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The NI Interview

Human Rights

The NI Interview
Olisa Agbakoba
Nigeria’s vicious military despots face a formidable opponent in human-rights
lawyer Olisa Agbakoba. Murray MacAdam caught up with him on the campaign trail.

Illustration by ALAN HUGHES The eyes grab hold of you. They are still bright and animated, even as this day-long seminar with church groups and Nigerian expatriates is winding down. Equally animated are the quick gestures and razor-sharp mind of Olisa Agbakoba, one of Nigeria’s foremost defenders of human rights. He’s on the road to mark the 30th anniversary of military rule in Nigeria. It’s not that hard to stoke public anger. The international outrage over Nigerian dictator General Sani Abacha’s execution of writer Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other activists of the Ogoni people last November is still running high.

‘Since Ken’s (Saro-Wiwa’s) sad death, a new window of opportunity is opening up for the resistance movement,’ says Olisa, a tall, powerfully-built young man who projects an equally strong presence. ‘We’re trying to build on that strength, pushing for international mechanisms to keep the oppressive character of the Abacha regime on the front burner of the international community.’

Olisa knows first-hand the brutality of the Abacha regime. He has been jailed or detained repeatedly for his pro-democracy activities, including a six-month stint in 1993 following the military coup that pushed Chief Moshood Abiola from power and installed Abacha. Olisa’s car was riddled with bullets on election day in 1993. Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka fled Nigeria in 1994 after learning that the authorities planned to put him under house arrest. But Olisa remains in Nigeria, despite the danger.

‘There are certain things you’re committed to doing,’ he says. ‘We’ve taken a stand against this rapacious military government. Sometimes I wish I were like a taxi driver in Lagos, who at the end of the day just wants a cold beer,’ he smiles. His grin fades as he adds: ‘I don’t like to think that if something happens to me, my kids may grow up without a father. Yet it’s in my interest to see that my kids don’t have to live under this, that they enjoy good healthcare and live under a decent government.’

But laughter soon punctures that sombre mood, as Olisa admits: ‘One doesn’t do this for the money! I’m a volunteer.’

Combining a dogged determination with a zest for life has no doubt helped this engaging young lawyer to survive. Agbakoba has been one of the most persistent critics of the Abacha regime. He’s past-president of the Civil Liberties Organization, a leading Nigerian human-rights advocacy group. Other distinguished posts include membership of the Board of Trustees of the International Centre for the Protection of Cultural Diversity and Human Rights in Africa, and the Justice and Peace Commission of Nigeria’s Catholic Secretariat. He juggles all of that while supporting his family as a lawyer.

The international outcry which greeted the murder of Saro-Wiwa gives Nigeria’s embattled democracy activists cause for hope – if the global community acts.

‘If the international community fails to play the game properly, momentum will be lost,’ Olisa warns. Boycotting the Nigerian oil produced by Royal Dutch Shell is an obvious first step. ‘To break the back of the Government, Shell is the soft underbelly. In Nigeria big business and government go together.’

But even more important, Olisa believes, is a ‘total denial of the military establishment’ – slapping visa restrictions on Nigeria’s leaders. Some of the regime’s rulers are billionaires, says Olisa, and their assets hold the key to change. ‘A top priority is freezing the assets of the military leaders and their stolen money in overseas bank accounts. If Western nations would commit to freezing these assets the regime would fall.’

While the brutal denial of democracy by Nigeria’s dictatorship is Olisa’s chief concern, his interest in human rights doesn’t stop there. He supervised a team of researchers who delved into the sorry state of Nigeria’s prisons. Olisa’s exposé, Behind the Wall, resulted in improved conditions in the jails, including better food rations. Prison death rates dropped dramatically.

Olisa also heads up AfroNet, a Zambia-based pan-African human-rights organization. It promotes greater concern for human rights across the continent by training community organizations in human-rights advocacy work and providing them with resources.

‘Our problem is that conflict resolution and peace-making are not used as effective tools,’ says Olisa, taking time to choose his words. ‘AfroNet is defining an indigenous human-rights policy for Africa. We need to pursue human rights on the basis of African conditions.’

The dark circles around the eyes in Olisa’s youthful face testify to the gruelling pace of his tour. Yet as Nigerian expatriates and others approach to thank him for his presentation, he springs to his feet with a kind word for each one. Solidarity clearly means a lot.

‘One thing that brings joy is when people at the grassroots acknowledge what we do, stopping you in the street, encouraging you to carry on,’ he says. ‘A lady working in the Austrian Embassy in Lagos sent me the most wonderful Christmas card. She simply wrote: “Don’t give up.” That meant more to me than all the gifts I received.’

When he returned to Nigeria, Olisa Agbakoba was interrogated by police and had his passport seized.

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©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996

New Internationalist issue 278 magazine cover This article is from the April 1996 issue of New Internationalist.
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