October 24, 2019

Human Rights

Bringing this first volume of West Africa Insight to an end provides an opportunity for a backward-directed glance at developments so far discussed in the series: what we see are tentative democratic experimentations co-existing uncomfortably with genuine efforts here and there to guarantee political change; remnants of persistent patriarchy are continuing to pose stiff opposition to women’s struggle for liberation; and still straddling the margins of cities are the destitute and homeless whose population has been steadily on the rise.

We also see the cadres of public officials; collectively and singly, they are not effectively addressing sharply declining quality in rural livelihoods, seem hesitant in responding to the challenge of maternal health and infant mortality, are uncertain about how best to deal with illiteracy, and appear confused when confronted with hard data about the human consequences of deforestation and ecological decay.

Questions selected for commentary in this issue should open illuminating window to competing ideas about democratic futures from different perspectives: Within the region, most national parliaments are reluctant to endorse legislations that could mitigate ethnic and class inequalities and improve police behavior; meanwhile, prison conditions leave indelible blot on national records. We are puzzled when courts refuse to apply available legal provisions against arbitrary arrests of citizens by officers of the law, and the holding of suspected criminals for long periods without charge or trial. In many countries torture by law enforcement agencies is considered to be legitimate means of extracting confession from suspects.

Considering all this, it is encouraging to see most countries accepting outside financial and technical support to establish Human Rights Commissions designed to help promote and protect human rights, and to advise governments on policies essential for implantation of the rule of law. The problem here is this; the independence of Commissions remains threatened because executive arms of governments in many countries frequently find it imperative to intervene in the judicial process on matters concerning individual complaints against the state; and, it is not unusual that rights-based organizations are marginalized or banned by the powers from participating in the activities of Commissions.

As it stands, West Africa is at best in slow transition toward the rule of law and respect for human rights. But there are clear signs the momentum can be sustainedafter all, the West itself was slow to accept the idea of human rights: public consciousness now fully accepts that protecting and promoting human rights is ultimately a national task for which each state in the region must be responsible. This may explain why a growing number of credible regional organizations and rights-monitoring units are engaging public officials in their advocacy at the grassroots, national, and international levels.

Protagonist of change envisage a West Africa in which all states voluntarily accept scrutiny of their stewardship, monitor and assume responsibility for human rights conditions in their territoriesmake existing human rights bodies effective, and develop new ones. They want a future West Africa with states unanimous in the commitment to human dignity and to the institutions giving effect to this idea.

Okon Akiba

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