Human Rights and Nigeria's Economic Recession

The reversed order in the economic space of Nigeria conforms to the Orwellian 1984 tale. Having successfully formed an extant part of history and being willed into existence from Lord Lugard’s colonial laboratory of artificial insemination by colonial friends, Nigeria has had to deal with grave issues that surround her, deciding he who pursues and he who runs. Some have proved insurmountable, while others have been buried as soon as their heads rose. The economy of Nigeria is one of such grave issues, having evolved through the phase of agriculture as the economic mainstay up until the oil wealth.

Human Rights and Nigeria's Economic Recession

A brief sweep into history contains details of Nigeria’s economic slip into recession. As indicated in the 2016 second quarter report of the National Bureau of Statistics, Nigeria’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) contracted by 2.06 per cent. The report includes that decline has caused the Naira to go weaker while lower oil prices dragged the oil sector down. The report also showed that agriculture had picked, showing the government’s determination to shift the nation’s revenue source away from crude oil to agriculture.
Human Rights over the years has evolved with our economic systems ranking from the development model after the Second World War, focused on growth and development at the macro-economic level. Today we observe a broadening of the term development to include a distinct micro-level perspective which also takes into account individual well-being. This individual component is closely linked to the recognition of the instrumental role of individual participation and choice for development and underlines that particular attention that has to be paid to disadvantaged and most-marginalized groups. Furthermore, the emergence of ‘good governance’ in the late 1980s reflects a growing awareness that development in economic terms cannot be detached from capacity building and institutional considerations in the political field.
These changing perceptions eventually paved the way for increased attention to the relationship between economic development and democratic governance as well as for an enhanced role for human rights as a means and objective of development.

With regard to the inclusion of human rights in development two approaches can be noted. From a more traditional perspective, development and human rights are in principle still viewed as two distinct concepts and fields of activity. Within such an approach, human rights projects and programmes are simply ‘added’ to the traditional activities of development co-operation, which itself is understood as aiming primarily at economic (and social) development.

The Nigerian Economy Before Now

When the civilian administration of President Olusegun Obasanjo came into power in 1999, the exchange rate was NGN 85 to USD 1. In the following years, the naira so depreciated that USD 1 could buy NGN 114.50 in the official markets and NGN 138 in the parallel market. The 2002 budget however proposed a whopping 38% cut in capital expenditures from the 2001 level. If added to huge allocations of NGN 49.6 billion to the presidency, and NGN 10 billion to the National Identity Card Project, all of which are and still are unproductive sectors, the question remains “How much real investment does Nigeria have? What is our real income? And how much do we have for the future?”
The instance of allocating NGN 31.4 billion instead of NGN 20.5 billion for defence in the 2001 budget where less than 50% of funds were disbursed occurred again in 2000. It happened in 2001 and in 2001 because the National Assembly and government remained uninformed to the liquidity crisis. While striving to build a strong economy, the government therefore paid no attention to the prevailing exchange rate regulations.
The greatest betrayal Nigerians ever witnessed in her economic scene is the proposed 2002 budget where allocations were made to the agricultural sector. Though the Nigerian agricultural sector was in shambles and needed a revamp, it still contributed the lion’s share to employment and the GDP AT 33%. Since one of the principal and cardinal objectives of the 2002 budget is the alleviation of poverty, one would have expected the allocation to agriculture to reflect this intention. Instead, we find the allocation to agriculture to be a paltry 3.8 billion, about one-third of what was allocated to the white elephant- the National Identity Card Project.

As human right advocates, there lay no problem in choosing sides as pertain the welfarist-monetarist divides. It is simply a matter of equity that should people have jobs, inflation can be contained.

