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INTERVIEW: This govt is becoming intolerant of opposition, says Amnesty International director

In the last few months, there have been allegations bothering on human rights abuses across the country: from extrajudicial killings to maltreatment by security agencies as well as government’s perceived slow response to crisis. At least 150 Nigerians have lost their lives in situations which commentators say the government could have prevented. Osai Ojigho, country director of Amnesty International, spoke on these issues relating to human rights.
In this interview with TheCable, Ojigho said the government has not done enough to respond to the situation, especially those bothering on human rights violations. While observing that the respect and value for human rights in Nigeria had come to a low level, the rights activist also bared her mind on cases of “arbitrary” arrests of activists and journalists, herdsmen killings, illegal detentions as well as the government’s perceived intolerance to opposing views.
TheCable: As the country director of Amnesty International, how would you describe the human rights situation in Nigeria as of today?
Ojigho : It is a mixed question because we are facing a very intense period in Nigeria where so many things are happening and rights of people have been violated, and we are still waiting for responses from the government in terms of tackling those violations and ensuring justice is done. But Nigeria is not completely lost. There are areas in which the society as a whole is generally stable and generally having access to certain services. But if you were to ask me about the state of human rights in Nigeria today, I would say it is at a low level. Because we have been calling for a lot of change in terms of how security operatives carry out their activities so that they do not infringe on the dignity of the persons they have been called to serve.
Ojigho illustrating a point during an interview
Or when people are arrested; that they have right to fair hearing including access to lawyers. That people are free from torture. Those are still issues that we’re grappling with in Nigeria. We have also seen cases where communities have been forcibly evicted from their homes and which we have called on the state governments to put safeguards in place to ensure that people have safe and adequate housing. 2017 saw a rise in the number of bloggers that were been invited for questioning based on what they have shared online, as well as media houses being threatened.
Other areas include women’s rights, and when you look at it generally, we have the laws that have been passed progressively at the federal level and in some states but implementation is still a challenge. There is also the case of children. Last year, a story broke out about children who are kept in detention centers somewhere in Lagos state. We have seen many children who have been neglected and whose only hope in life is education. Yet our government still struggles to ensure that every child has access to basic nine years of education in Nigeria. So looking at these issues, you begin to wonder at what level Nigeria needs to get, before you begin to see progressive change in these critical areas.
Herdsmen: They have been accused of fuelling crisis
TheCable: You talked about existing legal framework. That should have been able to address the issues you raised, at least to some extent, but they are still there. So, what is the challenge now? Is it just a problem of failure to implement the laws or the government lacks the political will to tackle these challenges headlong?
Ojigho: I think there are three issues we should look at in order to answer this question. One is that, it is the government’s responsibility to protect, fulfill and promote these rights. And in the promotional part, you find out it is mostly the NGOs that do what is involved there. So, it will be good for the government to do a lot more and promote these issues and enlighten Nigerians so that they become aware and can claim these rights. The second issue is where complaint mechanisms are complicated or prolonged. S,o we need to look at the justice system and the machinery, including from investigations which start with the police at that level. The police, in some cases, are being used also to abuse human rights. So in this case, it is not in their interest to ensure the complainants have access to justice. So when such complaints mechanisms are at fault, it becomes an issue. Then the third thing now has to do with justice itself, concrete justice. When you now find out that the government sets up a commission and the same people that are on it are ones that have committed these atrocities. The other part is where people have now identified who these perpetrators are, what sort of protection do we have for the victims and witnesses. Because often times, these are people who have access to arms, influence or in some cases, are in connivance with other agencies. How do we ensure that people are protected so they go through the cases till the end and justice is served? So these are the challenges that we see.
IGP Ibrahim Idris believes he is putting in his best to resolve the crisis but some people see things differently
But you will also find out there have been some interesting responses. Like in the case of Libya when the federal government stood up and ensured those returning are flown back to the country and given a stipend to ensure those returning are flown back to their state of origin. The government was able to recognise the humanitarian situation involved. That was something we couldn’t have thought about few years ago.
TheCable: If you were to rate the current administration, say out of ten, regarding how the government has treated human rights issues, what would be your assessment?
