Limits to the Exercise of Human Rights: Resolving Lingering Agitations

By Abdullahi Haruna

Human rights are basic entitlements enjoyed by every human being from the moment of conception until death. They are inalienable because they are God-given and ordained, worthy of being respected by all and sundry. However, human society is a complex whole, with natural human inclinations to dominate and subdue, hence, institutions such as the state was birthed to put a measure of control on humans and avoid the Hobbesian concept of the state of nature where life is short, nasty and brutish. Might is not right, thus on the basis of the contract between the state and her citizens, we have Nigeria and other countries of the world today with peculiar laws. To curb human tendencies, there are levels of control, and even the rights, though universally recognized, have their limit by virtue of the law of the land. Human rights are reasonably derogable, and limited by the fact that the society is complex and we all cannot engage in a free for all.

Recently, as if to justify the statement to assert the strength of a state, there have been an onslaught by the government on the camps of agitators. The reasons behind these may not be farfetched, as the polity is already too overheated to continue to harbour dissidents. Insecurity has been the bane of the Nigerian government prior to the emergence of this administration (to be fair to it), however, agitations have never been this loud due to what is perceived as an attempt to sideline all other regions in favour of the North. While there may be justifiable reasons by the agitators, it cannot be said that the approach by some individuals to destabilize an already fragile situation is the best bet. Thus, to restate their commitment to the Constitution under their oaths of office, public officers led by the President must arrest the situation and prevail on the agitators. Where their actions are seen to be detrimental to the peaceful coexistence of the country, necessary and reasonable steps must be taken to bring them to book and seek a better mode of calming all nerves and handling grievances, especially as their rights to express themselves cannot be superior to the rights of the generality of the public.  John Stuart Mill noted as far back as 1859 that “the only purpose for which power can be rightly exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” President John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of America (champion of human rights) had this to say in 1963; “this nation was founded by men of many nations and backgrounds. It was founded on the principle that all men are created equal, and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.”

Every citizen is gifted with the inalienable rights to his aspirations as spelt out in the Nigerian Constitution. That right becomes limited when you fall out of the defined circle, that way, you are stripped of such liberty This includes the right to certain expressions and freedom. The recent clampdown on certain people who dared the authority of the state gives backbone to my assertion. These persons stretched their liberty beyond limits when they embarked on dangerous voyages that undermined the sovereignty of the Nigerian state. They lost the canopy of citizenship when they called for the secession of their regions from the Nigerian state. That day, they ceased to be patriots and became traitors. In response, the Nigerian government helped to define their status and the law of the land was foisted on them and their journey as fugitive was birthed.

Nnamdi Kanu became an infamous guest of the Nigerian state when he was re-arrested and brought back to Nigeria to face the barrage of his incitement, terrorism and other treasonable acts. The only reverence to him is what the law of the land prescribes and without doubt, he is being spoken to in the language of irredentism.

Sunday Igboho had a slim escape from the Nigerian state when they came for him. Years of unmitigated gangsterism and fetish braggadocio came to an embarrassing end when the men of the DSS went for him. He didn’t only run for his life, he left behind his charms in grotesque shame.

Fundamental rights are protected by the Constitution, and it is common sense knowledge that when you want to assert your self-determination it should be based on extant laws. In the instant matter, Kanu has insulted the integrity of the Nation, and has ridiculed Nigeria in the eyes of the world. It is an abuse on Nigerians that while Biafra is yet to succeed, he alongside with his recruits called her citizens including the Igbo people animals living in a zoo. Really uncouth and uncivil vituperation. Like he has not done enough, the Eastern Security Network was established with probably an intention to send the security architecture packing and also destroying government facilities. In a new article on 6th July 2021 credited to Mr. Reno Omokri who has always called for respect of the freedom of expression and association of all irrespective of their religious or ethnic divide, he came to a realization that bulk of the things spewed by Nnamdi Kanu were really demeaning to any well thinking Nigerian. The call for self-determination in any civilized world should not emanate from the barrel of a gun or require the loss of lives.

The Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as amended) makes it abundantly clear in Section 1 (2) that nobody can take over the government or any part thereof except in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution.  For a region with representation in the legislative arm, it is pathetic that rather than seeking or pushing the representative to represent the region better on the floor of the National Assembly and make necessary calls in the interest of the people, one man or a group will claim to hold the strongest opinion of the people within same region and demand what suits his personal interest than that of the masses. Section 2 (1) of the Constitution is as clear as crystal on the indivisibility of the entity called Nigeria, the process of calling for a referendum or restructuring does not require all the puerile displays of emotion currently experienced at different levels in the South West and South East, because until one holds a leadership position, he/she does not get to understand the challenges thereof, especially in a democracy with all its bureaucracies.

More so, if we are in agreement that we are in a democracy and people should enjoy their rights fully, does the Constitution, in the spirit of democracy, not provide how such rights should be exercised? Does it not ensure that all states and constituencies get represented on the floor of the National Assembly? Where do these agitators derive their power to represent the race they claim to represent? If they are in breach of the Constitution, why then do we sing their praise and even demand that they be shielded by the same laws they desecrate? Are their rights as individuals absolute to the detriment of our peaceful co-existence? These and many more are the questions begging for answers.

The truth is age-long and has never been in doubt that there is no absolute freedom. As a matter of fact, freedom of speech, association, self-determination and all others are limited by the freedom of others to enjoy their own rights. So for instance, while peaceful protest is a civil disobedience and acceptable, do you stop other people from going about their lawful activities? Your guess is as good as mine. Little wonder Jean Jacques Rousseau opened his Social Contract Theory by stating that “man is born free but everywhere in chains,” and for him, the way to break out of these chains is to understand that the general will of the people should be sovereign and not any individual interest.

By our system of governance – democracy, the only way this will of the people is expressed is through their elected representatives. Hence, dissuading the people from voting or depriving them of the security provided by the state in a bid to install new architecture loyal to one man impinges on the sovereignty of the nation which as we know rests with the people. This is injustice to all and not just the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces.

Like most things in the world, there is also limits to human rights, because as noted by Akintunde Obilade in his book Legal Method I (2005: 18), factors such as physical, psychological, social and environmental are constraints to absolute enjoyment of rights. In Odogwu v A.G Federation (1999) 6 NWLR (Pt. 455) 508 at 522 paras E-F It was held that “A fundamental human right is a right guaranteed in the Nigerian Constitution, and it is a right which every person is entitled when he is not subject to the disabilities enumerated in the Constitution.” Also in Asemota v Yesufu (1982) 3 NCLR p. 419. Somolu J. held that “fundamental rights enshrined in the 1979 Constitution of Nigeria constitutes a people’s expression of political and civic and or civil rights; but only to the extent that the strictness or largeness of modern system of government does permit.” Also, Section 33 (1) creates a restraint to enjoyment of the fundamental right to life, which is even a sacred gift from God.

Irrespective of the jurisdictional differences of this provision and the global outlook, it remains the extant law of Nigeria until it is deleted. Lord Denning on freedom under the law, 1949 (5) stated that “the freedom of the just man is worth little if he can be preyed upon by the murderer or thief. Every society must have the means to protect itself from marauders. It must have power to arrest, to search, and to imprison those who break the laws. So long as those powers are properly exercised, they are themselves the safeguards of freedom.”

Conclusively, it will be restating the obvious to say that the right to self-determination is guaranteed by local and international treaties and conventions, but attaining statehood has its procedure as far as international law is concerned and it is not by display of weak force. The strength of the state to fight insurgency is unmatched by the agitations in vogue. However, it is the primary responsibility of the government to protect its citizens’ life, property and enthrone fairness and justice over ethnicity, while these concepts together may create a situation of relativism,  the government must be seen to be making deliberate efforts to do that; failure of which leads to diverse agitations. In the words of John F. Kennedy, geography has made us neighbours. History has made us friends, economics has made us partners, and necessity has made us allies. Those whom God has so joined together, let no man put asunder.

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