Every year all around the world, people gather (in their minds, and also physically) to celebrate the International Human Rights Day, which has become part and parcel of our annual calendar. The day is always one to celebrate the “birth,” “conception,” or perhaps better put, “document” a set of inalienable, fundamental, or core human rights. This came into life on December 10, 1948, three years after World War I. While 2020 has been a tumultuous year, historical for the ravaging COVID-19, the marking of the International Human Rights Day remained unscathed.
As this year has engendered, albeit forced, a retrospection into our personal and national lives, and even the course of humanity, this red-letter day provides another opportunity to remember the African in me. The Free State Centre for Human Rights, the University of the Free State, Bloemfontein, South Africa, under the leadership of Professor Danie Brand, graciously invited me to give its 2020 Lecture to mark this important day. The Lecture allowed me to connect the past to the present, and look back with my historical lenses on the relationship between human rights and African culture. Rights are not privileges—we are entitled to them like the air we breathe—but patriarchy and power can subvert them and convert inalienable rights to privileges.
The illegal conversion of rights to privileges, linked in my Lecture as the Siamese twins between human rights and culture, should hardly be surprising, given the provisions that spell out human rights as fundamental principles of life. Put differently, they could be rules or laws guiding what humans have free access to, all things made equal, and should be undenied under any circumstances. In most countries of the world, if not all, it is entrenched in their constitutions, and other public and civil laws are to be subservient to it and not contrary. However, my quill hasn’t been dangling and scribbling since to discuss what is common knowledge. Neither did my retrospection take me down the memory lane to dig from the past, what is known in the present, which is no news even to an illiterate. Being a decolonial scholar, my thinking this time is centered on the discourse of the universalism of human rights, its perhaps Eurocentric attachment, and better still and most definite, its existence in some forms in African culture in times past, long before 1948, farther beyond the scramble for colonies in Africa.
On December 10, I delivered a public lecture titled: “African Culture and Human Rights.” And it was here, the thinking process started. There were pertinent questions. Were there no human rights before colonialism? Was human right really a Western model and introduced by them only in 1948? If there were human rights existent pre-colonialism, what was it like in Africa? Are African cultures for or against the attainment of human rights? What aspects of African culture promote human rights, and what practices in Africa inhibit the effective implementation of human rights? The narrative to surmise and answer all the above posers found strength through women’s lenses, considered the most susceptible victim of human rights violations. It is indispensable to streamline the course of narration as a study, given the large volume of rights existent, their applicability, specificity in certain situations, and differing categories.
To begin with, I clarified the concept of culture. It is a way of life that lays the groundwork and provides the frame of reference with which people approach and navigate their everyday lives and experiences. It also serves as a means of extricating a group of people from another through their identities. They share geopolitical originations; through this, they have experiences which range from negotiating intra- and inter-personal relationships, performing or contributing to ritualized actions, upholding collective ideas, and expanding the boundaries of collective (un)consciousness, to producing, performing, and sustaining knowledge in its various expressions and form. For instance, dressing, choice of food, language, etc., of a person are very valid inferences to draw conclusions of what culture a person represents. This is especially manifest in a multiethnic country like Nigeria. On some parameters, one can differentiate a Hausa man from a Yoruba or Igbo man via any of the metrics mentioned above. Thus, it is apt to assert that culture is an identity, which when exhibited, reveals some cultural information about the person.
Culture is also, in its banal conception, known as the way of life of a people. And this is where human rights come in. Cultural practices reinforce, deny, or outright affirm rights. Rights are a set of justifications to “do” or “become” that are considered inalienable and human’s entitlements. Given that human rights are provided for and guaranteed by the state, it makes it state-centric. This is further exemplified because states make exceptions to ratify the UDHR, or parts and not all of it. The significance of this point is that human rights can be pictured as an introduction that alters existing cultural practices that have formed the rules and regulations in Africa. However, it is also true that Africa, especially, has had its culture continuously redefined by several internal and external forces. A study in point is human rights, as hitherto mentioned.
This ensures the conception of clashes between African cultures and human rights, nearly creating the narrative that human rights are alien to Africa. This has not helped, considering the fact that African countries are reputed to be constant flouters of human rights. For example, the Buhari administration in Nigeria has vowed never to allow another protest happen again, which violated the UDHR, the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, and African Charter on Human Rights’ provision and of the rights to freedom of expression, of association, of holding assemblage, etc. These flagrant show of disrespect towards human rights have encouraged the Eurocentric belief that human rights are Western conceived and introduced.
However, what has not often been considered is that unlike the Western world that favors individualism over collectivism, Africa’s cultural background is deep-rooted in the spirit of collectivism, the idea of communalism. Thus, Africa’s concept of human rights seeks to first tend towards protecting power, the seat of authority, over the state’s members. This does not mean Africans before the coming of the Europeans did not have a sense of human rights. As previously implied, I use UNICEF’s statistics on women to further drive home my point.
