Prof. Chidi Anselm Odinkalu, 52, is an Abuja-based senior legal officer for the Africa Programme of Open Society Justice Initiative. A human rights activist and writer, Odinkalu was the former chairman of National Human Rights Commission in Nigeria and worked as an advisor for the Ford Foundation, World Bank, African Union, International Council for Human Rights Policy, Geneva; and many others. He co-authored a book entitled Too Good to Die with Ayisha Osori. He was assistant lecturer at the Faculty of Law, University of Ibadan, Oyo State, between 1988 and 1989 and worked with the Civil Liberties Organization as director of projects and planning. Also a legal officer for Africa, INTERIGHTS between July 1998 and February 2003, he was appointed by the United Nations Observer Mission in Sierra Leone as a Human Rights advisor in 1998. In the event of the lockdown in Nigeria due to the coronavirus pandemic, Maureen Chigbo, editor, Realnews, reached out to Odinkalu for an exclusive interview on the state of the nation via a questionnaire. He speaks about sojavirus killing more Nigerians than coronavirus; how government loses authority; habitually sell falsehood and makes it difficult for Nigerians to take the Presidency serious; the altercation between Governor Nyesom Wike and Hadi Sariki, minister of aviation, lopsided social investment programme of the federal government and the big lessons Nigerians have to learn from the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. This quintessential interview by Odinkalu is very thought provoking and a must read. Excerpts.
Realnews: Coronavirus pandemic is ravaging the world. How do you see government’s restriction on movement of persons. Does it in any way infringe on the rights of people to freedom of movement?
Odinkalu: Thank you for the question. In terms of what the Constitution says, section 41 guarantees the right to freedom of movement, and section 45 allows for some limitations to that right in accordance with the law that it is “reasonably justifiable in a democratic society” on various grounds, one of which is public health. Obviously, COVID-19 is a public health crisis of the sort that can justify limitations. So, at first appearance, you can say that there is constitutional scope for restricting movement in order to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. That said, it is important to underscore the points at least. First, there is an inherent rule of proportionality in every rule and every step. So, the limitations imposed by government are not at large. Second, section 17(2)(c) of the same Constitution requires that “governmental actions shall be humane.” You cannot lock up or lockdown hungry people living on the margins of subsistence or impoverishment without options for how they are going to feed themselves and I think that is humane. Third, the enforcement of the lockdowns has got to be reasonable under Rules of Engagement that are transparent and monitorable. You can easily say that so far, that is not the case.
Realnews: Nigerians have witnessed law enforcement agencies abuse of their rights during the lockdown. In fact, in Warri, Bayelsa State, it was reported that people were killed because they did not obey the sit-at-home order of the government. Is it right for the police and the army to kill people to enforce the directive of the government?
Odinkalu: I have already anticipated and answered this question. So far what my friend, Ogaga Ifowodo, rightly calls “Sojavirus” is shooting and killing innocent people in Nigeria on a scale of more than double every life taken by the coronavirus. So, for every Nigerian reportedly killed by the coronavirus so far, about two and a half have been shot by “Sojavirus”. I am not even speaking about the people, who have been beaten up, tortured or had their subsistence businesses destroyed. And no accountability has been levied for any of this. So, in the end, “Sojavirus” will kill lots more than the coronavirus could every harm in Nigeria. It’s criminal. Mind you, I have not mentioned those who will be killed by malaria, maternal mortality, infant mortality, hunger and malnutrition, Lassa fever, etc. This is how government loses authority. The sad thing is the same people, who abuse citizens like this run away or desert when they are sent to the theatres where they have to fight the real enemies of Nigeria like Boko Haram, armed herders, bandits or cattle rustlers.
Realnews: How do you see the measures governments at various level have taken to alleviate the impact of the sit-at-home order. Is it enough? If not, what can be done?
