Nigeria Field Report #2: Freedom from Violence and Persecution

Abby and Adam review films during a meeting.
Abby and Adam review films during a meeting.

by Abby Goldberg

This post follows the previous update on Adam and my trip last month to Nigeria.  We learned about many challenging human rights issues that local groups are facing. Some of the major challenges we were told about involve the struggle for freedom from violence and persecution, including the issues listed below that groups we met with are working to change.

Forced displacement (mostly of slum communities in Lagos): Forced displacement has long been a challenge for Nigeria’s poor. Lagos is attempting to develop a new waterfront area, informally named “Atlantic City”, which will largely service wealthy clientele, while displacing some of the most marginalized and impoverished communities.  The development of this area also provides an additional, illegal source of income for members of the government who, through corruption, take large sums of money off the top of developer contracts.    The sheer scale of the housing crisis in the sprawling megacity of Lagos is hard to imagine – there may be as many as 10 million people living in informal housing, and thus under threat of forced eviction.

Members of the Maroko community, for example, who we met with during the last day of our trip, told stories of their 23 year battle to “resist” government agents who come unannounced with bulldozers and literally move everything, people included, that are in the way as it destroys the homes and livelihoods of the poor.  The leader of the community, Samuel Aiyeyemi, shared stories of his work to organize Maroko inhabitants.   He said their organizing efforts would never have been possible without the important work of groups like Social and Economic Rights Action Center (SERAC), which organizes slum communities and takes legal action on their behalf.  Historic communities like Makoko-on-Water, and massive slums that house many thousands of Lagos residents remain under threat. Unfortunately, despite the valiant efforts of these lawyers and community organizers, this remains an uphill battle with powerful economic forces at stake.

Extrajudicial killing: The pervasiveness of extra-judicial killing, or unauthorized murder by state police and security forces, is a critical and urgent issue to address in Nigeria.  During one meeting with the Legal Defence Assistance Project (LEDAP), we met with a lawyer who showed us both video and a report LEDAP had compiled which contained hundreds if not thousands of individual stories of deaths at the hands of police and state agents. Many of these murders have gone unsolved without investigation, contributing to a culture of impunity in the country.

In a separate meeting, we also discussed the dismal conditions under which police work in Nigeria, including months without pay, minimal training, and poor treatment by authorities.  Just like so many other Nigerians, they struggle in poverty to survive.  While this situation is no excuse for murder, it is also important to understand the conditions that generate the extrajudicial violence and corruption in order to learn how we can make an impact.  In fact, some of the best sources of information about police abuse that our partners use comes from police who are unable to speak out for fear of reprisal but are appalled by the lawlessness among police in Nigeria.

Violence against women:  Sexual violence is one of the most pressing problems in the country, and it remains an under-reported crime, in part because sexual abuse and harassment by police discourage many women from coming forward with their experiences. Under the weight of this endemic violence, however, there are several NGOs working to address this issue.  For example, we learned how new model police stations in Lagos employ female officers and offer a specific desk for female victims of violence which is intended to encourage more reporting. It remains to be seen whether this will be an effective remedy, but I hope it will be a step in the right direction.

These are just three issues regarding freedom from violence and persecution. My next post will address another set of rights that Nigerians are working to secure: political, legal, and environmental rights. 

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