Doyen of Nigeria’s human rights and pro-democracy activism, Olisa Agbakoba, SAN, has taken a look at the country’s journey in civil rule, and has also explained why he was detained as a soldier fighting on the side of Biafra during the Nigerian Civil War.
In the latest edition of PLAC BEAM, an online magazine published by Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre (PLAC), a civic group, Agbakoba said whatever misgivings he has about President Muhammadu Buhari’s rule, he thinks the problems of Nigeria stems more from those who see politics as merely a tool to plunder the public treasury.
“Nigeria is fragile. There’s need for a new political ethics. Unless we do that, we’ll just keep going into wasteful four-year election cycles’’, says the foremost Nigerian human rights campaigner and lawyer, who has no easy answer about what led him to public activism.
“I have no idea”, he offered in a recent interview with the civic group magazine. “There was no aha! moment. Some people tell me it’s in the Agbakoba line. My grandfather was in the Red Cross, and my father was too.”
Then he remembers: “I was also in Biafran detention.” As a strapping teenager during the civil war, he was conscripted along with his elder brother to fight on the side of the secessionist Biafra Republic.
At some point during the war, his father, tired of being incessantly on the run, returned to his hometown of Onitsha then under the control of the federal troops. There, he was celebrated by the federal authorities and given an appointment.
On the rebel side, his son fighting in the war front could no longer be trusted. He had become a “sabo,” short for saboteur. So Olisa was clamped into detention.
“I was at the Ntueke prison that held special detainees like Chike Obi (the famous mathematician). We were carrying dead bodies out everyday to bury”, Agbakoba recalls. But, his elder brother was captured by the federal troops in battle and taken to Lagos as a prisoner of war, with both brothers finding freedom only with the end of hostilities.
When issues of human rights came up subsequently in his professional life as a lawyer, Agbakoba found “them directly relevant to what I experienced in the war. I didn’t need to understand what they were talking about; I already knew it. I had experienced it.”
Yet, he gives credit to Clement Nwankwo, then a young lawyer with legal aid background working from his law offices, for helping give form to what became the Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO) in 1987.
“An important role was played by Clement, Agbakoba said. “He had some background in legal aid and had an idea of how human rights groups worked in places like the U.S.”
Other key “igniters” of what eventually became the Civil Liberties OrganiSation were Abdul Oroh, then a judicial reporter at The Guardian; Richard Akinola, also a judicial reporter at the Vanguard newspaper, and, Amma Ogan, then editor of The Guardian on Sunday.
It was Oroh, who brought to the attention of the group, the case of one Joseph Odogwu, who had spent 9 years in prison without trial, according to Agbakoba. After CLO won freedom for Odogwu, it opened a floodgate of cases. It was a phase that had the group fully focused on human rights and prison work.
With Nwankwo’s departure from the CLO, there followed another phase – the pro-democracy campaigns – which came as former national student union leaders, such as Emma Ezeazu and Chima Ubani (both late now), joined the organiSation. There was an understanding that protecting human rights also entailed expanding the democratic space, according to Agbakoba.
It was Oroh that brought in Ezeazu, who replaced Nwankwo as national secretary. Ezeazu in turn invited Ubani, said Agbakoba.
“He (Ubani) was so thin that I said, ‘Are you sure he can do it?’ He said to me: Chairman, trust me.!”
Thus ensued a new CLO of contending ideological leanings among members that Agbakoba grouped as “the looney left and the crazy right,” with him, the CLO president, the neutral arbiter of the rival camps.
Ezeazu and Ubani, with a good understanding of the anti-apartheid mass movements of South Africa, applied it through public advocacy, street demonstrations, research, and publications. This subsequently morphed into the Campaign for Democracy coalition of civic and rights groups as Beko Ransome-Kuti’s Committee for the Defence of Human Rights and others joined.
That was when the rights groups, under the dictatorships of Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha, became the only effective opposition in the country. They led marches and demonstrations that culminated in the return to civilian rule in 1999. On one occasion Agbakoba was given a black eye by policemen who beat him up while he was part of a protest March at Ojuelegba, Lagos.
“It was a case of one thing led to another”, he said. “The hour produces the man. The hour produced CLO, a child of necessity.”
There’s no doubt that the momentum generated by the demonstrations and civil disobedience of the Campaign for Democracy helped quicken the pace of return to civilian rule. It was also at this point of success that the pro-democracy movement made a tactical error, according to Agbakoba.
“We made a crucial mistake. A lot of people came talking to us, including Thabo Mbeki, and advised us to pursue negotiations with the outgoing government,” he says. “When you’re too doctrinaire, you make a mistake. We just said, ‘We’ve done our job.’ With hindsight, we hadn’t done anything.”
That decision left the reins in the hands of the old political and military elite, who seized the opportunity to entrench themselves and create “entry barriers we can’t easily overcome.” Yet, these are politicians “who have absolutely no interest in advancing the interests of the people.”