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Statement on the conclusion of her official visit to Nigeria between 17 and 28 February, 2014 28 February 2014, Transcorp Hilton Abuja, Plateau Room by the United Nations Independent Expert on minority issues, Rita Izsák

I would like to begin by sincerely thanking the Federal Government of Nigeria for extending an invitation to me to conduct an official visit in my capacity as the United Nations Independent Expert on minority issues, and for its collaboration with my mandate. During my twelve day visit to Nigeria I have had the opportunity to meet with several senior Federal Government officials, including the Minister of Interior, as well as State officials, and I thank them for their time and for the valuable information that they have provided to me. I also met with and wish to thank the many representatives of civil society, human rights institutions, community and religious leaders, academics, journalists and others who provided their perspectives, information and their ideas for solutions to some of the minority issues and challenges which Nigeria faces. I have been impressed and inspired by the quality and insight of all my discussions in the country and the social and political debates that I have witnessed in the media.

The United Nations Human Rights Council requires me to promote implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities. Nigeria is a country of incredible ethnic, religious and linguistic diversity and complexity. I have come to understand that the term ‘minority’ is far from an easy one to define in the Nigerian context. With over 250 ethnic groups and even more languages spoken in the country, many among Nigeria’s population could be defined as minorities with distinct languages, cultures and traditions. It is important to note that my consideration of minority issues does not only consider the national context, but also extends down to the State and even the local contexts where the dynamics and dimensions of identity, ethnicity, religion, language and access to power and resources are frequently more important and play a greater role in the daily lives of individuals and communities.

The Nigerian Constitution provides guarantees of equality for all and I have learned that, for the most part, different communities in Nigeria live together in harmony and mutual respect, interacting socially and economically, and that the rights of minorities are given significant attention and importance. Nevertheless, I have also learned about some of the problems and threats to minority rights that exist in several States and that, in some cases, have threatened historically harmonious inter-communal relations. In States that I have visited, including Plateau State and Kaduna State, today there are new divisions where once was relatively peaceful coexistence. I have been saddened to learn that the impact of extremist and radical elements and violent attacks perpetrated against both Christian and Muslim communities have heightened suspicions and in some locations created a climate of fear. Let me say that I was shocked by the recent killings of nearly 60 innocent school children in Yobe State. I offer my sincere condolences to the families of this and other such atrocities and to the nation. I have been deeply moved by meeting personally several victims of violence. Those who incite or perpetrate violence must not be allowed to succeed in deepening divisions between communities and must be held to account for their crimes.

Some of the tensions and conflicts that have erupted in Nigeria’s northern States and the ‘Middle-Belt’ States have been framed as religious or ethnic conflicts. However, it is clear to me that, while they have evolved to have obvious religious and ethnic dimensions, this is far too simplistic an understanding and their root causes lie also in other factors. In order to resolve them and find effective solutions, it is essential to understand those root causes of tensions, which often lie more in competition for resources or unequal allocation of resources, land issues, population movement and migration, and even the gradual but important impact of climate change. Enhancing the capacity, training and resources of the security forces in regions where violence has broken out is essential. However, sustainable solutions to communal violence equally lie deeper than a heightened security response. They must also address long-standing and contentious political, economic and social issues and inequalities that have been neglected.  

It was frequently stated to me that Nigeria’s indigene-settler dichotomy has brought about tensions due to its conferring special status to those who are considered as indigenous to a State in comparison to “settlers”. Some ethnic communities that have resided in a State for generations, if they are not native to that State, are considered as settlers with implications for their ability to stand for election, obtain public posts, their rights to land and resources, and their access to some educational and professional opportunities. Some ‘indigene’ populations view such status as an important safeguard of their rights in the face of the increasing numerical or economic dominance of some ‘settler’ populations. I consider that further legal clarity is required and measures should be taken to ensure that this dichotomy does not unfairly discriminate against or exclude anyone from the right to participate fully in the economic, political and social life of their societies or to enjoy all of their rights. The institutions of each State should fully reflect the diversity of the population groups within that State.    

In all of my numerous consultations with stakeholders, including Governmental officials at the Federal, State and local levels, non-governmental organizations, academics, journalists, religious and community leaders, and ordinary citizens, one factor was universally stated - the need for good and inclusive governance is essential to ensuring minority rights, equality and peaceful coexistence for all of Nigeria’s citizens. It was highlighted to me that in many cases the present governance does not provide the necessary guarantees of fairness, equality, justice and rights for all. Partisan politics and the reality, or the perception of bias and favouritism along ethnic or religious lines fuel distrust, suspicion and anger. Ethnic or religious patronage and the ever-present problem of corruption must be challenged and defeated at every level and in every sphere of society for ordinary citizens to regain trust in Nigeria’s political leaders and institutions. I found evidence that in States where inclusive governance prevails and communities placed trust in their leadership, there are much fewer communal fractures and concerns about minority rights. Political parties must play their role in helping to create a positive and non-ethnicized political environment in which candidates are appointed and succeed on their merits.

