•Former President of Civil Liberties Organisation
Ayo Ogunsola Obe was for many years the President of the Civil Liberties Organisation, which was at the vanguard of Human Rights Struggle in Nigeria. She took over from Mr Olisa Agbakioba. For many years, she has been a strong voice in human rights, legal and social movements, as well as democratic reforms in Nigeria.
She is 67, she was born on May 24, 1955, in the UK, she attended the University of Wales where she obtained her LLM degree. Obe is also a Columnist and TV presenter. She was the President of the Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO) and was among the strong voices that advocated for the actualization of Chief MKO Abiola’s 1993 presidential election victory. She has been listed as one of the heroes of June 12. Her passport was seized in March 1996 while leaving Nigeria to attend a meeting of the UN Human Rights Committee in New York. The government action was not unconnected with her activism.
She presided over the Transition Monitoring Group, which was an election-monitoring and democracy-building coalition of Nigerian NGOs from 1999 to 2001. She also represented the coalition from 2001 to 2006 at the Police Service Commission (PSC).
She is a founding partner in a Lagos-based law firm, Ogunsola-Shonibare and sits on the board of multiple civil society organisations such as Goree Institute.
She has presented and published several papers that were widely read worldwide. Now, she sits on the board of several international organizations including the International Crisis Group. She also presents “On Point”, a highly instructive current affairs programme on the Nigerian Television Authority’s International Service.
In a recent interview with City People’s reporter, JAMIU ABUBAKAR, she gave an account of her experience as an activist during the repressive military regime of General Sani Abacha. She also spoke on a number of issues relating to activism in their days, and what young activists must do to bring about the desired change they clamour for. Below are excerpts from the interview:
Tell us your role in the call for human rights in Nigeria during the Military era and how it was like being a human rights activist in the heat of military dictatorship?
I was the President of the Civil Liberties Organization (CLO). Naturally, I would have a leading role to play because the Civil Liberties Organization was not only the first indigenous human rights organization in the country, it was also a parent of many organizations such as Media Rights Agenda, Environment Proofs, Rights Agenda.
We had organizations for people living with disabilities and so on. We were also leading members of coalitions; whether it was to get the military out of office, whether it’s for freedom of information and that was why we formed the Media Rights Agenda. So, the CLO was like the grandfather and I became its President at the time when Abacha had just assumed office. Of course, I didn’t expect to be president during the military dictatorship. I became Deputy President when we were on the verge of the Babangida transition and it was hoped that by that time, we have finished with the military handing over to the Civilian administration. You would think being a president of human rights organization then would be a piece of cake. It didn’t turn out that way. But there’s a saying that if you dip your hand into a plough, you can’t turn back. And unfortunately, when the time came for Olisa Agbakoba to end his tenure as the President of the Civil Liberties Organization since I was by then the Deputy President, I didn’t really have any choice but to run. Nobody wanted the job because we had been invaded. The Executive director, Abdul Oroh as well as Chima Ubani were in military detention. They called it Administrative Detention which was the fancy way of saying they were locked up without trial. And we were all down on the ground. Then the whole activists said; ‘look we were already caving, but we stand on’.
How would you describe your personal experience as the leader of an association pursuing human rights for people?
I think I can’t say my experience as such, partly because I was a President and partly because I was a woman, and also partly because I was still a bit of a JJC. The activists, the young men felt I needed to be protected and insulated. So anytime we went on demonstration, they would be saying ‘Presido, Persido’, come here and they would try to shield me. So, I would say that I really suffered it in the same way. The nearest I got being locked up was before Abacha came to power, that was during the June 12 protest. I lived at Yaba then and as I was going home, past Panti Street, I saw Abdul Oroh, my executive director at the Panti Police station and he waved to me. So, I said let me go up and see what’s up not knowing that he was under arrest. So I went up to see him and when I wanted to leave, they said “madam, you can’t go! Of course, you are part of them.” Then they kept us there for the day.
In fact, by the time I got home, I found out that my mother had set up a suitcase with a nightdress and other things from Ikeja because in those days what did my mother know about? You don’t put on a nightdress to go to sleep in a police station. But that was the closest I came until the time of the 5 million-man march.