Odinkalu: If there have been any measures, I am yet to see them. There has been an abysmal lack of fellow-feeling about these measures, which makes it difficult to fully buy into them. There have been exceptions, of course. For instance, the Governor of Ogun State deferred the implementation of the lockdown in his state until he had ensured his people had prepared with their supplies. And he is administering it in a humane manner with provision for them to re-stock every two days. In Abia State, a bumbling governor has been rather inhumane about it. In Kaduna, they have martial bluster to their own. That is why the people claiming to enforce these things are killing and abusing fellow citizens in the name of enforcing them. Those of us who are elite and generally think we have a good life have this snootiness about this whole thing that, for me, is very off-putting and insufferably so. We go to the social media to mouth off about how these and those other ones are not social-distancing and how this or that market is open or how this or that mosque in that neighbourhood is open. I am willing to concede that this thing is showing up the limitations of the Nigerian political model, but you can’t give people a choice between hunger, extra-judicial death and virus. The virus will lose 100% of the time. By the way, in the mostly Muslim parts of Nigeria, the only thing people have is their faith. It is an elixir, an escape too and lots more. Plus, it is also their biggest market and source of livelihood – the place where they can sell their most goods in any week. So, why would you lock it down and expect people to respect that when you offer them nothing, I can’t understand.
Realnews: How do you see the treatment of the media in the country? From your observations, how is the government infringing on the freedom of the press in the country? How can this be checked?
Odinkalu: This Buhari government only likes media that sings its praises. When you don’t do that, you are liable to be excluded or they call you names like fake and all that. In reality, they are the people who habitually sell falsehood to the public in the name of government information and the biggest culprits are the minister of information himself as well as the communications and media team in the Presidency. It is difficult to take them seriously when they huff and puff in complaints against the media. You can see how they are doling out calibrated dis-information about this virus. We are told the number of people who have tested positive, but not the number of people tested. When you ask about that you are excluded from their briefings or they pluck numbers from the sky and tell you it is “nearly”, “about”, “close to” or some similar inanity.
Realnews: Recently, security agencies waylaid vans conveying newspapers of some media houses. Should this happen in a democracy?
Odinkalu: No. But we have got used to that under this lot. No?
Realnews: What’s your overall assessment of Nigeria’s democracy vis-a-vis protection of human rights?
Odinkalu: I rather prefer not to mention the regime and human rights in the same sentence. To be fair to them, they have been quite unapologetically voluble at all levels about their lack of respect for human rights. The President himself articulated it in his doctrine, which he laid before the Annual General Conference of the Nigerian Bar Association in August 2018, to the effect that national security trumps rule of law and human rights. The first victims of that attitude are the media and human rights advocates. You can see that in the massive uptick in the violations of the rights of media practitioners since this regime came to power in 2015. They have de-centralised despotism to the point where local government chairmen feel a need to harangue and oppress people for social media posts. Governors across party lines easily disappear and abduct those whom they don’t like and traffic them across state borders for show trials, using police and security assets that they have purchased for peanuts. The courts and judges are so intimidated; they are unwilling or unable to provide effective supervision or remedies against these abuses. It’s a bit of an Animal Farm really.
Realnews: Do you think Nigerians’ right to good health facilities, good housing and food is observed in breach in the country due to poor fiscal and monetary policies of government?
Odinkalu: The chairman of the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19, the SGF, just told us all that he didn’t know how bad Nigeria’s hospitals were. So, what else do you want me to tell you? These guys rule Nigeria, but don’t live in it and have never cared to do so. They come here to take out money to spend overseas. So, why would you be asking me about Nigerians’ right to good health facilities? Who put that kind of idea in your head?
Realnews: Is the social investment programme of Nigerian government enough to stave of hunger in the country, especially at the time of this coronavirus pandemic?
Odinkalu: Point is we are not in this together. It is clear. The Social Investment Programme was essentially an election campaign database for the ruling party. When you look at the 11 million of so database they say they have, you will see how it closely tracks the demographics of political party support across the country. The states mostly in Northern Nigeria in the traditional base of the ruling APC have huge representation in the database. The states, mostly in the South East and South South that are not in the APC conurbation are very poorly represented.
Realnews: There was public outcry of breach of law when the federal government announced lockdown of Lagos, Ogun, and FCT? Is the outcry justified? If so, why?
