Allure Cover: Osai Ojigho – Human Rights Protector
By Josephine Agbonkhese
Osai Ojigho perfectly personifies ingenuity. The Country Director, Amnesty International Nigeria, Ojigho is a human rights advocate, gender equality expert, governance specialist and civic leader with over 15 years of experience working in international organisations such as Oxfam, Alliance for Africa, International Human Rights Observer, all at top-level positions.
A multiple award-winning human rights advocate committed to giving back to society and the human rights movement, she mentors at the Mandela Washington Fellowship Programme and similar initiatives.
Ojigho, who is widely-travelled and has lived in different parts of the world, holds a Bachelor of Law degree from the University of Lagos; a Postgraduate Diploma in International Human Rights Law & Practice from the College of Law of England & Whales; and a Master’s of Law from the University of Wolverhampton, United Kingdom.
It’s been over three years since you assumed office here in Nigeria. Do you feel fulfilled with work done so far?
It’s amazing how much work has been accomplished. When I look at the things I’ve done and how far Amnesty International has been able to provide hard-hitting and yet, factual and very consistent reporting on human rights abuses across the country, I will say that I’ve done quite well and that the work indeed is fulfilling. You see people that you have helped and communities that have been transformed because you were able to throw your voice and validate some of those stories coming out of them. That is quite fulfilling.
We’ve also seen laws changed. We’ve seen the Anti-Torture Act come into being. That shows that when you are committed to something, you will see results. I’m really excited about what the future would bring for human rights promotion and protection in Nigeria.
How tough has the job of protecting human rights in Nigeria been?
It’s very tough being the Director of Amnesty International Nigeria. In fact, any job that involves protecting human rights in Nigeria is quite challenging because, you are facing a lot of obstacles; you’re working within a system which tends to support violence, the strong rather than the weak, and which pushes back when you try to challenge its structures. One of the greatest things is to be able to keep doing what you do despite the threat and doubt cast on your methodology and intention. Nigeria is such a diverse country. So, everyone practically has an interest that they are protecting; whether it is political, religious, or ethnic. So, when you come out talking about human rights, there is a tendency for those who you are reporting for violating human rights to come out and say “hey, do not believe these people. It is because they are from here or there…”
For Amnesty International, our independence is our greatest strength. The rigour of our research and the methodology we use, have stood the test of time.
What has changed about governance in Nigeria since 2017?
I would say not much. One of the things that were prominent in our report at Amnesty International in 2016 was about the use of torture by security agents, particularly the police, in extracting confessions or in investigating allegations of criminal activity in Nigeria. We are in 2020; but despite the fact that the Anti-torture Act was signed by President Buhari in December 2017, torture is still being used by the police and no officer has been prosecuted and punished for it. Also, we are still experiencing cases of journalists being harassed and prosecuted on the Cybercrime Act on the various criminal provisions including defamation, all because they choose to challenge the powers that be, to ask questions, or to report. In fact, Amnesty released a report last year where we looked at the freedom of expression in Nigeria.
Between ignorance and poor justice system, what will you blame for human rights devaluation in Nigeria?
It’s a combination of factors. Ignorance, in this sense, will be: do people know their rights? Are people aware of their rights? Do they know which institutions they can go to for their rights? Do those who are less educated and who engage with the system know their rights? I would say that human rights education needs a revival in Nigeria. While people have a sense of injustice and a sense of fairness, oftentimes, they’re not able to articulate in clear terms what the human rights issues are. So, across board, I think everyone requires human rights education. There is also the problem of inaccessible justice system due to proximity for people living outside cities. Again, there is the issue of influence; some people are able to manipulate the system in their favour.
It is 60 years after independence already; what, in your judgment, is the biggest enemy to Nigeria’s fight against corruption?
It’s impunity. Nigeria has a lot of resources; in terms of human and natural resources, but yet, Nigerians are still poor. A few years ago, there was a study done that says Nigeria has overtaken India as having the largest number of people in extreme poverty. That is shocking for a country considered the giant of Africa and which has played quite a big role in stabilising the African continent. When people commit offences bothering on corruption, they should be brought to justice. We need to also strengthen accountability institutions so that they are able to carry out their work without intimidation or threat.
Your job of realising human right cannot be achieved amid corruption; what steps are you taking to change things?
Amnesty International, as you know, is a human rights organisation, and we are independent of any creed, government and belief. We do not hold any political opinions and we are free of any religious affiliation. We strive for a world where everybody’s human rights are respected. So, we recognise that corruption is one of the root causes of human rights violations. One of the things that would help in the work that we do is increased transparency and openness. It’s a good thing that the Nigerian government has signed up to the Open Government Partnership and that we also have a Freedom of Information Act. But the question is: how well are those partnerships and acts respected? I think we need to start calling for more transparent practice in our state institutions. That’s why Amnesty International publishes its report to ensure people are engaged in the issues and can ask the right questions from their representatives.
Amnesty International has been accused of not giving a fair assessment of the situation in Nigeria; how would you defend your organisation?
