By Piriye Kiyaramo

The 2019 International Human Rights Day has come and gone but the significance of this year’s International Human Rights Day remains the audacious launch of a One Million Youth Volunteers’ Network on Anti-corruption and a proposed Niger Delta Cultural Park initiative, spearheaded by a non-governmental organization, Youths and Environmental Advocacy Centre (YEAC) in Port Harcourt, in the heart of the Niger Delta region of Nigeria.

International Human Rights Day is globally observed every December 10. It marks the day United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. These basic rights are based on shared values such as dignity, fairness, equality, respect and independence.

The historic flag-off of the Million Youth Volunteers’ platform  with the motto; “come, let’s work together for the people and society”, in commemoration of the 2019 international day of human rights, according to the organizers, was to strengthen community-based human rights advocacy through multi-stakeholders approach in the Niger Delta region.

Speaking at the launch, Executive Director of YEAC, Mr. Fyneface Dumnamene, explained that the historic Niger Delta Regional One Million Youth Volunteers’ Advocacy Network on human rights and anti-corruption was meant to enlist youth volunteers across the nine Niger Delta states of Abia, Akwa-Ibom, Bayelsa, Cross River, Delta, Edo, Imo, Ondo and Rivers State, with a view to mobilizing one million youths as volunteers who would act as human rights defenders and promoters in their respective communities.

According to Mr. Dumnamene, the motivation to actualize this mobilization of one million youth volunteers for community development advocacy in the Niger Delta was strengthened after learning about how the American people are volunteering and contributing to the development of their communities, especially those of the indigenous peoples of U.S States of North and South Dakotas as demonstrated in Standing Rock, Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation in Pine Ridge, Crazy Horse Memorial and Feed South Dakota.

“Although some non-governmental organizations and government agencies have made and are still making efforts to address some of these challenges in the Niger Delta, the truth however remains that, millions of those who wish to join these efforts do not have the open platform and the visionary leadership which Fyneface Dumnamene and Youths and Environmental Advocacy Centre are now offering to one million out of the over 29million youths that constitute nearly two third of over 40million estimated population in the Niger Delta region, according to National Population Commission (2006).

He added that the one million youth volunteers would work in collaboration with Youths and Environmental Advocacy Centre, Port Harcourt, as environmental justice activists; climate change campaigners and reporters of corrupt practices. They will also serve their communities as peace builders and community development advocates, as well as promote healthcare issues for a better society.

“The mobilization of one million youth volunteers as human rights defenders and promoters in the Niger Delta is very important because the human rights space in Nigeria is shrinking. Our human rights records and international ratings are getting poorer and Nigeria’s human rights image is denting. Although there has been some level of improvements on human rights under the 1999 Constitution (As amended), Nigeria’s human rights ratings are still nothing to write home about and requires deliberate efforts to work with relevant authorities and government agencies to promote and strengthen our human rights records for overall National Development.

The volunteers, according to the Executive Director, would work to implement conflict resolution negotiation strategies and enlist the support of both state and federal government, including civil society and multinational oil corporations in the region to achieve set goals.

The youth volunteers are expected to work with the Police and other security agencies and relevant stakeholders to protect the constitutional rights of citizens, address human right concerns; report their findings to Youths and Environmental Advocacy Centre to draw attention to national and international issues on human rights.

“Collectively, the One Million Youth Volunteers will work towards the establishment of a NIGER DELTA CULTURAL PARK where our cultural values, identities, traditions, heroes’ sculptures, historical works and heritage of the Niger Delta indigenous peoples, among others would be preserved and showcased to the world as a tourist hub to create jobs for the youth as well as generate tourism revenue to the region”, he explained.

He reiterated that “It is no longer news that Nigeria’s Niger Delta, the third largest wetland in the world is no doubt, one of the most highly hydrocarbon polluted regions globally, following decades of oil mining activities by multi-national corporations since the commencement of commercial oil mining in the 1950s”, he pointed out.

“Also contributing to deforestation, environmental and soot pollution in the region, are the activities of youths involved in acts of oil theft and artisanal refining. A combination of spills from these sources, among others, negatively impact the ecosystem, livelihoods of farmers and fishermen with associated  social problems and attendant human right violations.

“The One Million Youth Volunteers’ network will work to build bridges that would connect our today to the legacies of our heroes past with a view to linking our cultural heritage with our future as indigenous people of the Niger Delta”, Mr. Dumnamene reiterated.

