He almost single-handedly raised the profile of Nigeria’s human rights body, daring to confront the same government that appointed him, standing still on the side of civil society even at risk to life – and he’s not about to stop
After serving for four years as the Chairman of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), Chidi Anselm Odinkalu, a man known for going where many before him wouldn’t dare, has a lot to say.
“The struggle for human rights reflects the circumstances of organized society wherever it takes place,” he sets the tone. “There are no perfect societies. In Nigeria, I continue to be shocked by two things: our tolerance for extra-judicial executions and the scope of domestic and sexual violence. Both are epidemics that we clothe with denial,” Odinkalu says.
Odinkalu is refreshingly different: surprisingly easy to speak to, polite without being condescending, soft-spoken with a voice that hints at patience, and with a level stare that can unnerve.
These are qualities that certainly serve him well as he does the job of standing up to authorities of behalf of the little guy.
“My Mum taught me a philosophy: try to make someone happy in your day,” he says of his inspiration. “So, the biggest source of happiness for me is being able to put a smile on someone else, especially on a younger person or someone who is somehow different. At the end of the day, sooner or later we are gone from here and so are the things we acquire…. but people will never forget how we make them feel or the opportunities we are able to unlock together.”
In his fight for human rights in Nigeria, Odinkalu has been bruised several times. Although he refuses to talk about his family to ‘protect’ and ‘respect’ them but in 1998 and 2002 first under the military and then under democract, Odinkalu’s wife (pregnant as at 2002) and son (then fifteen months and five years old at both times) were arrested, detained and prevented from traveling out of the country because security agents considered them ‘security risk.’
“Free expression is free, isn’t it?” Odinkalu says. “Anyway, the reason I go on is I’m a parent and I don’t want the world I lived in to be better than the world in which my children are growing up. If they ask me “Dad, what did you do to make this place better?”, I want to be able to do more than yawn an lift my hands in despair. At the end of the day, every one of us has one share in Nigeria PLC. I don’t believe anyone has any greater stake in this country than I do.
“On the issue of safety and threats, there is something Ken Saro-Wiwa told me in the year before he was arrested (in 1993) at Sheraton Hotel in Lagos. He said: “Anselm, what kills is speaking from both sides of the mouth.” I always found that useful. People may not like you but if they know where you stand or where you are coming from, the odds are some of them will respect you.
“Yes, in the past 5 years I faced a few threats that were scary. I found myself shadowed around the country by people whom I could not quite figure out. There were a few threats of killing and abduction. But I also remember something one of the most senior intelligence and security officers to have passed through Nigeria’s military told me in 2013 when the stress was becoming too much. He told me: “Chidi, if what you are doing is of God, He will see it through. Don’t give up.”
All things are lawful
At present Odinkalu is the chairman of the NHRC’s governing council. He was called to the bar in 1988 (same year as former governors Babatunde Fashola (Lagos) and Godswill Akpabio (Akwa Ibom), Justice Okon Abang of the Abuja Federal High Court, amongst several others). He holds a Ph.D in law for the London School of Economics and Political Science.
“My research and professional expertise is really in the international economic law and the institutional laws of political and transactional geography,” he shares.
His expertise might be that, but his passions clearly lie somewhere deeper – for a man who has been involved in the fight to protect human righst since he was a young lawyer just fresh out of school.
“For as long as I can remember, I’m doing what I always wanted to do,” he says. “But working for justice and human rights isn’t a job: it’s a vocation. No one can pay you for it. To do it well, you need to have other interests. Human rights and social justice work remains an abiding vocation for me. If you’re a Nigerian, in my view, it has to be so.”
As proof of his commitment to human right, the NHRC, under Odinkalu, held the first ever public hearing against violation of human rights in 2013 after a petition was filed by the Global Rights and Human rights Law Office on behalf of the National Association of Commercial Tricycle and Motorcycle owners and Riders Association following the alleged extrajudicial killing of several of its members by operatives of the Department of State Security (DSS) at an uncompleted building at Apo legislative quarters.
This is remarkable because it not only revealed the cover-up behind the killings but it represented something refreshingly different – a government-backed institution confronting government security excess. This singular action resulted in a large change in public perception of the NHRC –an institution that had otherwise been intentionally overlooked by Nigerians who have become accustomed to the violation of their rights.
The NHRC was founded in the time of late military dictator, General Sani Abacha, in 1995 –a period infamously known for brutal abuse of rights – but the commission since its founding has slowly, but surely, fought for the protection of rights of Nigerians.
But Odinkalu won’t take credit for any change in the institution. He refuses to say what impact he made. “It’s for other people I guess to measure the impacts,” he says.
“The NHRC I met didn’t have rules of procedure or clarity of process. Very few knew about it and even fewer thought it was anything useful. My hope is that because of the work we did a few more people now know of the Commission. I still think that the work we did on elections was the most important (and hazardous). I faced quite some opposition from both within and outside the Commission and took lots of threats to my safety and life too. But in the end, I take the most pride in the rules of procedure of the commission which were instituted under my watch.”
Because he believes government is crucial. “In the end,” he insists. “We also have to know our limitations and constraints. Civil society actors are no substitute for a state or government that works.”
And he believes the fundamental issues with the Nigerian state are not a matter of laws, but a matter of the men to make the laws work.