During my visit I travelled to Rivers State and consulted with diverse stakeholders in Port Harcourt and the Niger Delta region. I visited Ogoni and Ikwerre communities who highlighted their efforts to overcome what they describe as abandonment and marginalization by political leadership. I also visited their environment where oil spills happened and saw the devastating effects and the struggle for survival in these territories. It is clear to me that much more must be done to return those environments to health and restore the rights and livelihoods of the communities affected.

I have sought information on Nigeria’s linguistic diversity and the particular challenges facing linguistic minorities and the endangered status of some languages. I was struck by the strength of feeling of many who seek to maintain and promote use of their native languages. English has become dominant in all sectors of society to the detriment of native Nigerian and African languages. Some of those I met expressed concern that little if any provision for mother-tongue language education exists in many States and that consequently children are unable to speak their mother tongue and some languages may even be threatened with disappearing. Measures such as bilingual education in the early school years allows children to become fluent in both the national language and their mother tongue and formal and informal measures should be considered to protect Nigeria’s rich linguistic heritage.     

I came to Nigeria not to list the problems that it has, but with the objective of also identifying solutions and positive practices and initiatives that seek to protect minority rights and prevent and heal tensions. I have been impressed by some of the initiatives that I have learned about that build bridges of understanding and trust between communities, through inter-faith dialogue, shared activities, outreach and education. An education project in Bauchi, for example, works with more than three hundred and sixty Christian and Muslim children to foster understanding and trust in an education environment through projects and engagement with children in other countries affected by conflict. I have been inspired by women and youth initiatives, such as the Women Without Walls Initiative consisting of Christian and Muslim women leaders, who gathered thousands of women in 2010 to march for peace in Jos and also came up with creative solutions to address the underlying causes of potential conflicts and help to prevent them. Religious and community leaders have a unique opportunity and influence in their communities and such initiatives must be supported and enhanced.

I believe in the value of data in helping to reveal inequalities that exist in society and ensure true equality of opportunity and access for all, to resources, to education, to political office and to land amongst key areas of concern. It therefore comes as a surprise to me to realize that Nigeria does not collect or analyse data disaggregated by ethnicity, religion or language. Some have expressed to me their concern that such data may be sensitive or manipulated for political ends, however I consider it essential for a country such as Nigeria to fully map its population and compile a complete picture of the ethnic, religious and linguistic diversity that exists. The advantages of developing such an understanding of the population and the socio-economic conditions of all population groups are many and out-way short-term concerns. 

Many actors have a role in promoting and protecting human rights in Nigeria and strengthening minority rights protection. I met with the Federal Character Commission and I consider that the principles of guaranteeing equality of State representation in Federal institutions and administration are a valuable and positive practice. Indeed I recommend that measures be taken to reinforce these principles at the all levels and to ensure that ethnic and religious diversity is fully reflected within National, State and local institutions. No groups should be unfairly excluded from political participation. I have had the pleasure to meet and consult with the National Human Rights Commission both in Abuja and in the States that I have visited. This vital institution is doing essential work and it should be fully resourced to enable it to maintain and expand its mandate and activities. I would hope to see the Commission have an even stronger role in the protection of minority rights and anti-discrimination work in the future. I believe that education is essential to efforts to assist in reinforcing a culture of unity in Nigeria. Civic education and human rights education in school curriculums can do much to instill the values of equality and human rights for all in young people. I would also like to see a strengthened attention to minority issues within the work of United Nations agencies here in Nigeria, to ensure that their research and projects and programmes in development, education, healthcare and other fields, reach all who may be disadvantaged, marginalized or vulnerable.

I do believe that the future for Nigeria is bright and that the challenges and minority issues that it faces can be resolved with the participation of all communities in a process of dialogue and reform. In this regard, I congratulate the Government for convening the forthcoming National Conference to be held in Abuja that will bring together a wide spectrum of Nigerian society to discuss and seek solutions to many challenges facing Nigeria - constitutional, legal, social, political and economic. However, in order to fulfil its promise to the Nigerian people, the Conference must be truly inclusive and must not be just a ‘talking shop’. It must have clear objectives and outcomes that are implemented in practice and result in a real process of political, social and economic reform where required. Many of those whom I consulted are deeply distrustful of politics and political processes and to fail in these respects will only deepen that distrust.

I look forward to continuing my collaboration with the Government of Nigeria and civil society actors. I stress that the comments that I make today are only my preliminary findings and will be further informed by additional research and consultation with the Government and other stakeholders. Following my visit I will produce a report and a series of recommendations that will be shared with the Government prior to their being presented to the UN Human Rights Council. I once again take this opportunity to thank the Government, the United Nations Agencies and all of those who have provided information and assistance to me.