It wasn’t surprising that the 70th birthday anniversary of a foremost human rights campaigner in Africa, Olisa Agbakoba, appeared to have sneaked away May 29 2023. There wouldn’t have been any basis to struggle in the media for attention on a day already officially and repeatedly faulted as the contraption of one man alone who had proclaimed himself to be evil-genius. But Olisa Agbakoba means every other thing in the contrary. He remains the head, the fountain and indeed the very source of hope for many of us in the human rights movement in Nigeria till date.
My favourite teacher of all time at the University of Ilorin, Olu Obafemi, in the course of cultivating me and my classmates in the relentlessness of seminality of ideas, had introduced literary works like Trial of Dedan Kimathi by Ngugi Wa Th’iongo to us. Little did I know, courtesy of the efforts of someone like Olisa, I was going to be demonstrative of Obafemi’s many submissions on the great play in not too distant a future. Kimathi, seemingly replicated in Olisa Agbakoba, is the indomitable anti-oppression champion in Kenya who remains undaunted in the face of all intimidation and torture and yet defies all officialdom and even goes ahead to talk wisdom into the heads of those being used to perpetrate injustice.
Way back in 1998, taking advantage of my exposure to human rights work to which I got exposed at the Civil Liberties Organisation, CLO, I was a Visiting Scholar to Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, SIPA. One afternoon in the month of February that year, the lot fell on me to speak out to the world on my major concern with the Nigerian situation under the military siege then. While I was shouting myself hoarse at Columbia University on the downward slide of press and in fact all other genres of freedom, the military government of Coupist Sani Abacha was pounding OA at Yaba, Lagos Nigeria.
OA as we hailed the CLO President then, had staked his life to lead a 5 million man march beginning from Yaba against the fascist regime. It was a counterforce against Abacha’s grand falsehood in Abuja in form of one million march he had funded to advertise an unfounded support for his dictatorship. My audience at Columbia University felt a palpable pity for me. To most of them, it was unimaginable that Abacha could still feign support for himself in spite of the visible signs of resentment for his government nationally and internationally. Olisa Agbakoba left the grand march ground with swollen, bloodshot eyes.
Olisa Agbakoba happens to be the pioneer president of the Civil Liberties Organisation, CLO, and remained in office until I joined the organization in 1994 as Head of Campaigns. Olisa had founded CLO at 34 in 1987 and left no one in doubt that he was genuinely committed to replicating his leadership acumen in as many a Nigerian as possible. His fountain of knowledge and demonstrations keep drizzling till date. I didn’t have to know Olisa or the executive director, Abdul Oroh, to join the team. It was a question of the skills and knowledge you had. Indeed, ‘surviving’ as a staff, especially as a project officer, was also based on your viability. You must be up and doing especially with raising fund for your project. And the rewards were reasonably massive too as no project officer hardly wanted to go on leave. There were always international engagements from January to December where CLO had to be represented, in addition to international career enhancing opportunities for which the CLO brand already provided the needed launch pad. Where, on earth, did we not travel to, yet tapping into more and more opportunities?
Even as we couldn’t travel out of Nigeria through the airport with our names blacklisted by the various security agencies, travels for us and our journalist friends in the progressive media for who we managed to raise travel funding too, were fun, availing us the opportunities to further Nigeria’s human rights campaign needs. But we kept returning to our dear Nigeria each time we travelled out defying threats of arrest and detention. And there was hardly any of the project officer who didn’t take a bite of this. My very meek Ismail Ibraheem, now a professor at the University of Lagos, for instance, had advised me to be cautious in planning my return from Columbia University as the programme was running out. Ironically however, same day I returned was the day my brother was taken away to the notorious Awolowo Road detention facility of DSS for some days. He survived it and in no time had to join me in the newly launched CLO campaign I had just commenced for journalists in all the regions of the country. Everywhere in Nigeria today is our home!
Perhaps much more for OA. There’s hardly any thriving civil rights organization in the country today without the midas touch of the the boss. Especially, the towering ones. Stakeholders, particularly the leaders must have either been CLO staff or board member. OA is ubiquitous!
We have had to do national ‘criss-crossing’ repeatedly engaging with civil society activists and journalists in the course of our official engagements as CLO programme officers. The big boss, Olisa Agbakoba, never relented either. His was to do high level networking with ambassadors and high commissioners leaving us to run consultations with other diplomatic cadres when and where necessary. OA (Zero to Ability, in my appropriation) cultivated us all for what Dapo Olorunyomi and Gbile Oshadipe would later label as high shoulder indulgence characteristic of folks in diplomatic arena.
My enlistment as a staff of CLO was at the instance of my brother and lifelong school mate and career twin, Professor Ismail Ibraheem, now Director of International Liaison, University of Lagos. Ismail was editor of Liberty Magazine published by CLO but extended his interest in serving CLO to media relations. Thus, each time he had to come drop CLO’s press statement at Concord Press where I was a feature writer, we usually had good time to undertake regular review of our lives and even project into the future as young, ambitious folks. Thus began Ismail’s overture to me to join CLO. He wanted my company at CLO and the vacuum I should fill was gaping, really.
Timeously in the face of the riotous, post-June 12 election annulment period in 1993, an opportunity that presented itself as some kind of human rights work orientation ritual came my way. Human rights abridgement by law enforcers and other state functionaries kept mounting following the criminal annulment of the June 12 election by the military government of Ibrahim Babangida. CLO suitably mounted a conference on law enforcement and human rights for police officers. It held at the Administrative Staff College, Topo- Badagry beach and I happened to be there as a reporter. It was a good opportunity to further appreciate what citizens should or should not do when interfacing with police men and officers especially during arrest. The summary of it all: don’t despair before law enforcers as you’re still entitled to your rights. Dare to demand for your right always.
Olisa upheld rule of law most consistently within the CLO system always abiding by Financial Regulations, especially. He also encouraged everyone to be independent minded. His constant refrain: “be focused”. For as long as you are and you can justify it, you are OA’s guy, forget your official rating. Sampler: Our restless chain-chain smoker executive director then, Abdul Oroh, who later became a House of Reps member and Commissioner in the government of Oshiomole in Edo State, felt the need to up CLO campaigns and wanted OA to upbraid Ismail and me being the chief campaigners for CLO. Shortly after he reported us, OA requested we should see him at his law firm in Apapa. “So what’s the problem, Tunde, Ismaila(as they preferred to call Ismail)? We promptly told OA that we had always made a case for the campaigns desk to run dynamically given that the allotted office space wasn’t conducive enough. Parrotting OA, we submitted that “we couldn’t focus”. Abdul suddenly joined the discussion and argued that newsroom everywhere was a mad house and that Tunde and Ismaila being journos should be able to cope. OA snapped back saying not everyone could function in your mad house emphasizing “even me, I can’t focus in that space. You must do something, Abdul, and immediately too. I will approve.”
Never short of sartorial elegance including his taste for sleek automobiles, OA had, since our days in 1990s, been impressively self-respecting even as he purposively sought and appreciated expressive press photo shoots that often readily registered with production editors and general public alike. With no less pride, one can recall the rising profiles of my CLO colleagues and others who are accomplished in their respective quarters.
Here’s hailing the real big brother in organized human rights campaign in Nigeria. From me to you sir, 70 gbosas!
Tunde Akanni, PhD, associate professor and acting head of Journalism Department at LASU, is a multi-sectoral development consultant. Follow him on Twitter via @AkintundeAkanni.