The incidents of missing and disappeared persons in Nigeria and other countries around the world and the traumatic experiences their families and relations go through were the focus of this year’s International Day of Disappeared and Missing Persons. SAMUEL ODAUDU critically examines how Nigeria marked the day
Many Nigerians were not really aware about the high rate of rampant cases of missing and disappearing persons in Nigeria until last Tuesday, August 30, the 2016 International Day of Disappeared and Missing Persons. Every August 30 of the year is set aside to remind governments at all levels around the world of their responsibility to address the issue of missing and disappeared persons, and Nigeria joined the rest of the world to mark this year’s day.
It was aimed at showing families that are searching for their relations that the society shares their grief and pains and that authorities are unrelenting in their efforts to know the whereabouts of their loved ones with a view to searching, finding and uniting them with their relations, that is if they are still alive.
Nigeria has its fare share of cases of missing and disappeared persons. The North East where insurgents and Nigeria and multi-national forces are engaged in constant confrontations is a ready example. Till date, the abduction of the Chibok girls who are still in the hands of their abductors, is the single largest scale of human abduction in recent history.
The experience of a dear relation disappearing or missing and his or her whereabouts not known can be quite unbearable; yet, many families across the world and in many parts of Nigeria live with the traumatic and painful experience, praying, staring at the roads, sighing in all directions, listening for any hint about the whereabouts of their loved ones.
Sometimes, families, out of utter frustration and disillusionment, give up their search, create a symbolic monument in memory of the missing relations where they go and cry inconsolably for years or the rest of their lives over missing relations.
Many times, however, a number of disappeared or missing persons reappeared either as a result of fruitful search by security agencies, hunters or some search parties. Other times, search parties find clothing materials such as slippers, shoes, caps, shirts, trousers, wrist watches among other personal effects pointing to either kidnap incidents or that a beast might have killed such persons. Often, there are conclusions that such individuals might have been killed and his or her genitals used for ritual purposes.
In Nigeria, for example, armed conflicts, kidnapping and rituals have been attributed to incidents of missing and disappeared persons. This leads to some questions: How many Nigerians are missing? Is there a database for missing persons in Nigeria? Apart from the Police authorities, is there any relevant agency responsible for helping families of missing and disappeared persons for the purpose of exchanging information? Is the government doing anything about this unfortunate development? What description does the mass abduction of Chibok girls fit in this matter?
The Special Adviser to President Muammadu Buhari on Social Investments and the chairperson of the National Technical Committee on the Establishment and Management of a Data Base of Missing Persons, Mrs. Maryam Uwais, made effort to clarify the issues on the occasion of the International Day of the Disappeared and Missing Persons held at the national headquarters of the National Human Rights Commission, NHRC, Abuja.
Mrs. Uwais acknowledged in her speech that “This year’s Internatioal Day of the Disappeared is significant as it comes at a time when the federal government is working towards the establishment of a data base of missing persons which will, among other things, be a platform for family members or friends of missing persons to engage with and document necessary information about their loved ones.
“For the families of the missing, the uncertainty about the fate of their loved ones can be a sickening experience that creates additional problems. This uncertainty is heightened by a feeling of hopelessness and despair, especially as they feel that no one cares about their loss. The time to show the families of the missing that someone cares is now. The time to assure them that they are not alone has finally come”, she said.
The National Technical Committee on the Establishment and Management of a Database of Missing Persons was inaugurated on June 29, 2016, with Mrs. Uwais as the chairperson and the national headquarters of the National Human Rights Commission, NHRC, Abuja, is the secretariat. Prior to the inauguration, certain steps had been taken by the previous government in this regard.
For instance, a roundtable meeting convened by the office of the National Security Adviser chaired by the former vice president was held at the Transcorp Hilton Hotel, Abuja, on April 13, 2014, a day before the abduction of the Chibok girls, to remember missing persons and to deliberate on necessary action to be taken in order to address the situation.
Eventually, the National Technical Committee on the Establishment and Management of a Database of Missing Persons was set up by this administration and it is made up of representatives from the Nigeria Police Force, the office of NSA, National Information Technology Development Agency, the National Identity Management Commission, the National Population Commission, the Nigerian Red Cross Society, Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps, National Orientation Agency, Bring Back Our Girls Group, National Bureau of Statistics, Federal Ministry of Justice, Federal Ministry of Health, Federal Ministry of Interior and the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Mrs Uwais therefore charged Nigerians to register and get their national identity cards so as to aid authorities in terms of proper documentation of citizens’ identities. The Nigerian government, she said, will not forget missing Nigerians.
Also, the Executive Secretary of the NHRC, Professor Bem Angwe, in his opening remark, stated that the plight of the missing persons and the disappeared is in the heart of the mandate of the Commission.
He said this was so because, “the rights of people to security and welfare, which is the primary responsibility of any government presupposes that everyone should live without any fear of abduction, enforced disappearance, kidnapping, enforced displacement as a result of insecurity, natural disaster, etc”.
Prof Angwe equally noted that “Various government agencies are set up to ensure the full enjoyment of citizens’ rights in this regard. However, various efforts by government to articulate effective response to resultant challenges of this national problem has been hampered by lack of accurate data of affected population, particularly, nonexistence of register of missing persons.
“As a Commission, we are aware that various agencies already have some form of record in this area, but there us a need for a central data base fir effective coordination and usage by all stakeholders. When this is done, the pains of our people resulting from the uncertainties associated with cases of missing and the disappeared can be better managed”, he said.
The NHRC boss used the occasion to make clarification on the several interventions of the Commission in order for the federal government and other international organisations to tirelessly search, locate, rescue the Chibok girls and subsequently reunite them with their families and relations. In doing so, however, he said the Commission maintains that as an agency of government committed to promoting and defending human rights of Nigerians and those living in Nigeria, such efforts must necessarily conform with relevant Nigeria’s and international laws.
Karl Anton Mattli, head of delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Nigeria, who was also present submitted that, the day was significant “for thousands of families around the world, including many in Nigeria, who live with the anguish of not knowing the fate of the or whereabouts of their loved ones.
“Unfortunately, whether it is as a result of armed conflict, other situations of violence, natural disasters, migration or other circumstances, man people around the world remain missing and may do so for many years to come. Some missing persons may be combatants who have died in action; others may be children who have been forcibly recruited into non-state armed groups; or detainees who are unable to reach out to their families “, Mr. Mattli said.
He pointed out that steps have been taken using provisions of humanitarian international laws to check incidents and to also help in properly accounting for the number of missing persons. For instance, there is “Provision of international humanitarian laws, the body of law applicable during armed conflict, foresee- among others – that steps have to be taken to prevent people from going missing and in the case of death, for example, to ensure proper identification of human remains, including to mark graves”, said Mr. Mattli.
Mr. Mattli therefore expressed the commitment of the ICRC to helping Nigeria’s technical committee in order to enhance its viability.
There were representatives from the Federal Ministry of Justice, Nigeria Police Force, Bring Back Our Girls Campaign group and several members of the civil society organisations present at the occasion.