I am delighted to join you this morning as we celebrate two significant events in the life of our great country Nigeria – the 2021 Democracy Day Celebration and the birthday celebration of one of our brightest minds, Prof. Chidi Anselm Odinkalu.
Chidi, as he likes to be addressed represents different things to different people. For some, Chidi is simply the Senior Team Manager for the Africa program of the Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI), for others he is the former Chairman of the National Human Rights Commission and whether you are a fan or a critic, there is near consensus that he exercised the duties of that office with admirable grace and altruistic passion that is lacking in many of our public office holders today.
To others, he is a fiery human rights lawyer who has consistently held his own in that chosen field from his early days at the Civil Liberties Organisation to the present day. To others still, he is a straight talker who suffer no fools gladly especially on his preferred social media platform of choice, Twitter.
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To us at the Nigerian Bar Association, Chidi has served the Bar creditably in different capacities, most notably with the NBA Section on Public Interest and Development Law (NBA-SPIDEL) which he founded, and I am certain he still has a lot more to offer. Overall, Chidi contributed significantly to Nigeria’s return to democratic rule in 1999 and he continues to ensure that that democracy is sustained.
By some extraordinary divine orchestration, exactly a quarter of a century after Chidi was born, one of the most important events in the history of Nigeria’s democratic journey occurred, the ultimately ill-fated June 12 1993 election which is still adjudged as the freest and fairest election in the country’s history.
It is altogether fitting therefore that as we celebrate the anniversary of that occasion today, we also devote some time to celebrate the birthday of our brother Chidi Odinkalu. And how better to celebrate it than to convoke a soul searching discussion on democracy in Nigeria.
The theme of today’s event, “Nigeria’s Democracy Failure – Any Pathways” is as sobering as it is thought provoking. While we have an array of eminent speakers who will surely do justice to that topic, permit me to say a few words to set the tone for the discussion.
Part of the most critical elements of a democratic system of government are the fundamental rights which the people have, not as a privilege or gift by the government which can be withdrawn or suspended at will, but which inure to them by virtue of their humanity.
It is for this reason that we say that the rights are enshrined in the Constitution and therefore cannot be amended at will even by the Legislature. Consistent with the above, is the right of the people to ask questions when they perceive that things are not going right and to speak truth to power.
One factor that bedevils democracy, especially the variant we practice in Nigeria, is that we are quick to label anyone who asks questions of government as an enemy of the country.
That is not patriotism, that is sycophancy, and we are doing ourselves disservice. So when I hear Nigeria’s democracy failure, instead of viewing the topic as naysaying, I rather see patriots who are discussing and charting Pathways to salvage our democratic experiment. This accords with Chidi’s day job of protecting basic democratic rights around the world especially in the face of autocratic repression that constantly seeks to suppress dissent.
Speaking in my individual capacity, and not necessarily as the President of the Nigerian Bar Association, it is sometimes difficult to be optimistic about the democratic system of government in Nigeria.
For too long we have viewed democracy as being about elections and nothing more. For this reason, we tend to concentrate on election years, 1999, 2007, 2015, 2023 etc and more often than not we de-emphasise the period in between which is what the democracy is actually about.
It is also for this reason that the previous constitutional alterations by the National Assembly have rather been about the political process than about the people of Nigeria for and on whose behalf the government exists.
As we once again set our sights on 2023, it is important to address the pressing issues that threaten to derail our democracy in Nigeria and which if not adequately addressed, there might be no 2023.
How do we ensure adequate citizen engagement in the democratic experience?
How do we tackle the problem of insecurity that threatens the corporate existence of the country?
How do we address the corruption that plagues our democracy which finds expression in such ills as vote buying, snatching of ballot boxes etc?
How do we ensure that the National Assembly carries out the electoral reform needed to improve our democratic experience in Nigeria?
These are the questions that we will hopefully get answers to today.
In ending, I join the call on the Federal Government of Nigeria to continually respect the rights of Nigerians including the right to peaceful assembly, freedom of expression, including the right to protest.
The greatest dishonour and disservice that will be done to the memory of Chief M. K. O. Abiola and the other patriots who gave their lives to the struggle for the return to democratic rule will be to turn today to a day of suppression and wanton disregard and disrespect for the fundamental rights of Nigerians.
In the same way, those who are seeking to make a statement today by exercising their right to protest and express themselves must also remain law abiding and conduct themselves in a manner that does not deprive others of their fundamental rights. As we sat, where one’s right stops is where another’s begins.
It is possible for us to coexist peacefully and the government and people to live in peace and mutual respect for one another. That is what Chief M. K. O. Abiola stood for, and that is what Chidi Odinkalu represents.
I salute the organisers for putting together and I join his family, friends and well wishers in wishing Professor Chidi Odinkalu a very happy birthday.
President, Nigerian Bar Association
12th June 2021