‘We must promote electoral accountability ’
Prof. Chidi Odinkalu is the Chairman of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). In this interview with JOHN AUSTIN UNACHUKWU, he speaks on the commission and the forthcoming Nigeria Bar Association (NBA) elections.
What is your greatest achievement at NHRC?
Well, we were inaugurated on November 26, 2012, that’s about some 18 months ago. We’re in a country in which achievements are listed in terms of tangibles and how many buildings you’ve constructed or how many people you’ve given jobs in the public sector. Regrettably, I have not done any of these two. So, I guess that makes me a failure. I come from a tradition, however, in which achievements are in reckoned in intangibles.
How do you mean?
Given the challenges we face as a country, it’ll be in my view, unforgivable navel-gazing to begin to speak of “achievements” of the commission. Remember the book of Proverbs, 27:2: “Let another man praise thee and not thee, thyself.” That’s a part of the Bible that I subscribe to quite fully. I’m gratified generally that the commission’s moral, operational, and functional authority continue to be enhanced. There’ll be time to dwell on discrete areas of growth or achievement. I just don’t think that time is right here yet. A national human rights institution is not an opposition party; nor is it a public relations department for government nor a Salvation Army. The challenge of building the commission into a confident, independent, credible institution remains a present continuous challenge and right now, that is what we’re focused on.
What is your assessment of human rights situation in the country?
Clearly, the human rights situation in Nigeria is quite challenging. But these challenges are tied to our challenges of state’s capacity and of nation building. Nigeria is a vast country with vast challenges. At the moment, the biggest challenges are forging a nation out of our diversities and building institutions to guarantee equal stakeholding for all who claim Nigeria as theirs. That is not going to be solved in one stroke or in one generation. It’ll take time. Our institutions are struggling. Military rule destroyed or ruined most of them. The politicians have not made much of a dent in making them better.
Most of our politicians are interested in trying to profit from our differences rather than bridge them. The Police has been grossly under-funded and demotivated. That is part of our challenge of insecurity. The constitution says the primary responsibility of government is safety and security. But when you under-resource the police, you license impunity. That is perhaps our biggest national security and human rights’ challenge-impunity.
The husband, who beats his wife to pulp; the terrorist, who detonates an Improvised Electronic Device ( IED) in the market place; the senior public office holder, who steals the entire budget for public health in his state; the national oil company executive, who plunders money meant for the Federation Account and the Senior Advocate, who procures money to bribe a judge in an election petition – all of them calculate that they’ll go scot free and they probably will.
In such a country, the only guarantor of security is narrow identity and the only way to protect yourself is vigilantism, do it yourself.(DIY). That is why we have a very violent society. Many people think the situation in the north east is the only site of violence in Nigeria, it isn’t. The violence is everywhere, retail and wholesale. If we don’t build capable institutions we can’t make a dent on it.
Prof. Epiphany Azinge (SAN) just concluded his tenure as the Director-General of the Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies (NIALS). What is your appraisal of his tenure?
Public service is a revolving door. You put in your best, and you take a bow. I think posterity will be very kind to Prof Azinge. He’s injected tremendous energy and verve into the institute. Under him the institute has been quite prolific in many areas that it did not venture into before from public law to investment law to international criminal law. He deserves to be justly proud of what he’s accomplished at the Institute. Deji Adekunle who’s being designated to succeed him is exceedingly well equipped to continue to take the institute on the right path.
The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has accredited observers for Ekiti and Osun polls. Will that ensure election in those states?
The Ekiti and Osun elections are excellent opportunities for INEC and all other institutions looking to prepare for the 2015 elections to test-run arrangements for 2015, admittedly on a small scale, but the opportunity must not be missed.
Accountability is essential for the credibility of our elections. Since 1979, we have failed to ensure accountability for those who rigged our elections. I’ll give you some examples: In 1983, the Babalakin Commission on Federal Electoral Commission (FEDECO) reported a case of the old Oranmiyan North Constituency in what is now Osun State in which a FEDECO official, one Mr. Stephen Ajibade, rigged the numbers, manufacturing 214,500 votes in 1983 for a constituency that registered only 42, 216 voters four years earlier in 1979, an impossible growth of some 450 per cent in four years or a year on year growth of over 110 per cent. Nothing happened to him. In the 1997/98 senatorial elections in Abia Central Senatorial Zone, Ikwuano Local Government returned 44,000 votes out of a registered voting population of 39,000, that is a turn out of 112.8 per cent in an election in which the official turn out was 25.1 per cent. To its credit, the then NECON suspended the returning officer involved, but he was reinstated by the Obasanjo administration. In one case in Anambra State in 2007 in which only 2089 voters were registered, INEC declared over 7226 votes, that is 345 per cent turn out and nothing happened to the officers who procured these numbers. Such impunity licenses election rigging.
What is your Commission doing about this?
That is why the National Human Rights Commission is calling attention to electoral accountability. As the Supreme Court noted in Rotimi Amaechi’s case, elections involve the exercise of a human right, the right to participate in government. When there is impunity for violations of the right to participate, fair trial is also subverted. This is why in July this year we’re launching public hearings on electoral accountability.