The Nigerian Economy as at 2016

Nigeria slipped into recession with the latest growing figures showing that the economy contracted 2.06% between April and June, 2016. We have thus seen consecutive quarters of declining growth, a practical definition of recession. The oil industry with crude oil sales account for 70% of government income was also hit by weaker global prices, (Nigerian Bureau of Statistics- NBS) making the price of oil fall from about $112 a barrel in 2014 to below $50 at the moment. Outside the oil industry, the figures showed that the fall in the Nigerian currency, the naira, has hurt the economy. It was allowed to float freely in June to help kick-start the economy. The government admitted that there had been strong growth in other sectors by finding positive news in the figures based on the growth in the agricultural and solid minerals sectors, areas where the federal government had placed priority

Nigeria slipped into recession because:
  • Nigeria runs an oil-dependent economy. Experts and analysts have blamed successive governments for operating mono-product economy, based on oil which is vulnerable to economic challenges.
  • Nigeria lacks sustainable developmental strategies. Nigeria is not only an oil-producing nation but a rental economy. As such, collecting rents from multinationals that produce the country’s natural resources cannot be used as bias for development.
  • there is a mismanagement of Nigeria’s petroleum revenues. The little made off oil is practically misused and managed to the detriment of the nation
  • the government engages in excessive borrowing
  • there are high interest rates and Inflation.

The Inter-American Democratic Charter, adopted by the General Assembly of the Organisation of American States in 2001, defines democracy in Article 3 as: 
the access to and the exercise of power in accordance with the rule of law, the holding of periodic, free, and fair elections based on secret balloting and universal suffrage as an expression of the sovereignty of the people, the pluralistic system of political parties and organisations, and the separation of powers and independence of the branches of government.

When the relationship between human rights and development was established in the 1970s, the link between the two concepts was often connected with debates about democracy and the discontinuation of assistance to a country whose government grossly violated human rights and the punitive aspect of the linkage appeared to prevail in public opinion. Most donors have had experiences with the withdrawal of aid, often a much debated and not necessarily effective measure; and active promotion of human rights through, for example, assistance to the judiciary or human rights institutions, can be interpreted as interference in internal affairs.
In the course of the 1980s, the relationship between human rights and development co-operation began to take on a different form. The use of development co-operation to promote human rights through, e.g., additional support to democratizing governments, support to human rights NGOs or decentralized co-operation, received increasing attention. Gradually, human rights became part of the dialogue between donors and recipients. One of the first instruments formally establishing the linkage and confirming the emerging human rights policy was the Lomé III Convention between the EC and its partner states in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific (signed in 1984). Human rights were mentioned in the Preamble of the Convention and further elaborated upon in the joint declarations attached to it. The dramatic changes in Central and Eastern Europe in 1989 influenced governments’ views on the relationship between human rights and sustainable development, generating an approach where the individual was placed at the Centre, becoming the main protagonist and beneficiary of development. The conviction emerged that, in the long term, respect for human rights, the rule of law, political pluralism and effective, accountable political institutions form the basis of all development and equitable distribution.
The right to development is another principle deeply rooted in the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the International Human Rights Covenants. Development and human rights are intricately linked. As such, numerous documents have explicitly acknowledged their indivisibility, including the Declaration on the Right to Development (1986), the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007), the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action (1993) and the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development (1992)
Hand in hand, both development and human rights movements share the same enthusiasm and motivation to promote the freedom, well-being and dignity of individuals. On the one hand human development improves the capabilities and freedoms of individuals while on the other hand human rights provide the framework for a social arrangement that facilitates and secures capabilities and freedoms expressed by human development. Article 1 of the Declaration on the Right to Development states that:
The right to development is an inalienable human right by virtue of which every human person and all peoples are entitled to participate in, contribute to, and enjoy economic, social, cultural and political development, in which all human rights and fundamental freedoms can be fully realised.

The preamble of the Declaration also states that:
Development is a comprehensive economic, social, cultural and political process, which aims at the constant improvement of the well being of the entire population and of all individuals on the basis of their active, free and meaningful participation in development and in the fair distribution of benefits resulting there from.

Article 1 identifies the human person as the beneficiary of the right to development. It imposes obligations on individual states to ensure equal and adequate access to essential resources and on the international community to promote fair development policies and effective international co-operation.

