12 Fundamental Human Rights in Nigeria

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Fundamental Human Rights and Rights of Nigeria

The 1979 Constitution provided for Fundamental Human Rights in Chapter IV.

Fundamental rights are a common feature in constitutions of many countries today to promote liberty, freedom and equality of the citizens as their guiding principles. In some countries, fundamental rights are also referred to as the Bill of Rights. Their inclusion in some constitutions of some countries of the world is to ensure that due regards are given to basic freedom and fundamental rights of the citizenry.

The nature of human rights are those rights which human beings enjoy by virtue of their humanity, whether black, white, Africa or Middle East, Hispanic or Asia, the deprivation of which would constitute a grave affront to one's natural sense of justice.

That God created men with some inalienable and inherent rights is captured in the American Declaration of Independence from the British Government where it was declared:

 "We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among them are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

Fundamental rights were not a creation of a state, but are external and universal institutions, common to all mankind and antedating the state and founded upon natural law. Natural law has been regarded as the higher law, which in accordance with nature, applies to all men, and is unchangeable and eternal.

What are Natural Rights?

Natural rights are rights of human beings that exist regardless of any other law. They are personal rights in the sense that they accrue to the individuals and they cannot be waived by the individuals. They are also which are regarded as personal by human beings prior to their recognition by a legal system.

Formulation of natural rights dates back from the second half of the eighteen century, the revolutionary periods in America and France. These rights are contained in Chapter IV of the 1979 and 1999 Constitutions of Nigeria respectively and they include:

  • Right to life;
  • Right to dignity of human person;
  • Right to personal liberty;
  • Right to fair hearing;
  • Right to private and family life;
  • Right to fair hearing;
  • Right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion;
  • Right to freedom of expression and the press;
  • Right to peaceful assembly and association;
  • Right to freedom of movement;
  • Right to freedom from discrimination;
  • Right to acquire and own immovable property anywhere in Nigeria;
  • Compulsory acquisition of property.

1. Right to Life

Section 33 of the 1999 Constitution provides for right to life when it says: "Every person has a right to life and no one shall be deprived intentionally of his life, save in execution of the sentence of a court in respect of a criminal offence of which he has been found guilty in Nigeria." This right is the first basic right of any individual and the one that secures to him his life.

Note however that right to life in this section and indeed under our legal system is not absolute. Thus a person may be deprived of his life under certain exceptions as contained in the Constitution. Therefore, a person may be deprived of his life, if a court of law has tried him and sentenced him to death having found him guilty of a criminal offence which offence itself attracts capital punishment.

Here distinction is usually made between offences that carry death penalty and offences that do not carry death penalty. In Nigeria, all offences are three kinds for the of punishment. The first category is felony which is regarded as a serious crime and, under many statutes, is declared by law to be a felony, or is punishable, without a proof of previous conviction, with death or with imprisonment for a term of three years or more.

For example, murder, treason, armed robbery, terrorism, and kidnapping in some States in Nigeria are all offences of felony. The second category is the offence of misdemeanour which is declared by law to be a misdemeanour, or is punishable by imprisonment for not less six months but less than three years. All other offences other than felonies and misdemeanours are simple offences.

A person shall not be regarded as having been deprived of his life, if he dies as a result of the use, to such extent and in such circumstances as are permitted by law, of such force as is reasonably necessary 

  • for the defence of any person from unlawful violence or for the defence of property;
  • in order to effect a lawful arrest or to prevent the escape of a person lawfully detained; or
  • for the purpose of suppressing a riot, insurrection or mutiny.

2. Right to Dignity of Human Person

Section 34 of the 1999 Constitution provides that; "every individual is entitled to respect for the dignity of his person, and accordingly;

no person shall be subjected to torture, or to inhuman or degrading treatment;

no person shall be held in slavery or servitude, and

no person shall be required to perform forced or compulsory labour.

