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That Helpless, Hearstopping Night

Human Rights

new internationalist
issue 244 - June 1993

Illustration by MIRIAM McCURDY
That helpless,
Some Third World governments claim they should not be expected to
abide by notions about human rights which derive from
Western liberal culture. Nigerian Emmanuel Onwe begs to differ
– and tells a painful personal story to explain why.

My attitude towards human rights stems from two bitter personal experiences. During the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970), my father was abducted by secret agents of the federal forces, tortured and starved of food and drink for 16 days, and then taken on a boat to the middle of a river where he was decapitated while his hands were manacled behind him. His major sin was his wealth which was needed to aid the prosecution of the war. Thousands of other innocent citizens were treated in like manner.

More recently, in May 1986, my contribution to a peaceful demonstration by the students of Ahmadu Bello University Zaria in Nigeria resulted in a horrendous bloodbath in which was carved a painful personal tragedy.

It is a sad story. On what seemed to be a perfectly normal day, I was jolted from an early siesta by a staccato of machine gunfire. I scurried to the window, yanked it open and gazed across the southern wing of the campus. What I saw sent a paralyzing chill down my spine. No sooner had the students’ action begun than the anti-riot squad of the police was drafted in. The sheer numbers of them staggered me. They were firing and killing students in such numbers that the scene seemed absolutely unreal.

I was already in a state of confusion and terror when all of a sudden I heard the heavy thuds of boots crashing up the stairs. Then the white-knuckle fear that gripped me turned into desperation and I swiftly jumped out of the window. This I did more by instinct than by calculation. As I hit the ground, I heard the sound of machine guns raining bullets into the room from which I had jumped.

Doubled over, I ran to my fiancée’s hostel. The entire campus was in pandemonium. Practically nothing seemed real. I have never seen such a state of sustained gunfire before, punctuated only by the agonizing screams of the mortally wounded writhing in pain. Dead and dying bodies littered the pathways and pavements. The sight of so much blood made me feel dizzy. The main campus of the University had become a study in scarlet.

When I finally got to my fiancée’s room, I was pretty close to fainting. First, I saw her shoulder protruding from behind a massive bookshelf. I vividly remember calling out to her and saying, ‘Now honey, come on, let’s get the hell out of this nightmare’. Silence. Then I saw the blood. From under the bookshelf it glided towards me like a stream. I also became conscious enough to notice scores of bullet marks everywhere. She had tried to hide behind the shelf and had been shot from the opposite direction. I steeled myself and attempted moving the shelf but everything came crashing down – the books, the furniture, her corpse. She had been murdered in cold blood. As I looked down on her in helpless stupefaction, my legs began to wobble; lower and lower I sank until total darkness enveloped me....

Four hours later, the chilly cold of the tropical hamartan wind brought me wide awake. I was in jail.

The next morning, when I was taken to a dingy dining hall to queue for my breakfast, I marvelled at the galaxy of men and women around. It was like a who’s who of Nigerian academics, lawyers and journalists, trade-union and human-rights activists, all incarcerated simply for expressing their conscientiously held beliefs. Every night I spent in jail, I heard people crying and confessing to all sorts of fictitious charges as burning cigarettes were extinguished on their bodies or their heads shaved with a piece of broken glass. For 23 nights this went on unabated. I was on the verge of insanity. It was all so macabre.

Human rights in my country are perverse and defy comprehension. I remember an incident in Anambra State in 1982. I was cycling along a major road when suddenly there was a blast of siren – most government functionaries are normally accompanied by motorcades and outriders. Traffic came to a halt while pedestrians scampered to a safe distance to avoid being horse-whipped as had become customary. It was the State Governor in transit. As they sped by, a police officer, standing on the back of a jeep undid his fly and started spraying urine on hapless citizens by the roadside. I saw a baby straddled over its mother’s shoulders get a full blast on its face. I saw also its tongue stuck out as it licked the urine on its lips. Quite frankly, not just the revolting obscenity of the act but the wicked abuse of the child’s innocence made me shed tears.

My letter about this incident was published the next day by a local newspaper. The state government’s reaction was volcanic. The publication was closed down and all its editorial team arrested and detained. I was forced into hiding.

I believe that human-rights abuses in whatever form and wherever they occur should be condemned by anyone who respects human dignity, regardless of race, colour or religion. The struggle for the protection of individual freedom should be waged through constructive partnership and co-operative action between human-rights activists and agencies the world over.

This is a view that obviously does not accord with the arguments of those nations who arrogate to themselves the dubious authority of championing what one can only describe as ‘Third World brands of human rights’. China, Indonesia and Malaysia, amongst others, will argue at the World Conference in Vienna that it is little short of cultural imperialism for the North to impose its own notion of human rights on developing countries which have different traditions. Their argument is cheap political hysteria, typically self-interested and short-sighted. Their readiness to rebuff any notion of civil and political rights is not surprising: they have a vested interest in protecting their own autocratic regimes through repression.

It is neither the culture nor the tradition of citizens of developing countries to have unelected, oppressive regimes imposed on them. A country with China’s appalling human-rights record, with its scorn for democracy and contempt for the aspirations of the Tibetans, has no moral right to send delegates across the world talking about cultural rights. Being Indonesian or Malaysian doesn’t somehow render you culturally or traditionally immune to torture or to the fear that pervades life under a brutal dictatorship.

Besides, there is a huge diversity of views in every developing country and government elites with no democratic mandate cannot claim to be representative of opinion in their own country – let alone of the Third World as a whole. The notion of human liberty is not merely a Western invention. All across the developing world, there is a burgeoning civil society exerting pressure for change on dictatorial regimes; there are courageous individual activists who campaign keenly for the social and economic rights of the poor despite great risk to themselves and their families.

The main point of many Third World governments at the World Conference on Human Rights will be that the North should be prepared to relinquish some of its power and wealth in the global economy. And so it should: I make no case for imperialism. But at the same time I’m wary about the argument that this should precede any human-rights improvements. The tragedy is that the more wealth and power the North relinquishes to the ruling elites of the South, the more wealth and power they will have to turn against their own people. I believe a conducive atmosphere of human freedom should first exist where voices of dissent are not brutally suppressed, where access to land by the urban and rural poor is possible, and where everyone – journalists, students, farmers – is free to hold differing opinions.

On the human-rights issue, if on no other, there should be one universal perspective. A cry of pain, at least, is a universal language which can be understood no matter what culture or tradition you come from.

When you’ve seen something, been something and felt something, you thoroughly UNDERSTAND – and I’ve seen it, been it and felt it. I, bitterly, understand; and so do millions of other citizens from the Third World who are routinely brutalized by their own governments.

Since he was forced into exile from Nigeria, Emmanuel Onwe has lived and worked in London, UK.

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