For instance, in recent times, especially since post-colonial Africa, the rise of feminism has questioned the lack of access to women’s opportunities, especially in the political space. However, a trip down the past would reveal that women have always had political opportunities in times past, even if the nuance of their participation could be said not to match that of their male counterparts. Their political relevance has always been uncontested. For example, in the pre-colonial Yoruba kingdoms, women were ably represented in the palace court by the Iyalode and were adequately consulted on all matters about women’s affairs. They also contributed to issues involving the men and youths of the community. Even women peaked in their rise to political stardom, with some becoming kings and others as regents, or occupying other important political positions. In the Southern part of Nigeria, specifically in Osomari, Onitsha, Omu Okwei, women reached the apogee of political power in a dual monarchy with a king (1935-1943), having initially served in the Native Court of Onitsha from 1912 for about two decades. Women also prominently functioned in religio-political leadership capacities as diviners and witches, aje, who were considered second to none. Kings paid homage to them to recognize their powers to make or mar their reign. Another example is in the Igbo women group of Umuada, which wielded important power, authority, and responsibility potent and efficient enough to influence policies and preside over women’s affairs. Thus, in the instance of political rights, representation, participation, and power, it could be argued that women enjoyed tremendous rights, which were not violated.
However, colonial administration and the Western patriarchy spelled doom for this human right benefit for women. For instance, Omu Okwei served as the last merchant queen before abolishing the Council of Mothers’ traditional role. Further, the new indirect rule system ensured traditional chiefs were used as middlemen, with no room for women’s political participation. The Western world abolition and persecution of witchcraft and sorcery in their societies was transported to Africa. All of these have implications for other spheres of cultural life: political, social, and religious, to mention a few. Since these aspects of culture or these institutions affect the formation of culture, colonial legacies continue to impact African cultures, as in the case of paramount chiefs who undermined women’s role.
From the above, it is reasonable to argue that forms of human rights existed in pre-colonial Africa, and thus, they are not Western creations or imported. One could aver that there were African cultural practices that enhanced and promoted certain human rights, especially women’s rights, laying to bed the belief that it is Western philosophy. However, this also does not mean that there are no African cultural practices that inhibit the implementation of fundamental human rights. There are. But this occurs in most cases where the African cultural practices serve the interest of others. The existence of those who benefit from these cultural practices—African old-world orders—means there would be those who would continue to promote these practices for their selfish benefits and designs. While this is true, the European Judeo-Christianity informed and patriarchal culture aggravated these selective rights. I mentioned some of these cultural practices in my Lecture.
While it has been asserted that in many African societies, political opportunities in some forms were not elusive, it is equally important to know there were other areas where the female gender was discriminated against and denied opportunities. It is no news that in the upbringing of children in many parts of Africa, while the male ones were provided quality education, their female counterparts were often domesticated to be useful in “the kitchen and the other rooms.” This is particularly still rampant today in the northern part of Nigeria and many other African states. For instance, UNICEF holds that 69% of Nigeria’s out-of-school children are in the North, while girls roughly constitute 75% of out-of-school children in Nigeria. The repercussion of failing to grant the female child access to education is that they miss out on other better opportunities. They remain subservient and dependent on their husbands for financial support. This dependence increases their tendency to stay in poverty.
There is also the problem of child marriage in which young ladies are forced into early marriage, even by the elite in the society. When quizzed, many of the male culprits who perpetrate these acts find justification in their religious disposition, Islam, though contrary to the provisions of the Nigerian constitution. Given that this part of Islamic law satisfies their lustful desires, they defy the constitution and engage in child marriage. This is similar to polygamy. Marrying too many wives for power, wealth, and status is another trend in African traditional societies.
A typical example is the Majority Leader of Nigeria’s House of Representatives, Alhassan Ado-Doguwa, who recently paraded his wives and boasted of his 27 children in the nation’s legislative chambers in an ignominious show of pride, referencing a persistent tradition of polygamy in the North and several parts of Nigeria. It is always at the pleasure and benefit of the man to the detriment of the wives who, in most cases, would have to fend for themselves and their kids, especially where poverty is prominent. The repercussion of this is like the earlier mentioned—poverty. Having too many mouths to feed, with little to no empowerment, restricts and reduces the potentials of the female gender in Africa, which is deeply rooted in the continent’s culture.
Other cultural practices also limit the rights of the girl-child. A ruthless one is the Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting, in which parts of the female genitals are severed to deny her the pleasure of womanhood at an early age, depriving her of her right to make choices in her best interest. These are patriarchal practices that seek to make women psychologically, financially, socially, and politically dependent on men. How more can that be proven than another absurdity of depriving them of their rights to own properties, especially land? Inheritance, in most African cultures, goes only to the male offspring, leaving the female counterpart to wait till she is married to a man and can depend on her husband. This denial of the rights to own properties only serves to stripe them of economic power. Even in the current situations and in supposed corporate worlds, house rents, passport requests, bank loans, travel requests, and owning properties require permission (signing) from her husband, father, or brother.
Beyond the gross violation of rights based on gender, others are based on factors such as age. African traditional culture is deeply rooted in “elderlism” whereby elders are believed to have a monopoly of wisdom and knowledge. Youths were ostracized from significant decision-making, and it persists today. It gave rise to the Not-Too-Young-To-Run campaign two years ago in Nigeria to protest denying the natural rights of political participation of being voted for. The #EndSARS campaign revealed the focus more on men, many who lost their lives to rogue police officers for owning expensive cars and gadgets, a direct infringement on their right to properties.
To conclude, I will say that while human rights were not alien to African indigenous societies, today, some African cultural practices that limit the effective implementation of the exercise of human rights in the modern world. With my eyes on some culturally- induced violated rights, my 2020 Lecture made about half a dozen recommendations to kick-start the process of making amends in my beloved continent.
Toyin Falola is Extraordinary Professor of Human Rights at The University of the Free State