Violation of Fundamental Human Rights by Nigerian Law Enforcement Agencies


Human Rights are the inalienable rights of persons, and are conferred on individuals by the laws governing the society; a seeming violation of any or all of these rights often results in uproar and chaos. The Nigerian Constitution provides for the protection of certain rights, and takes a step further by levying a duty on the government to protect and secure the lives of its citizens. This duty extends to all organs of Government, as well as their officials at all tiers. Nonetheless, there are continual accusations targeted at the members of the various law enforcement agencies for the constant violation of these constitutionally guaranteed rights, which has in turn resulted in an outcry by members of the public. This Essay seeks to examine human rights as provided for in the Nigerian Constitution, the duties, and powers of the military, as well as statutes regulating their conducts.


Like many legal concepts and principles, there is no universally accepted definition of the concept, human rights; the term is often used in lieu of a sister concept, legal rights. While all fundamental rights are legal rights, not all legal rights are fundamental rights.

There appears to be a clear distinction between both concepts, Kayode Eso J.S.C. in drawing the distinction in Ransome Kuti & ORS v AG Federation & ORS (1985) 2 NWLR PT. 6.P.211 at 230, defined fundamental rights as rights which stand above the ordinary laws of the land and are antecedent to the political society itself. He further described it as a primary condition to a civilized society.  Different authors have proffered perspectives to the subject matter. It has been defined as the claims by men, for themselves or on behalf of other men, supported by some theory which concentrates on the humanity of man, on man as a human being, a member of mankind by F.E Dowrick. At the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, human rights were described as rights to be enjoyed by all human beings of the global village and not gifts to be withdrawn, withheld or granted at someone’s whim or will. Similarly, it has been defined by Henkin, L as those liberties, immunities, and benefits which by attempted contemporary values, all human beings should be able to claim as of right of the society they live in. The various definitions have a common element specifically, the recognition that human rights are inbred and congenital in human beings by virtue of their existence as human beings and the consensus that the protection of these rights is thus essential for development in the society. It is an ethical language we can all recognize and sign up to; a language which does not belong to any group or creed but to all of us, based on the principles of common humanity. While African states embraced the concept later than their western counterparts, the perception of human right as a western concept is erroneous. Human right remains an ethical language every member of the global village can lay claim to.

The post-independence Nigerian constitutional order has repeatedly made provisions for the protection of the fundamental human rights, from the Bill of Rights provided for in the Independence Constitution to the fundamental rights provided for in Chapter 4 of the 1999 Constitution. The Constitution in section 14 (2)(b) also  imposes a duty on the government to prioritize the security and welfare of her citizens; This positive right imposes an obligation on the state to protect the lives of her citizens and avoid unwarranted interference with any of their constitutionally guaranteed rights.

The constitution precludes the government or any public officer from interfering with human rights of citizens, particularly when such interference endangers the right to life either directly or otherwise. The question of who the government is has been resolved by the constitution; Government has been defined to include any person who exercises power or authority on behalf of the state in section 318. In line with this definition, the public service of the Federation or the State can be referred to as the government. Members of the armed forces, the Nigerian Police Force and other Law Enforcement Agencies established by the law are public servants and, as such are bound by the provisions of section 14 of the 1999 Constitution.


Law Enforcement Agencies fall under the umbrella of the executive organ of government. They are comprised of the Armed forces, the Police Force and other Security bodies established and recognized by the law. They are charged with the responsibility to protect life and property, as well as enforce all laws and regulations with which they are directly charged as exemplified by the provisions of The Police Act, 1967.

Furthermore, they are charged with the defence of the state from unwelcome international interference; protecting the nation and her citizens from all external threats as seen in section 1(3) of The Armed Forces Act, 2008. The importance of law enforcement agencies cannot be overemphasized as security remains one of the primary needs of man, and the various security agencies are the bodies legally recognized to provide same. Societies lacking this institution are often engulfed in a state of anarchy, and unjustifiably exposed to unwelcome international interference and threats. The rationale for this is that other than its defensive nature, the military also engages in pre-emptive measures in a bid to protect the state and her citizens.

While the importance of the military and security agencies cannot be swept under the carpet, the overindulgent nature of the institution has become an issue of national and global concern. The use of force is a prerogative essential to the work of any security agency; it must however be used only in situations of strict necessity in order to prevent unnecessary harm. The military’s purpose is not to kill people and break things; suggesting otherwise confuses the purpose and tasks, ends with means.

The permissible violence by the military is not designed to be targeted at innocent citizens or persons and any excessive use of force as well as abuse of authority by law enforcement officers, particularly such that result in the arbitrary deprivation of the right of life, could result in an outcry for proscription of the same. In 1995, following a poll conducted on the abolishment of the Haitian Army, President Aristide of Haiti abolished the military for interfering with the rights of the citizens, who had come to see the army as a threat to their personal security.

The excesses by this institution are not restricted to a class of countries. While it is relatively predominant in developing or third world countries, it is not extinct even in developed countries; it is prevalent in the United States of America-an advanced country. The abuse of power and violation of human rights by the American Police allegedly targeted primarily at a particular race is an issue of national and international concern, resulting in the Black lives matter campaign. Similar violation of human rights by security agencies in Pakistan was documented by the Human Rights Watch[1]; the rights of women, children, religious minorities, as well as transgender people were constantly infringed on– by members of the various security agencies. This illicit behaviour by security agencies has slowly become a part of every society, making those originally levied with the duty to protect lives and rights the primary violators of the same.

