By News Express on 01/01/2016
Mr Pedro Azuogu, an Umuahia-based legal practitioner, doubles as Chairman of Abia State Chapter of the Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO) and the Nigeria Red Cross Society, Abia State Branch. In this interview with BONIFACE OKORO, the human rights activist, among other issues, speaks on the seeming silence of civil society groups on sensitive national issues; reviewed the recent protest by pro-Biafra activists in parts of South-East and South-South and blamed the ‘body language’ of President Muhammadu Buhari for the unfortunate incident that culminated in unnecessary loss of lives and property.
Although the CLO has been in existence for long, ironically, many people do not know what it stands for. We would like you to briefly explain its vision and mission
CLO is an international human rights organisation founded in 1986 by Olisa Agbakoba (SAN), in conjunction with Clement Nwankwo, and Abdul Oroh who later went to the House of Representatives. The main thrust of the organisation is to fight for the liberation of persons who have their rights infracted upon by either individuals, governments or agencies. And down the line, from the time it was founded, the organisation has not in any way wavered from actually meeting up its mission and objectives. Throughout the period of the military, CLO was in the fore-front of insisting and ensuring that every infraction on human rights was seriously fought against by way of instituting court actions or, maybe, even engaging in open protests on the streets to drum support for people to appreciate the presence of the organisation as a human rights defender. The period of Babangida's reign and that of Abacha, saw CLO really come alive in its responsibilities of fighting for human rights.
Given the experience of your organisation, how would you compare the human right record of the military era and the present democratic experiment since 1999?
The basis for comparison is very far-fetched. Because, there is no way you can say what happened with regards to human rights suppression during the military can be compared with what is presently happening now that we are in the dispensation of democracy. During the military, everything was done with impunity; suppression of human rights was done with impunity. People's rights were infracted upon without recourse to what could be said or done by even the international community. You can recall the way Ken Saro-Wiwa was killed, despite all international interventions. Such thing cannot happen during a civilian administration under democracy.
Between 1999 and now when we have had a democratic period, granted that there are some pockets of suppressions here and there, but the comparison with that of military is completely far-fetched. So, I must say without equivocation that the human rights battle that we faced during the military is completely far less now that we have democratic period, and that is why even as I am speaking now, our style has changed from that of frontal criticsms to constructive engagement. So, what we do now as human rights society groups is to point out areas of laissez faire, as it concerns the government. We no longer come frontally to begin to criticize, because the suppression of human right situations have gone down drastically.
With this assessment, could it be taken that you are satisfied with the human rights record in the current democratic experience of the country for the past 16 years?
Comparatively, yes, because as we speak now, any person who has his rights infracted upon or has fears that his rights are to be infracted upon can approach the courts. And, most often, people have been getting judgments against the DSS, Police and other security agencies in the country; against the institutions: even students, people who are denied admissions on very flimsy situations go to court and get judgments against such institutions, and they are reinstated. Even labour. People who have their labour rights infracted upon, they go to courts in this present era and then get judgment. There are so many cases of people who have been reinstated to their place of work as a result of undue use of executive power, as it were, by either the directors of such companies and all that. The human rights record under the 16 years of democratic era is tolerable.
Would this account for the allegations of docility that have been levelled against civil society groups under the President Muhammadu Buhari-led government?
If you remember, the present government came with a change mantra, and anti-corruption mantra too. Possibly, it can be said that because certain persons are being dragged to court or being made to account for their mismanagement of the economy during the immediate past administration. The civil society may, probably, be accused of being silent because the opposition, the PDP, is crying out, claiming that most of the persons that are being trapped upon are PDP members. And, of course, it is obvious. There is an Igbo proverb that says the mother that gave birth to many children, will also be the mother that will bury more children. The immediate past administration was headed by PDP, so most of the people who are being alleged as having done certain things that are not in tandem with international best practices, as far as governance is concerned, were PDP members. And that accounts for why it’s mostly PDP members that are being arrested here and there; and it now appears as if they are being hounded.
It cannot be said that the civil societies are keeping quiet outright. It is just that, I will use the word, we are watching and waiting, because don’t forget that the government took some time before it came on board by appointment of ministers. So, we are yet to know exactly the lane the present government is driving its vehicle to, so that you don't just criticise out of criticism sake. You must criticise constructively and with purpose. It is not as if the civil society is keeping quiet, it is not true. I won’t accept that accusation that the civil society is presently docile, no. Neither can it be said that we are afraid of Buhari. No! After all, we had faced the military and now that he is not carrying any gun, we can also face him as a person and as head of government.
Given your background as a lawyer-activist, what is your take on concerns, in certain quarters, that Nigeria is gradually sliding to a dictatorship under Buhari. Those canvassing such views refer to government’s disobedience to court orders, including the refusal of the DSS to obey court orders to release on bail, the immediate past National Security Adviser, Col Sambo Dasuki, to enable him travel for medical attention abroad, and pro-Biafran activist, Nnamdi Kanu?
As a lawyer, I will frown at the attitude of the government towards the two scenarios because; once a competent court has given judgment, the best alternative is to appeal against that judgment and not to suppress the judgment, which appears to be exactly what the present government has done. It is most unfortunate, yes, that the present government appears to be sliding into dictatorship. I will subscribe to it because, let me be a little bit personal. It does appear that the head of the present government is a man of vendetta. If you recall, history has it that the said Dasuki led the team of soldiers that arrested Buhari when Babangida took over (power). And, as a human being, it does appear that Buhari has not forgotten that ugly experience. You ķnow, the military is an organisation that is known for discipline and all that. So, as a Major-General then, seeing himself being arrested by a Major, I mean, it was somewhat demeaning. So, it appears that this is a time for him to pay back to Dasuki for the disgrace he gave him.
