OSAI OJIGHO: A Human Rights Activist on the Global Stage
Driven by her passion to protect citizens’ rights, Osai Ojigho, a Nigerian human rights activist, lawyer and gender equality advocate, is leaving Amnesty International for another worthy cause. In a gripping conversation with Udora Orizu, the Delta State-born scholar reflects on her daunting task as the Country Director of Amnesty International and her next move
Osai Ojigho is on a mission to ensure human rights are not abused. Of course, she does not have a superwoman cape tied around her neck but with her legal skills and knowledge as a civil society actor, Ojigho over the years has used her position to ensure that people use relevant institutions to pursue justice, and raise visibility to the issues of women and girls.
This mission is a long-time dream that started in the lecture halls of the University of Lagos where she obtained her law degree.
“I was very studious and participated in a number of activities,” she began. “I was a student member of Amnesty International, the University of Lagos Chapter.”
Ojigho proceeded to the Nigerian Law School in Abuja and went on further to obtain her masters at the University of Wolverhampton in the UK.
Even though her masters was in international trade and commercial law, she found herself in a state of uncertainty when she came back to Nigeria in 2003.
“I was trying to find my feet like okay, what should I be doing? What else is available? And then one of my sister’s friends shared with me an opportunity to intern at the International Criminal Court in The Hague in the Netherlands. I was a bit skeptical because I was looking for a job, but I applied anyway. It was something to do while I’m waiting for those applications and interviews to come through. So, the International Criminal Court offered me an internship to work in the victims and witnesses unit which is under the registry.”
This was a sort of detour from Ojigho’s career plans as she wanted to practise as a legal researcher. But she nevertheless took the challenge wholeheartedly, at least, to get international experience.
“I was doing mostly preparatory work, because, at that time (2004), the court had not started receiving cases, so it was mostly preparation, studying the situation, preparing what to do when victims and witnesses come and their families, how they will handle them to ensure that they are not intimidated by the other side.”
One of the cases that caught the interest of Ojigho during this period was the case of Northern Uganda. Reading about how children were drafted into the military, raped, and abducted, opened her eyes to a different world. From that moment, Ojigho knew what her true calling was.
“One, I felt that I could use my legal skills to help make the world a safer place. Two, to fight for justice. Because if these institutions do not exist, who would have helped those victims from Northern Uganda.”
Ojigho worked briefly with a research firm before joining Alliances for Africa in 2007. Since then, she has not ruled her decision to become a civil society actor.
“I haven’t looked back in terms of using not only my legal skills but my knowledge as a civil society actor in order to ensure that people use these institutions in order to pursue justice, but also to bring the voices of women and girls to these conversations. Oftentimes when peace or security is being discussed, or when people are talking about justice, women and girls are not decision-makers, and I thought that by adding my voice and my expertise, I can raise the visibility of the issues of women and girls as well.”
In 2017, Ojigho was appointed Country Director of Amnesty International in Nigeria, where she has overseen and participated in advocacy and social change campaigns including the #BringBackOurGirls and #EndSARS movement as well as lending the organisation’s voice to various human rights violations.
Prior to joining Amnesty International, Ojigho served in various roles with Oxfam in Nairobi, Kenya as interim Pan Africa Director of Oxfam GB and Coalition Coordinator for the State of the Union (SOTU). She was also a human rights observer to the African Union Mission to Mali and the Sahel 2013-14.
Even though she works in a male-dominated field, she is not easily intimidated. “I think for me, the major thing is about knowing what you’re doing, having the correct qualifications in terms of degree, experience, and then your determination to succeed because that’s the overarching difference. It can be disarming for people when they meet you because they feel we can walk over her or we can intimidate her by raising our voice and everything but I found out that if you are aware of your abilities and you’re confident in yourself, they can try but you will stand strong and stay firm. It’s also been an advantage for a role like the head of Amnesty International in Nigeria. When I enter a room people are expecting to see a man, so the first few minutes they’re trying to say, okay where is the director; and then I’ll be like I’m the director.”
Introducing herself that way, she said, gives her a sense of ownership and allows her to properly reintroduce herself and set the agenda of the meeting.
“Most pushback comes also from communities and beneficiaries you want to work with because you’re not sure whether their issues will be dealt with. So it’s about building confidence, building relationships. I found that I need to dedicate a bit of time to building those relationships because people will not take it on the surface level that you are competent, so it’s almost like you are not until you prove it.
