THE United States government recently released a report on the spate of human rights abuses under the Muhammadu Buhari-led administration. In its Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2017, the US Department of State linked the prevalence of rights violations in the country to the reluctance of the administration to properly investigate allegations of abuses, especially by members of the armed forces and top officials, and to prosecute those indicted. According to the report, “Impunity remained widespread at all levels of government. The government did not adequately investigate or prosecute most of the major outstanding allegations of human rights violations by the security forces or the majority of cases of police or military extortion or other abuse of power.”
The report added that the government generally did not hold police, military and other security personnel accountable for the use of excessive or deadly force or for the deaths of persons in custody, and that state and federal panels of inquiry investigating suspicious deaths generally did not make their findings public. It noted that in August 2017, the acting president convened a civilian-led presidential investigative panel to review the compliance of the armed forces with human rights obligations and rules of engagement. It however lamented that by November 2017, the panel had not issued a report. The report further highlighted a number of rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings of supporters of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) movement by the security agencies. It said that the government promised to investigate the killings but failed to either do so or release reports on them.
There were, it said, no reports of the Federal Government investigating or holding individuals accountable for the 2015 killing and subsequent mass burial of members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) and other civilians by Nigerian Army operatives in Zaria, Kaduna State. Members of anti-government groups such as IPOB and IMN disappeared without trace, it said, adding that the Department of State Services (DSS) was particularly blamed for arbitrary abduction of persons opposed to the government.
Truth be told, the US government merely confirmed what Nigerians have been saying for some time. There is hardly any Nigerian who is not familiar with the security agencies’ widespread use of torture, or the use of evidence and confessions obtained via torture during prosecution in the court of law. It is also a fact that the Nigeria Police, charged with the internal security of the Nigerian state, has become more or less an instrument of state torture. It has failed to discharge its duties professionally and with integrity. Killings, torture and harassment of law-abiding citizens by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) of the Nigeria Police are yet to stop although, admittedly, the police hierarchy did take steps to curb its excesses. The glaring incompetence and lack of professionalism by the Inspector-General of Police, under whose charge the Presidency has been queried a number of times, a state governor referred to as a “drowning governor” and the Senate pilloried and treated with contempt, have tended to overshadow whatever strides the NPF has made to redeem its battered image.
The government definitely cannot afford to toy with this report by the US Department of State. By no stretch of the imagination can it be regarded as either sponsored or lacking in substance. The report relies on facts and figures and details incidents with which Nigerians are all too familiar. It is doubtful that since the return to civil rule in 1999, the Nigerian government been accused of human rights violations to such an extent as was detailed in the report, and a forward-looking government would definitely take concrete steps to right the wrongs that it so lucidly highlighted. Sadly, the government has, to date, failed to state the steps it is taking to ensure that the security agencies play by the rules. The media, on its part, has a duty to help the nation by taking cognisance of the provisions of the law in reporting crime. Under no circumstances must the presumption of innocence of accused persons be treated with disdain.
The report, to say the least, has grave implications for the country’s global image and its drive for foreign direct investment. No country subscribing to the democratic form of government can afford to be seen as encouraging dictatorship. Apart from reviewing the operations of the security agencies, the government must ensure that there is a change in their orientation and training, so that they do not continue to see themselves as lords of the manor, superior to the ‘ordinary civilians’ with whom they have to deal as a matter of necessity. Above all, President Buhari and his team must realise that they derive their powers from the people via the constitution and must not take any further actions capable of being interpreted as a slight on the law. Disobedience to court orders has no place in a democracy. The government must take concrete steps to address human rights violations in the country.