Historical Antecedents of Human Rights in Nigeria


Historical Antecedents of Human Rights in Nigeria

Nigeria did not have to fight a war to gain independence from the British. As a matter of fact it was proclaimed that independence was given to us on a “platter of gold”. Equally so, we did not have to demand or fight a war for entrenchment of human rights in our Constitution.

There was never a Lord Coke to press for anything of the soil.

There was no John Somers and no parliamentary wrangling. What the minority ethnic groups demanded was the right to self-determination which they believe could offer them an escape route from the tyranny of the majority ethnic groups in the regions.

The Commissions that investigated their fears went out of its way to recommend the entrenchment of fundamental palliative as a safeguard against alleged oppressive conduct

At the end of the post, you should be able to explain the historical antecedent of Human Rights in Nigeria, identify the evolution of human rights from independence

Constitution of 1960 to the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria and identify the various ways in which the court has aided the entrenchment of the provisions of fundamental Human Rights in our various Constitutions.


Backgrounds of Human Rights in Nigeria

Historical Antecedents of Human Rights in Nigeria

The entrenchment of fundamental human rights in Nigeria in the modern sense could however be traced to the 1960 Independence Constitution and those that followed. The Independence Constitution of 1960 and the Republican Constitution of 1963 have provisions for the protection of fundamental human rights.

The clamour for human rights in Nigeria dates back to the Colonial days before Nigeria attained independence in 1960. Colonialism was planted in Nigeria through three prong attacks:

In 1861, Lagos settlement wad ceded by King Dosumu of Lagos to the British, the Sokoto Emirate had been acquired by conquest, while the rest of the country was subtly acquired by the British through bilateral transfer of friendship and protectorate. 

Much later the acquired provinces of Northern and southern Nigeria were amalgamated by Lord Lugard in 1914 and this brought under one government the various elements which now constitute Nigeria.

Since the emergence of the geographical entity known as Nigeria, it has had several Constitutions. Some of were fostered on her while others were fashioned with the participation of the diverse interests in Nigeria.

The Cliford Constitution of 1922, like the ones that were to follow it, was entirely a Colonial Constitution designed to achieve specific objectives. None of the other pre-independence constitutions was designed with any formal or conscious objective to safeguard human rights.

Indeed, it would have been most interesting to see how a constitution with human rights provisions would have been fashioned at a time slavery, forced labour international discrimination and restriction of movement were legitimate instruments in the lands of colonial administrators not only in Nigeria, but all over Africa.

For example in most of Colonial Africa including Nigeria, European reserves were a no- go area to African natives except for cooks, stewards and domestic help. European clubs were exclusive for whites and admission to black natives was prohibited.

The Nigeria (Legislative Council) order-in-Council of 1946 was principally aimed at bringing the whole of Nigeria under one Legislative jurisdiction. The Nigeria (Constitution) order in-Council of 1951 was concerned essentially with the introduction of representative democracy into Nigeria’s body polity. 

The system of governance tacitly embraced the principle of self-determination, which the United Nations, in its charter of six year earlier, had adopted.

Nigeria forged ahead in Constitutional development, and with the various nationalist of the time, agitating for self – government, the need to introduce some elements of human rights into the country’s constitution gained prominence.

One factor which prompted this was the heterogeneous nature of the country and the fear of the minority that their survival would be threatened in a country dominated by three major tribes – the Hausa, Igbo, and the Yoruba.

The minorities therefore, urged the British Colonial government to allay their fears by the creation of state for them before independence was granted.

The British government’s response was the minority commission under the chairmanship of sir Henry Willinks with a mandate to ascertain the facts about the fears of the minorities and suggest means of allying those fears. The Commission did not, surprisingly, recommend the creation of more states. 

Rather it recommended the entrenchment of fundamental rights provision in the Constitution, even though the commission observed that such provisions would be difficult to enforce and sometimes difficult to interpret.

In spite of its observation, the Commission went ahead to recommend the provisions largely in its view that:

“Their presence defined beliefs widespread among democratic countries and provides a standard to which appeal may be made by those whose rights are infringed ….a government determined to abandon democratic courses will find ways of violating them but they are of great nature in preventing a steady deterioration in standards of freedom and the unobtrusive encroachment of a government on individual rights.”

The above was the basis for the inclusion of fundamental rights in Nigeria independence Constitution of 1960.

One may observe that by opting for the inclusion of fundamental rights in the country’s constitution rather than create more states at that time, the British government tactfully left a legacy of agitation for the budding independent state.

As Prof J. D. Ojo observed: “Only the threat of succession by the Eastern Region forced Nigeria, in a panic mood, to split the country into 12 states on 27 May 1967.”

The fundamental rights provisions in the 1960 independence Constitution was contained in Chapter III of that Constitution.

Sections 17 to 32. The full text of that chapter is similar in every respect to what was contained in the Bill of rights first adopted as the sixth schedule to the Nigerian (Constitution) order-in-Council, 1954 to 1958.

However, only 12 out of the 16 sections in that chapter positively recognized certain rights for protection.

These are:

1.   Deprivation of life   -  section 17

2.   Inhuman Treatment -  section 18

3.   Slavery and Forced Labour -  section 19

4.   Deprivation of Personal Liberty -  section 20

5.   Determination of Right -  section 21

6.   Private and Family Life  -  section 22

7.   Freedom of Conscience  -  section 23

8.   Freedom of Expression  -  section 24

9.   Peaceful Assembly and Association-  section  25

10. Freedom of Movement  -  section 26

11. Freedom from Discrimination -  section 27

12. Compulsory Acquisition of Property - section  30

These rights have since then generally remained the same in substance except for minor alterations in arrangement, nomenclature and amplification here and there. 

For example, in the independence Constitution of 1960 and the Republican Constitution of 1963, the right summarily referred to as the right against “Inhuman Treatment” has been altered to read the “Right to Dignity of the Human Person” in the 1979 and 1999 versions of the Nigeria Constitution. 

Also in 1963, fundamental rights were inserted in chapter III of the Republic Constitution, whereas under the 1979 and 1999 Constitution, the insertions are in chapter four. These changes in the arrangement do not affect the substance of the rights themselves.


Conclusion on Historical Antecedents of Human Rights in Nigeria

For Nigeria the Willinks Commission set up in 1958 by the British Colonial Government to look into the demands of the minorities recommended the adoption of some of the norms of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights into the Nigeria Constitution as a panacea for fears expressed by the minority groups in the country.

These norms were adopted and introduced into chapter III of the independence Constitution of 1960 as Fundamental Rights. These were subsequently entrenched in the 1963, 1979 and the 1999 constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

In fact with the exception of just two, all the Articles of the Declaration found their way into the 1999 Constitution either as fundamental Rights in chapter 4 or Directive principles of state policy in chapter 2.

Deliberations on Human rights Issues during the 1979 and 1999  Constitutional debate revolved around the intricacies of imposing economic and social rights as legal as against moral obligations on the government.

It appeared that the Legal recognition of social and economic rights is an economic burden which the dominant and ruling elite in the country is most unwilling to shoulder.

You have learnt in this article about, the history of Human Rights in Nigeria and how the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nation in 1948 impacted positively on the Constitutional development of Human Rights in Nigeria.

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