What is your appraisal of the current leadership of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA)?
At the personal level, I can say without equivocation that all elected Bar officers are my friends, I like them. At the institutional level, I don’t think this NBA leadership has distinguished itself, sadly. At the National Executive Committee (NEC) meeting held in Ado-Ekiti, the Chief Judge of Ekiti State , Justice Ayodeji S. Daramola, a distinguished member of my 1988 Call set, if I may say so, said quite clearly that the NBA has lost its voice and credibility. That’s obvious. The era in which men and women of integrity like Alao Aka-Bashorun, Hairat Aderinsola Balogun, Yinka Fayokun, Gani Fawehinmi, Ebele Nwokoye, led the national Bar is long gone.
Why do you say so?
The NBA has also lost its moral and institutional authority and its goodwill with most Nigerians. We’re being perceived as part of the problem not part of the solution. Internally also, the Bar is no longer seen as an organisation that cares, nor is it any longer a deliberative body. Take for instance the current insurgency in northeast. The Nigerian Union of Teachers (NUT) is a body that cannot rival the NBA in terms of resources. But the NUT has kept proper records and knows how many of its members have been killed by the insurgency. About 173 have been reportedly lost, so, NUT members believe their leadership cares. When it calls them out, they answer. Compare this with our NBA, any of our members have been killed and many more have had to flee the insurgency. But the NBA has kept no records of who we’ve lost, the circumstances in which we’ve lost them nor have we tried to honour any of them.
Leadership at the Bar has become Sole Administratorship. That sucks! We’re a body of lawyers for crying out loud, not a military organisation or a body of thugs. This is not personal. I like the NBA President at the personal level. But liking someone in a position of leadership also means telling them what they need to know not just feeding them with what they want to hear. Leadership is not a mutual admiration exercise. Sadly, my view is that the present leadership of the NBA has not risen to the standards that we’re entitled to expect of an independent and credible Bar.
You headed a committee on the professionalisation of the NBA secretariat. What were your recommendations?
…Indeed, I did. And I worked with some terrific people, they included the former Publicity Secretary of the NBA, Muritala Abdulrasheed. He was also the campaign manager of our current NBA President from Kaduna branch; Halima Aliyu of the Birnin-Kebbi branch, who is also a Director in the Kebbi State Ministry of Justice; Abigail Waya of the Lafia branch, who is a Permanent Secretary in Nassarawa State; Idris Bawa, who is a Federal civil servant and member of the Abuja Bar.
Our secretary was Udo Jude Ilo, a former programme officer at the NBA Secretariat, member of the Abuja branch and current country director of the Open Society Foundations in Nigeria. I want to give you the flavour of the composition of our committee because it is important. I chaired the committee and belong to the Lagos branch and we came to this matter with an open mind. Our report ran into about 57 pages delivered with candour to the NBA President and secretariat in January 2013. It is the only report in this administration that they did not lay before the NEC of the NBA
Why did they not lay it before the NEC ?
I don’t know why. About six months after our report was delivered, it was leaked. I don’t know by who or for what reasons. There is nothing too secret about what we found. I expected the leadership to have the conviction of its courage to lay the report before the NEC. I think it was an error on their part not to have done so. By the way, our report was also totally unanimous. The biggest issue for us was the fact that for an organisation that claims to be “promoting the Rule of Law” the NBA had a tradition of non-compliance in the most basic issues: taxation, pensions, safety, insurance, health insurance. The potential liabilities we estimated in these areas ran into tens of millions of naira.
Secondly, we also found that the organisation had become hugely under-optimised in terms of its revenue and membership potential. It was heavily and unwholesomely reliant on big envelopes from politically exposed persons. Third, we found a Bar in which sex discrimination thrives to the point of being institutionalised and in which women continue to be seen largely as objects of gratification. We made clear recommendations for addressing this but many people continue to trivialise this. There were other issues we found and we were quite candid to our leadership about dealing with these and about how it could begin to do so.
How can NBA elections be improved?
It’s quite simple; a few steps will suffice. First, we should get out of the habit of trying to pre-determine the outcome of NBA’s leadership processes. We need a playing field that is not just level, but is manifestly seen to be so for all candidates. We’re all learned colleagues and friends at the Bar. Second, the NBA must make a public commitment to anti-money laundering measures. As part of this commitment, all candidates for the NBA elections must publicly and in writing pledge to both transparent campaign financing and to renounce money from politically exposed persons. A situation in which candidates for NBA positions, especially the Presidency, flood the process with money from dubious or politically crooked sources must be denounced and rooted out. It compromises the organisation beyond repair. Third, we need a credible and independent electoral management process not under the thumb of the outgoing NBA leadership. There is a creeping dynastification of leadership at the NBA-outgoing regimes choosing who succeeds them and why and how and imposing those on the organisation, that we need to remove. That’s part of why we’re where we are. In the end though, we must commit to universal sufferage at the Bar.
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