Herdsmen Attacks: Nigeria’s International Human Rights Obligations

Nigeria’s primary obligation to uphold the Fundamental Human Rights of her citizens is entrenched in Chapter IV of the 1999 Constitution while international obligations derives from association with notable organisations such as the United Nations and the African Union. International Treaties enacted by these organisations become applicable and enforceable once ratified by national legislature. As such, citizens may rely on several ratified UN Conventions, and the African Union’s African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (Application and Enforcement) LFN 2004 in enforcing their human rights. Though existing independently, these treaties embody the same rights contained in the 1999 Constitution to promote the welfare of all people on the principle of freedom, equality and justice. The present herdsmen crises has threatened, if not adversely breached, these rights with little to no solution given to curb the menace. This article attempts to highlight the crux of the crisis, identify applicable international human rights laws, state the remedies available for victims and emphasize the duty of the state to uphold the internationally recognized rights of persons.

Brief History of the Crisis

Communal violence between local farmers and herdsmen have plagued northern Nigeria for many years, according to the NGO, Human Rights Watch. The conflict stems from the unavailability of pastoral land for cattle owned by herdsmen who resolved to forcefully acquire ancestral land belonging to sedentary farmers. It is more bothersome that the culprits are foreigners from the nomadic ethnic Fula people existing across West Africa. Statistics collated by the group, Search for Common Ground, reveal that in 2016 alone, 2,500 people were killed; 62,000 people displaced; $13.7 billion lost to the clashes and 47 per cent of the internally generated revenue, lost in the affected states. The Fulani Herdsmen and supporters have systematically attacked several rural communities in Nigeria causing loss of lives and property, actions contrary to the Nigerian Constitution and International Human Rights Conventions. Recently, Amnesty International reported that in 2017, 549 deaths were recorded across 14 states with thousands displaced while in January of 2018 alone, 168 lives have been lost.

International Conventions in Breach

Nigeria as a member of the United Nations is signatory to a number of International Conventions on Human Rights, notably; The Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women; and The Convention on the Rights of the Child. More so, every member state of the UN is obliged to uphold the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. Since Nigeria operates a dualist system, not all UN Treaties on human rights have received ratification, mainly; The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and The International Covenant on Civil and Political rights. However, ratified legislation uphold sufficiently the inalienably rights of persons as contained in the Constitution and the African Union Charter. Considering the actions of the Herdsmen, there are two major rights in breach; i.e. the right to life and right to property.

The 1999 Constitution

Section 33(1) provides “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”. Section 42 (1)(b) further states “A citizen of Nigeria of a particular community, ethnic group, place of origin, sex, religion or political opinion shall not, by reason only that he is such a person be accorded either expressly by, or in the practical application of, any law in force in Nigeria or any such executive or administrative action, any privilege or advantage that is not accorded to citizens of Nigeria of other communities, ethnic groups, places of origin, sex, religions or political opinions”. Section 43 also states “…every citizen of Nigeria shall have the right to acquire and own immovable property anywhere in Nigeria”.

Applying these provisions to the present case, no criminal case or sentence was obtained against the farmers who were mercilessly deprived of life by herdsmen. More so, murder is not a legal means of acquiring land in Nigeria or anywhere else. On the position of unfair advantage, the suggestion by government that certain acres of land be identified as grazing fields or cattle ranches by each state and handed over to herdsmen to the detriment of long time land owners, contravenes the provisions of the Constitution and International Conventions.


Though, the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights is not in itself a treaty, it is a definitive document of the Charter which is binding on all member states. Equally, it served as the foundation for the UN’s International Covenants and as such may be evoked by persons to buttress the enforcement of their human rights. Article 3 states “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person” while Article 17 states (1) “Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others; and (2) “No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property”.

AU Charter

The regional convention, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights also contains similar provisions. Article 4 states, “Human beings are inviolable. Every human being shall be entitled to respect for his life and the integrity of his person. No one may be arbitrarily deprived of this right”. Article 14 states, “The right to property shall be guaranteed. It may only be encroached upon in the interest of public need or in the general interest of the community and in accordance with the provisions of appropriate laws.”

It is submitted that the Grazing Bill, Nigerian legislature’s proposed solution, is incompatible with the Land Use Act and against the interest of the public. This is because land ownership is vested in the governor of a state and the transfer of such powers to a ‘Grazing Commission’ as suggested by the bill is unconstitutional. The proposed bill also fails to satisfy the test of protecting the interest of the public, as securing grazing routes for violent foreign nomadic herdsmen does not benefit Nigerians.

Enforcement of Rights and Available Remedies

The right to life and right to property have been identified as the major rights being violated, how then do the victims evoke the provisions of international human rights laws and what remedies are available to them? In accordance with s46 (1) of the Constitution, a person who alleges actual or imminent infringement of his/her human rights should seek redress at the High Court. Following the procedure contained in the Fundamental Rights (Enforcement Procedure) Rules 2009, provisions of International law may be evoked in his/her application.

The remedies available under international human rights law are same as traditional remedies and in harmony with the provision of Nigeria’s Constitution. In determining a case alleging breach of human rights, section 42(2) empowers the High Court to “make such orders, issue such writs and give such directions as it may consider appropriate for the purpose of enforcing and securing the enforcement of any rights to which the person is entitled.” Though there is no mention of specific remedies, the remedies implied and awarded by the courts in practice are injunction, habeas corpus, declaration, mandamus, prohibition and certiorari.

Duty Of the State

It is the duty of the State (Nigeria) to protect the lives of its citizens and prevent violence to others by properly investigating the criminal offences of murder and manslaughter, effecting lawful arrest(s) and prosecuting offenders. This is especially important in the present case, since these atrocities are perpetrated in rural areas where victims are uneducated and unaware of their rights. However, the present Nigerian government has been ineffective and may likely be in violation of this very human rights by the blatant disregard for civilian loss of life. According to the International Justice Research Centre, in interpreting Article 4 of the AU Charter, a state must take preventive measures in the face of known risk to life (for example, to prevent an anticipated massacre by guerrilla forces or to resolve a land dispute where an indigenous community’s survival depends on the land) as is the present case.

The Nigerian government can also show its support for the victims and uphold international human rights laws by declaring the identified Fulani Herdsmen group a terrorist organisation and treating the sect as such. Since 2015, the Global Terrorism Index has deemed Fulani Militants the “fourth deadliest known terrorist group” after Boko Haram, ISIS and Al-Shabab. The Terrorism (Prevention) Act 2013 defines terrorism as “an act which is deliberately done with malice, aforethought and which may seriously harm or damage a country or an international organisation.” The actions of the Fulani Herdsmen fit this definition and examples of ‘acts of terrorism’ as contained in the Act.


The on-going crisis is in dire need of intervention, preferably a non-violent means to prevent further loss of lives. It is imperative that government acts in the interest of justice by upholding the human rights of its citizens. Government should aspire to make better laws that promote equality, engage in peacekeeping and develop rural communities. Where the Nigerian government and the courts fail to do so, interest groups may be forced to petition the International Criminal Court to investigate and prosecute persons alleged to have committed crimes against humanity.

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