By Amatesiro Dore
My fifty-four year old boss, Dorothy Aken’Ova, is a breast cancer survivor/awareness campaigner, veteran human rights activist and renowned firebrand of Minna who fights against toxic patriarchy, rights infringements, child marriages, domestic violence and other negative northern Nigerian indexes, archaic practices and every form of injustice. For almost three decades, she has pioneered national human rights initiatives, supported advocacy movements and has facilitated workshops, seminars and campaigns to safeguard universal human rights. DarlynDotty, her workshop name, has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, is an Ashoka Fellow, recipient of the 2014 Berlin Stonewall Award for Resistance, and generally regarded as a doyenne of women’s rights and activism in northern Nigeria.
Nonetheless, Ms Aken’Ova, founder and Executive Director of the International Centre for Sexual Reproductive Rights in Minna, Niger State, laments the current predicament and future of human rights activism in Nigeria: the proposed government regulation of non-governmental organisations; the ineffectual campaigns of modern day “activists”, especially social media “freedom fighters” who simply seek online followership as a stepping stone to lucrative deals and political careers.
During a recent conversation, she discussed the dearth of effective collaborations, coordinated and collective pronouncements against human rights abuses, and the diminishing value of Nigerian life and existence. She referenced her university days and post-graduate years as a lecturer at the Ahmadu Bello University where she witnessed the power of coordinated human rights campaigns, protests and demonstrations. She testified about respected university dons who harboured student activists, in their homes, from the onslaught of a vindictive school administration; brave and courageous lecturers who also provided strategic advice and counsel on how student activists could outsmart tyrannical governments and how to successfully kick against harmful policies and programmes, both at home and abroad. Imagine the sight of student advocates trekking from Zaria to Kaduna to protest apartheid in faraway South Africa, racism in America and other universal acts of human rights infringements. Those were the days of coordinated human rights campaigns, widely-endorsed statements and generally-approved strategies to combat actual and impending violations.
Nowadays I believe that advocacies, campaigns and interventions against human rights abuses have become competitive bidding wars for western funding, grants and sponsorships. Could this be the reason for the ignorant but dangerous attempts of Nigerian national legislators to create an unnecessary and dictatorial commission to control and discriminate against Non-Governmental Organisations? If this offensive bill is passed and signed into law, the courage and independence of Nigerian NGOs will be curtailed, muzzled and eventually rendered incapable of challenging negative government policies and agendas. NGOs will become complicit by their imposed silence and will be unable to act against injustices committed by governments and their officials.
The NGO regulation bill shall be the beginning of the end of public criticism, discourse and protests against human rights infringements. Not to mention the corruption that the government agency tasked with this unethical regulation of NGOs will begin to perpetuate by blackmailing NGOs for portions of their funding and other legitimate earnings.
As a country, we are finally losing our sense of outrage against injustices. Our collective conscience has stopped reacting to the negative treatment of our fellow countrymen who suffer from many debilitating human rights infringements. We no longer protest and fight until justice is served and the infringement of rights are remedied via compensation or other specific performances ordered by a competent and independent judiciary.
From the school administrators and university senates who rusticate students simply for being human rights advocates, to the policeman who terrorises innocent civilians, to the politicians who corrupt our human rights defenders with bribes in exchange for inertia, we are all responsible for the decadent and undemocratic practices in our civil societies. Not to include the uncoordinated activities of social media activists and other groups who cannot make themselves available for the public demonstrations, physical meetings and other old school mechanisms that gave us the various waves of feminism, progressive sexuality rights, the abolition of slavery, the end of South African apartheid, the success of the Aba Women’s protest and other past victories against social and political injustice.
On this day for the celebration of human rights, Nigerian defenders have little to celebrate. Our efforts are no longer worthy of emulation. And our oppressors are happy with the status quo. Except we learn to meet in groups, to agree as a team, combine ideas and strategies to fight against every form of violations and infringements on human rights.
Let us move beyond social media activism and begin the legwork and physical activities that have proven to be more effective in the past and which I believe will be more productive in these dangerous times. The regulation of NGOs bill must never become law in Nigeria, irrespective of the exaggerated excuses and self-serving reasons provided by the promoters, in and out of government. We must leave the regulation of NGOs to their donors, supporters, volunteers and Board of Directors as already provided under the Companies and Allied Matters Act. We must ensure that our efforts as human rights defenders are properly coordinated. We must continue to draw inspiration from our predecessors from other climes and generations, such as Dr Martin Luther King Jnr and his avalanche of freedom fighters who peacefully combated and physically demonstrated against the societal crimes and injustices of their era.
We must also continue to celebrate our human rights defenders, both dead and alive, who ensure that our governments are held accountable and made to uphold the rights and dignity of every person. It’s the responsibility of NGOs to checkmate governments, to call out bad policies and galvanise the public against draconian regimes. It’s immoral and irresponsible for governments to seek to regulate the organisations that exist for the purpose of ensuring that they [the government] do not abuse power and infringe on the rights and liberties of their citizens and residents, irrespective of tribe, language, class, race, gender, religion, sexuality and other forms of diversity.