Ojigho: It is difficult for me to rate the government now because we are still finalising our annual reports on the issue of human rights across the globe and there is a section on Nigeria. And you cannot rate if you’ve not compared to what you’ve done previously, or in relation to other countries. So we will be releasing our report by February 22. By that time, we will be able to say, this is the situation.
TheCable: Let’s look at the killings coming from clashes between herdsmen and farmers as well as community members. More than 100 persons have lost their lives in these clashes and there are still pockets of other killings almost on a daily basis. Do you think the security operatives are responding well enough?
Ojigho: I think the government has not done enough regarding the clashes and I will explain why. Everyone recognises that this is something that has been going on for years. But it appears that every year it has gotten worse. So that means whatever that was done in the past was either ineffective or wasn’t the right intervention. Secondly, despite the fact that this has been going on for a long time, can we point out one or two cases where people have been arrested persecuted and fully went through the course of the law to ensure justice. We are talking about people being killed now, it has gone beyond properties. Under Nigerian law, it is even a crime. And even if on both sides, there are allegations of who killed first and who didn’t, what has been done to ensure that those responsible are brought to book. And based on our assessment at Amnesty International, the immediate analysis showed the reasons why these killings have continued unabated is impunity, lack of accountability. No one has been brought to justice. It is not acceptable for you to take the law into your hands, for you to go and kill people regardless of what has happened to you. The other part of the story is how the law enforcement agencies have responded. Because people will say, when we complain, nothing happens. So we need to make law enforcement agencies do their work, and by that, I mean the police. We already know the hotspots. So how can we ensure we move resources and technical expertise to those areas? And what have we learnt from the crisis in the past?
Tim Elombah, a blogger, was arrested on the orders of the IGP
In some cases, they ask the military to assist. And our question is, when they are deployed, are they fully briefed on how to police those areas? Because sometimes we fail to realise that the military’s role is very distinct. So when you deploy them to communities to carry out normal police functions, then they need to be briefed in terms of what they can do, and cannot do. We use force when necessary, not just for the sake of using force. And even when necessary, there are guidelines as to how it is used. And we’ve seen cases where the military appears to be unaware of these and abuses now occur or the violence escalates. We believe the government needs to take control of the situation, because its function and duty is to protect the lives and property of everyone within its territory. And right now they are struggling to do so. Let’s even prevent the attacks from happening and stop dealing with medicine after death. And then in the long term, the government needs to start building on the commissions it has already put in place in terms of dialogue. You need to engage the parties involved and those who have experienced it to find a long-lasting solution to the issue and be able to agree on issues involved to prevent further clashes.
TheCable: Let’s take a look at the case of Benue where the anti-open grazing law has been fingered in the attack. The herders have faulted the law and while people are still trying to grapple with the killings, the IGP was reported to have said the law should be suspended. Do you think the IGP was right to have said that?
Ojigho: I think we should be careful not to go into the politics of the matter. The main issue is that people have been killed, family life has been destroyed, and children have lost their parents and are out of school. Women are exposed to more dangers. So these conversations tend to distract from the real issues at hand which is, how are going to stop the killings in the first place and ensure those responsible are brought to book? And it’s not enough to say, we can’t find them. You can use the information you have to track where they have been and where they are possibly going. The woman who has lost her husband is not interested in whether there is a law or no law. She is asking: how will I get justice? Who will heal the pain that I’m experiencing now? Restorative justice is what people are looking for.
BBOG members surrounded by policemen during a protest
TheCable: Your organisation released a report in January, accusing the Nigeria air force of extra-judicial killings while tackling communal clashes in some parts of the country, which they have denied. What would you say in reaction to their denial ?
Ojigho: I think our statement has elicited several responses and people are looking at the part which interests them. The 168 people that we said have been killed so far in January regarding the clashes between the farming community and the herding community refers to the total number in the states that we had recorded for the year, with Benue having the highest based on what we have verified. There are definitely more people that have been killed in January. Going further, the statement was meant to address two things: one, this violence has been continuing and government’s response to it has been ineffective. And when the response is swift, it has been excessive. That was the message we were trying to pull out. We gave an example where there was a reprisal attack in Numan in Adamawa state and the air force fired a rocket into the area involved. Yes, government, through the air force, acted in response to the violence, but was it the right way it should have acted? The good thing is that the air force is not denying that it happened. What they are saying is that it was a warning shot and that they were acting in response to attacks in that community. Are they saying there were no other ways to contain the situation without firing the rocket? Firing rockets cannot be justified in such a situation. And we also need to be conscious of the fact that we are beginning to accept violence of a different kind. We seem to accept violence as a means of stopping violence. But what we have seen is that violence only begets violence.
