By Innocent Anaba
Prof. Chidi Odinkalu, a lawyer and academician is chairman designate of the National Human Rights Commission, NHRC, and a human rights activist. In this interview, he spoke on some burning national issues.
On the security problems confronting the country, he said Nigeria needs steadfast leadership, skilled security agencies and international cooperation to tackle the security menace headlong, particularly the threat posed by the Boko Haram Islamic sect.
Boko Haram bomb blasts in parts of the country, with its attendant loss of lives, seem to have overwhelmed the government. What is the way out?
If I had a magic bullet to end the Boko Haram problem, I would jump into action, but as you can see, I am an ordinary citizen. We need steadfast political leadership, skilled security agencies and international co-operation. At the moment, many Nigerians probably believe we’re short on most or all of these. The security agencies particularly have a steep gradient to negotiate in persuading the country that they can bring this under control.
Of course, they will need the support and assistance of the citizens and communities around the country but people are not going to offer help to security agencies if they don’t trust the security agencies or see security agencies as part of the problem rather than part of the solution. This means that the leadership of our security services has to work much harder to earn public trust and co-operation.
The quality of intelligence and analysis needs to be upped and the loop between analysis and field operations needs to be improved. Firm political leadership is needed across the political divides. Finally, international co-operation will help in many ways. Many people look to Europe and North America for such co-operation. We can and must begin with our near neighbours– Cameroon, Chad, Niger, Sudan.
The amnesty granted to militants in the Niger Delta region has been blamed for the upsurge in militancy and attacks by different groups in the country. Do you agree?
Every geo-political zone has a major pathology of political violence. This is not at all confined to the Niger Delta. The cause, in my view, is because people have developed profound distrust and loss of confidence in both political leadership and our institutions. Nigerians are not stupid.
The boys in the creeks may have got amnesty; but lots of more highly placed people have got impunity over the years. So many high profile killings and assassinations entirely unconnected with the boys in the creeks have gone unsolved from Dele Giwa to Bola Ige and more.
Many people who should be in prison in more respectable climes have quite respectable positions of influence and authority around the country. A two-term state Governor and political god-father in this country was a serial convict before he became governor. The democratisation of violence as the only means of political advocacy across the country reflects an underlying crisis of rule of law and non-performing institutions.
Some believe that formation of Boko Haram and the recent bombings are politically motivated, while some argued it is religious. Where do you place it and why?
I don’t have the evidence or access to the forensics to support those lines of speculation. The Governor of Ekiti State, Dr. Kayode Fayemi has said elsewhere: “this is not about religion even though the promoters of hate would want it to be seen as such hence the attack on churches and in the hope that a religious war could be provoked. Therefore, I agree with the National Human Rights Commission, NHRC, that this unfortunate attack does not call for a precipitate, brute force reaction on the part of security agencies against so-called ‘Islamic fundamentalists.’
What it requires in the immediate is a careful, diligent and comprehensive intelligence gathering and detection capacity aimed at undercutting the masterminds of the attack – the sponsors of Boko Haram(BH) and their international agents, not a focus on the foot soldiers – many of whom will be caught in the line of any ‘extra-judicial’ fire. While the foot soldiers maybe the headliners now, they are really cannon fodders and a huge distraction.” I totally agree with him
Today, the ordinary Nigerian cannot feel a sense of security, as cases of kidnappings, robberies and the likes are daily occurrences. What should Nigerians do to ensure that government lives up to its duty of providing security?
Nigerians are already doing what they can to cope; voting with their feet; not going home; abandoning the hinterland; establishing vigilantes; arming themselves; resorting to self-help; praying, fasting, casting and binding and mouthing incantations! My view is this: we need to stop coping and learn to get angry as citizens of a country whose institutions are failing us. If we do, then we will exact accountability from those who ought to provide leadership in this situation. The present situation in the country is an opportunity for both citizenship and leadership to prove themselves.
Recently, the Senate passed a law banning same sex marriage in Nigeria, this did not go down well with some countries in the West. What is your reaction to this?
I’m advised that this issue may already be before the National Human Rights Commission. I would rather not comment on it right now.
How will you assess the human rights situation in the country in the last one year?
We have several related problems. You cannot separate the general human rights situation from the crisis of sovereign and institutional capability in the country. The mechanisms of administrative, judicial, and political accountability are weak, destitute or manifestly compromised.
This reality compromises access to redress and also encourages discrimination and inequality as the dominant philosophies of the public space. The promise of common and equal Nigerian citizenship is unreal for most Nigerians, thus making the promise of human rights even more difficult to realise.