In the same vein, the case of Nnamdi Kanu, while he was in the studio of Radio Biafra, we understand that he lampooned the present President so much, to the extent that he was calling him names. So, he really lampooned him. So, it is possible to accept and conclude that he is just taking a pound of flesh on these two persons. But, when I say it is unfortunate, it means that once one is in leadership you do not allow your personal grievance or anger to be vented on a person or group of persons; because, as a leader, he is now the father of the nation. So those around him should try the best they can to advise him to understand that: dealing with people as a leader is different from when dealing with people as an individual. So, the idea of suppressing the courts and doing away with the decision of the courts, which was soundly reached, is not a good riddance for this administration.
It appears presently that we have a problem on our hands in the South-East, given the daily protests by the pro-Biafra activists. The Indigenous People of Biafra (IPoB) and a faction of the Movement for the Actualisation of Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) have been peaceful, but turned bloody at Onitsha on December 2, 2015. In this kind of scenario, where do civil society groups come in, so that whatever needs to be resolved would be done amicably, instead of shedding blood?
I think the reason for the incessant protest cannot be far-fetched. I think the immediate cause of these protests can be said to have stemmed from the so-called body language of the President when he came on board. Like I did say before, once somebody becomes the leader of a country, it is not proper to have a particular section ostracised. The President, while taking his oath of office, said he belongs to nobody and to everybody. So, his body language has completely contradicted him. We are made to understand that out of 41 appointments he made of his kitchen cabinet, a single Igbo man was not incorporated into that so-called kitchen cabinet. And he did say in, I think in America, that there is no way he cannot give people who voted for him 95 per cent and people who did not vote for him five per cent; probably making reference to the Igbo race. So, it was a very unfortunate development. And the Igbo probably appeared to have seen themselves as being given what we call in football, a Red Card. Red card in the sense that they are being asked to stay off the administration of Buhari. And that is not healthy for the government; and that is not healthy for the country. It is unfortunate that up till now, more than three weeks, this incessant protests has continued, the President has not deemed it necessary to invite the protesters or their leaders to any round table discussion, but has also hinted that where necessary, he would want to have discussion with the Boko Haram leaders. So, that, to me, is a contradiction of administrative policy.
So, we are praying and believing that since the Igbo governors and Igbo leaders of thought have met and have discussed; and one of their resolutions was that they are going to approach the President and probably ask him to soften his stand on the Igbo race. If that happens, that will be a good development and a welcome situation. But then, it will be a very bad beginning for a government to begin to descend heavily on armless protesters, because the present dispensation appears to be insensitive to the yearnings of these people called pro-Biafra activists. I do know very well that the international community is warning, is watching and it would not be a good omen for security agencies to begin to go into open clash with the protesters, because all this while, they have been very peaceful until December 2. Whatever may have led to that clash, I stand here to condemn it completely and in-to-to. My appeal to the government, and of course, specifically to the President, is to invite the leaders of these protesters over for a round table discussion and, of course, find what exactly is their problem. Granted that they are using Nnamdi Kanu’s incarceration as a mask for their reasons of protest, but the main reason is the fact that the body language of the President has completely confirmed to them that they are not needed: they are not wanted, which is bad.
The essence of your organisation is to ensure peace and harmony in society. What is your advice on how best the people can go about their agitations against any infringement of their rights or anything - be it policies or programmes of government - they are dissatisfied with?
Naturally, when people feel aggrieved about any policy, one of the best ways to go about it is to first and foremost, address the press. And in the course of addressing the press, they state clearly what their grievances are and, maybe, in the course of the press address, they give some ultimatum. When the ultimatum is not heeded to, then, you can go on peaceful procession or protest. Of course, according to our laws, you need to obtain the permission of the Police or other security agencies to embark on such peaceful demonstrations. I am so surprised that these demonstrations appear to have taken a turn resulting in casualties. All this while, they have been so-peaceful to the extent that, I witnessed that of Port Harcourt and Umuahia. I saw the police escorting them side by side. There was no issue of harassment or having clash with the police. So, it is unfortunate that the government has allowed it to continue, because a responsible government should not allow this manner of protests to drag too long before going into discussion with the leaders of the group. The quietness of the President, I suspect it to be pregnant with something awful, otherwise, your house cannot be burning and burning, and then you leave it and be gallivanting all over the world. That is the aspect I am not comfortable with the President. He has not even asked any of the ministers or top security chiefs to go and have discussions with these people, neither has himself done anything.
So, I suspect that silence to be pregnant with something. So, that is why my best advice as a CLO activist in Umuahia is to tell the protesters to soften their approach, because when they are shouting and shouting and the person to whom they have directed their shout is not responding, it means that he is planning something that may take you by surprise and that surprise might end up in something that may be very, very bad. So, I will advise our Igbo brothers to re-channel their grievances through some other means other than the open street protests because anybody that dies, has died. He cannot come back. The approach the South-East governors have taken appears to me for now, a lifting up, because if they can have access to the President and then draw his attention to what is happening in the South-East, I think it will be a better way. What is happening in the North-East today started gradually, gradually this way and we might end up having a time-bomb around us: if it does explode, anybody can be a victim. So, my final advice is that they should change their mode and style of this protest, so that our young ones, future youths should not be wasted on the streets.
•Photo shows Azuogu.
Source News Express
Posted 31/12/2015 8:41:31 PM
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