Odinkalu: We have to go back to where we began: you can only limit constitutionally guaranteed rights with law and by law. The initial lockdown appeared to have been announced by executive pronouncement. That was later cured by the adoption of legal instruments and the outcry was assuaged.
Realnews: How do you see the current drama playing in Rivers State over the arrest of Caverton Pilots for breaching the directive of the state government on closure of border. Has Governor Nyesom Wike the right to take that action?
Odinkalu: For me it is a straightforward issue: federalism is a system of enumerated vs. residual powers. In Nigeria, aviation (both civil and defence aviation) are under the exclusive legislative list. The Governors, like those of Rivers, Kano and Delta States, who claimed to close down airports in their states because of this thing acted unlawfully. In Rivers State, the governor even claimed to close down maritime boundaries. That is entirely outside his province. Now you can legitimately criticize the federal government for having been out to lunch while this happened. That was irresponsible on their part. Just as you can criticize them also for having sat back and allowed states to claim to close down inter-state borders. You are either prepared to run a federal system or you are not and there is enough blame to go round here. The Rivers State government, in my view, clearly over-reached unlawfully. The federal government clearly slept on duty, also irresponsibly. But that is the way this lot have carried on.
Realnews: What are the lessons to be learned from this coronavirus pandemic?
Odinkalu: You want me to write a Ph.D thesis on this? Where do you want me to begin? I am just glad this is happening in our lifetime. If Nigerians desire to take any lessons from it, it will be up to us. If we choose not to do so or to return to normal when the worst of this blows over, it will also be up to us. It is good to see most of our big people, who are likely to run off overseas at the drop of a hat stuck in the country now and confined to their prayer beads because they wacked all the money that was meant to build hospitals to protect them and us. All of this, of course, is happening at a time when we have no money given the cratering of the global oil markets. This will require special leadership skills for the country to survive it. Sadly, we lack those too. So, the big lesson for the moment – brace up for a very rough ride. It will be very bumpy!
Realnews: How would you assess Nigeria’s response to the coronavirus pandemic? Did government act fast enough?
Odinkalu: Government hasn’t had a clue. The only exception is Lagos where I must admit the government has made a genuine effort under impossible conditions. You have to credit them even in the places where you can disagree with them, you have to admit the Lagos State government has performed creditably.
Realnews: From your observations which areas do you think government should be focusing on the make the fight against this pandemic holistic without infringing on rights of the people?
Odinkalu: I really don’t think this government thinks respecting the rights of the people is part of its brief. Mind you, Major-General Buhari is the only President in Nigeria’s history who rode to power by complaining about the state of the hospitals. That was in the coup of December 31, 1983. Nearly 37 years later, there is nothing in his record to show that that complaint was anything more than an opportunistic justification for unconstitutional power-grab.
Realnews: If you are travelling from Lagos to the East, you notice a lot check points. There are reports of harassment and extortion of motorists and passengers by different security officials, especially the police. How can this challenge be resolved given that different inspector general of police had in the past ordered that checkpoints be removed on Highways. This order has been obeyed in breach.
Odinkalu: They know that extortion of traders on the Shagamu-Ore-Benin-Asaba route is the easiest form of subsistence for customs, police, army, civil defence. Why would they stop it?
Realnews: What do you make of the Social Media Bill before the National Assembly? How is it going to affect freedom of information as enshrined in the Constitution and the African and UN Human Rights Charter which Nigeria is a signatory?
Odinkalu: You know my views on the Bill. They are in the public domain. The bill is an inspired piece of waste of precious legislative time. And another piece of comic parliamentary magic by the Niger State contingent to the Senate. It is the same contingent that is giving us the Bill for the Hate Speech Commission. They are the same people who want to criminalise ownership of generators in a country in which government can’t provide electricity. You remember, of course, they gave us IBB. You want me to go on?
Realnews: Some lawmakers are advocating for amnesty for members of repentant Boko Haram members. Comment please?
Odinkalu: I’d rather hold my peace on this. What I may wish to say may be unprintable.
Realnews: Do you have any other information you will like to give us?
Odinkalu: Not at the moment. Thank you for having me.
– Apr. 13, 2020 @ 18:30 GMT |