This section forbids the use of torture, inhuman or degrading treatment, slavery and servitude, forced or compulsory labour. With regard to section 34 (2) of the Constitution, the right contained in section 34 (1) is not derogated from where the compulsory labour required is in the Armed Forces, the Police Force or any service scheme such as NYSC or that forms part of normal communal or other civil obligation such as monthly sanitation exercise.

3. Right to Personal Liberty

Section 35 (1) provides that every person shall be entitled to his personal liberty and no person shall be deprived of such liberty save in the following cases and in accordance with a procedure permitted by law. This is an important fundamental human right designed to ensure that no citizen is unduly detained or imprisoned at the whim of persons in authority.

The Constitution provides for situations when a person may be deprived of his liberty. They constitute exceptions to the right to personal liberty and are:

  • in the execution of lawful sentence in respect of a criminal offence of which a person has been found guilty,
  • by reason of failure to comply with court's order or any other obligation imposed by law,
  • for the purpose of facilitating his arrest and arraignment in court upon reasonable suspicion of his having committed a criminal offence, or to such extent as may be reasonably necessary to prevent him from committing a criminal offence,
  • in the case of a minor for the purpose of his education or his welfare,
  • for the purpose of facilitating treatment of persons suffering from infectious disease, persons of unsound mind, persons addicted to drugs or alcohol or vagrants, and for the purpose of preventing the unlawful entry of any person into Nigeria or of effecting expulsion, extradition or other removal from Nigeria of any persons.

Under this section, any person who is arrested or detained shall have the right to remain silent or avoid answering any question until after consultation with a legal practitioner of his own choice.

Any person who is arrested or detained shall be informed in writing within twenty-four hours and in the language he understands of the facts and grounds of his arrest or detention. A person who is unlawfully arrested and detained shall be entitled to compensation and public apology from the appropriate authority or persons specified by law.

4. Right to Fair Hearing - Section 36 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended)

In the determination of his civil rights and obligations, including any question or determination by or against any government or authority, a person shall be entitled to a fair hearing within a reasonable time by a court or other tribunal established by law and constituted in such manner as to secure its independence and impartiality.

Sub-sections 1 to 3 of section 36 deal with fair hearing in relation to civil rights and obligations while sub-sections 4 to 12 deal with criminal rights.

Right to fair hearing is the widest and all-embracing fundamental right. At common law, the right to fair hearing is expressed in Latin maxims, "nemo judex in causa sua," meaning, no man shall be a judge in his own cause, and "audi alteram partem," meaning, hear the other side. To the requirement under section 36, the following must be fulfilled:

  • The trial, whether relating to civil obligation or criminal offence, must be conducted in public.
  • The court or tribunal independent and impartial.
  • A person charged with a criminal offence is presumed to be innocent until the contrary is proved.
  • A person charged with a criminal offence shall be entitled to a fair hearing within a reasonable time.
  • A person charged with a criminal offence shall be informed promptly in the language that he understands and in detail of the nature of the offence.
  • A person charged with a criminal offence shall be given adequate time and facilities for the preparation of his defence.
  • A person charged with a criminal offence is entitled to defend himself either in person or by legal practitioners of his own choice.
  • He is entitled to examine, in person or by his legal practitioners, the witnesses called by the prosecution before the court or tribunal and obtain the attendance and carry out the examination of witnesses to testify on his behalf before the court or tribunal.
  • He is entitled to have, without payment, the assistance of an interpreter, if he cannot understand the language used at the trial of the offence.
  • No person shall be held to be guilty of a criminal offence on account of any act or omission that did not, at the time it took place, constitute such an offence, and no penalty shall be imposed for any criminal offence heavier than the penalty in force at the time the offence was committed.
  • No person who shows that he has been tried by a court of competent jurisdiction or tribunal for a criminal offence and either convicted or acquitted shall again be tried for that offence or for a criminal offence having the same ingredients as that offence save upon the order of a superior court.
  • No person who is tried for a criminal offence shall be compelled to give evidence at the trial.
  • Subject as otherwise provided by this Constitution, a person shall not be convicted of a criminal offence unless that offence is defined and the penalty therefore is prescribed in a written law; and in this subsection, a written law refers to an Act of the National Assembly or a law of a State, any subsidiary legislation or instrument under the provisions of a law.