What I would say is that it is because these people don’t know how we work as an organisation independent of any government. Our reports are based on our own investigations. And oftentimes, when we present those reports, people say we didn’t give them a chance to look at them before going to press. That’s one of the hallmarks of the independence that we hold very tightly to. The second thing is that the methodology we use for our research is always in our reports and it’s supposed to give people an insight into how we came about the issue and steps we took in order to verify the information that we received. There is a part that people always fail to look at; which is the call we make to the government because we are like a watchdog. We also urge them to do their own thorough investigation into that issue. We watch and monitor what is going on, and then signpost the authorities to look into areas that should be looked into.
Another thing is that when you are working for an NGO, it means you are not the spokesperson of the government; they have their own spokespersons. It is the job of the government to showcase what they have done or how they are combating the issues raised in the report. Castigating the messenger rather than addressing the issue, is often based on people’s sentiment and it’s an emotional response which we all need to do better at managing.
Which is your biggest challenge right now; insecurity or corruption?
The biggest challenge right now is insecurity. This is faced in the entire country from north to south. We’ve recorded high cases of violence. We also issued an extended statement a few months back about the situation of violence in northern Nigeria, looking particularly at the north-central and north-west. That report showed that communities are being left to their own devices while they are being attacked by bandits. That report also revealed the failure of state agents to be able to prevent violence and also to bring perpetrators to book. In the north-east, we’ve also seen an increase in pockets of violence across the region, particularly in Borno State; and it appears that all efforts by the authorities to curtail the violence is being met by a lot of resistance by the insurgency.
Moving further South, you would discover that due to high incidents of reports of kidnapping, robbery and criminal activities in general, there’s been a brutal crackdown which is however often abused by security agents to extort and torture other people rather than addressing the violence. The COVID-19 pandemic also brought to limelight many of the issues we’ve been raising in the past such as; sexual and gender-based violence and rape, the use of torture by security agents as a tool for investigation; and then, the many aspects of economic socio and cultural rights—rights to health, right to adequate housing, education, food, etc. which all form elements of the totality of human rights in Nigeria. So, if we want to have stability and growth, then we need a safe and secure environment. The cases of Uwadiale and Barakat showed us quite clearly that nowhere is safe in Nigeria.
What factors make your work in Nigeria easy or difficult?
There are so many factors. On the operational side of things, it is power; access to electricity. You need a generator to power your electronics and be comfortable in your office. The second is Internet providers. I think we’ve managed to find a provider that can meet our needs now though. In terms of the regulatory requirements, in the last six to eight years, there have been attempts by government to impose further regulations on non-governmental organisations. In terms of what makes our work easy in Nigeria, I will say that it’s the goodwill of many of our partners.
60 years after independence women are still underrepresented in leadership; how best can this be addressed?
If the internal democracies in political parties are addressed, then women will emerge easily. The political parties are the ones that put women in the ballot. So, if more women emerge in the political parties, then the chances of women getting elected will also increase.
The second thing is about our law. The Protocol to the African Charter on the Rights of Women in Africa, MAPUTO Protocol, in Article 9, provides for the government to take steps to facilitate women in leadership and decision-making. One of the recommendations in that article is for states to consider using affirmative action as one of the tools to encourage women to emerge. Nigeria, as of today, has a gender policy that talks about 35% affirmative action; but that’s a policy document. It will be crucial for Nigeria to take a step further by implementing Article 9 of the Maputo Protocol which it has also ratified, by introducing an affirmative action commitment in the law and ensuring that all actors, in the process, abide by it. Interestingly, the African Union’s Gender Policy also talks about 50-50 representation—meaning Nigeria can attain that. But in order for it to be enforceable, it needs to be in the law. If you look at countries with the greatest number of women in political positions, you will find that affirmative action is a part of their various laws and is also enforced; whether it is Rwanda, South Africa, Senegal, Uganda, etc. We have very qualified women but because the system does not permit them to emerge, deliberate steps are needed to help these women emerge.
Negotiation skill is a primary requirement for your work at Amnesty; what prepared you for this job?
I would say my background as a lawyer has helped me greatly because, in law, you learn to develop certain skills and negotiation is one of them. The other thing is that I’ve been privileged to work with very strong leaders in both the legal profession and the development sector.
When you are not working, what do you like to do?
I love books. Right now, I’m trying to catch up on some books that I bought but I’ve not yet read. I also love to listen to music. I enjoy all kinds of music; it’s just a delight that you have access to so much more now, especially with streaming apps. I also like to spend time sketching when I can.
What philosophy inspires you daily?
I’ll say live and let’s live. I think there are so many things we take for granted in this life. Everyone you meet is going through their own internal struggles. So, it’s important to be kind always. Another thing is that I never take myself too seriously or think that if I don’t take part in something it’s not going to succeed.
Biggest lesson learned in the course of heading Amnesty Nigeria so far?
That there will always be those bad times, those storms; but you need to look for the eye of the storm, that point of calmness. I make my decision in that period of calm; not in the storm or the heightened noise going on around me. I have found that this has helped me to keep a steady position on things.