Overview of certain Fundamental Rights in Nigeria

Overview of certain Fundamental Rights in Nigeria

Right to Life

The right to life is most fundamental to every human being, and it is usually the first right guaranteed by every human rights instrument. Under the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, every person has a right to life, and no one shall be deprived intentionally of his life, save in execution of the sentence of a court in respect of a criminal offence of Which he has been found guilty in Nigeria.[1]

Furthermore, a person shall not be regarded as having been deprived of his life in contravention of the aforesaid section, if he dies as a result of the use, to such extent and in such circumstances as are permitted by law, of such force as is reasonably necessary for the defence of any person from unlawful violence or for the defence of property; in order to effect a lawful arrest or to prevent the escape of a person lawfully detained, or for the purpose of suppressing a riot, insurrection or mutiny.[2]

It is obvious from the foregoing that the right to life is not absolute. In specific circumstances as stated above, it may be lawful to take a person’s life. The cases of Ndubuisi v The State,[3] and Eze v The State,[4] are instructive. Here the Supreme Court held that death penalty is not inconsistent with section 33(1) of the 1999 Constitution.

Besides death penalty, some permissible limitations are embodied in section 33(2) of the I999 Constitution where intentional killing is lawful in the specific circumstances.[5] The propriety of these permissible limitations of right to life remains questionable especially killing in defence of property. Property cannot be valued more than life. Life is so fundamental and treated with sanctity in most cultures of the world that it should not be traded with property.

The right to life of a person should only be qualified in defence of the life of another, and for the security of the state. More so, the force applied must be absolutely necessary. In the case of Ahmed v The State,[6]  the accused appealed against a death sentence, arguing that he acted in defence of property. Disallowing the appeal, the court stated that granted the accused so acted, the force and weapons used were quite disproportional to the nature of the property.

Although the courts have maintained a stout posture in defence of the citizen’s right to life, the executive arm of government has often desecrated this sacred right as in the case of Bello v. A-G of Oyo State.[7] Here the accused had a pending appeal against his death sentence in the Federal Court of Appeal. He was prematurely executed by the Oyo State Government before the determination of his appeal. The appeal was supposed to operate as a stay of execution. In awarding damages against the State Government, the court remarked that the action was a reckless disregard for the life and liberty of the subject. In the absence of an appeal, the death penalty would constitute a lawful limitation of the right to life.

However, there are several instances of abuse of right to life where the culprits are either not known or the alleged culprits are treated with impunity. The human rights record of the Nigerian Government has remained poor as it has continued to commit serious abuses. The security forces especially the police have committed extrajudicial killings and used excessive force to apprehend criminal suspects, and to quell some protests. There have also been several politically-motivated killings by unknown persons. Freelance security forces also account for a portion of the extrajudicial killings in different parts of the country.

 Rights to Dignity of Human Person

The right to life and the right to dignity of human person described in State v Mankwanyane[8] as twin rights are essential content of all rights under the Constitution. The right to dignity of human person is guaranteed under section 34 of the 1999 Constitution thus:

(1) Every individual is entitled to respect for the dignity of his person, and accordingly

  1. no person shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment
  2. no person shall be held in slavery or servitude, and
  3. no person shall be required to perform forced or compulsory a labour.

Despite the prohibition of such abuses as contained in the foregoing provision, the police, military and other security officers regularly beat protesters, criminals, suspects, detainees and convicted prisoners.

Most prisons built many years ago lack functioning basic facilities, lack of potable water, inadequate sewage facilities and severe overcrowding, which result in unhealthy and dangerous sanitary conditions. Some prisons held 200 to 300 percent more persons than their designed capacity.

However, the courts have always stood to uphold the right to dignity of the human person in cases of abuse which are brought before it The Nigerian cases of Bassey & anor v Akpan & ors[9] and Mogaji v. Board of Customs & Excise[10] are quite promotional of this right. In Mogaji case, it was held that to organise a raid using guns, horse whips and tar-gas on the merchants is a violation of the right to dignity of human person.

Suffice it to stress that not every indecent (especially unintended) act could offend the dignity of human person. For instance, bodily contacts and pushing in moments of universal gaiety and in public gatherings can hardly entitle a person to enforce his right to dignity. Likewise, vulgar abuse cannot amount to inhuman or degrading treatment. In Uzokuu v Ezeonu II,[11] the court held that mere vulgar abuse does not constitute inhuman and or degrading treatment.

The limited scope of the provision of the right to dignity to human person narrows the latitude of the enjoyment of a person’s right to dignity. The provision pertains only to acts directed towards the physical beings. Most acts which are not within the contemplation of the provision such as vulgar abuse, poor condition of the prison facility and forceful extraction of confessional statements affect the mental being.

The resulting psychological trauma, lack of confidence and self-defeat is worse than the effect of beating and compulsory labour. There is need therefore, to enlarge the operational scope to cover every conceived act of degrading or inhuman: treatment whether physical or mental.

Right to Personal Liberty

The right to personal liberty has been defined as the freedom of every law-abiding citizen to think what he will, to say what he will on lawful occasions without lot or hindrance from any other person.[12]

The right to personal liberty is provided in the Constitution.[13] It stipulates that no person shall be deprived of his liberty except in the execution of a lawful order of a court, for purposes of bringing a person before a court on reasonable suspicion of his having committed an offence; in the case of a minor, for purposes of his education or welfare; and for purposes of preventing unlawful entry into Nigeria of an unwanted alien.

