THE first part of the two-part series in today’s column was published last week. It dwelled majorly on providing theoretical framework for the discussions on fundamental human rights and democratic freedoms, and setting the tone for the arguments for the concluding part. However, for ease of reference, I wish to set down the Fundamental Rights as provided in the margin of Chapter 4 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended), which said Rights are the fulcrum of our discussion. The Rights as contained in the following sections are:
- Right to life
- Right to dignity of human person
- Right to personal liberty
- Right to fair hearing
- Right to private and family life
- Right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion
- Right to freedom of expression and the press
- Right to peaceful assembly and association
- Right to freedom of movement
- Right to freedom from discrimination
- Right to acquire and own immovable property anywhere in Nigeria
- Compulsory acquisition of property
Interestingly, the above mentioned Rights are the same with the ICCPR of the 1966 International Convention on Human Rights and also in pari materia with the African Charter on Human and Peoples Right of 1981.
While we live to enjoy the Rights as stipulated, we should not lose sight of the fact that these Rights are not absolute Rights or unconditional. Every Right has a corresponding duty. Fulton J. Sheen in his book, Thoughts for Daily Living, has this to say, “no one has to be taught his rights. On everyone’s lips we hear, I have a right to this, I am not going to let him walk all over me and rarely do we hear it said I have a duty to do this or I must respect his rights. Everyone knows his rights, few know their duties.”
The lack of the knowledge of the duties attached to these rights seems to be the problem of many in Nigeria. Many desire to know their right and to have them protected and not be trampled upon by anyone else, yet they tend to forget they also have a duty to protect the rights of others. It is a common saying that one’s right ends where others’ right begins.
The drafters of the Constitution 1999 did not fail to provide the conditions under which the Rights as mentioned above could be abrogated. A cursory look at Section 45 of the same constitution reveals the restrictions and derogations from fundamental Human Rights; that is, the conditions under which human right observation could be put in abeyance for overriding public interest, defence, public safety, public order, public morality and public health or for the purposes of protecting the rights and freedom of other persons.
The UNDR also provides corresponding duties for every right you enjoy. The African Charter on Human and Peoples Right, containing 68 articles, was divided into various sections, including sections on Rights and Duties.
Some of such duties include to serve the national community by placing physical and intellectual abilities at its service and not to compromise the security of the State. Each individual is to preserve, promote and contribute to the national development by obeying the law and paying taxes and levies as prescribed by the State.
As earlier stated, the right of every individual is determined at the point where another person’s right begins. Therefore, it is the duty of every individual to be careful so as not to breach the law. Accordingly, no provision of right is absolute, no matter how important it may seem to the eye.
Students, for example, have the right to form or to belong to any association, and/or identify with any assembly, trade union or political parties for the protection of their interests, because they are human and the constitution has also provided it. Nonetheless, they are not allowed to truncate the peace of the society or the campus in exercising such right. That will amount to going beyond the limits of their right. Any contravention will attract the wrath of the law upon them.
It is good to note that associations with secret motives and objectives, which are antithetical to the society, are outside the contemplation of the law and, therefore, are not permissible in law. Section 137(1) (h) a person shall not be qualified for election if he is a member of a secret society.
Accordingly, no provision relating to dignity of human person, personal liberty, fair hearing, private and family life, and freedom of thought and conscience and religion as contained in the constitution shall invalidate any law that is reasonably justifiable in a democratic society in the interest of defence and public order. Also in a state of emergency, different forms of infraction of fundamental rights are legitimised.
Perhaps, while we make efforts to know our rights, we should also make it a point of duty to live up to the responsibilities attached for the common good.
Our democratic practices over the years had given vent to some infractions of the constitution. Under the military interregna we had had the constitution and the fundamental rights contained therein were usually the first casualties. The military rules by decrees, which do not recognise those rights as espoused in the constitution. The same situation obtains where citizens rights and privileges are jettisoned for reasons that are not reasonable.
The highhandedness of some leaders, including their cohorts, has often led to abridgment of the rights of some citizens. The lawlessness and cantankerous dispositions of the political class in elections have constituted an impediment to the enforcement of people’s rights.
