Amid rampant abuse of the law and power, people in Nigeria are trying a strategy of naming and shaming on live radio at the country’s first radio station devoted to human rights.
ABUJA — At exactly 6.30 in the morning on April 6, several hundred people stood outside the entrance of Human Rights Radio complex in Kaura district of Nigeria’s capital Abuja.
Clutching bags, files and posters, everyone in the crowd was there to seek justice. People with disabilities, civil servants, artisans, pregnant women and firefighters — each one of them hoping to be chosen to go on air. In one corner, a woman clutched her Bible to her chest, muttering incomprehensible words. Another woman held a placard above her head, “Widow crying for justice”.
Four radio station employees pushed through the crowd, trying to pick people based on their complaints. “Every case here is urgent,” an employee with a beard bellowed at a blind man who insisted his problem be heard.
A red Toyota Tundra pickup whizzed into the compound and the "Ordinary" Ahmad Isah hopped out of the van. Dressed in a dark short-sleeved shirt with a patch pocket on the left breast, the man behind the live talk show rushed into the crowd. Isah is often described by his fans as the "Ordinary President".
As Isah mingled with people vying for his attention, he would stop every now and then to ask questions and hear their cases, occasionally reminding the crowd, “I don’t know anybody here.” In the end, Isah invited six possible participants inside the station.
This has been Isah’s routine every day since Human Rights Radio station was launched in February 2017.
But Isah has been all ears to grievances and injustices faced by people in Nigeria for close to a decade now as the host of "Brekete Family", a reality talk show on the radio where guests present their problems to a studio panel that discusses them and offers solutions. "Brekete Family" is now the Human Rights Radio’s flagship show and airs six days a week from 7:30 am to 9 am.
Human Rights Radio broadcasts 24 hours a day on terrestrial radio and television with livestreams on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Periscope.
Some of the programmes aired help provide legal assistance via a network of pro bono lawyers, others focus on human rights education, news and health rights. The network also addresses rights violations faced by people with disabilities, administrative injustices, discrimination, pension matters, sexual violence and unlawful dismissal.
Not all shows have a live audience, but phone-in programmes are also popular with people eager to be heard in a country where they feel the instruments designed to dole out justice are broken.
The goal, Isah says, is to “give a voice to the voiceless,” facilitate arbitration, expose wrongdoings and force those in power to respect rights.
Arbitrary arrests and detention, torture, forced disappearances and the use of force against protesters are common in Nigeria. Human rights activists say there is a culture of impunity.
For some years now Nigeria’s human rights landscape has been largely dominated by the violent actions of the radical armed group Boko Haram; the rape and sexual exploitation of women and girls; unlawful killings due to inter-communal violence between nomadic and farming communities and abuses by Nigerian security officials, according to the World Report by Human Rights Watch.
The report also documents widespread public sector corruption and restrictions on freedom of expression and association due to the government’s intolerance of dissent, the harassment of journalists and the implementation of a 2015 Cyber Crime Act.
Though Nigeria has made “meaningful progress” in certain areas of human rights — overcoming draconian military regimes, for example — it has also “regressed” in others, Abiodun Baiyewu, the Nigeria director for Global Rights, told TRT World.
“A failure to protect women's rights is still a stagnant issue with us ... the systemic acceptance of sexual and gender-based violence in most states is worrisome,” Baiyewu added.
Nelson Olanipekun, a legal practitioner with a focus in human rights, feels Nigeria hasn’t made much progress. “Almost everywhere you turn, you see a degree of human rights abuse,” including police brutality and extrajudicial killings, he said.
“A lot of human rights violations happen because the victims are not knowledgeable; they do not know how to protect themselves though we have laws that protect citizens,” said Chibueze Ebii, communications manager at the Heinrich Böll Foundation.
Activists say institutional arrangements for the protection of human rights in Nigeria are anything but effective, in spite of the establishment of the National Human Rights Commission.
“We hardly see their efforts lately,” Olanipekun said. “Two months ago, I sent a letter requesting the commission to investigate and open a nationwide call for complaints of human rights abuse by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad.”
“There has been no feedback and no step taken by the commission to stop the abuse being meted out by SARS,” Olanipekun said.
SARS, a unit of the Nigerian Police Force, has consistently been accused of human rights abuses, including torture and harassment.
“Where institutions are weak, the abuse of rights is inevitable,” Baiyewu of Global Rights said.
“Often when we speak of rights, we engage in abstract concepts and use highfalutin words — we forget more than half of our people do not have formal education and are not literate in English,” Baiyewu said.
Human Rights Radio, however, is in pidgin English, which is the language widely spoken across West and Central Africa. The fluidity of pidgin English allows for new words that slowly take on a shared meaning.
