By Ise-Oluwa Ige
Chief Mike Ozekhome, SAN, is a renowned constitutional lawyer and leading human rights activist and pro-democracy campaigner. He was one of the few who dared the military eye-ball to eye-ball during successive military juntas. He suffered many detentions in the process.Â Called to the Nigerian Bar 29 years ago, the author and notary public of Nigeria who was twice honored as Senior Advocate of the masses (SAM) by the Ogun State University Students Union (2000) and by the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANs) (2005) and also honoured by NANs in 2003 as a Senior Advocate of Nigerian Students (SANS) was only last week honored with the highest and prestigious title of Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN). He is therefore entitled to wear the silk and sit at the inner bar.
The SAN title is a symbol of professional excellence, character and integrity. It is the peak of a Lawyerâ€™s legal career. But why did it take so long for Chief Ozekhome to be decorated with the silk? Was it because of his well known human rights activities and non compromise with successive military and civilian Governments?
Tell Us About Your Encounters With The Military
â€œDuring the hey days of successive military juntas, when they were throwing bombs at us, we fought the military with bare hands. We had no weapons. We would line up the streets from campus square to Yaba, Ikorodu road to Ikeja, Mushin , e.t.c. We defended democracy with pains, pangs, sweat and blood.
11 times, I was detained for fighting the military, using the best part of my youth to fight for this country for the sustenance of human rights, enthronement of democracy and respect for the rule of law. We demonstrated on the street. We protested. We rallied. We carried placards. We trekked. We jogged. We sat. We sang solidarity songs. We hurled stones, pebbles, pure water and sand. We were beaten, tear gassed, killed, maimed and exiled.
But I want to tell you today, but for the press, the military would still be in power. They went into guerilla journalism, with few of us having access to their secrete hide out. I want to tell you today that but for the press, all our activities and activism would not have been known to the world nor have the desired impact they had.
How Did You Get Involved In Human Rights Activism?
I was born a rights activist from Primary, Secondary schools up to the University of Ife , I was an activist. It was inborn, latent, dormant in me. I abhorred injustice and cheating in any guise.Â You were there when on October 15, 1987, my humble self, Olisa Agbakoba, Clement Nwankwo, Emmanuel Erakpotobor, Richard Akinola, and Abdul Oroh, six of us, founded the first human rights body in Nigeria called the Civil Liberties Organisation, CLO. That was on October 15, 1987.
You were there when we, as fathers of human rights in Nigeria , started giving â€œbirthâ€ to other Human Rights â€œbabiesâ€ so as to make the fight more robust, sustained and sharper against the military. You were there when Beko and others led others to found the Campaign for Democracy popularly called the CD.
You were there when Femi Falana and others led others to found the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights popularly called the CDHR. You were there when Clement Nwankwo branched out to found the Constitutional Rights Project popularly called the CRP. You were there when Mike Ozekhome branched out to form the Universal Defenders for Democracy popularly called the UDD, and later Democratic Rights Agenda (DRA).
Chief Gani Fawehinmi was the National chairman. I was the National Vice Chairman in charge of publicity, media and publications. It was that JACON that we used finally to give the Abacha military junta a final push into the abyss of historical oblivion. You were there when we decided to take on the military on the streets.
When Gani Fawehinmi collapsed in the process, we carried him, half dead, half alive, on our shoulders and rushed him to the hospital. You were there when the military were tear-gassing us with helicopters from the sky, with armored tanks driven by fierce-looking, combat ready military personnel. It was a total declaration of war by the military on helpless and helpless Nigerians who only crime was thatÂ they yearned for democracy. I am a patriot. There is nothing any Nigerian living or dead, can tell me about patriotism. I am a dye-in- the wool patriot. There is nothing any of these latter day turn-coats, charlatans, these shenanigans in power, these whippersnappers, these political harlots, these meddlesome interlopers, these busybodies, these opportunistic gatecrashers, these historical revisionists, these economic saboteurs and those whom major Kaduna Nzeogwu Chukumah referred to as â€œMinisters and VIPs of wastâ€ in his military Putsch on the 15th January, 1966, can tell me about patriotism.
