyday official misbehavior in Nigeria is a resigned and despondent This is Nigeria! Indeed, this is Nigeria in which a magistrate orders the police to hold a mother and her son hostage because her husband is under investigation for a crime of theft in relation to which neither hostage is accused of conspiracy; this is Nigeria in which political assassination and police extrajudicial execution are innumerable and indistinguishable; this is Nigeria that has no credible numbers for how many of its nationals are in custody; this is Nigeria in which the police kill innocent children and blockade the local church to prevent their parents and community from mourning their loss; this is Nigeria in which no one has been convicted for electoral fraud or political assassination in six years of quite bloody and clearly fraudulent electoral politics; this is Nigeria in which politicians compete to outbid one another with cash rather than facts for a favorable outcome in election petitions; this is Nigeria in which dropped calls continue to provide a rich and significant revenue stream for most of the GSM providers; this is Nigeria which has the highest number of people infected with HIV/AIDS in Africa; this is Nigeria which is 187th out of 190 countries in the WHO in maternal mortality scales; this is Nigeria in which one in about 60 pregnant mothers will die at childbirth (not counting post-partum disfigurement such as VVF); this is Nigeria in which, in the face of these figures, a governor, decides that the most important public health facility for his people is a "Gulfstream Air Ambulance!" Yes, this is Nigeria presented in Clear and Present Danger. It is a story that must compel each and every one of us to answer, the next time anyone seeks to trump our justified indignation with "This is Nigeria," to retort in words and in deeds, "And what are you going to do to make it better?"

Learn More:

Add your voice