Describing the One Million Youth Volunteers’ scheme as having the endorsement of the government of the United States of American, the Executive Director added: “They would establish valuable U.S. contacts that could provide support and inputs on the development of their own Nigeria-based initiatives”.

“I experienced this during my participation in the certificated American Government’s Professional Exchange Program and the International Visitors Leadership Program (IVLP) on my nomination by US Consulate General, Lagos/US Embassy Abuja and subsequent invitation to me as Rivers State Representative by the US Department of State, funded by the American Government between June/July 2018.

“I was trained, empowered and mandated to go and work with other stakeholders in the Niger Delta region to further contribute to the development of the region by strengthening community-based advocacy in the Niger Delta through multi-stakeholder engagements.

“I believe that traveling through and learning in American communities and organizations in Atlanta, Washington DC, Maryland, Minnesota, South Dakota, North Dakota, Colorado, Louisiana and Mississippi with previous trips to New York, New Jersey and California and making useful contacts, has positioned me to be able to work with Niger Delta youths to contribute to the development of the region”, he maintained.

While commending the federal government for its intervention schemes in the region, he howeer regretted that the impact of the Niger Delta Development Board in 1961, Niger Delta Basin Development Authority (NDBDA) in 1976, Oil Minerals Producing Area Development Commission (OMPADEC) in 1993 and current Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), Presidential Amnesty Programme, Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs and Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation Project (HYPREP), were so minimal.

He further lamented that those state governments’ intervention schemes such as the Rivers State Sustainable Development Programme (RSSDP), Bayelsa Partnership Initiative (BPI) under Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, as governor, Delta State Oil Producing Areas Development Commission (DESOPADEC) and the Ondo State Oil Producing Area Development Commission (OSOPADEC), failed to make significant impact on the development of the affected states due to corrupt practices.

The environmentalist pointed out that despite the resources accruing to the region from the 13% derivation formula, among other sources like the Niger Delta Development Commission, the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs, Presidential Amnesty Programme and the ongoing Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation Project, there is still a general lack of development in the region.

“Our health facilities are still poorly equipped such that only those who do not have money to travel abroad seek healthcare here, our roads are bad, essential infrastructural facilities are absent among others due to decades of neglect, bad governance, institutional corruption, mismanagement and embezzlement of public funds by some political office holders.

“The resulting effect of this ugly trend on the system, are the reactions and restive activities of some youths who perceive the federal and state governments, including the multi-national oil companies operating in the region as not delivering on the development and economic initiatives to the people.

“The youths, being frustrated by unemployment and poverty, resort to disruptive activities such as vandalism of oil facilities, oil theft, artisanal refining and associated pollution, hostage-taking, banditry and cultism that threaten hitherto extant peace; a component that we also seek to collaboratively mitigate for peace in the Niger Delta through the implementation of practical negotiation strategies and alternative conflict resolution mechanisms with the help and support of local and international development partners, civil society organizations, lawmakers, federal and state governments, among others.

“In Nigeria today, there are often reports of violations of citizens’ fundamental human rights by some government agencies including our security forces that are frequently alleged to carry out arbitrary arrests, torture, forced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, summary executions, etc”, he maintained.

The Executive Director called on interested youths in the volunteer scheme to register by texting “YEAC, to a short code (33811) on MTN, Glo, Airtel Visa Phone lines, with their full names, sex, age, highest academic qualification and state of residence to be enlisted as part of the one million youth volunteers, informing that the Youths and Environmental Advocacy Centre would embark on general mobilization through the mainstream media, such as radio, television, newspapers and magazines, in addition to using new/social media like Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp.

He added that “the mobilization and sensitization phase of this project is projected to last for one year, from flag-off on December 10, 2019 to December 10, 2020 and thereafter, we shall settle down to work for the people of Niger Delta and Nigerians in general after formal trainings and setting up of operational structures/coordinating units on university campuses, state, local and ward levels in each of the nine states of the Niger Delta”.

Earlier in her keynote address, Prof. Julie Umukoro of the Department of Theatre Arts, University of Port Harcourt, enjoined youths not to just see themselves as the leaders of tomorrow, rather, they should count themselves as leaders of today, contrary to the popular notion that youths are the leaders of tomorrow, saying that “tomorrow may never come, so let us deal with today”.