“I try as much as possible to ask about their needs, make suggestions, and then give them alternative provisions to what they need. So they know that this person is knowledgeable, this person is an expert, this person is not just doing it as a sort of token, acknowledgement, or recognition. But it is tough because it’s something that I have to deal with every time, every day, it’s a daily thing. There is never a time when I don’t have to be fully present in order to be acknowledged for the work and expertise that I bring to the team.”
Speaking on the difficult task of being the Director of Amnesty International Nigeria, Ojigho said she has learned to say no and to be able to prioritise issues that are relevant to the organisation’s goals.
“So, many things are always happening at a time. It’s about managing my time.”
She utilises tools like calendars to schedule work meetings as well as time for herself. This helps her to maintain balance and attend to issues even when she is not physically present. By doing so, Ojigho is also able to delegate, review her work and progress on projects.
Comparing handling the tedious job on issues of human rights violations in Nigeria to that of other countries, Ojigho admitted that the work in Nigeria is enormous.
“When I’m in meetings with other amnesty directors, in the region, that is Africa and elsewhere, I can see that the kinds of threats that we face in our environment are more intense. Maybe because of the kinds of natural resources we have. There’s a lot more interest in the states and corporations and multinationals in what is going on in Nigeria. You constantly have to be alert to possible violations. The size of the country as well contributes to this.
“In the Nigeria office, we are just about 20 but we are dealing with a country, 36 states and 200 million plus people and everybody wants you to work on their issues. So, it’s quite overwhelming. And you find that you are stretched, working on several things. Whereas in some other countries, you can just be dealing with one or two issues. It doesn’t mean that other issues are not important, but they are able to focus and prioritise because they have less demand for their time.
“But overall in Africa, we are still facing issues that the West might not consider so much of an issue now, which is civil and political rights. Freedom of movement, and freedom of expression, it’s the same whether it’s in Nigeria, Ghana, or in Kenya, and issues about cultural and religious practices that could be discriminatory cut across many of those countries as well. So, for Nigeria, I would say it’s the size and complexity of the kinds of issues we deal with and the pressure from the populace in order to be more vocal on issues that concern them.”
Of course, every job comes with its challenges and Amnesty is not immune to one. Under her leadership as the country director, the human rights organisation has had issues with the military. Ojigho finds the different tags the military has labelled the organisation amusing. She painted the relationship between Amnesty International and the military as that of David and Goliath. However, she found it interesting that the military viewed Amnesty International reports to be a direct attack on their capacity to deliver security in response to the insurgents.
“I don’t want to say that Amnesty International is right because the insurgency has taken much longer than people thought it should. Something that started in 2009, we are in 2023 and it’s still going on. The insurgency has mutated into several other kinds of conflicts in the region. So Amnesty International’s research and campaign were not an attack on the military but rather throwing lights on abuses that are ongoing and providing the authorities an opportunity to correct those issues.”
She argued that the organisation expected the military to investigate the issues raised rather than dismiss them publicly. Nonetheless, Ojigho said that the organisation is aware that the military takes the issues they raise seriously. She cited an example with the 2015 report where the organisation highlighted the rules of engagement.
“One of the issues that the military needs to be clear of is that some of its soldiers go into battle without recognising the human rights implications of their actions and that the rules of engagement need to be clear. So they know how to deal with people in the theatre of war, how to deal with prisoners of war, and how to handle issues of detention and the treatment of prisoners in their care and we know that the military in the last few years has actually improved on the kind of training their soldiers get and ensuring that the rules of engagement become something that everybody should be aware of. But they won’t tell people that it is as a result of the criticism, or the fact that Amnesty raised this as a crucial issue that motivated them to adopt or tweak their practices.”
After six years in Amnesty International, Ojigho feels it’s time for a change. Though she will still be in the development sector, she believes it’s a great idea to use her skills in another organisation that deals with similar issues.
“I will be moving to Christian Aid UK, where I will be the Director of policy, public affairs and campaigns. I think it’s a good time for me, I think there’s still a lot of work to do at Amnesty International. But Christian Aid came calling and the opportunity to do work at a more global stage and to influence at a higher policy level, I thought would be another way to enhance my skills as well as expose some of the challenges of the development sector in the Global South.
“There are not many of us who do this work at a very senior level. And I think that it’s important to have diverse voices in this space. So, it’s going to be like a chance to contribute from a different experience, an experience of a black African woman working in this sector for nearly 18 years, and contributing to that space,” she concluded excitedly.