Nigeria confronts combined challenges in the protection of human rights and delivery of governance that easily present opportunities for transformative leadership. On the auspicious occasion of the International Human Rights Day commemorated every December 10, those in positions of leadership in the country have an obligation to reflect on these challenges, re-imagine our approaches to them and reassure Nigerians that we care enough about their best interests to involve everyone fully in the search for durable solutions to these problems.
The United Nations General Assembly instituted the International Human Rights Day in 1950 to commemorate the adoption in December 1948 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In commemoration of this day, the UN identifies annually a unifying theme around which activities are organised.
With a focus on inclusion and participation in 2012, the International Human Rights Day honours and affirms the work of all persons around the world working to end discrimination in any shape or form. For us in Nigeria, this theme has remarkable resonance in big and small ways.
A country with over 380 ethnic, national and linguistic groups, as well as diversities of faith and sect, we seem collectively determined to manufacture a liability from the unique asset that is our diversity. Across the country, the one thing that unites Nigerians today is a shared persecution complex and a Catholic sense of marginalization on narrow identity terms.
Several decades of unaccountable rule have largely rendered public institutions irrelevant to ordinary citizens and our communities. With impunity writ large, we now inhabit a vigilante society in which those who cannot buy or rent security must find some means to protect themselves or risk paying with their lives for being unable to do so. To many people, it now seems that only those who carry guns or threaten to do so are heard, seen or listened to.
Narrow identity is becoming the only metric and mechanism of protection. Inter-communal, inter-ethnic and sectarian conflicts daily claim lots of Nigerian lives with brutal and gruesome regularity.
Once celebrated cities, such as Jos and Kaduna, have become by-words for identity-based bloodletting, with different identities garrisoned behind intangible yet impenetrable lines of bad memory. Integrated commercial cities such as Kano and Maiduguri tank under interminable siege from combined forces of nihilism and its would-be exterminators.
Increasingly, the only minority of any significance is the Nigerian and the only place for the wannabe Nigerian is exile. We have become a country of polarities. Indigenes and settlers; northerners and southerners; easterners and westerners; few haves and majority have-nots; militants and bombers; Christians and Muslims; male abusers and abused female spouses; rulers and subjects; oil-producers and oil (revenue) suckers; not to mention a motley crowd of ethnicities.
All these identities are framed in such a way as to exclude rather than unite; to diminish our collective humanity, rather than emphasise, claim or celebrate it.
In this context, it surely seems hopelessly foolish to seek to confront discrimination or to face it down. Many would say this is a fool’s errand for those who have to deal with the evil of Improvised Explosive Devices or the desolation that follows in their wake. Two reasons suggest that we have no other choice.
First, the real story of Nigeria is almost certainly not the enormity of our challenges but the fact that the challenges are not much worse. Around the country daily, quiet heroes and heroines go uncelebrated in acts of exceptional humanism and bravery – a man in Kaduna facing down his sect to save a woman from near certain death in the hands of apostles of hate giving the Almighty a bad name; neighbours in Lagos braving the unknown to save a woman from blood-letting in the hands of a poor specimen of a man and a bad excuse for a husband; Christians and Muslims in Kano taking turns to protect one another in their places of worship from agents of a god unknown to all persons of true faith; a family in Onitsha rescuing children from hateful abuse and setting them up for life with free education without asking for a refund; elderly women in Ubima rallying around with their wrappers to protect the dignity, health and child of a poor would-be mother cramping with labour pains in the middle of the local market. A young, improbable survivor of mass bombing in Abuja deciding that she will help to heal others with her experience rather than wallow in enforced disability. These and similar examples of our shared values and common bonds are what the world asks us to remember, acknowledge and celebrate on the International Human Rights Day in 2012.
Second, if we are unable to re-capture, celebrate or institutionalise these acts of shared investment in our common humanity, we will not be able to face down those who would blow us apart – pun intended – with IEDs or those who would wish to serve up collective reprisal for the cowardly acts of hateful nihilists or zealots on a mis-cue. Only by doing so can we forge the common cause among communities, institutions, political leaders and friends and partners of Nigeria internationally that will be required to re-discover the sense that Nigeria’s future is not already behind us.
This International Human Rights Day, therefore, serves up a huge to-do menu for Nigeria, its people and our leaders. We have to find a common memory of shared values; a common narrative for a shared country. A Nigerian history project that celebrates the contributions of all of the country’s diversities would help. In the ongoing process of constitutional amendment, we must address the issue and meaning of citizenship in Nigeria and agree on a national commitment to equal opportunities backed up by adequate institutional guarantees. We must find ways to end impunity for crimes, big and small, including crimes of violence as well as grand corruption and plunder.
Above all, on the foothills of a new general election cycle in just over two years, we must agree that all votes must count and be counted equally, for this is the most effective way to guarantee inclusion, participation and non-discrimination. A country that cannot count votes, is almost always also unable to count its people or their money.