What is a Nigerian life worth and what premium do the authorities put on the life of a Nigerian? It is trite to affirm that human rights are for the living and one has to be alife to claim any of the rights stated in the Constitution and other laws. It is also imperative to point out that extinguishing the right to life is a final and irreversible decision that cannot be compensated for by any form of apology, damages or rhetoric. The right is considered so sacrosanct by civilised humanity that many jurisdictions have abolished capital punishment, even for offences like murder.
Recent developments in Nigeria point to a state where the authorities and the people have lost their bearing on treating life with the respect it urgently deserves. A couple of months ago in Zaria, it was the military killing hundreds of Shiites as detailed by the testifier who stated that he buried over 300 civilians murdered in cold blood by soldiers paid with tax payer’s money to protect civilians. What was the reason for the killings; a misunderstanding which could have been sorted out without shedding blood. Before we could get over the Zaria killings, the herdsmen struck in Agatu, later Enugu and in different communities and the harvest was as the music legend Fela Kuti would say – sorrows tears and blood. A couple of days ago, some Nigerians were murdered by religious bigots in Niger State for allegedly blaspheming their religion and then the beheading of Mrs Bridget Agbaheme in Kano by another set of misguided religious zealots for alleged blasphemy. Again, unarmed Nigerian exercising their right to freedom of expression, movement and association were killed by soldiers and the police across the states in the South East of Nigeria for holding rallies to celebrate the Biafra day.
Let us attempt to situate these deprivations of the right to life within the context of the law. The beginning point is to analyse what laws and policies state about the right to life. Section 33 of the 1999 Constitution provides that every person shall have a right to life and no one shall be deprived intentionally of his life, save in the execution of the sentence of a court in respect of a criminal offence of which he has been found guilty in Nigeria. The section contains a proviso detailing the circumstances under which the right may be lawfully derogated from. It states that a person shall not be regarded as having been deprived of his life in contravention of this section, if he dies as the result of the use, to such extent and in such circumstances as are permitted by law, of such force as is reasonably necessary for the defence of any person from unlawful violence or for the defence of property. Other extenuating circumstances include the effecting of a lawful arrest or to prevent the escape of a person lawfully detained or for the purpose of suppressing a riot, insurrection and mutiny.
In the killings orchestrated by agents of the state, there is no evidence that they can be justified under any of the exceptions to the general rule in section 33 of the Constitution. Whether it was in Zaria or the South East, no court of law ordered that fellow Nigerians be executed; there was no trial leading to a sentence of death and the deprivations of the right were intentional. Causing death in defence of unlawful violence, property, suppressing a riot, insurrection and mutiny is not a wild card given by law to any person including the security agencies. It must be scrutinized within the context of finding out if the deceased died as the result of the use, to such extent and in such circumstances as are permitted by law, of such force as is reasonably necessary in the circumstances. Thus, this brings out the proportionality and or reasonableness rule in measuring the force or violence used by the security personnel against the threat they faced in carrying out their duty.
Did anyone shoot at the police or the army? Nigerians need to know and the security personnel need to provide evidence to justify the number of people they killed. The burden to prove that they were attacked and they had to “defend themselves” is on the agencies and persons that thought it was within their lawful remit to take the life of others without acting on the authority of a judicial decision. Therefore, it can never be justifiable and it is outside the contemplation of the constitution, as happened in the South East for soldiers and police men to use live bullets to seek to disperse a rally of unarmed men and women who were exercising their fundamental right to gather and express themselves. All the pictures and videos that came out of the rallies never showed any armed men and women in the rallies. Thus, the force deployed by the army and the police were unreasonable and disproportionate to the task of dispersing a rally.
Wait a minute, when did holding a rally to remember Biafra become a criminal offence in Nigeria? I would love to be informed by the security agencies what section of the criminal or penal code that is violated by the remembrance rally. And whether such section of the penal law (if any) can stand against the clear provisions of the constitution vis, the rights to peaceful assembly and association, freedom of movement and freedom of expression. In civilised societies where the law enforcement agencies are well trained and cultured, they protect rallies and demonstrations, maintain a reasonable distance but ensure that they do not disturb the rights of others. They do not start ab initio to disperse the rallies including reports that people were arrested in church premises in Ebonyi State as they marked the day.
This is not the first time that the media has reported about soldiers and the police violently dispersing rallies around the Biafran theme and in the process, killing innocent unarmed civilians. It has gone on for too long and needs to stop. It seems the state sanctioned unlawful killings fuels and gives vent to those who take the laws into their hands; whether it is the herdsmen or those who kill in the name of their god. It is the same shedding of innocent blood and the same violation of the constitutional right to life. The government needs to have a rethink and call the security personnel to order. There is the need for speedy investigation and bringing to justice those who killed fellow Nigerians in Kano and Niger states to serve as a deterrent to others who may wish to take the laws into their hands in future. An independent judicial panel set up by the Federal Government is required to investigate the killings in the South East; ascertain with verifiable evidence the circumstances that led to the death of the deceased, provide remedies to victims of violations and reinforce the ground rules for engaging rallies and demonstrations by the police and armed forces. This is a minimum demand after close to 17 years of civil rule. We cannot be engaging the reverse gear at a time we are expected to move forward. In conclusion, if the Nigerian legal system fails to provide remedies for victims of severe human rights violations, the resort to the International Criminal Court may be the only feasible alternative.
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