When in 1995, the late Gen Sani Abacha through his Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Chief Michael Agbamuche, SAN established the National Human Rights Commission no one would have thought that the Nigerian military would one day file a petition at the commission.
Yes, that is what happened on January 19th, 2016. On that day the Chief of Army Staff, Lt-Gen Tukur Burutai appeared before the commission to give evidence in support of a petition filed before the commission by the Nigerian Army. In the petition, the army gave detailed information on how members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria allegedly blocked the convoy of the Chief of Army Staff in Zaria, Kaduna State December last year and the consequent clashes that followed leaving an unconfirmed number of people dead.
While credit goes to everyone who had in one way or the other contributed to sustain the commission including Abacha, someone stands out from the crowd: Chidi Odinkalu who retired as the commission’s chairman last December.
Chidi, as he is fondly called by everyone was inaugurated as chairman of the Governing Council of the commission on 27th November, 2012 almost one year after he was appointed.
During the four year-period in which he was the chairman, Chidi proved to the world that the commission could actually deliver on its main mandate: protecting the rights of the people. On assumption of office, he found that despite all its years of existence, the commission did not have a rule of procedure. What was admissible and inadmissible had not been delineated. In what format should a petition be presented to the commission? How should the commission proceed when a petition is filed before it? These and many other issues were addressed in the rules of procedure he developed for the commission. This is critical. One can only imagine how courts of law would function without rules of procedure. It would be Chaotic.
To ensure that every council member had a first-hand experience of the human rights situation across the country, he ensured that council meetings were held at the different geographical zones instead of only in Abuja.
The acid test for the commission came in September 2013 when security operatives besieged a yet to be completed building at Apo legislative quarters and descended on innocent squatters staying there. While it was apparent that the security agents were merely trying to help the owner of the property scare off the squatters, the Department for State Security Services claimed that the squatters were members of the dreaded Boko Haram sect.
Acting on a petition submitted to the commission by the Global Rights and Human rights Law Office on behalf of the National Association of Commercial Tricycle and Motorcycle owners and Riders Association, the human rights commission under the leadership of Chidi held public hearings on the killings. That is rarity in a country where institutions are afraid to confront armed agencies. The commission summoned the army and the SSS and they came. Through these hearings, the commission lifted the veil on bizarre extra judicial killings and exposed the cover up by the SSS. The commission found the security forces culpable, awarded damages against them and recommended prosecution for those who fired the shots that killed the squatters. Suddenly, everyone realised there was a Human Rights Commission.
Realising the importance of credible election in sustaining democracy, Chidi constituted a high-powered committee to investigate those who had committed crimes during past elections. The result was a compendium detailing electoral violence as well as the perpetrators and the likely crimes they could be charged with. The committee reviewed virtually all judgments delivered in election petitions and appeals and found that many of the tribunals had already identified various crimes committed during elections. The report caused panic among the elite as some of the indicted politicians threatened fire and brimstone. One even went to court.
In line with the commission’s mandate, the report was submitted to the then Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mohammed Adoke, SAN. He did not act on it. Yet, government has continued to engage in tokenism regarding crimes committed during elections. The incumbent Attorney General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami, SAN would be well advised to take a look at the report. Before the ingenious approach adopted by Chidi to address this problem which remains a threat to our democracy, everyone including the Independent National Electoral Commission appeared helpless. They often bemoaned the unfortunate situation even as they claimed that there was no enabling law that would help them prosecute electoral crimes. Chidi disagreed. If someone is killed during election, that is murder. Don’t we already have laws dealing with homicide? He took the view that enforcing existing laws was a good way to start prosecuting crimes committed during elections.
Not known for shying away from taking on the authorities, Chidi never shirked from criticising the administration of Dr Goodluck Jonathan especially on human rights issues. He called for the dismissal and prosecution of Abba Moro, the then Minister of the Interior after hundreds of job seekers died while trying to participate in the fraudulent recruitment exercise conducted by the Nigerian Immigration Service. Many in the Peoples’ Democratic Party became uncomfortable with Chidi as the chairman of the commission and called on the President to remove him. Some labeled him an agent of the All Progressives Congress. But today, some of the respect still bestowed on Goodluck Jonathan as a President resulted from his ability to tolerate opposition and criticism. Chidi has proved that as an appointee of government, you donot have to keep quiet when the authorities overstep their bounds.
Before he left, Chidi organised victims of bomb blasts into the Bomb Blast Victims Association of Nigeria enabling them to speak with one voice. Chidi believes that giving a voice to the voiceless is key to promoting human rights.
He conducted public hearings on the demolition of houses across the country at a time when demolishing houses owned by the poor had become the pastime of government both at the state and federal level. However, the governing council of the commission under his leadership could not complete this work. One can only hope that a new council when constituted will complete the investigation.
If I were to advise President Muhammadu Buhari, I will suggest he re-appoints Chidi, but I am convinced he will reject the appointment. The only person appointed into office who voluntarily declared his assets, it took pressure and persuasion from friends and associates to convince him to accept the offer to serve as chairman in the first instance. It was Chidi who explained to us that the human rights space would not be donated to us and that we had to fight for it. So when he sought to reject the appointment as chairman of the commission, we quickly reminded him of this.
One of the humblest persons I ever met in my life, Chidi rejected a police escort and official car. He often went to dangerous places without fear. Once we went to Zaki Biam for a remembrance of those killed during the Zaki Biam massacre, the police at all check points would order us out and conduct a thorough check on all of us. Chidi would politely comply and at the end of the check would commend the police for doing their job. When the police asked him to identify himself, he simply told them ‘I am Chidi’. He never said he was the chairman of National Human Rights Commission.
Chidi is not without his faults. He often moves so fast that he has no patience to carry along those who are not as talented as he is. Many misunderstood this and thought he did not want to carry them along. Some members of his council felt this way. Nevertheless, his short stay at the commission will remain memorable. I am sure those working there are already wondering when next they will be fortunate to have another unassuming, simple, easygoing and talented chairman. The truth is that, Chidi is a rare breed.