I do not find it amusing that citizens themselves live in ignorance of their rights as enshrined in the constitution. They do not care a hoot about their rights. They are rather content with crumbs from the master’s table, when in real sense they have the constitutional cover to seek the enforcement of their rights.
Another way the citizens have repudiated their rights is by compromising the security of life and property by their actions and utterances. By their connivance they have exposed the society to danger. No amount of threat or inducement should make a citizen compromise his or her right.
I find it reprehensible that some persons could compromise the security of their domains and forgo their rights just for what they could get in return. They forget too easily the danger inherent in such an action.
What of secret societies? Some persons find solace in these societies when in actual sense such societies operate out of sync with the constitutional provisions on secret societies. Regrettably, many of those who belong to these secret societies occupy powerful religious, social and political offices. Others look up to them for good examples. Painfully too, these people go scot-free and use the law to cover their tracks.
What justification does a member of a secret society have to belong to the top echelon of the bench or political leadership, for instance? There had been established cases of persons clearly identified of having belonged to secret societies contesting and sworn in as elected members of the legislative houses.
Since the constitution frowns at such a practice it then behoves the law enforcement agents to deal decisively with the defaulters.
Ignorance of the law and deliberate attitude not to respect the constitution constitute a serious obstacle to citizen’s observance of the provisions of the constitution on fundamental human rights.
Right to life is a very critical provision. But why then do some people take other people’s lives? I read the case of a husband who killed his wife three weeks ago. What right did he have to take the life of his wife? The brutality and callousness some husbands unleash on their wives make me wonder if they understand what marriage is all about from the onset. Some persons marry not actually out of love but out of mere infatuation. Marriage, as a conjugal relationship between a man and a woman who have voluntarily offered to consummate their union and live together thereafter, demands some seriousness.
It is something very preposterous that some husbands see their wives as pieces of furniture that can be tossed up and down. The rights accord to a couple in a marriage are sacrosanct and inalienable. They do not confer any of them the right to tread on each other’s rights and privileges.
In our current democracy some citizens conduct themselves in a most untoward manner, not respecting the sensibilities of others. Any act that does not recognise the rights of others is antithetical to peace and pubic order.
Why do some citizens find it difficult to respect the rights of others? This can be attributed to a number of reasons. They include but not limited to greed, arrogance, overbearing influence, selfishness, power drunkenness, and other environmental factors. A combination of these factors leads to excessive obsession and obtrusiveness.
In any case, the consciousness among the citizenry to enforce their rights has continued to grow, especially under the civilian dispensation. Under the military it is something unthinkable. This is why democratic governance has always appealed more to the majority of the people. At least, it provides them the opportunity to enforce their rights to an appreciable level, oblivious of the imperfections in the system.
There is an aspect of the constitutional provisions that I find detestable. It has to do with state of emergency. This provision torpedoes the rights of citizens, no matter how important. The suspension of some of the democratic institutions operable before the declaration of state of emergency is a clear indication of the rawness and crudity of the provision.
However, as much as there is an imperative need for a state of emergency it does not obviate the fact that it is antithetical to good governance and sustainable democracy.
I think it is important to draw the attention of the government, civil liberty organisations and security agencies to the need to enforce the fundamental rights of citizens. The abridgement of such rights is tantamount to courting the ire of the people, which sooner or later will explode.
There is a limit to what the people can swallow. They may bear the brunt for as long as it pleases their tormentors, but a time will come when the chicken will come to roost.
The enforcement of the rights of citizens and their democratic freedoms will only help to attenuate bad blood and lack of respect for people’s rights in our social system. In contrast, it will breed mutual respect, faster development and concretisation of our democracy which has been at the mercy of some opportunists and fifth columnists.
It is believed that by assimilating the content of this series Nigerians will be, more than ever before, aware of what rights they enjoy and what duties they owe to any society in which they find themselves.
As responsible citizens we are expected to always live in conformity with the law and discharge our civic duties patriotically and with the fear of God.