Dr. Chidi Odinkalu
The Chairman, National Human Rights Commission, Dr. Chidi Odinkalu, in this interview with LEKE BAIYEWU, says those involved in electoral malpractices will be made public soon.
You once said those found culpable in electoral impunity in previous elections would be named publicly. How many suspects are you investigating?
Our expert working group is at it at the moment and it is expected to issue an interim report in about 45 days from now. That report is going to be in the public domain because I think elections are too important; so important that every citizen needs to know those things they make their decisions with. My view remains the same and in this I speak with the voice of the commission that if the court has struck down an election because of non-compliance with the rules governing elections, somebody must be held accountable. And where that has happened and we have judicial records to that effect, we will name those people (involved) and let Nigerians know and mount pressure on those people not to participate in elections into positions of trust anymore.
How many names have you gathered so far?
We are still working on that. We discovered that most of the cases were reported and we have found a good number of cases in the archives of the Court of Appeal. And as I am speaking to you, we have people to get the unreported cases. I cannot tell you the number of cases at the moment because we want to get as close to the right numbers as possible.
Critics of government policies and programmes often argue that the masses do not benefit from them, even though the people have their socio-economic rights? How true is this?
I don’t want to generalise by saying most government policies are not beneficial to the masses. I’m not sure that will be factually accurate. If somebody goes to Lagos State and says most policies of the Lagos State Government are not beneficial to the masses, I don’t know about that. My view is that this is not about whether or not government projects are beneficial to the masses; it is about whether or not government projects are in fact delivered. There are a lot of cases where a government is seen awarding a contract and what happens with the contract after it has been awarded are not investigated, and people don’t follow through. A contract is awarded; mobilisation (fee) is paid – which equivalent could be between 10 to 90 per cent, depending on the terms; and what happens thereafter?
So, you have a lot of government projects that are not delivered and would never happen. From East-West Road to Abuja-Lokoja Road to Olokola (Free Trade) Export Processing Zone and so on. Some contracts were awarded and re-awarded, cancelled and then re-awarded and upwardly reviewed. All of those things keep happening and they give government and governance a bad name because the projects are not fully realised or delivered. Therefore, the question of what benefits they have had for the people arise without being investigated. That is the problem I have there.
Many people believe the judiciary is hard on petty thieves but has a soft spot for rich criminals. How well has the judiciary faired in justice dispensation and assurance of the rule of law?
This judicial system, in effect, would not produce the kind of security situation we want because the first line of defence, with respect to public safety and security, is a judicial system of accountability. Anybody who looks at our system dispassionately will have difficulties with how we process cases based on status. It is true that we treat poor people very harshly relative to rich people. When you look at all the cases of plunder and serious corruption in our system, invariably, all of them (suspects) are out on bail. Many of them get their passports back to go overseas for medical treatment. Very few of them got convicted and those that ever got convicted got it on plea bargain. None of such cases have gone into full trial. And there are confiscation orders that are invariably related to limited access.
Cecelia Ibru (former Managing Director of the defunct Oceanic Bank) got convicted for stealing close to $2bn and what did she get. She got six months in the most expensive hospital in Nigeria. Tafa Balogun, a former Inspector-General of Police, got convicted of stealing close to N20bn what did he get. Six months imprisonment. Lucky Igbinedion (former Edo State Governor) got convicted for stealing public money and what happened. He got a slap on the wrist and walked away, not even with any threats or infractions apart from handing back a little. One could go on. By contrast, you have a poor man steal a goat or tuber of yam and he’s taken to court. He is told to plead guilty and gets sentenced to between 18 months and five years. That system of justice, I cannot, in conscience, be in support of it. I think there is a great deal of transformation that needs to take place. I hope the Transformation Agenda (of President Goodluck Jonathan) reaches the judiciary and the legal system.
What constitutes the most form of human rights abuse in Nigeria today?
How and why?
For me, indignity is the biggest violation in Nigeria. It is the destruction of the sense of expectation among the population; the fact that we have all been reduced to beggarliness and that the only person who gets anything in the country is anybody who says e jowo (Yoruba word for ‘please’) and begs you. All of us are humanitarians and nobody has any sense of entitlement. Indignity is so many things: The husband who believes that the only way he can sustain a relationship is by abusing or beating his wife; the boyfriend who believes the only way he can get his reward from a girlfriend who says no is by pouring acid on her.
Indignity is in the community that believes that the only way an election can be won is through rigging, or the contestant who believes this as well. It is the civil servant who believes that his office exists only for giving and taking bribes and extorting people who come to the office. It is the person who believes that the only way to get anything in law enforcement is by bribing anybody in the system. It is the judge who believes that he has to collect bribe to give a judgment.
It is the lawyer who gives or promises bribe to a judge in order to win a case. It is the student who believes the only way she can pass examinations is by sleeping with her lecturer, and the lecturer who believes that the only way he can do his job is by abusing his students sexually. The list is endless; it is in everything.
In your article entitled ‘Time to behead the monster of prejudice,’ you said our laws have criminalised being poor and that prejudice has become profitable in Nigeria. Who should be blamed, the people or the government?
Leadership matters; it is important. If politicians are going to take the new route to power; the new route of setting people against people; of setting faiths against faiths; of setting ethnic groups against ethnic groups, then it is difficult to blame the government or the people. Our politicians as a whole have not taken the high road to power. People are ready to do whatever it takes and be as grabby as possible for power. And in a country like Nigeria, where we are struggling to hold diverse sets of communities together — somewhere in the region of about 389 ethic and language groups — I think we’ve got to expect more and ask more from our politicians and leaders.
When I say being poor has been criminalised, it is quite clear that that is the case. We treat people here, in most parts of Nigeria, as if they are not worth anything mainly because they don’t have money or because they are not riding around in a Rolls Royce or a four wheel drive. And if you can rent a police officer to accompany you as you march along, nobody touches you. They all think you’re a big man and above the law. If you cannot rent one and you are on the streets with no roof over your head, woe betide you. And we all forget that the government exists to lead its people out of hardship. And for everybody it is for everybody, irrespective of where they are.
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