ODINKALU AND THE FUTURE OF HUMAN RIGHTS.
When he turned 40, Chidi Anselm Ugochukwu Odinkalu began to envision a successor generation that could continue to champion the cause for the entrenchment of human rights by consistently elevating the dignity inherent in it.Odinkalu had himself been a beneficiary of the early tutelage of Dr. Olisa Agbakoba, a key leader in Nigeria’s pro-democratic movement and founder of one of the country’s foremost human rights organization, the Civil Liberties Organization (CLO).Together with a courageous team that was opposed to military dictatorship and its undermining of the power in the voice of citizens, they led a movement that returned Nigeria to an upbeat democratic rule in 1999.
It was hence a delight that a successor generation, led by a young lawyer, Orji Chinedu, would on 12 June,2020, pull together a community of practise to honour the works of Odinkalu by curating a discourse on the future of human rights in Nigeria.June 12 by the way has not only been declared Democracy Day in Nigeria but is by some interesting simultaneity, Odinkalu’s birthday.
Fast forward 21years after 1999 to a time where a dangerous political energy introduced with some deja vu, conversations that distill in riveting images and aphorisms of a Nigerian state and indeed an African continent that recognize democracy and human rights much in breach than in compliance. It is sadly, also a fragile moment in which there is a depletion in the cache of voices who submit words and actions at a confluence that defies intimidation and perversion. It is perhaps for this reason and for fear of what the future portends if we continue on this dangerous trajectory,that the forum brought together intergenerational practitioners that included Babatunde Fagbohunlu SAN, Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa SAN, Cynthia Mbamalu of the Not- Too-Young-To- Run fame, Issa Adedokun, a Law lecturer, Inibehe Effiong, a human rights lawyer and yours sincerely.
HOLDING & PASSING THE TORCH.
We can talk about a future only from the present. If we are to accept as true American Political Scientist, Larry Diamond’s postulation of the four key elements of democracy to include a political system for choosing and replacing the government through free and fair elections, active participation of the people as citizens in politics and civic life, protection of the human rights of citizens and a rule of law in which the laws and procedures apply equally to all citizens, then we might as well concede that Nigeria and Africa are up on a zero-sum game. Let us, for the sake of argument, compare and contrast Diamond’s scripting with present realities:
In his book,Too Good to Die, Odinkalu lamented the woes of Africa, a continent of over one billion people which ‘…seems to be ruled by a narrow pool of political office holders who have a special talent for staying interminably in office and in power.’ This class of political office holders who in the main are professional soldiers in or away from uniform give expression to the belief that they are gods that rule over the dark sons of Adam. In ruling, they exclude themselves from rules. They make the reins that rein us in so their reign can be without resistance. They have the decibel metres that alarm them when we shout too loud. They have agents in state institutions who work to whip everyone into line and to dismantle the system if it came to it.
Nigeria, a country of over 200 million underserved citizens who daily adjust to not just the shrinking of civic space but a squashing of it has become a classic on how not to do it. There is a structural state -sponsored effort to subvert the institutions of governance. The second coming of Buhari has proven to be a mission to undermine the judiciary, the only bastion of hope for the downtrodden.
In October 2016, agents from the Department of State Service broke into the homes of judges in the dead of night to arrest those their instructors had capriciously branded as corrupt thieves in the sovereign realm. It was the most brazen demonstration of impunity by a democratic government and a precedent that even the military dictatorship could not have imagined. Is it possible that there are corrupt judges? Yes. But you don’t save an institution by destroying it- not when there are clear constitutional procedures for addressing these infractions. And so if in June 2020, we find Malawi’s President Arthur Peter Mutharika, ordering Chief Justice Andrew Nyirenda to go on ‘leave leading to retirement’ because Nyirenda has ‘accumulated more leave days than the remainder of his working days to retirement age’, it should not come to us as a surprise.
Malawi is clearly, a fast and strategic learner. She saw how in Nigeria, the National Judicial Council ceded their constitutional powers of appointment and discipline of judicial officers to the executive. She saw how brother judges and justices did not as much as down their tools to protest the travesty or protect and assert their territories. Malawi also witnessed how the Nigerian people were high on the excitement of touching the untouchables and the piercing of the purity veil of Calpurnia that they failed to see that the judicial system, the only institution they could claim in last resort, was being destroyed.