Violation of human rights by law enforcement agencies in Nigeria

There are ten (10) primary security agencies in Nigeria established by various laws which stipulate their powers and functions. They however share common assignments, which are the maintenance of peace and order as well as protection of the lives of the citizens. This purpose is often defeated when the same bodies engage in the vices they were established to curb; this glitch is one that is recognized by citizens, as well as the government.

The Vice President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo SAN in the past year inaugurated a nine-man panel to investigate alleged violation of the constitutionally guaranteed human rights by members of the military. This panel was set up following the series of allegations leveled against the military by both local and international commentators. A noteworthy fight against the infringement of rights by Nigerian Law Enforcement Agencies is the END SARS campaign; the campaign was targeted at the Nigerian Police and one of its sub-agencies, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, known as SARS.  The campaign resulted in a petition signed by over 10,100 aggrieved citizens, who have had their constitutional guaranteed rights violated or threatened by the security agency. The campaign which originally started out as an outcry of an aggrieved citizen against the excesses of SARS, and the entire Nigeria Police Force, resulted in a national uproar accompanied by horrifying tales by citizens who had suffered the same ordeal.  Among such tales is the poignant tale of Mrs Kudirat Adebayo (aged 51). The late Kudirat suffered her untimely death by the hand of a Special Anti- Robbery Squad operative, who was allegedly in pursuit of a suspected Online Fraudster around Onipanu area in Lagos State. While fraud is an offense in Nigeria prohibited and penalized by laws such as section 419 of the Criminal Code Act, 1990 and section 12 of the Cyber Crime Act 2015, the question as to whether or not the mandate of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad extends to arresting or investigating perpetrators of online fraud remains unclear.  The position of the Constitution on the other hand is crystal clear as regards the right to life; it expressly prohibits the indiscriminate violation of the right to life of persons in section 33(1). The act of arbitrarily depriving a person of their right to life is the gravest human rights violation. This is not to imply that certain rights are more significant than others; however, no remedy or compensation can be made available to one whose right to life has been violated. While the right to life is not absolute in Nigeria as exemplified by the provision of section 33(2), the Constitution does not however protect a law enforcement agent who through his negligence causes the death of an innocent citizen.

Another horrid incident occurred in September 2016 where the same agency was reported to have engaged in indiscriminate shooting in the bid to arrest another suspected online fraudster, an act that resulted in the demise of an innocent university undergraduate identified as Joseph Eidonojie-Ugbeni. The operatives went on to describe the act as one of self- defence. While the argument proffered by the operatives is one tenable before a Court, their act was a gross infringement of both the deceased’s right to life and fair hearing guaranteed under section 36. The Constitution guarantees the right to fair hearing of citizens, as such, every person charged with a criminal offence is presumed innocent till proven otherwise. Thus, the killing of a citizen for allegedly possessing a firearm is arguably a violation of his right to fair hearing and even his right to life. Shooting him in the back of his head is arguably disproportionate to the provocation, and does not amount to reasonable force as prescribed by sections 284-286 of the Criminal Code. A plethora of other horrifying tales tells the brutality of Nigerian Law Enforcement Agencies, which have successfully instilled anxiety and terror in her citizens. Noteworthy of such tales is seen in a report by amnesty international on the violation of the right to dignity of internally displaced women and children by members of the military. The report provides detailed information on how women and girls who were rescued from the popular terrorist group, Boko Haram, by members of the military were being sexually assaulted by the same members of the military in the satellite camps. The report was shared with the appropriate Nigerian authorities but was however described by the Defence Head Quarters as a malicious trend and falsehood aimed at painting the military in the bad light. Amnesty International, in urging the Nigerian Government to hastily address the issue which breached all conventions on human rights, published a report supporting the many allegations against the bodies. The Director of Amnesty International Nigeria, Osai Ojigho in addressing the brutality of law enforcement agencies said “Nigeria has an obligation under International and Regional law to uphold the prohibition of torture and other ill-treatment, and all violence meted out by law enforcement agencies must be independently investigated”.


Law enforcement agencies have a duty to respect and uphold all legal rights, particularly fundamental human rights. It is important that members of these agencies are thoroughly enlightened on the importance of these rights, as well as the dire consequence of the violation of same. While recognizing efforts by the Nigerian Government to curb the excesses of her security agencies, it is expedient to point that the government is still in gross violation of section 13 and 14(2) of the 1999 Constitution on prioritizing the security and welfare of the people.

A pragmatic solution to these obnoxious acts is the criminalization of same by relevant statutes. While this might be perceived by some as drastic, the criminalization of these acts would serve as deterrents for members of these agencies. Law enforcement agents should be held accountable as ordinary citizens for the violation of fundamental human rights, particularly the right to life. Even as all the rights are regarded as having the same legal and moral value, the violation of the right to life is irreparable and thus should not be treated lightly. It is also recommended that selected agencies be proscribed, especially those that have outlived their functions and engage in the constant violations of constitutionally enshrined rights. The Nigerian Government can take a cue from Jean- Bertrand Aristide (Former President of Haiti), who prioritized the fundamental rights of his citizens over the existence of the military; while this might appear far-reaching, the Nigerian Government is encouraged to use whatever methods are deemed appropriate as well as legal means to put an end to this menace.

Ogidan Rachel is a 300 level law student of the Faculty of Law, University of Lagos. She has an interest in the confluence between law and other subject matters especially medicine. She is an Associate Editor of the Unilag Law Review and Advocate of the Mooting Society of the Faculty of Law, University of Lagos. She has developed keen interest in legal research and writing. She loves international law and participates in Model United Nations.

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