It is important to note that the essence of law is to preserve life and property, create an environment for human beings to live a contented life. One of such legal platforms to guarantee this assertion is the provision on fundamental rights. Fundamental human rights have been defined as moral rights which every human being everywhere, at all times, ought to have simply because he is rational and moral in contradistinction with other beings.
Human rights is not an abstract idea but the expression, codified into law, of what all human beings clearly must have to live fully human lives. It is because human rights are so deeply rooted in what all people need, want and will fight for that they have been the basis for social movements and actions around the world and have freed countless political prisoners, stopped acts of torture and execution, overthrown tyrannies, established justice, torn down walls, ended the system of racial apartheid, improved working conditions and obtained education, shelter, health care and food for those denied them. The origin of human rights can be held to be traceable to the creation of man and the right to life accorded him by God while the inherent nature of these rights is one of the many qualities that God has given to man.
Having passed through many years of agonizing, undemocratic and dehumanizing autocratic regimes; with violations that have continued to occur with alarming frequency, most Africans have come to realize that genuine concern and respect for human rights is a viable option for attaining effective development that is well-recognized by international communities.
These Fundamental rights which are guaranteed by most African constitutions includes the right to life, right to dignity of human person, personal liberty, fair hearing, freedom of expression and the press, freedom of movement, freedom from discrimination, right to acquire and own immovable property and are meant to be protected by all the arms of government. But in reality these rights truly are not protected in most African countries and these can be attributed to the following reasons:
- Poverty – Late Chief Obafemi Awolowo a great Nigerian politician and stateman defined poverty as a condition which exists when a person lacks the means to satisfy the necessaries of life. In reality how can a poor man enjoy his right to life in the absence of basic necessaries of life such as food, good drinking water and health care? Considering the fact that most Africans cannot feed properly and this leads to ill health. And it is still this same poor man who patronises fake drugs because they are cheaper to get and thereby are at the risk of death. As such we can say that being poor and living below the bread line which the majority of Africans find themselves is a big impediment to their enjoyment of fundamental rights.
- Illiteracy – this is the state of being unable to read and write. The inability to read and write constitutes a serious impediment and this is because majority who are illiterate cannot appreciate or understand what rights they have. Dealing with a hungry educated man is quite difficult how much more an illiterate one. Being illiterate also makes it difficult to understand government and its policies. Thus the freedom of expression makes very little meaning when the citizenry wallows in illiteracy and with the loss of their freedom of expression goes their right to participate meaningfully in the government.
- Uneven distribution of wealth – there is a wide gap between the rich and the poor in Africa and this is alarming and this affects the enjoyment of fundamental rights. There is a common saying that the rich cannot sleep because the poor are awake and the poor cannot sleep because they are hungry and might go knock at the door of the rich at night. It is in Africa and most developing nations that you will find majority of its citizenry living below the poverty line and a handful living in opulence. And these leads to the high crime rates in most of these countries. Many rich people hardly go to their home towns for fear of being attacked for their enormous wealth while their people lack basic facilities for survival. To have a healthy society, there is the need to fairly distribute wealth if there is going to be some sort of peaceful coexistence in the society.
- Lack of basic infrastructure – Absence of good roads and waterways where the majority of Africans live, that is the rural areas, makes movement and association difficult. Since all African constitutions clearly provides for the right to movement, we ask ourselves but at what cost – when the roads are bad and one can only travel by air which is more costly than by road. With lack of portable water, absence of electricity and basic healthcare delivery system, this reduces the life span of citizens and consequently affects their right to life.
- Unemployment – idleness increases the crime rate in every society, the right to life and dignity of the human person as guaranteed in most constitutions is not enhanced where able bodied citizens are unemployed. What dignity can a man have when he cannot provide for himself or his family? How can such a person walk around with confidence when he does not know where his next meal will come from because he is not gainfully employed and the government has nothing in place such as unemployment benefits like the developed nations have in place?
