By William Ikhinosimhe Orbih.
Fellow Nigerians, there is an urgent issue we need to address as a nation. We need to address this issue, lest we perish for failure to. Amid so much violence and incessant killings, poverty and unnecessary suffering of the overwhelming majority, oppression, and marginalization of minorities, it is high time we talked about the state of human rights in Nigeria before we degenerate fully into a lawless society.
The time has come for us to come together and discuss the way forward as a nation, as far as respect for human rights is concerned. The time has come for us to tackle head-on the prevalence of human rights abuses in Nigeria. The time has come for us to stand up for the human rights of every human being in Nigeria, irrespective of tribe, tongue, sex, age, religion, socio-cultural and economic background.
We cannot go on like this. We cannot continue to pretend that everything is okay. We cannot continue to have government officials who steal our common patrimony and go scot-free, with the audacity to flaunt their ill-gotten wealth.
We cannot continue to turn a blind eye to the awful reality of the prevalence of discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation, religion, and ethnicity in Nigeria. We cannot continue to ignore the oppression and marginalization of women in Nigeria.
As citizens, we have fundamental human rights guaranteed by the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. The question, however, is, how aware is the average Nigerian of these human rights? How committed are we as a nation to ensuring that the basic rights of every Nigerian are respected? And most importantly, what changes do we need to make to guarantee the protection of the rights of the poorest and most vulnerable members of society?
Usually, there are two starting points for a discussion on human rights. The first is ascertaining which among the many human rights should be considered fundamental. While the right to life is unanimously considered the most basic right, often, the rights to liberty and economic sustenance are also considered fundamental.
The rights to life, liberty, and sustenance, taking as a collective, means that no one has to live without life’s basic amenities. It means that citizens do not have to live with perpetual fear for the safety of their lives and properties. It means that people can travel without the fear of being kidnapped.
It means that workers work without the fear of suddenly losing their employment and being immediately reduced to penury. Sadly, none of the above is the case in Nigeria today. The rights of most Nigerians to life, liberty, and sustenance are simply constantly ignored by the government at all levels.
In its yearly “Freedom in the World” survey, Freedom House ranks Nigeria as being only “partially free.” On a scale of 1 (most free) to 7 (least free), Nigeria scored 4 in Political Rights and 5 in Civil Liberties, for the 2020 report. Most people will argue that Nigeria is far worse than this statistic indicates.
The second starting point to the discussion on human rights pertains to finding the ground for human rights. Are human rights self-evident and grounded in human beings’ inherent nature, or are they conferred by an external authority such as the state? What makes us so certain of the universality and inviolability of human rights? By extension, can a human being ever cease to have rights?
For us Christians, we believe that human rights are grounded in the inherent human dignity of every human being. One fundamental doctrine in the Judeo-Christian tradition is that we are created in God’s image and likeness.
Genesis 1: 27 speaks of the creation of the human being in the imago dei. According to this scriptural passage, the human being is the crown of creation and has the responsibility of care over the rest of creation. This is the starting point of Christian anthropology and ethics. This is the reason why human life is inviolable and sacred. This is the reason abortion is an abomination.
Christian anthropology does not, however, stop at this doctrine of the imago dei but goes ahead to assert the incarnation and redemptive work of Christ. By his incarnation, life, death, and resurrection, Christ has revealed, restored human dignity, and most importantly, elevated human nature to eternal glory.
One of the four constitutions of the Second Vatican Council; Gadium et Spes, speaks of the sublime dignity of human persons, and thus, the universality and inviolability of human rights. According to the document, based on their sublime dignity, human beings “ought, therefore to have ready access to all that is necessary for living a genuinely human life:
for example, food, clothing, housing, the right freely to choose their state of life and set up a family, the right to education, work, to their good name, to respect, to proper knowledge, the right to act according to the dictates of conscience and to safeguard their privacy, and rightful freedom, including freedom of religion” (paragraph 26).
In this very elaborate paragraph, Vatican II seemingly lists many of the different human rights. A more elaborate listing of human rights is perhaps that which is contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which Pope John Paul II famously praised as “one of the highest expressions of the human conscience of our time.”
The highly acclaimed UDHR document, which the UN General Assembly adopted on 10 December 1948, contains 30 articles in which the different basic rights and fundamental freedom of all human beings are enumerated and expounded.
The document affirmed the universal right to life and to liberty and the fundamental equality of every human being. As the first article puts it, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” It is based on this fundamental equality that it prohibits the demonic institution of slavery in whatever form or manifestation. It also asserted the freedom of speech, movement, and association, whether political or religious. It also affirmed the right to economic sustenance, basic healthcare, education, and the means of self-actualization in general.
One Lacuna in this otherwise breakthrough document is its inability to specify the ground for their asserting that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. Is the fundamental equality of human beings evident in nature? Are human beings not gifted with different levels of skills and ability? Are there not physically and mentally challenged people in our world?
To this complex issue, Christian philosophy answers that it is the possession of human nature that makes all human beings fundamentally equal. As Jacque Maritain, Catholic philosopher and one of the experts who drafted the UDHR, explains, the belief in the fundamental equality of human beings is based on natural law.
Natural law is thus the philosophical basis of human rights, and it is based on the understanding that all human beings possess human nature. As Aquinas asserts, “all human beings are equally made in the image and likeness of God.”
In other words, Aquinas locates the imago Dei in human nature itself. This resounds the teaching of St. Augustine, who believed that human beings reflect the nature of God, precisely, the triune nature and that they do this by the threefold faculties of the soul: memoria, intellectus, amor.
In Nigeria today, it has become crucial to emphasize that the inherent dignity and fundamental equality of all human beings are the basis for human rights. Individuals do not have rights because they belong to the majority race, tribe, or religion.
They have rights because they belong to the universal human family. Religious and ethnic minorities have rights which must be respected. A Christian in majority Muslim society has rights that must be respected, so does a Muslim in a predominantly Christian society.
Similarly, individuals do not have rights because they possess physical strength, intellectual acumen, immense wealth and riches, or social status. Contrary to what Thrasymachus famously asserted, might is not right, whatever that “might” may consist of. Human beings have rights simply because they are human beings who have been created in the image and likeness of God.
Human rights are not conferred on citizens by a benevolent government or even by international agencies such as the UN. Rather, it is the duty of government and all agencies, local and international, to ensure that God-given and nature-endowed human rights are respected and protected everywhere. As Fela, the musician, masterfully puts it, “human rights na my property; so therefore, you can’t dash me my property.”
Finally, human dignity, which confers on humans fundamental rights, is never lost, not even when individuals commit heinous crimes. Cain retained his right to life, even after he murdered his brother Abel. Criminals have rights. Right now, it does not seem as if the Nigerian Prison system recognizes this.
*First Published in The Good Shepherd Newspaper