She said if the youths do nothing about the development of the region, nothing could happen, as according to her, the Niger Delta region has been sufficiently abused, therefore it was time for the youths to rise to the occasion to save the environment, calling on Niger Delta youths to say “enough is enough” to the environmental abuse.

“Niger Delta youths should have reason to speak out about the ongoing environmental crisis in the region. Revolution is not about fighting constituted authorities. When we continue to cut down trees in our environment, we cause environmental crisis without realizing the effects of our actions on the environment”, she warned.

She said it was time for the youths in the region to think of little things that could cause positive change; just as she challenged them to come up with peaceful developmental initiatives that would draw government’s attention to the plight of the area, saying that pockets of positive actions from groups in the region could make a marked difference in the development process.

While calling on youths in the region to volunteer assistance in their immediate environment, Prof. Umukoro, reiterated that the word, ‘Revolution’ implies positive change, adding that anyone who does not want positive change would remain stagnated in life; even as she advised youths in the region to revolutionize their actions for better living standards.

“Don’t see the word ‘revolution’ from the derogatory perspective. Let us stop criticisms and take actions to cause positive change. Think of embarking on positive actions. The Majority may not be always right. Have your own opinion and make your point, than just keeping quiet. Teach others by your actions and criticize less”, she advised.

The theatre acts lecturer who doubles as President of United States Government’s Exchange Program Alumni Association of Nigeria (USGEAN), emphasized the urgent need for the younger generation to come together to galvanize positive social actions to stem the abuses of human rights in the Niger Delta.

Delivering a goodwill message, former Vice Chancellor of Rivers State University of Science and Technology (RSUST) Port Harcourt, Prof. Prof. Barineme B. Fakae, said the environment was in the hands of the youths, saying that man’s life span on earth was short as our days are numbered and as such, there was need to use the environment sustainably for the sake of our future.

He advised youths in the region to take actions that will lead to sustainable management of the fragile environment, reiterating that “the future of the youth is in the hands of the youths themselves”.

While commending the organizers of the human rights day event and the flag off of the One Million Youth Volunteers scheme, the former V.C recalled his bitter experience his captors in the forest after he was kidnapped in the past, warning that the current generation should be weary of being caught in the spirit of Hezekiah.

On his part, Prof. Andrew Efemini of the Department of Philosophy, University of Port Harcourt who flagged off the One Million Youth Volunteers’ Campaign on human rights, in his goodwill message predicted that except things were properly organized to save the environment, which he defined as a holistic concept, not restricted to only oil pollution and garbage management, maintained that the “quality of the environment has something to do with how well we live, how long we live or whether we live a healthy life or live unhealthy life”

He expressed worry that two million years to come, “we may just wake up to realize that we are living a wasted life as almost all our cities may go down due to lack of proper environmental management. People will then voluntarily give up their cities so that we can re-plan our cities to be compatible with human reasoning. That we are now building jungles, consuming land in a way that is incompatible with long term goals of man could cause environmental crisis”.

“Brazil, has seven just percent of its land used for farming, producing 51 billion Dollars from seven percent of its land been cultivated. While in Nigeria we are nearing 55%. If you go to Onitsha in Anambra state, in all those communities, you will hardly find farm land today. The same thing is happening in Lagos. Lagos has expanded to Ogun state, just as Port Harcourt has now taken its land to Emuoha, still expanding towards Elele. If you re-plan Port Harcourt, with modern science of environmental city management, Rumuola can take most of us. If you visit modern cities now, you will see 10 to 20 storey buildings with lifts. Meanwhile, in Nigeria, you build one kitchen; you take a plot of land.

“When we discuss the environment, I want our people to think. We need to understand the issues at stake. When talk about environment here they refer to what Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) has done and what Nigerian Agip Oil Company (NAOC) is not doing.

“What we are doing or not doing has even become a greater challenge for environmental management of the future. This is where I should draw your attention to the fact that if we don’t conceive the environment very well, we are going to make a mistake and that is the major reason why we are not managing our environment along contemporary modern lines. If we don’t reform our politics and democratize genuinely, you will discover that we will be hitting our heads on the rock and will be reproducing the reverse of our desires in terms of environmental management. Is the political class aware that we have hardly done anything well as a people in terms of ideas and where we should be going to?