The provision guarantees good treatment and prompt discharge when a person is denied his liberty for any of the above reasons. For example, an arrested person has a right to remain silent and to consult a counsel of his choice. He is also entitled to be informed, in the language he understands, of the reason for his arrest, and shall be brought before a court of law within a reasonable time. The person arrested is also entitled to compensation and public apology if the arrest is unlawful.[14]

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The court in plethora of cases particularly in the case of Okafor v Lagos state government & anor[15] held that the right to personal liberty is not an absolute right. It is a right that can be limited in circumstances set out in Section 35 (1)(a)(f) of the 1999 constitution. Also in the case of DSSS Zamfara State Command & ors V Mohammad & ors[16] and Adeboye & ors v Saheeto International ltd & ors[17] held that the 1999 constitution of Nigeria while guaranteeing the citizen’s right to person liberty under section 35 thereof also provides for circumstances in which the said right may be curtailed by law upon reasonable suspicion that a person has committed a criminal offence. In the case of Isiyaku & anor v COP Yobe state & ors[18] held that it is not the arrest and detention of a person on a reasonable suspicion of having committed an offence that constitutes the violation of his fundamental right to personal liberty. It is the unreasonableness of the length of period of detention.

Right to Fair Hearing

The right to fair hearing is elaborately enshrined in the 1999 Constitution encompassing both the substantive right and the safeguards. The right to fair hearing entails not only hearing a party on any issue which could be resolved to his prejudice but also ensuring that that is fair and in accordance with the twin pillars of justice namely audi alteram partem and nemo judex in causa sua.

The essential elements of fair hearing include easy access to court, the right to be heard, the impartiality of adjudicating process, the principle of nemo judex in causa sua, and whether there was inordinate delay in delivery judgement.[19]

The right to fair hearing is one of the fundamental rights guaranteed to all persons in Nigeria, which cannot be derogated from by any person, institution or government. No person should preside or determine on a dispute that affects his interest.  The court in the case of Asuquo v Eshiet[20] held that the breach of a right to fair hearing occurs when the opportunity is denied to a party in court to state his case.

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Also, the court in another case of Elukpo v Kaduna State Development & Property Co ltd & ors[21]held that the right to fair hearing is constitutional, the denial of which in any proceedings by a court of law would render such proceedings a nullity. When dealing with the right of fair hearing according to the law envisages that both parties to a legal proceeding of a court of law are given opportunity to present their case without let or hindrance, from the beginning to the end.

The court in the case of S&D Construction co ltd v Ayoku & anor[22] held that the basic attribute of fair hearing include (a) that the court shall hear both sides not only in the case but also on all material issues in the case before reaching a decision which may be prejudiced to any party in the case (b) that the court or tribunal gives equal treatment, opportunity and consideration to all concerned. (c) that the proceedings shall be heard in public and all concerned shall be informed of and have access to such place of hearing (d) that having regard to at circumstances in every material decision in the case justice must not only be done but must manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to have been done.

The court in the case of EZE V FRN[23] held that the right to fair hearing is not a one way traffic. It should be open and accessible to both parties to the plaintiff for an expeditious hearing of his case and to the defendant a reasonable opportunity of defending the action against him. It further held the right to fair hearing can be waived.

Thus where a court has given every opportunity to be heard but that party decides not to utilize it, he will not be deemed to have waived the right, hence he cannot be heard to complain that his right to fair hearing was breached. This rule applies equally to an accused person refusing in a criminal trial to utilize the opportunity of fair hearing given to him.

[1] The Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (CFRN) 1999, section 33(1)

[2] Ibid, Section 33(2)(a)-(c)

[3] (2018) LPELR-SC.488/2015

[4] (2018) LPELR-SC.487/2015

[5] The Criminal Code Act, Cap C38, Laws of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 2004, Section 306

[6] (1998) 5 NWLR (pt.550)p.493

[7] (1986) 5 NWLR (pt.45) p.828

[8] (1995) SACLR LEXIS 218

[9] (2018) LPELR-CA/C/256/2013

[10] (1982) 2 NCLR 552 PP.561-662

[11] (1991) 6 NWLR (pt. 200) p. 708

[12] L. Denning, Freedom under the law, (1949) p.5

[13] The Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999, section 35(1)

[14] V.A Mpamugoh, ‘Human rights and the Rule of law in a military Regime Revisited’, Lawyers Bi-Annual, a publication of college of Legal studies, Abia State University, Uturu, 1996, p.109

[15] [2016] LPELR-CA/L/1106/2014

[16] [2018] LPELR-CA/S/32/2016

[17] [2019] LPELR-CA/L/721/2015

[18] [2017] LPELR-CA/J/41/2014

[19] Akpakpan v Akpakpan [2009] LPELR-CA/C/44/2008

[20] [2008] ALL FWLR (pt.401) 970 @ 983

[21] [2017] LPELR-CA/K/143/2011

[22] [2011] LPELR_SC.52/2003

[23] [2017] LPELR-Sc.303/2013

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