By Prof. Omano Edigheji
Old habits are not easy to change, even as you mature in age and acquire more education. No matter how you try, some of those habits stick with you. Such is the case with my old friend, Chidi Odinkalu, whose incessant rantings against Governor Nasir El-Rufai are an old habit that he seems incapable of dropping. Ordinarily, Odinkalu’s rantings could be passed off as a manifestation of comical behaviour that does not need to be taken seriously. However, on some occasions, infantile behaviour requires a response that encapsulates a teaching moment not only for the infantilist but for others who may consider him as someone to be taken seriously.
Full disclosure is in order here: Chidi Odinkalu and Governor El-Rufai are my very good friends. I have known Odinkalu for about three decades. He was my colleague at the Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO) – then the foremost human rights NGO in Nigeria. The CLO was led by Olisa Agbakoba, a man with a pan-Nigerian outlook. It brought together people from all parts of the country to educate Nigerians on human rights and democracy, irrespective of their class, ethnic or religious affiliation. While Odinkalu was head of the CLO’s Legal Division, I was head of the Human Rights Education and Empowerment Programme. Under Agbakoba’s leadership, the CLO provided an inclusive and welcoming work environment regardless of ideological orientation. The goal was to propagate an effective campaign that meshed legal advocacy with human rights education and the promotion of democratic values.
In those days, Agbakoba often joked that CLO staff were either on the “Loony Left” or the “Crazy Right”. Of course, those of us who came to the CLO from the radical students’ movement of the 1980s did not see the human rights NGO as an end in itself, but a means to an end. Thus we were immersed in the struggle against military dictatorship and the battle to enthrone democracy. We loved our “Loony Left” label because it signified that we were counted among those who wanted to bring about positive change in Nigeria, and we were strategic in our approach to the struggle. We wore this label as a badge of honour because, as Thomas Sankara correctly observed, “You cannot carry out fundamental change without a certain amount of madness”. The left group in the CLO was unlike the “Crazy Right” that was preoccupied with tokenism and the maintenance of the status quo. Our colleagues on the “Crazy Right”, of whom, unsurprisingly, Odinkalu was the de facto leader, were mostly careerists who saw human rights work as an end in itself. Their main objectives were never about fundamentally changing Nigeria but more about legal advocacy through courts, issuing press statements and always staying in the news. While many of us were in the trenches confronting the military, Odinkalu left the CLO to join Interights, an organization based in London, as a staff to further his career. In contrast, we on the left convinced the Board of the CLO to get more involved in the struggle for democracy and to become a leader of the movement rather than just staying in the background. This gave birth to the Campaign for Democracy (CD) with other groups such as the Committee for Defence of Human Rights (CDHR), Women in Nigeria (WIN), the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), and the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS). The CD, led first by Alao Aka-Bashorun Esq., and later, Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti, was the leading coalition that helped mobilize the Nigerian people against the annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential elections won by M.K.O. Abiola but cancelled by the military junta of General Ibrahim Babangida. It was this mobilization, one of the most successful in Nigeria’s contemporary history, that forced Babangida to “step aside”.
In the course of the struggle to enthrone democracy in Nigeria, CLO President Olisa Agbakoba, Executive Director Abdul Oroh, Head of Campaigns Chima Ubani (who was also the General Secretary of the CD), Head of Police Reforms Innocent Chukwuma, myself, and other staff of the CLO were harassed, tortured and detained at one time or the other by the military. While many of us suffered persecution at the hands of the military and their agents such as the DSS, Police, and other security agencies, the leader of the “Crazy Right”, Chidi Odinkalu, was pursuing his career in London while issuing occasional press statements and travelling to capitals in Europe and elsewhere in the name of supporting the democratic struggle in Nigeria. It was a rather comfortable way to change society!
Honestly, I have no problem with people pursuing their career objectives in life – indeed, I am in support of that. However, what I see as a problem is presenting a public face that is different from what one does privately. When one only seizes every opportunity to be in the news in order merely to appear as a representative of those fighting for democracy and human rights, one falls into the category of what one might call careerists and celebrity activists.
