Mfonobong Inyang: Standing Up For Human Rights; Why Nigerian Lives Must Matter
The United Nations commemorates Human Rights Day every 10th December and this year’s theme is: Recover Better – Stand Up for Human Rights. While the better part of 2020 has been plagued by the coronavirus, it has also exposed, on a more significant level, the inequalities, systemic discrimination and encroachment of liberties around the world. The road to recovery for the world from this pandemic isn’t solely medical but is, perhaps, more importantly hinged on effective social re-engineering.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” As if echoing the words of Martin Luther King in a literal sense, more than ever before, people all over the world are becoming conscious of our shared humanity – people in one end of the globe stood, marched, protested and lent their voices to social injustices in other parts of the globe. A powerful reminder that we don’t have to experience things first-hand in other to join forces with those people or communities that suffer unjustly.
We Hold these Truths to be Self-Evident
The United States, a country that many others have modeled their democracies after, long ago reached an inflection point where it realized that until the fundamental rights and liberties of its people are guaranteed and protected, there is nothing else of significance that can be achieved. If we’re going to adopt that system of government, we may as well go the full nine yards and live by its tenets – we must show that we’re not disguising or caught in the famous George Orwell’s maxim where some people are more equal than others.
“Nothing Will Happen!”
If there is any phrase that summarizes pockets of impunity in this country, I can’t think of another that tops this. The dehumanization of citizens that occurs under the guise of law enforcement and correction is unimaginable. When the voices of certain unscrupulous elements who move and operate with a sadistic confidence that justice will not be served and there would be no consequences for wrongdoing, become louder, we need to pause and reassess the strength of the rule of law as currently constituted. The potency of the rule of law is tested by how well it protects the vulnerable from the undue advantage wielded by the powerful.
Lives Not Numbers
The death of a single person regardless of socio-economic status, age, gender or race is a disaster in itself because human capital is the greatest asset known. Once we start degrading its importance by handling it as a commodity, we’re already skating on thin ice. Comments like “only x people died” shows how insensitive most people can be.
Even worse, some elements indulge in the despicable habit of politicizing death tolls by weaponizing inaccurate reporting or trying to gaslight people about fatalities. Not only do their families have to deal with the tragic loss of a loved one, now they also have to deal with the disrespectful narrative that their loved ones never existed. Just as we see with victim-shaming, we dance on the graves of the dead when we suggest that they were responsible for their own deaths.
About Axe-heads and Wooden Handles
I limited my use of this metaphor to politics until I started to grasp its broader applications. It speaks to ‘trees’ who have a parochial view of the destruction the axe wrecks on their community. Their attention is usually fixated on the axe-head and not the wooden handle who is also one of ‘them’. In plain terms, for every crime against humanity, there are the actual perpetrators and then there are enablers. Examples are replete of cases where an ecosystem supports a wrongdoing, most times not actively but by deafening silence. This is why, in today’s world, it’s no longer sexy to keep quiet about the things you don’t endorse.
This ecosystem, as far as I am concerned, are as culpable as the perpetrators. This support also comes in form of intellectual dishonesty and cognitive dissonance, where people practically try to defend the indefensible and rationalise irreprehensible behaviour. It is also comes in forms of institutional sentiments where culture, religion, ethnicity, partisan affiliation and other trivialities are prioritized over legality and moral aberrations. Then there is the ‘merciful messiah model’ where a person or group of persons with some influence decide to play god and let the culprit off with a slap on the wrist. Essentially choosing to maintain status quo over getting justice for the victim(s).
We Men and Women
It is no coincidence that the 16 days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence wraps up beautifully with the Human Rights Day because women rights are human rights. While violence is being perpetrated against both genders, empirical data shows that women are disproportionately violated in a panoply of ways. This point is further highlighted by the spike in recorded cases of violence against women in a pandemic year where lockdowns were/are part of the Nonpharmaceutical Interventions (NPIs) in certain places, thereby forcing longer periods of social contact.
To grasp how bad things are against women on this side of the Atlantic, you wonder how what a women wears is more likely to earn her a beating from those who have become ‘fashion police’ or cause ‘outrage’ on social media than news of the gruesome loss of lives. The average Nigerian woman is constantly exposed to social vitriolic, physical and emotional harm. Leading comedians had to come out and call for an end to jokes about sexual violence because the joke is never funny.
So the rallying cry is that more men will not only become more responsible but also become advocates against these ills. Going forward, we need to amplify the call for global action to bridge funding gaps, ensure essential services for survivors of violence during the COVID-19 crisis, focus on prevention, and collection of data that can improve life-saving services for women and girls.
Integrity of Institutions
One of the places to start the conversation on human rights is to address the role of gatekeepers, whether formal or informal. Institutions must necessarily become bigger than the ego, sentiments, whims and caprices of any person or group of persons. The Lady Justice typifies this principle because she is blind to any bias but delivers judgement solely on the merits of each case. Once institutions are not independent, turn partisan or become skewed, they become impotent to protect the rights and liberties of the people.
The thing about democracy anywhere is that it is only as strong as the willingness of the people who fight for it. Nothing is guaranteed because its tenets or dividends are not served à la carte. The summary is that the inalienable rights of every Nigerian as entrenched in the constitution should be respected and that includes, but not limited to, the right to live, right to free speech, right to own property, right to peaceful assembly and protest, right to self-determination, and so on. When we have these important conversations and commit to sensible resolutions, perhaps we can begin to conject what the worth of a Nigerian life is.
“To deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity” – Nelson Mandela.