- Attitudes of state functionaries – We have come to see situations where some state functionaries behave as law unto themselves and in the process encroach on the enjoyment of freedom of movement and liberties guaranteed by the constitution. Take for instance the blocking of roads when a top government functionary is passing by and soldiers and police use whips to intimidate other road users to stay clear of the road until they have passed. The police and security forces today generally operate with so much impunity. In addition also is the number of extra judicial killings which have become the strong hold of African politics and show of power and authority. Most African governments are reported to have brought only a few persons to justice for abuses and corruption. It is in Africa that a person will steal billions and be charged to court and giving an option of fine while one who steals food is sent to years in prison.
- Lack of sufficient of legal aid – In most African legal systems where the adversarial system of adjudication is adopted, legal aid to citizens is necessary if injustice is not to be inflicted on the majority who are poor. As far as our situation is concerned, the impact of the legal aid scheme is yet to be felt by the majority who need the services badly when we take a look at our prisons and the number of those incarcerated without legal representation and awaiting trial. How can the number of persons who have their rights infringed upon access legal representation to prosecute their case? All these goes to show that the right to fair hearing of these categories of persons is greatly impeded.
- Cultural restraints – Culture is the characteristics of a particular group of people defined by everything from language, religion, cuisine, social habits, music and arts. It is the shared pattern of behaviours and interactions, cognitive constructs and effective understanding that are learned through a process of socialization. Some cultures are known for some restraints and violation of certain rights guaranteed under the constitution; for instance the widowhood rites of the eastern parts of Nigeria, where a widow is made to drink the water used in washing their husbands corpse to prove their innocence in his death, being locked up in a room to mourn his death, all this violates their right to freedom from discrimination and human dignity. In some customs, women are not allowed to speak in public or voice their opinions, especially when their husbands are present. The issue of female genital circumcision is also a common practice. All these go to show how guaranteed rights of women are affected.
Having stated the above issues that in many ways impede the realization of fundamental rights in Africa, what is way forward for us? There is so much that the government can do to better the lot of its citizenry and these includes the following amongst others, the creation of more job opportunities for its large unemployed populace and the provision of unemployment benefits for the unemployed in the society; as this will reduce the high rate of crimes in the society as is the case in developed countries, which are wise in providing for social security and unemployment benefits.
Education liberates and enables one to compete favourably in the society; this is inevitable because for the realisation of the freedom of expression and association, the level of education of the majority has to be raised. This will enable them take more active part in government. Once people’s eyes are open with education, a lot of vices will go down. We must look at education, the quality and what type of opportunities it gives. Most of the problems we have will reduce, especially those cultural and social affinities which impede our human rights. It should be noted also that security is also linked to the right to life – under the atmosphere of insecurity; there cannot be enjoyment of human rights.
The right to fair hearing and personal liberty makes little meaning in the absence of courts, lack of independent and efficient judiciary. An efficient police and security force to guarantee the security of life and property of citizens and the availability of legal aid for the poor who languish in large numbers in our prisons awaiting trial that may never come. Government should do more in the provision of basic amenities and infrastructure for its citizens and should be honest in its pursuit of providing equal opportunities for its citizens. In addition, the exercise of the powers of state functionaries should be regulated and curtailed to the level that will ensure that they do not infringe on the rights of the members of the public.
Fundamental rights as guaranteed by most constitutions around the world form the essence and dignity of human beings. These rights essentially make us human. With regard to the protection and enforcement of human rights, most African countries have performed below expectations. African countries must rise up to the clarion call for the projection and protection of fundamental human rights of its citizenry. African governments must realise that they have a critical role to play in this regard. It is sad to see that basic rights that are taken for granted in most developed countries are largely ignored and unenforced in most African countries. As Africans, we must also arise and articulate and protect our fundamental human rights. The era of ignoring basic human rights in Africa must end; for Africans are no lesser human beings than their counterparts in other parts of the world.