Before anyone says that I also left the country in the thick of the struggle or wonders how I am different from ‘celebrity activists’, let me say that my case was different because my leaving for South Africa was collectively decided by the left-leaning activists who saw the new democratic South Africa led by President Nelson Mandela as an ally and a model from which we could learn. So I was seconded to South Africa to help build an international face for the movement in Nigeria within Africa. It was in this context that a collective decision was taken in 1995 that I should leave for South Africa as the representative of the CLO and the Democratic Alternative (DA). DA, a political party formed to challenge the Abacha dictatorship in 1994, saw the utility of learning from the African National Congress (ANC) experience in South Africa to build a stronger movement in Nigeria since it was the oldest political party in Africa.
Why have I gone into the past like this? It is to show that Odinkalu’s obsessive ranting about Governor El-Rufai is not borne out of any altruism but just a continuation of a pattern that I have observed in him for close to three decades. Basically, his every calculation is about career advancement and personal interest. I have known Governor El-Rufai for almost fifteen years, and a friendship has developed between us since then. Currently, I am his Special Adviser on Research and Special Programmes in a cabinet described by former President Olusegun Obasanjo as “mini-Nigeria” because of Governor El-Rufai’s penchant for attracting talent to his state regardless of what part of the country you are from. Of course, Odinkalu also claimed that Governor El-Rufai is his friend, and indeed, it was in that capacity that he reviewed his book The Accidental Public Servant that was published in 2013. Thus on the surface, one might say that we are all friends.
In the days leading to the 2019 general elections, Odinkalu launched a public rant against Governor El-Rufai. This rant stemed from a tragic event that happened two weeks before the election, namely, the gruesome killing of 66 Fulanis (our fellow citizens) in Kajuru, Kaduna State. As Governor of Kaduna State, El-Rufai addressed the media to inform the world about the killings and called on the people of the State to remain peaceful. To Odinkalu, this was a mortal sin by the Governor. He then went to the Channels TV studio in Lagos to launch verbal assaults on the Governor, using unprintable words to describe him.
According to Odinkalu, the killings never happened because the police and SSS were not present when the Governor made the announcement; and that the announcement was made on the eve of an election. His logic seemed to be that governments should hide information about the killing of their citizens if they took place on the eve of an election. Odinkalu claimed that he did not sleep the whole night, calling his contacts in Kajuru, but that none could verify the story. He did not deem it fit to call his friend, El-Rufai or any security agencies in the area, yet he went on air to dispute the report. In our days in the human rights movement, we would have found a way to confirm the story from one of the security agencies. But in what has become the typical Odinkalu fashion, he knows more than all the security agencies in the country. In his words,
“Let us all go because this is too serious for anybody…this is too serious for any governor to say and get away with at this election. I will not let this Kajuru matter go. I’m sorry but when you say 66 people were killed, you must produce them. I will not let this Kajuru matter go”.
He went further to ask, “Why would the governor who is running for office, on the eve of these elections go and allege the killing of members of one community – 66 of them in one location – without telling INEC, without telling SSS, without telling the police, without telling any security agency … is it a public affair that 66 of your people have been killed?”
The question the learned Odinkalu did not bother to ask is: how would he know about the conversations and briefings the Governor had with security agencies? Do the security agencies in Kaduna State report to the Governor through him?
During his self-indulgent posturing on the Kajuru killings, I tried to reach out to him. I was unable to speak to him, but I did manage to pass a message across to him through mutual friends not to speak on issues about which he knows nothing. But the feedback I received was that he was not listening to anybody. Odinkalu claimed that for him, speaking out was not a public relations exercise, but that is exactly what it was – a self-serving PR exercise to gain media attention. If that was not his motive, why did my old friend not return to the airwaves – or at least publish an apology to the Governor and the people of Kaduna State – when the army corroborated the story that 66 people were killed and showed the mass graves in which they were buried? Reputable media houses, including Al Jazeera and the Daily Trust newspaper, reported on the killings. But the learned Odinkalu did not have the humility to retract his outburst. Old habits, they say, die hard.
Though he claimed that his denial of the killings of 66 in Kajuru was not motivated by politics, discerning observers will beg to differ. First, even if he was not a card carrying member of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), he is a sympathizer, and was a political appointee of the President Goodluck Jonathan-led PDP government when he became Chairman of the National Human Rights Commission. He also served as a member of the Transition Committee of the short-lived PDP administration of Governor Emeka Ihedioha (At this juncture, I should declare upfront that I am supporting Asiwaju Bola Tinubu for two reasons, namely that he was with us in the pro-democracy movement and his record as Lagos State Governor was praise-worthy. Tinubu, in my view, is the best positioned presidential candidate to address the crises facing the country).