TheCable: Sometime in January, the police arrested some members of the Bring Back Our Girls Movement (BBOG) while they were having a rally in Abuja. And such arrests are becoming a worrisome trend. There is also the case of the protesting Shi’ites as well. I don’t know if that bothers Amnesty International?
Ojigho: It is interesting when we talk about freedom of information and association, something secured under the Nigerian constitution. When we have a situation where the government feels they can approve when there will be an assembly, then we are beginning to encroach on something that is natural with the human person. Of course there are cases like emergencies when people are told they can’t assemble in order to curtail a situation which wasn’t so. But Nigeria is at a place in time where we need to tolerate other people’s opinion and desire to congregate together and share ideas. The BBOG movement have been having their rallies before now and at that point when they were arrested, there was really no need to prevent them from holding their rally. We should really be careful when we are talking about these rights and protecting them because it goes down to who we are as a group.
TheCable: The BBOG arrest was a similar case to Kazeem Afegbua, spokesman to former military president Ibrahim Babangida, who was declared wanted after he issued a statement on behalf of his principal. Are you of the view that this is an attempt to clamp down on free speech?
Ojigho: This is definitely an issue that we will see a lot more of, beginning this year. Section 39 of the constitution gives everyone freedom of expression without interference. What we have seen in the last year or two is that in cases where people have expressed themselves, either online or offline or in the media, when it is around an issue considered in opposition or not in agreement with the same position of the authority in that area or that location, criminal charges are brought against the person. The issue is, why is this happening at this point in time? Why is the government becoming intolerant of opposition views? Why are we using our position of power to curb others’ rights to express themselves? The second issue is people standing strong in the face of adversity. The courts as they are now should be able to tell the difference between someone exercising their freedom of speech and committing a criminal offence. But it is a worrying trend that someone says something and they are immediately told you have a case to answer or declared wanted. We are watching the situation closely also to see what will happen. Everyone in the country has to be alert to ensure we do not lose sight of the goal which is protecting our fundamental human rights.
TheCable: Kazeem’s case is coming just about two weeks after the government directed security agencies to monitor social media handles of some Nigerians, if not all. Isn’t that really worrisome?
Afegbua in the office of Jimoh Moshood, police spokesman, who announced that IBB spokesman had been delcared wanted
Ojigho: This is a development like we are monitoring like I said. Because before we make an analysis of a situation, we look at what has happened before, what is triggering it and what is the danger to the enjoyment and fulfilment of human rights. That kind of statement goes to freedom of expression and we will be looking at what the implications are and making our recommendations going forward. You know we will soon be going into election period and we are sure there will be people campaigning, organising themselves.
TheCable: Ibrahim El-Zakyzaky, the leader of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria, has been in detention for at least two years, and for a long time after the courts directed that he should be released. The case of Nnamdi Kanu, the pro-Biafra leader, was also similar to this, before he was released on bail. These have brought up concerns that the current administration does not respect court judgments. Do you think such is actually the case?
Our call is consistent and we keep saying it: they should respect court order and free El-Zakyzaky. In any respectful society, the rule of law is supreme. And we will continue calling on the Nigerian government to respect this principle as well as on the international community to put pressure on the Nigerian government to obey court orders.
You observed that the government is becoming intolerant of opposing views, and the 2019 elections are around the corner. Considering Nigeria is always having cases surrounding rights abuses during election period, what would form your advice to the government and Nigerians in general?
I think everyone is being sensitive to the situation because these are issues that are of interest, at a personal or community level. And the government on its part has a responsibility to ensure safety and protection of people within the Nigerian territory. Citizens and other residents in Nigeria also have the responsibility to ensure that in carrying out their daily activities, they are not infringing on the rights of others. During the time of elections, we see people getting excited. Amnesty International’s interest is to ensure that everyone’s right is protected and that should be the case.

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