I think at that point, the government was getting desperate and the people were not responding to their threats. People were showing clues that they were no longer afraid of their bullets. At that point, my predecessor; we had formed the United Action for Democracy. Olisa had been appointed the convener. He had been arrested. And he had seen the list of people who they were planning to pick up and apparently I was on the list. So, at that point, I went into hiding. I was in hiding when Abacha died.
How would you rate the democracy we are practising now? Does it meet the expectations of those of you who fought for it?
The thing about democracy is that it’s an expression of freedom. Definitely, it is a work in progress. I think we are evolving. We are gradually evolving. Then, I think there were 2 problems that I would say. One is that there is a kind of orthodoxy. There’s this imposition that you either adopt the whole package in which case we can categorize you in this section or if you don’t accept it, we are going to categorize you in this other section. And most of us don’t fall into either of those sections. Some of us agreed to something and we disagree with others. So, that is how it is. There’s this sort of orthodoxy that if you accept that there was a massacre at Lekki. If you say that you want to see evidence, if you say that you want to see the details…it means you are supporting the killings and murderers. And that to my mind is not part of it.
I equally think that considering that you young people have the numbers but are refusing to participate in the political process is incomprehensible to me. Yesterday, I commented that it’s as if the EndSARS demonstration was to achieve some certain goals of police reform but now it has just dwindled to the matter of commemoration. It reminds me of my time as a human rights defender. We set up the Civil Liberties Organization, not for ourselves, but to defend the rights of Nigerians. And then suddenly, it becomes all about the human rights defenders and it takes away from the work you’re supposed to be doing. You are supposed to be taking people out of the prison and so on. And then it suddenly becomes the matter of oh! this one has been arrested, that one has been arrested. That’s not really what it’s supposed to be. And it’s the same thing with the End SARS.
The job is to get the police reformed and respect the rights of people and punish those who cannot comprehend any of those simple factors. And I said the recent Lagos State Local Government elections, I feel that would be a good opportunity to try and see. Can we get a councillor elected from this place where the Lekki Toll Gate is? And I mentioned it in my Twitter feeds and somebody said “no that the election would be rigged against those young people.”
There are also a dozen registered political parties, whether it’s APGA or parties that don’t have much presence or impact in Lagos. You could have gone to one of them and said could we put up a councillor on your ticket? And if you look at how only a few people vote in the local government elections, it slows the margins by which people would win. And if any serious person could get out to vote among the young in that area, it would have helped. In fact, you didn’t even try, so don’t come and tell me that it was rigged against young people by the powers that be! And I think that’s the problem. We are nowhere at the cast of 2023. The contest for the presidency is already on. I mean whether you like him or not, Bola Tinubu has been up, down, north and south and so on. And meanwhile, people are saying we don’t want him.
So, I think the way we are playing politics is like we are disempowering ourselves by telling ourselves it couldn’t be done, we are rigged out of it. The rules are against us. Supposing, everybody has said that in the past, and considering the numbers that the young people have, there’s really no excuse.
I said that once we return to democracy, I would only involve myself in single-issue campaigns. That’s mostly what I have done such as Bring Back Our Girls. But you know, I think this idea that we can have a democracy without politics, without politicians is a delusion. Democracy is failing because people who want to take part can only take part in the standards of those that are already there. But they could create their standards. If you looked at the turnout in all our elections, it’s not up to a quarter of the registered voters. So, the other three quarters are a right field ready to be ploughed and sowed. And the harvest would be great. But if you are just sitting down and saying the field is not levelled, that’s not how it works.
What is the major factor that made activism work in your days?
No! I think that activism these days works and it’s being helped by social media, better message for fundraising, and so on. But I think in my days, we were not divided by any sectarian or political line. We had a common enemy. Now, because people make political choices that determine whether they could be supported as human rights for activism or not and I don’t buy that. I think that any government in power needs to be challenged when it is doing the wrong thing.
What’s your advice for young activists out there?
As activists, you work together and get involved in the political process. And don’t imagine that you can have a democracy without having those who are ready to participate in democracy. It doesn’t work like that. It’s not a self-regulating process. Of course, we don’t have a minimum number of who must participate before an election is valid. So, staying out of it does not help at all and this idea that there’s perfection somewhere. There’s no perfection anywhere. You make your choice between the devil and the deep blue sea. And then say that can I walk or can I swim? That’s what you do. So you don’t say that this man is not perfect, then I’m not… Okay, who are you bringing forward? And then you start saying that man is not perfect. I’m sorry!