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The latest letter from Nigeria (by Geoffrey Care),

A LETTER FROM NIGERIA - by Geoffrey Care.

This time my letter is from the North or rather about it. Though, to bring the last letter up to date, there have been some encouraging developments, at least on paper, concerning the prison population in the country.

A Judicial Report last week urges a review of the situation of all prison inmates; the release of those whose papers have been lost; those who have been on death row for 20 years (!); and, many others. From discussions I have had with senior judiciary and human rights personnel they are all well aware of the situation. Judges are supposed to inspect the prisons and in some states do so.

According to reports in a newspaper (THISDAYLAW News) last week, the comment on Nigeria's Periodic Report to the 40th Session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights was that the "90 page report was bulky in volume but empty in content" and the Nigerian human rights record fails to improve.

The airport at Port Harcourt is closed for refurbishment, so it is said, and the nearest airport is Owerri which is 3½ hours away over more potholes than road - common for this area. We, therefore, decided to travel the whole way (9 hours and about 900 km) to the capital Abuja in a 7 seater People Carrier (there are luxury buses as well).

We took a circuitous route, travelling first through Delta, Bayelsa and Edo States thence to Kogi and the Federal Capital Territory, where Abuja is sited.

Delta, Bayelsa and Edo together with Rivers comprise the Niger Delta as a whole from where the oil is produced. Yenagoa, which we passed, has been one of the centres of the kidnapping of foreign oil workers and, generally, it is inadvisable for a white man to travel these parts. Security in the whole Delta area is poor and though there are numbers of groups committed to a resolution of the conflicts, there does not appear to be any concerted policy by those in power aimed at solving the issues that are at the root of the violence.

The countryside is traversed by wide rivers and dense forest - though the large and majestic hardwood trees are fast disappearing under the axe to feed a voracious appetite for building and firewood. One passes near to the town of Sapele, which gives its name to the wood.

Once out of the delta the roads improve and after passing the confluence of the Niger and the Benue Rivers at Lokoja (once the capital of Nigeria) they become increasingly pothole free. Also we leave behind most of the police checkpoints - every few miles in most other parts. They are all armed and it is not uncommon for them to leash them off killing innocent passengers in cars and taxis.

Abuja has a Territory of its own. All the foreign missions are there and it is the seat of the Federal Government. Each University has its own guesthouse (we stayed in one) and each State, as well, I think. I am not sure whether this is a hangover from colonial times when there was a tradition of rest or guest houses - in the absence of hotels. There is no shortage of hotels now, however, in Abuja.

When I first went to Abuja, before Government and the foreign missions moved there thirty years ago, it was an arid, hilly area with two impressive buildings facing each other - the Mosque and the copper roofed Anglican Cathedral. Today it is a rapidly developing city of 5 million people.

The governor has his own clearance programme for unauthorized buildings. In other countries this just means clearing out the poor - not so here, the unauthorised buildings of the rich go too. Even when the poor indigene is cleared out of the city housing is provided for him to a standard he could never have hoped for in his life, but 10-20 miles out.

The other step is the banning of the "Okada" from the centre of town. Everywhere else in every town and village there are droves of these small motorcycles used to taxi people around cheaply. No helmets, no pillion seats and often carrying up to 4 people and 10 foot sheets of corrugated iron!

Iso and I had dinner at the home of the former FCJ Muhammadu Uwais and were treated with great hospitality by his wives and himself. He was on the Supreme Court for 27 years and Chief Justice for 11.

Maryam, his junior wife is an active and most thoughtful lawyer and is very active in the area of Human Rights especially for children and women. The harmony between religions here is a breath of fresh air after Europe. Individual Muslims and Christians in Nigeria have always, in the past, lived in harmony it is interference from outside that has introduced the sort of vicious controversy to be found in so many other parts of the world.

Admittedly the North has ruled Nigeria since Independence but the approach to such issues as women, children and some of the more controversial aspects of Sharia law can be debated with sympathetic understanding and intelligence, at least in many influential quarters. In others, the picture may not be so rosy. There is a clear distinction in the minds of some highly placed and influential Muslims between what is simply culture - such as head covering which is regarded as an Arab culture not religion - and what is Islamist - such as the division of a husband's estate on his death.

We next went to Kaduna, formerly the Capital City of the Northern Territory, where Lugard was once the Governor. The Legislative Assembly buildings were put up in his time and retain his name to this day, Lugard House. It has been repainted and refurbished since I was there last 28 years ago. The State has a bigger population than Denmark and is predominantly Hausa. Many of the influential families being descended directly from Usman dan (or bin) Fodio originally a Malam who, I understand, came here from Senegal and is much revered.

A direct descendant of his has become a firm friend of mine - despite his encounters with the IAA over 10 years ago, when he had sought asylum in a much publicized appeal following one of the military coups that toppled a government in which he was Minister of Transport.

An air of former times is strongly present. One unusual feature perhaps is the siting of the Convict Prison - right in the middle of the town - with high, very white and not all-forbidding walls.

We were taken round a Kaduna State School that caters for the special needs of the Blind, Deaf and Dumb. We were struck on entering just how peaceful it was. There are 800 pupils from 8 years up to secondary school, being taught with the most basic of aids: yet the blind read in perfect English from brail pages and the deaf and dumb from chalk boards and very minimal books.

The dedication of both sighted and blind teachers is marked. These children would have been begging on the streets if there were no such school for them. As a matter of fact, we never saw a single beggar on the streets of Kaduna, adult or child.

We hear much in Europe of persecution of Christians in the Muslim north. No doubt it is to be found, but I suspect more at the poorer ends of society. One girl we met at the school had converted from Islam to Christianity and, from all we heard, she was shunned among her own Muslim community but I heard nothing which suggested that what she suffered amounted to persecution - and she was there freely living in a Muslim area. Maybe when violence erupts things are different for her.

Election fever has started already - elections for a new President take place in May next year and there are at the moment 29 aspirants from one party alone, by the time the nominations close there could be up to nearly one hundred who think they are presidential material.

I was unable to meet with the present Federal Chief Justice Belgore, whom I first encountered when at Jos nearly 30 years ago. He, however, will retire himself in February and the new incumbent is not yet known - which is why it was not possible for Nigeria to make any offer in Mexico to host the next IARLJ World Conference - though it is hoped to hold the next Africa Chapter meeting here. With the cooperation of ECOWAS, hopefully, all West African States will be involved.

The journey back was not quite so comfortable and was three hours longer - and our route was even more circuitous. Between the journey up and back, I think we traversed all the minor roads between here and Abuja!

Geoffrey Care
December 2006
Port Harcourt.

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