“There is nothing wrong with the Nigerian constitution that good leadership or a better organised society cannot fix,” he says with some passion. “So, if you ask me, without question I think our problem is in our systems of leadership and flawed societal practices and prejudices rather than in a constitution. The constitution is just a collection of black letters on pieces of paper. It takes the agency of human society to make them work or not.”
Odinkalu has a long accomplished work history, working across the years with World Bank’s legal vice-presidency; the World Economic Forum; the African Union and the UN (especially the UN Economic Commission for African).
In 2005, Odinkalu took part in efforts to hold the former President of Liberia, Charles Taylor, responsible for crimes committed in his war-torn home country, Liberia, and in Sierra Leone. At the time, the Nigerian government, led by former President Olusegun Obasanjo, had granted asylum to Taylor despite the fact that a Special Court in Sierra Leone had indicted Taylor and the INTERPOL had issued a warrant for his arrest.
Taylor was later convicted and sentenced to fifty years imprisonment for war crimes by the International Court in The Hague.
Of his experience at the time, Odinkalu says “I was not in Liberia as such during the worst years. But I did get involved in the re-construction of Liberia and when President Charles Taylor was brought to Nigeria for Asylum, I led the campaign for his expulsion and transfer to the UN Special Court.
“In 2004, President Obasanjo ordered the SS to come after us. They arrested two of our printers and sealed off our office in Abuja.
“I had to cool off my heels somewhere for sometime. In April 2006, we finally managed to get the Obasanjo regime to turn Charles Taylor over. That was a victory of sorts.”
It’s all in a day’s work, if you ask him. “My attitude is really do all the good you can while you can and, if you can’t do good, ensure you do no harm,” he says. “You have to be governed by facts and evidence but you also have to strive to be rigorously fair while eschewing discrimination or prejudice.
“We all owe it to ourselves and generations coming after us to offer what we can to those who can make this place better. That’s really what it’s about, isn’t it? You can make all the money you wish but it really doesn’t make much sense if you can’t make it count in an organized society.”
These days, he has set his sights on an issue that may not win him the acclaim of Nigerians, but he has never been one for acclaim.
“I don’t think it is the business of human beings to play God. Even those whom we don’t like are created by God,” he says about his support for minority rights especially with regards to the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community. “If God doesn’t want anyone here, He is well able to determine what to do. One thing we don’t do well in Nigeria is allow co-existence with people who are different from us or who don’t look or live like we would wish to dictate.”
But he sounds a note of caution.
“That said, the struggle for the rights of LGBTI community in Nigeria should not be dictated by anyone from outside Nigeria. We are speaking about a community of persons who are our family, friends, brother, sisters, etc. If we can’t love our own people, the world can’t love them more. So this is an inherently Nigerian social justice struggle too.”
Speaking for those who no one else will speak for is central to house he sees himself and his place in the world, and he shares two stories from the past that have deepened his resolve to continue to speak.
The first one: “I think it probably remains the story of the 12 kids, sentenced to die for armed robbery in Lagos in the 1980s,” he recalls. “The alleged victim of the robbery was a mistress of the then military governor of Lagos.
“The police were under pressure and just raided the streets in Ikorodu where they rounded up hawkers who manifestly didn’t know one another. They were convicted in an unfair process and sentenced to die in 1986 I believe. I wasn’t even a lawyer then. 15 of them were sentenced; 4 of them died while in on death row.
“But with the help of more senior colleagues, including late Dr. Beko Ransome Kuti and Femi Falana, we kept hope alive. On one day, we found they were within 48 hours of being executed. Justice A.L.A.L. Balogun in Ikeja gave us an ex parte order late in the day which saved them from execution. I would visit them in prison then, pray with them, organize food and get Rev. Sisters to help visit to keep their morale alive. In 1992, Governor Otedola came to power in Lagos and granted them pardon. They were released.
“We didn’t win it in court but it taught me something early: if justice is on your side, you must never give up. Whenever you can preserve or affirm human life, it has to be huge. There have been many others since then but this sticks with me because it was so early in my professional life.
The second: “Another was when the regime of General Babangida arrested the entire leadership of NANS in 1991. The people they picked included Mahmud Aminu, Bamidele Aturu, Funso Omogbehin, Naser Kura… I visited them in prison, became their lawyer. I was barely out barely 20. Anyway, the case was before Justice Nureini Abiodun Kessington, now late. He was kind.
“When the case came up, he called into chambers and said he would not allow me to move my application for their freedom because he didn’t think that the military would respect his order if he asked that the boys be released. But he promised to go and see the SSS and talk to them and that if they didn’t co-operate, he would “embarrass them.” When we came out, he adjourned the case by one week. On the day we were supposed to be back in court the following week, the detained students were released. The judge called up the case, winked at me and struck out my case but they were out.
“All those clients went on to become my brothers. Mahmud and Aturu, among others went on to become successful lawyers. Indeed, Aturu became my personal lawyer until he died nearly two years ago.”
Because at the end of the day, it comes down to how we see ourselves, as humans and how we respect that common humanity, as Nigerians.
“If we can’t love our own people,” Odinkalu tells me simply, as we end the conversation. “It is quite simple: the world cannot love them more.”