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Fundamental rights are a group of rights that are accorded a high degree of protection from encroachment. The rights are inherent to all human beings, whatever our nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, color, religion, language, or any other status; we are all equally entitled to our human rights without discrimination. The relevance of fundamental rights to man cannot be overstressed. 

In Nigeria, fundamental rights are recognized and entrenched in chapter IV of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as amended). The rights include right to life, right to dignity of the human person, right to personal liberty, right to a fair hearing, right to private and family life, right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, right to freedom of expression and the press, right to peaceful assembly and association, right to freedom of movement, right to freedom from discrimination and right to acquire and own immovable property. 

In this article, we attempted to supply answers to the following pertinent questions: What is the right to life? Is the right to life absolute? Who can enforce the right to life? When can right to life be enforced and; in which court can the right to life be enforced? Etc.


 The right to life is the belief that a being has the right to live and, in particular, should not be killed by another person or entity including government. The concept of the right to life normally arises in debates involving issues of capital punishment, war, abortion, euthanasia, police brutality, homicide, infanticide, and animal rights. Under the Nigerian constitution, the right to life is not only recognized but firmly enshrined and guaranteed. Section 33 of the constitution reads:

“33(1) 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 offense of which he has been found guilty in Nigeria.”

The right to life is not only available to adult citizens but extends also to children. In this wise the Child’s Rights Act 2004 in section 3 (1) provides that:

“The provisions in Chapter IV of the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999, or any successive constitutional provisions relating to fundamental rights, shall apply as if those provisions are expressly stated in this Act.” 

From the foregoing provision, therefore, it is clear that children, like their adult counterparts, are equally entitled to all the rights contained in chapter IV of the Constitution, including the right to life. 

Even animals have rights akin to the right to life and the law frowns at certain acts affecting the lives of animals. Under section 394 of the Criminal law of Lagos State 2015 for instance, a person who inflicts unnecessary suffering on an animal while destroying the animal for food may be guilty of cruelty and liable on conviction to imprisonment for three months or to a fine of Forty-Five Thousand Naira or both. A person would similarly be guilty and liable to the same punishment if he cruelly beats, kicks, ill-treats, over-rides, over-drives, over-loads, tortures, infuriates, or terrifies the animal or causes, procures or permits the animal to be so used. 


The right to life as guaranteed by the constitution is not absolute. It admits of certain exceptions which are clearly spelled out in the Constitution. By a community reading of section 33(1) and (2)(a) to (c) of the constitution the following are circumstances under which the right to life may be lawfully deprived without the assailant incurring any criminal liability in the process: 

  1. In the execution of the sentence of a court
  2. In self-defense
  3. In the defense of property 
  4. In effecting a lawful arrest 
  5. In preventing escape from lawful custody 
  6. In suppressing riot, insurrection or mutiny 

Most statutes on crimes in Nigeria contain additional exceptions which are generally termed as “defenses”. These defenses include intoxication, provocation, and insanity. It is noteworthy that for any of the exceptions identified above to apply, the force employed by the assailant in depriving the person of his life must not only be lawful but reasonably necessary. See section 33(2) of the Constitution. 


Generally, only a person whose right to life is violated is entitled in law to bring an action for the enforcement of the right. Violation of the right to life could take the form of threat to kill, intimidation, attempt to kill, conspiracy to, and even actual killing of the person.

Given the proposition that it is only persons whose rights to life are contravened that can enforce the rights, one may well be wondering what then happens if the person whose right to life has been violated dies in the process of the violation. In other words, can such a dead person enforce his right to life? If yes, then how? 

The court of appeal was faced with a similar question in the case of OMONYAHUY & ORS v. IGP & ORS (2015) LPELR-25581(CA) and the court, after reviewing a plethora of authorities, concluded that: “…the constitutional right to life of a dead man can be enforced by his dependents.” When can Right to Life be enforced and in which Court can the Right be enforced? 

The right to life becomes enforceable once the right has been, is being or is likely to be contravened by another person. This view is fortified by Section 46(1) of the constitution which provides that:

“Any person who alleges that any of the provision of this chapter has been or likely to be contravened in any state in relation to him may apply to a High Court in that state for redress.” 

What appears clear from the constitutional provision above is that one needs not to wait for the act of violation to be completed before one sues. It suffices if the act of violation is ongoing or even imminent. A person whose right to life has been violated can approach the High Court in the state where the violation occurred for redress. In IGBO & ORS v. DURUEKE & ORS (2014) LPELR-22816(CA) the Court of Appeal affirmed the above proposition in the following words:

“…In the same vein, any citizen is entitled to approach any High Court within jurisdiction pursuant to S.46 of the Constitution (sic) at the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 for an order enforcing his fundamental rights which he thinks are being threatened or violated by any person in that state. The learned trial Judge in his decision found likewise and I am in total agreement with him in that regard.”

It only need be added that “High Court” as used in section 46 of the constitution as well as in the IGBO’s case may be High Court of a state or the FCT or the Federal High Court, depending on the subject matter and the parties involved. 

It is instructive to note that anyone whose life is threatened or receives a threat to kill has both criminal and civil remedies. The criminal remedy could be activated by making a report to the police or any other relevant law enforcement agency while a civil remedy can be pursued by fundamental right enforcement proceedings. It is, however, advisable to consult a legal practitioner or a public-spirited Non-Governmental Organization like Citizens Gavel for proper counseling and legal assistance especially where one is in doubt as to the appropriate step to take at any given point in time. 

Note: This article is only for enlightenment and awareness.

Agih Sylvester Isaac, Esq. is a Legal Associate at Citizens’ Gavel Foundation for Social Justice, Lagos State, Nigeria. He can be reached at

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