“Take rights down to the grass-root level, in languages people understand, connect [rights] to their everyday lives and see how well they respond,” she said.
“Instruments like the Human Rights Radio in pidgin English and local languages are absolutely brilliant and inclusive,” she added.
Isah who doesn’t like talking about his age — though the station’s website says he was born in the early 70s — is very proud of the initiative.
“It’s the largest family in the world with members from every part of the world,” he said.
“Brekete means large [in Hausa language]; this one is a special family where everybody is important,” he said, adding that listeners regularly phone in from countries as far as Japan, the United Kingdom, the United States and Russia.
The "Ordinary President" is known to phone government officials or institutions during live shows to hear their version when public complaints involve them. While Isah can be ruthless with his words when it comes to taking government officials or agencies to task, he also praises them when they address complaints without delay.
Isah usually begins the programme with the usual greeting "Hembelembe" to which the studio audience responds in unison, “Olololoooo.” Hembelembe means “He that has nobody has God” and Olololoooo means “He that has God has everything,” Isah explained.
In an episode of "Brekete Family" in early April, the case on the docket was of a police officer who said he was unlawfully arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment.
“This man became blind because other people in the prison kept maltreating him and pinching him in the eyes,” Isah thundered, referring to the policeman led into the studio by his 15-year-old son.
“What has he done to deserve this?” Glaring at one of his staffers, Isah asked, “I asked you to go to the police headquarters and see the police chief, what did he say?”
“We waited for several hours but nobody attended to us,” the staff member responded.
Losing his temper, Isah ordered his team to phone the police public relations officer (PRO) immediately.
When Jimoh Moshood, the PRO, picked up, Isah asked him why the blinded policeman had to endure hardship to get justice.
“I want to apologise on behalf of the police and myself,” Moshood said on air, and requested the victim be brought back again the same day to meet the police chief.
Naming and shaming people involved in the violations of human rights has helped Isah in his fight for justice. Powerful people, particularly public officials or company heads, are wary of being called out on air, so whenever Isah phones them to put forward a complaint, they try to tackle it in a timely manner.
But — for meaningful change — Ebii of Heinrich Böll Foundation believes education remains the main catalyst. “We need to go beyond naming and shaming and exposing to education, making people aware of their human rights and the laws people can take advantage of.”
Isah’s popularity in Abuja is easily noticeable. Most taxi drivers tune in at 7:30 am so commuters can listen to the "Brekete Family" show on their way to work.
“The first thing I do when I step out of my door every day is to put in my earphones and listen to the Human Rights Radio,” Victor Agi, a public relations practitioner in Abuja said.
“The reality in Abuja is that while other stations enjoy listenership, Human Rights Radio enjoy overwhelming followership.”
Isah’s work has earned him several titles, including "Voice of the Voiceless", "Grand Commander of the Ordinary Nigerians" and two honorary doctorate degrees from the Espam Formation University in the West African nation Benin.
He believes obstacles in his early years prepared him for the challenge of fighting for the rights of people. His father died when he was still “very young” and “my family had to struggle to survive,” he said.
“I have tasted disappointment, suffering, hardship,” Isah said. Just as he was about to start talking again, his cell phone vibrated — and this happens quite often — and Isah dashed to the walnut desk piled with case papers and letters to answer the call.
“Go to court first, obtain an affidavit, then write a letter of complaint and you can come and see us,” he said after listening to the caller. This is the routine for every person who wants justice, he said, before going back to talking about his personal struggle.
“Coming from a poor background helped me realise how much people go through every day in terms of oppression and poverty, so I know the value of being there for someone when they need your help.”
Human Rights Radio expanded its remit to offer a vocational training programme for a small fee; fund raise for the poor or people with disabilities, and in some cases, to help poor families restart their lives again.
Support for the radio came from the MacArthur Foundation and Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA), much of which went into purchasing equipment and setting up a broadcasting complex. Advertisements are used to cover running costs, staff salaries and taxes.
The fight for human rights comes with personal costs for Isah. There are over 200 court cases filed against the man. In March, Isah was in the witness box for over three hours for speaking up for a young woman who was abused at her place of work.
Then there have been occasions when Isah and his colleagues take up a case, only to realise later that the complainant was lying.
Recently, one woman came forward claiming the government had not paid her the compensation due after her husband, a military man, was killed in the war-ravaged northeastern region of Nigeria. After some scrutiny, the radio staff figured out that she lied.
“I am human; I felt bad,” Isah admitted, quickly adding he doesn’t agonise over these challenges. “I am not deterred in any way,” he said, “I am not doing it for money, I am not doing it for any material gain.”
Outside the station, dozens of people loiter around waiting for someone to hear their complaint. For hundreds who desperately seek justice, this place — which is tucked away from the high-rises and hubbub of uptown neighbourhoods in Abuja — is home.