Because public institutions do not work for the ordinary people, there is a high propensity and tolerance for de-centralised violence both as a means of state and as a mechanism for self protection. This has, in turn, created a context that is ripe for both lawlessness and domestic terror. The pervasiveness of impunity has thus become a national security problem and a challenge for the promotion and protection of the rights to human dignity, safety and security. We’re in a little spot of bother.
You have been cleared by the Senate as Chairman of the board of the National Human Rights Commission. How does it feel to be empowered to play your role in ensuring that the rights of Nigerians are protected and defended?
The law requires that members of the Council of the National Human Rights Commission can only begin to exercise their responsibilities as such after they have been sworn in. That has not yet happened. If and when it happens, it will be a call to service. My hope and expectation is that the Council as an institution and its members as committed Nigerians, will do their bit and best with the responsibilities entrusted to them.
Several times, international rights organisations have scored the country low in term of respect for individual rights by security agencies. In your view, do you think they projected the country in real light?
I don’t think we need international organizations to tell us whether or not we are treating ourselves and our people right. When we get to the point of looking to internationals for validation as to whether or not we care for ourselves, then something is fundamentally wrong with us and our system. So, the question of whether they are projecting the country in real light doesn’t arise for me.
Caring for our people and treating our people properly is an obligation and a responsibility we owe ourselves. When we do it, we’re not auditioning for international approbation and we shouldn’t expect the world to hand out certificates of commendation to us. And when we fail to do it, we shouldn’t complain if others outside our shores take or voice a very dim view of us.
Despite the opposition by majority of Nigerians against the removal of fuel subsidy, government is insisting on going ahead with the policy. What does this portend for the country and the citizens?
There are three related conversations here that are increasingly eliding into one: one is the subsidy issue; the second is the nature of leadership, values and institutions in Nigeria; and the third is the future of Nigeria itself with safety and security also part of it. The subsidy issue is symptomatic of the two latter crises. Many people don’t believe that government has the credibility to take far reaching decisions such as the subsidy issue because they don’t see in government people willing to make the kinds of far reaching sacrifices that they ask of Nigerians.
Some are willing to dare government to do that at the risk of harming Nigeria’s integrity as a country. In response, some in government portray the subsidy issue as a matter of economics only. John Campbell’s penultimate posting on his Council on Foreign Relations Blog on 20 December is headed, rather pointedly, “Nigeria’s Fuel Subsidy is More than Economics.”
It is also about the deficits of credibility in government that have been inherited by the present government, which, ironically, is probably the first government in post-independence Nigeria with something close to genuine electoral legitimacy. My view is that government needs to listen to and address this underlying concern about rehabilitating its decision-making credibility because that is important and government is a continuum.
General Buhari made some quite constructive proposals after the Supreme Court verdict in his electoral petition on 28 December 2011 which, in my view, deserve close attention from those who presently have the responsibility to run the country or any of its constituent parts or institutions. Perhaps, this is the beginning of a different kind of politics – in which disagreement on means does not preclude us from forging consensus on both negotiable and non-negotiable ends.
Oil spill in the Niger Delta region is notoriously becoming a daily occurrence, but strangely, unlike the Gulf Mexico spill by BP, where President Obama made the company to pay $20billion first before further talks. In Nigeria, our government fails to act to the embarrassment of Nigerians. How can we ensure that these multinationals stop getting away with polluting our environment?
In many ways, the twin crises of violence and environmental denudation unite all parts of the country. From Sokoto to Sagbama, we have environmental crises around the country with far reaching negative consequences on livelihoods. The Bonga spill is the latest in a long history of spills and blow outs in all the oil producing areas that have destroyed the livelihoods of host communities. Part of the cause of that oil-field here has been historically abysmal and those who should do something about it have mostly mortgaged their responsibilities to ‘rent’.
The operators have been uncaring but so also have been the agencies and the traditional institutions that have usually collected money and sold out their own people. This can and must change. Many people think the Petroleum Ministry is not pushing the operators hard enough on this issue and that the Federal Ministry of Environment has to step up and be seen and heard. The Environment Ministry should be one of the most far reaching portfolios in government but no one hears about it.
What is your assessment of the judiciary in 2011?
My late maternal grandmother always insisted that if you cannot say a kind word about someone or something, you should keep quiet. On this question, I think I’ll listen to her.
What are your expectations of the judiciary in 2012?
I guess the good news has to be that 2011 was such a low point for Nigeria’s judiciary, the only way to go is up. In July 2012, there will be a historic change in Nigeria’s judicial annals: Justice Aloma Mukhtar, will probably rise to assume office as Nigeria’s first female Chief Justice.
The changes needed to transform judicial skills, service delivery and accountability in Nigeria are deep and far reaching. My hope rather than expectation is that 2012 is the year in which we can make the beginning that the institution needs and Nigerians deserve.