The Role Of The Press
I ask: Where were they when we were fighting for democracy in this country? Where were these looters of our commonwealth, these pilferers of our national treasury? When we dared the military? Where were they when we were fighting for democracy, laying down our lives? I want you the press to continue to say no to them. You must continue to defend the common man, the masses You must continue to be there for the Frantz Fanons â€œwretched of the earthâ€. You must continue to give voice to the voiceless. You must continue to give power to the powerless. You must continue to defend the beleaguered, the rejected, the vanquished, those who have no say in how they are governed, those who asked for bread and they are given stones and serpents in return; those whose fathers were flogged with kobokos but are now being chastised with scorpions. You must say no to oppression, repression, suppression, and subjugation because dictatorship is not restricted to the military.
Dictatorship could also be found even on a larger scale in â€œdemocraticâ€ governments. If in doubt, did you not find it under Obasanjo government? Did you not find it under Saddam Hussein of Iraq? Let me warn you that if Nigeria fails, all of us here, individually and collectively, would have failed this nation and when the guns come booming like during JJâ€™sÂ â€œJunior Jesusâ€ i.e Jerry Rawlingâ€™s time in Ghana, it will be too late. When he came, he cleared five former heads of states. He beheaded them all. He guilotined them. He shot them and he was hailed by a traumatized citizenry. Do we want that here? Certainly No.
Donâ€™t take Nigeria for granted. There could be a revolution and it is not far from us. Do you know what leads to a revolution? A class war? When the haves have too much and hover over our wretched bodies with private jets and helicopters while the haves-not are hungry, revolution is nigh. It happened in Indonesia. The people came out and sat on the streets and refused to budge or go back home until former President Suharto was removed from power, falling headlong from grace to grass.
And when it happens here, they will start from the top. They will kill all of them, all of us. After killing them one by one, then they will come for all of us who are here, they will say, what did you do? Where were you? Do you want that to happen? You have a duty therefore, an historical duty, an epochal duty; the duty is even scriptural and Biblical, that you must love your neighbor as yourself.Â You must defend the common man. You must defend the oppressed. You must defend the repressed. You must defend the suppressed. You must defend the subjugated. You must defend the marginalized, you must defend the rejected, the helpless.
How come that we live by the River bank and we are still washing our hands with sputum? How come we allow the Whiteman to still continue to deceive us? When Mungo Park came, the white man raised the stakes. He landed at New Bussa by the River Niger. We wereÂ toldÂ that Mungo Park â€œdiscoveredâ€ the River Niger, yet, he met human beings living there, drinking the water. How can you discover a river which you met people fetching? Nigeria is still not one country. It is still many countries, many nations, in one. Do you know why? It is because we never agreed consensually to bring about a country.
In America , they fought the bloody war for civil liberation after their independence in 1776. But in Nigeria , there was nothing like that. We did not have a federation agreed upon by the people. It was Lord Lugard, who, in 1914 decided to amalgamate the Southern and Northern Protectorates and the Lagos colony to form a contraption, an entity called Nigeria . Ahmodu Bello, the Sadauna of Sokoto, once called the project â€œa Historic mistakeâ€. Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the late sage, on his part once referred to Nigeria as a â€œPiece of Geographical expression.
And do you know how the name â€œ Nigeria â€ came about? One young lady called Miss Flora Shaw wrote an article in the London Economic Times of 1898, saying there was one large fertile area which was located around the River Niger, â€œthe Niger Areaâ€. She said: why donâ€™t we call the place â€œthe Niger areaâ€, later corrupted to be â€œ Nigeria â€. That young lady called Flora Shaw was later to marry Captain Lord Lugard who became the Governor General of Nigeria , and who carried out his wifeâ€™s wish to the entity Nigeria .
So, at no point in time did we ever agree to live together as a country. Such a country living on borrowed times, sitting on a keg of gun powder, must be careful.Â When a president is not well due to no fault of his, his aids will not transmit a written declaration to the National Assembly as required under section 145 of the 1999 Constitution. You will keep the president hanging on a life support machine so that such aids can remain, as Major Kaduna Nzeogwu Chukwumah in his military putsch of January 15, 1966, called those people, in office as â€œministers and VIPs of wasteâ€. It is not acceptable to us. It is o longer acceptable to our generation.
As an SAN, you must now stop fighting
Some people say: â€œoh, when you become a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, we know you will join â€˜themâ€™ because it is a conservative profession.â€ I donâ€™t share this sentiment at all. I am me. I live and thrive on certain fixed indubatable principles. I believe Sapara Williams, the first Nigerian Lawyer who in 1888 declared that a lawyer lives for the service and direction of his people.