“Our challenge is first of all, to come to terms with what environment crisis will mean for our future and present. The environment has something to do with how we live our lives within the environment. Environment is every external element that influences humans, just as governance determines how we live in the polity.

“We are building jungles in most cities. Our buildings don’t conform to the reality on ground. We have failed to actually manage our environment. The quality of politics in our environment has grossly affected our environmental management and planning. We are heading for an environmental crisis if we are not careful in our environmental management. Political consciousness is critical. Africa can only change when Nigeria changes in its politics”, he maintained.

On his part, a member of the Board of Trustee of Youths and Environmental Advocacy Centre, Pastor Charles said the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom in the way and manner we manage the environment, emphasizing the role of cleanliness in our environmental management campaign in the Niger Delta.

In her address, the Rivers State Coordinator of the National Human Rights Commission, Mrs Chinwe Okoroji, who represented the Executive Secretary of the Commission, Mr. Tony Ojukwu Esq, at the event, said there is no doubt that Nigeria as a nation has made reasonable progress in entrenching the culture of human rights even as there is considerable room for improvement, adding that the provisions of the 1999 constitution of the federal republic of Nigeria as amended and other human rights treaty obligations which Nigeria freely entered into have made profound positive impact in the provision and protection of human rights in the country.

“The theme of this year’s celebration, “Youth Standing Up for Human Rights” is imperative, given the increasing population of young persons in the country and the need to collectively ensure that the youth participate actively in decision making to enable them contribute meaningfully to nation building.

“The youthful energy of the young people should be positively utilized and channeled into national development and that can only happen when they are assisted to live their rights and realize their potentials in life. In our efforts to comprehensively tackle the emerging human rights concerns, we thought it expedient to maximize our human rights education to ensure firstly, that Nigerians at the least know their rights and also appreciate to seek redress from appropriate institutions such as Human Rights Commission, the Public Complaints Commission, the Legal Aids Council of Nigeria and the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons, as the case may be.

“One of the trending human rights concerns of the nation is the issue of sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV). The commission has set up a high powered investigation panel which is expected to provide sustainable solution to the prevalence of SGBV, especially amongst the vulnerable people in our society. The panel has so far covered two of the six geo-political zones in the country where it is expected to conduct hearing. The revelations so far are shocking and go to show that the situation has deteriorated.

“In the bid to preach the gospel of human rights to the nooks and crannies of the society, and mitigate violence, we have stepped up our advocacy visits to public places like schools (primary, secondary and tertiary), markets, hospitals etc. Following our series of engagements with institutions, various schools have established human rights clubs in line with our education and promotion programmes. Our findings have shown that lack of awareness of human rights principles and norms have contributed immensely in fueling cases of human rights violations at different strata of the society. Consequently, we have, in line with our mandate, vigorously pursued and upheld the strategies of holding town hall meetings and public hearing particularly on major recurring human rights issues.

‘Only this year, the Commission has among other interventions tackled one major human rights challenge facing the nation, that is, the profound excesses of the Special Armed Robbery Squad (SARS) with a plethora of allegations of human rights violations, including extra-judicial killings, torture, forced disappearance etc. As a commission we take issues of human rights violations with utmost seriousness and the cases of SARS, we have long submitted the report of our findings to the federal government. In the report, we made far reaching recommendations, which among others include the establishment of state and local government police.

“The commission is deeply worried about the activities of security personnel who we believe have not respected the principles of human rights and separation of powers under the constitution thereby infringing upon the rights of the citizens and retarding the progressive gains been made in the nation’s human rights records. However, this and other similar events in the recent past should not be the measurement of the situation of human rights in Nigeria. Such things are also common in other countries.

“The fact that we can interrogate these actions, discuss them, challenge and resort to due process and access various redress mechanisms to resolve them, are clear indications that our country is committed to steady progress in the promotion and protection of human rights. Let me also assure that the commission is prepared to equip all relevant law enforcement agents to respect human rights in the conduct of their law enforcement duties. We shall strengthen and work assiduously with all relevant bodies and law enforcement agencies through education, training and technical support to ensure that Nigeria’s human rights record continues to improve.

“As we celebrate the 2019 international human rights day, the commission is happy to announce the institutionalization of a yearly human rights summit and award to fulfill Nigeria’s human rights obligation and build a culture of human rights dialogue and respect in Nigeria. It will also help to mainstream human rights into government operations and facilitate the achievements of sustainable development agenda of government”, she noted.