An important achievement in establishing the relationship between human rights and development were the so-called ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ (SDGs). At the UN Millennium Summit in 2000, world leaders agreed upon a set of time-bound and measurable goals and targets for combating poverty, hunger, disease, illiteracy, environmental degradation and discrimination against women. These goals aim at achieving measurable progress in a number of specific fields which are considered essential for human development and several lead to increased enjoyment of human rights, such as primary education. The goals provide a framework for development co-operation institutions to work coherently together towards a common end. Close co-operation is imperative as a large majority of nations can only reach the MDGs with substantial support from outside. Progress toward the SDGs is being measured on a regular basis.

The SDGs have led to increased emphasis on human rights-based approaches to development and poverty reduction. A human rights-based approach deals with the substance of the development support initiatives, but focuses on the way in which development is being approached. The human rights-based approach, in essence, requires that policies and institutions working on development and reduction of poverty base themselves on the obligations that emanate from the international human rights conventions (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights, CERD, CEDAW, CAT, CRC and CRPD). 

Human rights are inherent to the person and belong equally to all human beings and their realization has to be carried out as a participatory, egalitarian and transparent process. Human rights instruments, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, provide a coherent framework for practical action at the international and domestic levels to reduce poverty. The human rights-based approach to poverty reduction upholds the principles of universality and indivisibility, empowerment and transparency, accountability and participation.         

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) plays a central role within the UN in realizing the human rights-based approach to development by focusing its policy, programming and capacity development support to this approach. In particular, it encourages all actors to adopt a human rights-based approach in tailoring and customizing the Sustainable Development Goals targets to the local context.Focuses on the capacities of duty-holders to meet their obligations to respect, protect and fulfill rights; as well as the capacities of rights-bearers to claim their rights.Enhances the synergy between poverty reduction and democratic governance.Programmes for local governance, access to justice, capacity of human rights institutions, grassroots initiatives for community development, and human rights education will be included among pro-poor poverty programming.Engages in the work of UN Treaty Bodies; particularly strives to incorporate selected and relevant recommendations that result from periodic reviews into its programme development.Promotes and supports participatory assessment methodologies that link rights, obstacles and strengths around which poor people can secure their livelihood.Build in-house capacity to undertake multi-disciplinary review and analysis that maximize meaningful participation of the poor. The human rights-based approach is a perspective and process that can lead more directly to increased enjoyment of human rights. Development processes – traditionally technical and economically orientated - are becoming increasingly focused on enjoyment of rights and promotion of values. One of the most important aspects of this approach is the increased recognition of poverty as one of the greatest barriers to the universal enjoyment of human rights. In short, HRBA aims for sustainable outcomes by analyzing and addressing the inequalities, discriminatory practices and unjust power relations which are often at the heart of development problems.

    1.      Solve extreme poverty and hunger.
    2.      Achieve universal primary education.
    3.      Empower women and promote equality between women and men.
    4.      Reduce under-five mortality by two-thirds.
    5.      Reduce maternal mortality by three-quarters.
    6.      Reverse the spread of killer diseases, especially HIV/AIDS and malaria.
    7.      Ensure environmental sustainability.
    8.      Create a global partnership for development, with targets for aid, trade and debt relief.

The public policy responses to economic recession from the angle of The Human Right analyst has its background in the United Nations International Covenant on economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). With the conglomeration of the financial, fuel and food crises, the global economic crisis is devastating lives and livelihoods across the world and it is rapidly turning into a human rights crisis. One year on from the near-collapse of the international financial system, this briefing explores the human rights dimensions of the crisis, its causes and consequences, and worldwide responses.From an economic perspective, the harmful impacts of the crisis on human lives and dignity tend to be seen as tragic but inevitable consequences of unpredictable and uncontrollable market forces. A human rights perspective challenges this complacency; these devastating consequences are not inevitable, nor should they be acceptable. The causes of the crisis can be clearly located in human decisions and concrete actions (or inactions) of governments and powerful economic actors, and shouldnot be seen as the result of forces outside of human control. A human rights approach demandsaccountability for these human decisions. It requires that negative effects be avoided or mitigated and itempowers people affected to demand respect for their human rights.

