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).
My response to Odinkalu now, after he has spent so many years on air and various social media platforms spreading falsehoods, stems from the fact that less than two weeks to the 2023 presidential elections, he has again engaged in another infantile outburst. This time, Odinkalu, operating from London (his favourite city as a careerist) indulged in another unwarranted outburst against Governor El-Rufai. This outburst is repeated in his tweet where he insulted the person of Governor El-Rufai. It is against the culture of human rights activism to resort to personal abuse. If anything, this shows his immaturity and distracts from any point he may have wanted to make. Clearly this is one thing that Odinkalu did not learn from working at the CLO. But let me ask the careerist activist this question: what advantage does your size give you over Governor El-Rufai?
By his recent claim that Governor El-Rufai and others “have collected public money and want to launder it in the election” to buy votes, Odinkalu continues as the merchant of disinformation that he has always been. In an interview on Channels TV on Friday 17th February 2023, he alleged that:
“Some governors, including El-Rufai, who have collected money that should have been used to develop their people, have locked it up to use it to buy votes … and they are getting the Supreme Court involved … and those Governors including El-Rufai… and people like El-Rufai want to buy votes”.
When Seun Okinbaloye, the Channels TV anchor, challenged him to provide evidence to back up his claims, Odinkalu’s response was that his allegation is justified by El-Rufai jumping from one studio to the other. His claims are unfounded and as a lawyer, he knows that his utterances are libellous. In an infantile show, he told Seun that he was not going to “show good manners” and would not stop being offensive. He threatened that “this matter is going to get ugly”. No genuine human rights activist would speak like that on any national broadcast.
If the so-called activist had followed the development of Kaduna State under the administration of Governor El-Rufai, he would not have gone to town with disinformation that the money that could have been used to develop the people of the State had been locked up by the Governor for election purposes. It is easy to stay in the comfort of one’s London home to pontificate on matters about which one knows nothing, and that is what Odinkalu does best. Many observers have pointed to the verifiable fact that El-Rufai has transformed Kaduna State. To paraphrase President Buhari when he came to launch various projects in the State last year, he told the Governor “You have written your name in gold”.
This transformation was achieved despite the various crises of insecurity, a recession, and a decline in global oil prices. Through efficient management of public finances and measures to increase internally generated revenue (IGR), as well as the appointment of capable people from all parts of the country, the El-Rufai administration has transformed Kaduna State. I invite Odinkalu to come to Kaduna State. I will personally take him around to see things for himself. Spreading disinformation from London will not erase the developmental achievements of the Governor.
In fact, when he reviewed Governor El-Rufai’s book, he was full of praise for the book and its author, El-Rufai. According to him,
“By this book, this author (El-Rufai) says in effect that Nigeria is bigger than any one person and he cares more about Nigeria than any temporary benefits from partisan politics … The Accidental Public Servant is also a passionate advocacy for firm, equal and non-discriminatory application of rules to everyone irrespective of status or other irrelevancies. It makes a solid case for the normalization of processes in governance”.
I wonder what changed for Odinkalu that after singing El-Rufai’s praise to high heavens, he has now made a career of being his public enemy.
In the same interview on Channels TV, our (he) alleged that the insistence of the Governors who took the Federal Government to the Supreme Court and argued that the old and new naira notes must co-exist amounts to treason. I will not venture into legal arguments since I am not a lawyer but I will reference some of Odinkalu’s senior colleagues at the Bar who argued otherwise. For example, citing several Supreme Court Judgements, Mike Ozekhome SAN, argued that once a Court has issued an order, such must be obeyed until it is set aside. What follows are quotations on the powers of the Supreme Court under the 1999 Constitution, as well as various judgements by the Supreme Court which Ozekhome referenced in his article published on the website of Channels TV on 17th February 2023:
“The supremacy of the 1999 Constitution provided for in section 1 (1) thereof. … and Section 287 (10 of the Constitution which provides that the decisions of the Supreme Court shall be enforced in any part of the Federation by all authorities and persons, and by courts with subordinate jurisdiction to that of the Supreme Court”.
Once given, an order of the court is binding on all. The Apex Court in ROSSEK V. ACB LTD (1993) 8 NWLR (Pt. 312) 382 at 434 re-stated the law to the effect that:
“A judgment remains binding until it is set aside by a competent Court… To hold otherwise is to clothe a party against whom a judgment has been obtained with the discretion to decide, in his wisdom that the judgment is invalid and not binding on him. This to my mind, is an invitation to anarchy. I do not understand the law to be so.” – per Ogundare, JSC.
Also, in STATE v. SOLOMON (2020) LPELR-55598(SC), the Supreme Court held thus:
“It is the law that a decision of a Court of competent jurisdiction, no matter that it is seems palpably null and void, unattractive or insupportable, remains good law and uncompromisingly binding until set aside by a superior Court of competent jurisdiction.”
The Supreme Court, in the case of ABACHA V. FAWEHINMI (2000) 6 NWLR (Pt. 660) 228 at page 317 E-F, held as follows:
“A Court order must be obeyed and even if it is a nullity, it has to be set aside on appeal against it”. Per NWALI SYLVESTER NGWUTA, JSC (Pp 25 – 25 Paras D – E).
But Odinkalu wants El-Rufai in particular to be hanged merely because he has called on the Federal Government to obey the Supreme Court’s interim order.
As part of his disinformation campaign, Odinkalu also claimed in his Channels TV interview that Governor El-Rufai says nothing when innocent people in Southern Kaduna are killed. Nothing can be further from the truth. The Governor cares about the lives and properties of all residents of the State, and he takes action in that regard. The pseudo-activist should know that the administration of Governor El-Rufai is the only State government in the country that publishes data quarterly on insecurity, including the number of victims of murder and kidnapping. It is also one of the few States that established a Peace Commission to promote harmonious relations among people in the State.
Throughout the Channels TV interview, the all-knowing Odinkalu demonstrates clearly that El-Rufai is living rent-free in his head. He has an obsession with the Governor, from which he has to cure himself. This brings me back to the issue of the two groups in the CLO that Olisa Agbakoba called the “Crazy Right” and the “Loony Left”. It is necessary to learn, unlearn and relearn if one is to be useful to our country and the world. Being stuck in the early 1990s while the world has undergone remarkable changes will not get anyone anything. In this regard, my old friend, Odinkalu, needs to be more reflective and must learn to control his temper and the language he uses in his public discourses.
*Prof. Omano Edigheji is Special Adviser (Research and Special Programmes) to Governor El-Rufai of Kaduna State, and a Visiting Associate Professor of Practice, University of Johannesburg. He writes in his personal capacity.