But I, (beating his chest), Mike, Agbedor, Abu Ozekhome, do hereby solemnly declare before you today that I am back to the trenches. And I do hereby solemnly declare before God, the Heavenly Father, that I am back to the piteous trenches. I only stooped to conquer in the last two years, by watching the direction of the country. I am back to the trenches. I will fight for the common man. I will defend the common man. I will fight for journalists. I will defend the media. I will fight corruption. I will defend civil liberties and freedoms. I will fight governments when the need arises. I will shout screams, protest, demonstrate, rally, advocate, and go to court, etc. I will insist on good governance and democracy dividends.
So, whoever thinks that being made a Senior Advocate has suddenly turned me into a conservative, I am sorry, he has made a mistake. And it is a big mistake! This is because, now, the real Mike Ozekhome, sharpened by years of wisdom, panel-beaten by 29 years of sweat, pains and pangs at the bar, ignored and humiliated by many years of denial of the Senior Advocate of Nigeria rank, even though I know it is a privilege, not a right, I have made up my mind that the only way God will forgive me and make me see his face in Heaven when I die is by doing what I know best, by being on the side of the common man, the Frants Fanonâ€™s wretched of the earth. It is a solemn promise I make to God and you people of Nigeria .
I will end this interview by quoting a portion of the Bible which I like so much because it has worked for me. And I want it to work for all Nigerians. There are three portions. And you will be patient with me. The first one is Exodus 3:13-14. The Israelites asked Moses: You continue to tell us that we should tell our fathers, our forefathers about God, about somebody then who controls all of them. When they ask us what is this person called, what should we tell them?
The second portion is Exodus 8: 16-19. God had made sure he created Aaron. Aaron was a good talker. But Moses was a stammerer. And Moses was to take the Israelites out of the land of Egypt to Canaan , a land described as full of milk and honey. But Pharaoh would not let them go. Moses and Aaron would approach them and say â€œlet my people goâ€ but Pharaoh would not let them go. And what did he do? Moses will strike their river with his rod and it would turn to blood. Anything that Aaron and Moses changed, the magicians would also conjure. So when the finger of God is upon your life, no â€œJupiterâ€ can stop you. When the finger of God is upon your life, nobody can stop you. When God opens your door, no man can shut it.
How Did You Become A SAN
Can I hear you say â€œHe has done it?â€ So anything you conceive in your mind, just say â€œHe has done itâ€. Pronto, it is accomplished. It is a long story. I have been applying for the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) for eight years (since 2002) without success until God spoke to me last year and said: â€œyou are a stupid boyâ€. I brought you from the nadir, from no where, without any illustrious pedigree. You were born without a spoon in your mouth, not even a wooden one. And I have done everything for you making you a house hold nameâ€ nationally and internationally. So, because you want to be an SAN, you want to go about from Ibadan to Kano, from Enugu to Lagos, from Abuja to Ilorin, to beg, to lobby, to prostrate and kneel down before mere mortals?, You are a stupid boy. You want to share my glory with man? I was not sleeping. I was firmly awake, writing in my Abuja office when He spoke to me. I asked Him â€œfather what do I do? He replied: Relax. Rely totally on me. Donâ€™t lobby anybody. I will give it to you.
I shall not fail you. And I tell you, Nigerians, as you sit down there, I never went to a single person to solicit or lobby for SANship. And you know what, that was the time I got it. God touched the hearts of men, of those in charge. They became worthy pencils in His mighty hands. I glorify God eternally.
I thank the CJN, Justice Katsina-Alu and the distinguished members of the Privileges committee for being the hand maid of God, to actualise my dream. I feel accomplished, fulfilled. I give you this testimony because I promised God that I would use my tongue to give testimony of what He did for me, to show that only He and He alone will be there for you and will not disappoint you. That next man or woman sitting by you can disappoint you and even backstab you but God will never do so. I leave you with one caveat: Let us all, individually and collectively, defend our hard earned democracy.
This is because democracy has no alternative. That text book definition of democracy by Abraham Lincoln as â€œthe government of the people, by the people and for the peopleâ€, remains the best definition of democracy for all times. The absence of it is the presence of chaos anarchy and despotism. And you men of the media that have been given a constitutional mandate under section 22 of the 1999 constitution must carry out this duty in the name of God so that together, we can wipe out corruption.
Together, we can enthrone good governance, transparency, accountability, responsibility in governance and together we will prevent thieves and rogues in power who pilfer our common wealth and National treasury, doing damage to our country, our national psyche and generations yet unborn. Together, we will leave a better future for us and our children and generations yet unborn. God bless you. God bless Nigeria.