The following are portions of these international documents and authorities that define positive response from the economic and human right view respectively:
  • The Human Right to economic, political, social and cultural development which is sustainable, resulting in fair distribution of benefits to individuals and people in a society, and which allows for the realization of all other human rights.
  • The Human Right to an International environment where human right to development and all other human rights can be fully realized.
  • The human right to full and equal participation in developmental and environmental planning and decision-making, and in shaping all policies affecting one’s community and living conditions at the local, national and international levels.
  • The right to an adequate standard of living, including access to safe food, water and housing.
  • The human right to work and to receive wages that contribute to an adequate standard of living.
  • The human right to safe working conditions
  • The human right to equal access for all persons to productive resources
As inferred from the provisions of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the question remains: “What do we make of an economy if not the standard of living, the collective focus of money and the management of money, the means of subsistence”

“Economy is an area of the production, distribution, or trade, and consumption of goods and services by different agents in a given geographical location[10]”

The government’s development initiatives have not managed to reduce poverty in the country and have also failed to diversify a petroleum-based economy, with a non-sustainable extraction led-growth model still being applied. This has led to severe environmental degradation, with alarming desertification and erosion trends. The Nigerian government has to rethink its strategies and adopt environmentally friendly long-term planning policies based on renewable energy sources and adequately environmental management. The poor should be empowered and given stake in managing the environment and natural resources.

Birthed in 1954 and signed on the 16th December, 1966, the International Covenant on economic, Social and Cultural Rights became effective on 3rd January, 1976 as a document of the United Nations Trusteeship Agreements listed by the General Assembly as Non-self governing. It is a declaration of the essentials of a man’s life. Part 1, Article1 of this document recognizes the right of “all people” to freely pursue their economic, social and cultural goals. It also contains a clause that enables the management and disposal of resources by individuals. It covers the negative right that a people should not be deprived of their necessary means of subsistence and that the persons in authority should respect the individual’s economic decisions.

As relates Nigeria’s economy development and human right, Clauses of concern include an individual’s right to
  • Work under “just and favourable conditions”,with the right to form and join trade unions
  • An adequate standard of living, including adequate food, clothing and housing and the continuous improvement of living conditions.
  • Health, specifically the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.
  • Education, including free universal primary education, generally available secondary education, and equally accessible higher education. This should be directed to the full development of the human personality and the sense of its dignity and enable all persons to participate effectively in society

The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights makes general recommendations to the General Assembly of the United Nations Organisation on appropriate measures to realize these rights. However, certain factors have frustrated these recommendations and the realization of these rights subsequently. A good example of this is the clause that covers education:

    “Education, including free universal primary education, generally available secondary education, and equally accessible higher education. This should be directed to the full development of the human personality and the sense of its dignity and enable all persons to participate effectively in society”

The above clause and others, backed with the principle of progressive realization in the ICESCR, which states that:
all parties shall take steps…to the maximum of its available resources, with a view to achieving progressively, the full realisation of the rights recognized in the present covenant by all appropriate means, including particularly, the adoption of legislative measures

have been unfollowed by the principles in Nigeria’s legislation. Or what do we say of a constitution which upon following the Education clause in the ICESCR includes more of a condition stating:
“Government shall strive to eradicate illiteracy; and to this end, Government shall as and when practicable, provide-
    (a)   Free, compulsory and universal primary education;
    (b)   Free university education; and
    (c)    Free adult literacy programme”

This is more of a deliberately regressive measure which impede the goal of the ICESCR despite the minimum core obligations to provide at the least, minimum essential levels of each of the rights. The Nigerian budgets too have been easier said than done as in the last ten years, they have retained certain common goals and policies namely:
  • Alleviate poverty by fostering opportunities for job creation
  • Achieve high economic growth through better mobilization and prudent use of economic resources.
  • Build a strong economy by encouraging private sector participation (privatisation)
  • Ensure good governance by transforming development administration into a service and result-oriented system.
The fact remains still, that while the goals cannot be faulted, the means for their achievement, that is, the budgetary allocations paint quite a different picture.