While the Buhari government found it convenient to brandish the fight against corruption as justification to go against the judiciary, President Mutharika may have found Chief Justice Nyirenda too clean to go that route so it seemed the only way to get him was to punish him for spending more time at his judicial work than away from it. The scenarios may differ, but the principle remains the same: the path to hell is paved with good intentions.
So let us assume without conceeding, that the Nigerian people could not do anything about the raid of judges because they did not understand it, what do we say about the wanton killings of lives in Nigeria today or the scandalous spate of rape that questions our inherent dignity? During the last administration, the killings were mostly in the North-East and were carried out by Boko Haram. From 2015 untill now, acts of terror continue conveniently around the entire country. When the killers are in the Northeast, we call them Boko Haram. If the slaughter is in the middle belt, it is called herder-farmer. In the East and part of the West the killers are known as criminals, cultists or kidnappers. Citizens have spent more time branding the killers and couching the narratives of the killings than they have in coming to a realization that we are all endangered species for whom the next moment is not guaranteed. We are watched by a government who have spent more billions on insecurity than against it. No one is asking the question about who the sponsors, instigators, collaborators and state agents are who continue to perpetuate this hellish reign of terror. Men and women are slit in the dead of night. Children are poured in mass graves. As horrific as our daily realities are, citizens are not even agreed on what the issues are and the direction to which we must put forward our questions.
For a nation that has failed politically, the new spate of rape is a dizzying moral attrition. How could we have descended so low to a point where rape is now a national emergency for which even sucking babies are not spared?
And so when Learned Silk, Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa speaks of a bleak future for human rights in Nigeria, we must join him in sack clothing to mourn this situation but we must also find the courage to rise from the ashes with an acute clarity on what to do. Odinkalu shows us how to do it. He is a man who is frequently called upon to advise multilateral and bilateral institutions on world related policy but has also stamped his citizenship power on national affairs. In a country where citizens find comfort in silos, Odinkalu has taken ownership of his country by insisting rights do not equate might. As board Chair of the National Human Rights Commission, he led a team that toured the country, presiding over individual and institutional violations of rights and seeking remedies for these violations. Outside that official role, he has gone beyond the interest of self to continue to speak against the onslaught against citizens and more instructively, against the injustices perpetuated in Kajuru – a place and people some would say, he is neither related to by birth nor marriage. In 2019, he wrote what arguably, is one of his most philosophical piece in solidarity with Busola Dakolo, a young mother who was demanding justice for being raped by her Pastor in her teenage years. Although Dakolo suffered a technical ruling that punished her for filing the case after what the court, with due respect, erroneously described as caught up by statute of limitations, Odinkalu believed that the technical victory of Pastor Biodun Fatoyinbo did not avail him an opportunity to clear himself of allegations that a ‘Man of god’ could also be a rapist. This, he wrote, was a ‘testament to the soft vengeance of Busola Dakolo’s courage’.
EVERYONE SHOULD BE A HUMAN RIGHTS ACTIVIST.
The works of Odinkalu remind us that every citizen must be a human rights activist. Every citizen must be human enough to feel the suffering of his neighbor and angry enough to find a solution – in essence, that is what it takes to be a human rights activist. There is also an important aspect to it: The greatest asset that the activist brings is not leading a protest although it may entail it. It is not being thrown in jail although it may include it. It is not even being the voice for the community although it may demand it. The greatest asset the activist brings in the struggle to entrenching human rights is hope.
Hope is more than solidarity. It is holding up a candle to the darkness. It is ensuring that what we profess and the actions that we take show that we believe. Hope changes everything. A situation where the activist can be peddled for political appointment, bought with a brown envelope or even hired as a paid troll destroys hope.
As bleak as the situation seems, we are thankfully, not without hope. How can we be hopeless when there exists in Odinkalu’s generation an enduring team of runners who have remained relentless in the deciphering of what is human and what is right? I am convinced that the baton exchange will be smooth. And it is to that I join with many to pray that Odinkalu sees the country and continent of his dream in his lifetime. May the lines continue to fall for him in pleasant places. May the fire of his devotion and those like him, light our way. May we in planting our feet in the prints they leave behind be inspired to never down our armour against injustice. Happy Birthday Professor Chidi Odinkalu.
By Gloria Mabeiam Ballason Esq., CEO House of Justice and Executive Director Molluma Medico-Legal Center at Kaduna, Nigeria