The threat by the United Kingdom parliament to impose sanctions on Nigerian government officials for abuses of citizens’ human rights, as well as the coldblooded killings of peaceful protesters during the #EndSARS demonstrations has sent ripples through the backbone of government officials. It is now obvious that only the threat of sanctions by a foreign parliament or agency would get government officials and security agencies to respect the rights of citizens.
No sooner did the UK parliament express outrage and issue an ultimatum than Nigerian officials moved quickly to open a channel for dialogue. They said they needed a space to tell their own story. The parliamentarians had expressed indignation at the way protesters were mowed down, abused, shot at indiscriminately, hauled into illegal detention centres, tortured, and bashed during the #EndSARS demonstrations.
The message is clear. If the UK parliament had not threatened to hit Nigerian officials where it would hurt them most, no government official would have bothered about the widespread abuses. In fact, if the stern warning had come from an African or Latin American country, public officials would have dismissed the threats as bogus, pointless, and annoying.
The swift response by officials must be attributed to concerns held by officials about the likely consequences, on their lifestyle, of the punishment proposed by the UK parliament. They responded to the warning because they knew the sanctions would impact negatively on their socioeconomic lives and their ability to travel freely.
These officials are working in the interests of foreign organisations and governments. When they act to promote the image of foreign governments and other entities, Nigerian officials convey an unmistakeable message about where their loyalty resides. When national interests collide with personal interests of state officials, the pursuit of personal interests always trumps all other objectives. This is one of the key personal attributes of selfish and greedy officials.
What a country of double-dealers. If UK legislators did not react to human rights abuses in Nigeria, nothing would have happened. Use of disproportionate force by police and soldiers against peaceful protesters would have exacerbated. And state officials would have continued to behave like little despots whose actions are beyond censure.
One lesson that emerged from all this is that, unless a foreign agency threatened to take action against Nigeria, the reckless and inhumane treatment of Nigerian citizens by state officials would persist. State and federal government officials deal with all of us as if we are animals, as if we have no fundamental rights, as if Nigeria is not governed by the rule of law, as if the country is owned legally by a section of the country, and as if we reside in the legendary Hobbesian state of nature where life could be nasty, brutish, and disorderly.
Seventeenth century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes had argued during his time that the state of nature was one in which moral beliefs did not exist. The state of nature, in Hobbes’ conceptualisation, is a despondent condition (akin to a war situation) in which none of our purposes in life could be realised. It is the equivalent of living in an animal kingdom governed by the philosophy of ‘might is right’.
The reaction of government officials to the warning by the UK parliament suggests that state officials have no problem playing second fiddle to foreign powers. It also indicates that public officials are accountable to no one but themselves. They are not fazed by what the citizens might do to them. Instead, they are frightened by what foreign powers might do to them or the kind of punishment that would be imposed on them. What a tragedy. The duplicitous behaviour of government officials constitutes a form of inferiority complex associated with colonial mentality.
Over the years, foreign powers have learned that one of the ways they could discipline state officials in African countries that are governed by despots who abuse the rights of their citizens is to restrict their travel rights. This is just one of the measures the UK parliament proposed to roll out before Nigerian officials started to sweat.
It is no secret that our officials have large economic, financial, and property investments in overseas countries, particularly in Europe, the United States, Canada, and the United Arab Emirates, to mention a few countries. Any threat to these government officials is therefore a threat to their existing businesses and their future.
Nigerian officials’ response to the UK parliament’s threats has exposed the hypocrisies that underline how we do things in the country. We are a complex society. In this society, citizens have no right to protest, no right to express their views, no right to criticise the government and its policy blunders, and certainly no right to participate in deliberative democracy. In short, it is a country of compliant citizens.
Although government officials are appointed or elected to serve their society, that expectation is now an aberration. Rather than serve their country, public officials expect citizens to serve them. This explains in part why the needs of citizens are overlooked and why government does not feel an obligation to cater to the needs of civil society.
The latest move by the UK parliament to place travel restrictions on some Nigerian government officials is already having an impact. The only time Nigerian officials listen to the plight of their people is when foreign governments or parliaments wield the sledgehammer of sanctions that come in various forms. The sanctions can be cessation of economic, financial, and trade agreements, suspension of military cooperation and intelligence sharing, travel bans, closure of bank accounts, and so on.
Economic sanctions are often used as a proven weapon to dismantle or disrupt diplomatic and inter-governmental relations. Within the Commonwealth and the African Union, sanctions and suspensions have been used to deal with some authoritarian leaders. Within these organisations, you will find that respect for free speech and civil rights is taken seriously by member countries. In that context, violations of the rights of citizens usually attract immediate sanctions such as suspension from membership of the organisations.
Here are a few examples. Fiji was expelled from the Commonwealth in 1987 following two military coups. It was readmitted 10 years later after the restoration of democracy. The country was again suspended in 2000 for 18 months (BBC, 2009). Nigeria was also suspended from the Commonwealth in 1995 following the execution of civil rights leader Ken Saro-Wiwa by the military government of Sani Abacha. Nigeria was readmitted into the Commonwealth in 1999.
Similarly, Zimbabwe was suspended from the Commonwealth in 2002 following general elections that were seen to be widely blemished. Election observers had ruled the elections were heavily marred by misconduct such as political violence, intimidation of voters, widespread rigging, and other abuses of the electoral laws.
Testimonies given by families of victims of police and army brutality during the #EndSARS protests may yet lead to international opprobrium against Nigeria. That may also include sanctions of sorts. Time will tell.