Human Rights Trainings in Nigeria

A Guest Beneblog by Vijaya Tripathi

As outreach coordinator for Martus, Benetech’s secure software application, I travel to many countries where human rights defenders need tools to gather, organize and back up information about human rights violations. Over the past few years, I have seen human rights groups become much more sophisticated about how they use technology to document human rights abuses.

My most recent visit to Nigeria confirmed this trend. While visiting the country, I met with members of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) who are using a growing collection of technology tools to confront reported human rights incidents. Nigerian security forces have been accused of a series of abuses including extrajudicial killings, election violence and vote rigging.

During my first visit to the Nigerian capital of Abuja last April, I learned that a member of the NHRC who had been monitoring local elections had been beaten and unlawfully detained. Human rights monitors in Nigeria continue to be harassed. But the NHRC is developing an information management system that uses our Martus software to keep their data more secure.

Martus allows human rights defenders to create a searchable and encrypted database of sensitive information from witnesses and victims - and back this data up remotely to their choice of publicly available servers. If a human rights group has a computer stolen or seized, the information it contains can put victims and witnesses in danger of retribution. Martus is used around the world by human rights workers, attorneys, journalists, government officials and others who need to protect their data and the people they work with.

When my colleagues at the Benetech Human Rights Program first visited the NHRC in 2005, the organization lacked the basic computer infrastructure necessary to use Martus. As NHRC staff members wryly told us, some of the organization’s computers didn’t have enough memory to even install Martus back then, let alone run the software. Several staff members were also not computer literate. Despite these challenges, the NHRC was clearly interested in using Martus to safeguard information about sensitive human rights complaints. We told the NHRC staff and the MacArthur Foundation, a long-time supporter of the Benetech Human Rights Program, that we would be happy to return for more training when the NHRC was ready.

That’s just what happened.

Three years after our initial visit to the NHRC, the MacArthur Foundation asked us to conduct another Martus training and work with NHRC staff to integrate the Martus software into the Commission’s complaint management system. We were thrilled to work with the NHRC as a new Martus partner. The MacArthur Foundation provided key support for the project by not only financing our work, but also funding computer literacy training for NHRC staff. They also helped the NHRC upgrade their computers so that they could prepare for our arrival in Nigeria.

During my April 2009 visit to work with the NHRC I noticed other changes in addition to upgraded computers and a better-trained staff, The NHRC had moved to a building that had a wheelchair ramp and a ‘talking’ elevator to accommodate visitors with physical or visual impairments. During this visit, I assessed the NHRC’s resources, conducted an initial Martus training, and made recommendations for how the organization could further strengthen the technology skills of their staff members.

On my second trip to Abuja last October, we conducted a two week intensive training for the NHRC’s own instructors. I flew into Abuja from Kinshasa, and my colleague Rahwa Tareke joined me from San Francisco. For five days, we focused on teaching the NHRC staff to use the Martus software. Then we spent the next five days mapping how human rights information flows into the organization and how Martus could be used to track that data using efficient and secure methods.

Our daily routine of hailing taxis to and from the Commission office was punctuated by rapid-fire brainstorming to customize the NHRC’s Martus accounts and make sure the software was configured to meet their specific needs. We also saw how the NHRC was committed to improving conditions for Martus users in their office. During our first training in April, we dealt with power outages and the failure of the NHRC’s backup generators. We also had sporadic and limited Internet connectivity. On my return trip, we had a weak but steady Internet connection in Abuja and, thanks to the NHRC’s new generator, only one power outage – just after we concluded our last day of training!

A key factor in any successful Martus implementation is addressing the particular challenges faced by users. In order to ensure that that our partners could use Martus, we strategized with them about how they will overcome the problems present in their specific environment. The NHRC has a central office in Abuja, as well as six regional, or “Zonal”, offices around the country. One of the most rewarding parts of this training was speaking to Zonal officers about the specific challenges they faced in their local offices and trying to help them implement Martus in spite of those difficulties.

We discovered, for example, that power failures are sometimes so frequent and Internet connectivity so poor, that sometimes it is difficult for the NHRC staff outside Abuja to accomplish key case work– and there isn’t always funding for fuel to keep the generators working. To manage this, we recommended that Zonal staff use Martus in ‘offline’ mode (that is, not connecting to the server to back up data) until a reliable Internet connection was available. When connectivity is reliable, they can go back ‘online’ to back their data up to the server and transmit that information securely to the Abuja office. We also suggested that the NHRC obtain USB modems for Zonal staff to establish reliable connectivity in each Zonal office.

We addressed the problem of power outages in a much quieter way: by simply recognizing them in the information management process. We recommended that each Zonal office prioritize data entry when power was available and save data frequently so that nothing is ‘lost’ due to a sudden loss of electricity. We also explained the implications of saving and backing up data to the server for data recovery in case of power or system failure. Although there is no easy solution to power outages and poor Internet connectivity in Nigeria, we helped the NHRC negotiate these challenges by developing strategies that help them work effectively.

We look forward to continuing our work with the NHRC and other members of the Nigerian human rights community as they expand their use of Martus to help ensure the security of key human rights data - and those who provide it.


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