  • World hunger will reach an historic high in 2009 with more than one billion people going hungry every day (FAO, 2009). This means that one in six people will be too poor to eat adequately. The food crisis that occurred as a result of the rapid rise in food prices in 2008 is far from over, as food prices remain high in 40 developing countries and the loss of jobs and remittances produce further food insecurity (N Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, 2009). Chronic malnutrition will affect children’s physical and intellectual development for the rest of their lives.
  • The sub-prime mortgage housing crisis has left many people without homes or shelters, making many people face foreclosure, some of them victims of fraud and abusive practices by mortgage brokers[20]. In developing countries, the number of people living in slums will rise, and millions more slum dwellers will face lack of access to clean water and sanitation, and increased insecurity of tenure.
  • The World Bank estimates that up to 90 million more men, women and children may be pushed into poverty, in addition to the estimated 160 to 200 million people who fell into poverty as a result of the food crisis between 2005 and 2008. Greater poverty, and the hunger that it brings, will threaten the right to life and health of many of these people, especially children.
  • The rights of women are also particularly at risk, as unemployment and social unrest can translate into greater violence against women. Female workers, who tend to be concentrated in the informal economy with lower wages and less employment protection, are losing their jobs and incomes
  • Human trafficking is expected to escalate as the economic crisis fuels poverty and unemployment.
  • Every year during this crisis, about 400,000 more children will die before they reach their fifth birthday simply because their families cannot afford food or basic medical care for preventable diseases, according to estimates[23]. And the impact will be hardest in the poorest countries: “While people in developed countries are feeling the impacts on their standards of living, their jobs and their homes, people in developing countries are bearing the brunt of the crisis, with few safety-nets to protect them from severe poverty and deprivation, and without the fiscal capacity and space to soften the blow” (ESCR-Net, 2009).

Way Out: Practical Solutions

  • Acknowledge Human Rights: The believe in the existence of a thing forms a doctrine, a principle and thereafter, a way of life. The principles of Human Rights should be accepted as “existing” and regarded as such.
  • Respect for Human Rights: This does not only cover in the case of violation, but extends to the point where an individual chooses not to go against the equal human rights of the other as they have same. Let human rights be respected and upheld in society.
  • Protect Human Rights: In the case that the human rights of an individual has been tampered with, proper shield should be made in reserves for the abused party. It forms a wall of security as to subsequent actions that could follow the abuse of human rights as it is a case that could be judged locally (within Nigeria) or at the ICC- International Criminal Court.
  • Imbue it in Economic and Fiscal Policies of State: The economic and fiscal policies of the state should be intellectually arranged with the principles of human rights fully imbued therein. A policy that would build up economic strength, provide landmark and satisfying living conditions would be loved by Nigerians.


As the financial crisis has spilled over into the real economy, it has had, as we have seen, devastating effects on lives and livelihoods across the world, especially on the poorest people in the poorest countries; Practical , with women and children, migrants and minorities bearing the brunt. The economic crisis threatens the full range of human rights. It threatens not only economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to an adequate standard of living and the rights to health, housing, food and education, but also civil and political rights. It is still too early to tell the full extent of the damage caused by the crisis, but poor and low-income families across the world are being badly hit. It is therefore in the light of these aforementioned and measures informed in this piece that the future of any economy can be rebuilt on the wings of human rights.

  • The Spotlight on Sustainable Development 2016.
  • UNDP, Human Development Report 2010: The Real Wealth of Nation, (New York; 2010).



This Article was adapted and updated from the original essay titled Human Rights as a Tool of National Development; A way out of Recession by Nelson Vincent Ayomitunde (2016)

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