5. Right to Private and Family Right

Section 37 of the Constitution provides for right to private and family life. Right to privacy is a recent phenomenon in Nigeria. In the United States of America, right of privacy relates to the protection of the privacy of persons, their homes, their correspondence, telephone conversations and telephonic communications, letters or any other method of communication.

6. Right to Freedom of Thought, Conscience and Religion

According to section 38 of the 1999 Constitution, every person shall be entitled to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom (either alone or in community with others, and in public or in private) to manifest and propagate his religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance.

No person attending any place of education shall be required to receive religious instruction or to take part in or attend any religious ceremony or observation if such instruction, ceremony or observance relates to a religion other than his own or a religion not approved by his parent or guardian.

No religious community or denomination shall be prevented from providing instruction for pupils that community or denomination in any place of education maintained wholly by that community denomination.

Nothing in this section shall entitle any person to form, take part in the activity or be a member of a secret society.

7. Freedom of Expression and the Press

Section 39(1) provides that every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impact ideas and information without interference. This provision accords with the universal belief that freedom of expression and the press is so fundamental that any law which tends to obstruct the right will not be regarded as law, so to say.

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides for the right of freedom of opinion and expression to everyone. In sub-section 3 of section 39, it is provided that this freedom can only be abridged by a law that is reasonably justifiable in a democratic society. Section 39 of the 1999 Constitution which guarantees freedom of the press cannot be used as a license to spread false news likely to cause fear and alarm to the public.

8. Right to Peaceful Assembly and Association

The right of citizens to assemble and associate themselves together for the aim of forming or propagating the aims and objectives of religious, political and trade union organisations has been acknowledged long ago before it was made a constitutional right. The assembly must however be peaceful and the association for a lawful purpose.

The right of peaceful assembly and association consists in the right of two or more persons to form an association for a common purpose within the limits allowed by law. If the object of their association is unlawful or they pursue or intend to pursue that objective by unlawful means, such persons will be in breach of the law.

9. Right to Freedom of Movement

The 1999 Constitution guarantees the right to freely move throughout the territory of Nigeria and to reside or settle in any part of it without molestation or harassment. This right is coupled with a right not to be expelled or refused entry thereto or exit therefrom.

Under sub-section (2) of this section, this freedom can be restricted by a law that is reasonably justifiable in a democratic society for the purpose of extradition of any person from Nigeria to any other country to be tried outside Nigeria for any criminal offence, or undergo imprisonment outside Nigeria in execution of the sentence of a court of law in respect of a criminal offence for which he has been found guilty.

10. Right to Freedom from Discrimination

Section 42 of the 1999 Constitution provides that no citizen of Nigeria shall be favoured or discriminated against under any law in force in Nigeria or any executive or administrative action by virtue of his community, ethnic group, place of origin, sex, religion or political opinion.

Sub-section (2) provides that no citizen of Nigeria shall be subjected to any disability or deprivation merely by reason of the circumstances of his birth.

11. Right to Acquire and own Immovable Property in Nigeria

This section guarantees the right to acquire and own immovable property anywhere in Nigeria. However, all necessary procedures prescribed by law where the property is situated or is to be acquired must be followed.

12. Compulsory Acquisition of Property

This section provides for the way and manner in which a moveable property or any interest in an immovable property can be compulsorily acquired in Nigeria. To this end, prompt payment of compensation is required where moveable property or any interest in an immovable is to be acquired or where possession of it is to be compulsorily taken over. Such award of compensation should be made by a court or an independent tribunal.


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