By Omano Edigheji
Old habits can be hard to change, even as we mature and acquire more education. Some habits seem to stick with us, and that seems to be the case with my old friend Chidi Odinkalu, who can’t seem to shake his incessant rants against Governor Nasir El-Rufai. While Odinkalu’s rantings could be seen as comical behaviour not to be taken seriously, there are times when such infantile behaviour requires a response that encapsulates a teaching moment not only for the person engaging in it but for others who may consider them to be taken seriously.
Full disclosure is necessary here: Odinkalu and El-Rufai are my good friends. I have known Odinkalu for around thirty years, having worked with him at the Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO) led by Olisa Agbakoba. While Odinkalu was head of the CLO’s Legal Division, I was head of the Human Rights Education and Empowerment Programme.
In those days, Agbakoba would joke that CLO staff were either on the “Loony Left” or the “Crazy Right.” Those of us who came to the CLO from the radical students’ movement of the 1980s did not see the human rights NGO as an end in itself but as a means to an end. We were immersed in the struggle against military dictatorship and the restoration of democracy. We embraced our “Loony Left” label because it signified our focus on fundamental political change in Nigeria, unlike the “Crazy Right” careerists, with Odinkalu as their de facto leader, were preoccupied with tokenism and maintaining the status quo. Their primary strategies were legal advocacy through courts, issuing press statements, and always staying in the news. While many of us were in the trenches confronting the military, Odinkalu left the CLO to join Interights in London to further his career. In contrast, those on the left convinced the CLO’s Board to get involved in the struggle for democracy, giving birth to the Campaign for Democracy that led the fight against the annulment of the June 12, 1993, presidential election won by M.K.O. Abiola.
During the struggle to enthrone democracy in Nigeria, the leadership and left-leaning staff of the CLO, including myself, were harassed, tortured, and detained by the military. While we suffered persecution at the hands of the military and security agents, Odinkalu pursued his career in London, occasionally issuing press statements and traveling around European capitals in the name of supporting the democratic struggle in Nigeria. It was a rather comfortable way to change society!
I have no problem with people pursuing their career objectives in life. However, presenting a public face that is different from what one does privately is problematic. When one only seizes every opportunity to be in the news to appear as a representative of those fighting for democracy and human rights, one falls into the category of what one might call careerists and celebrity activists.
Before anyone says that I also left the country in the thick of the struggle or wonders how I am different from “celebrity activists,” let me say that my case was different. I left for South Africa based on a collective decision of the left-leaning activists who saw the new democratic South Africa led by President Nelson Mandela as an ally and a model from which we could learn. So, I was seconded to South Africa to build an international face for the movement in that country.
Why have I gone into the past like this? It’s to show that Odinkalu’s obsessive ranting about El-Rufai is not born out of any altruism but is just a continuation of a pattern that I have observed in him for almost three decades. His every calculation is about career advancement and personal interest. I have known El-Rufai for almost fifteen years, and we have developed a friendship since then. Currently, I am his Special Adviser on Research and Special Programs in a cabinet that former President Obasanjo described as “mini-Nigeria” because it is made up of people from all parts of the country.
Odinkalu also claimed that El-Rufai is his friend, and indeed, it was in that capacity that he reviewed his book, The Accidental Public Servant, which was published in 2013. Thus, on the surface, one might say that we are all friends.
In the days leading up to the 2019 general elections, Odinkalu launched a public rant against the governor. This rant stemmed from the gruesome killing of 66 Fulanis (our fellow citizens) in Kajuru, Kaduna State, two weeks before the election. As the governor of the state, El-Rufai addressed the media to inform the world about the killings and called on the people of the state to remain peaceful. To Odinkalu, this was a mortal sin by the governor. He then went on Channels TV to launch verbal assaults on the governor, using unprintable words to describe him.
According to Odinkalu, the killings never happened because the police and SSS were not present when the governor made the announcement, and that announcement was made on the eve of an election. His logic seemed to be that governments should hide information about the killing of their citizens if they place it on the eve of an election. Odinkalu claimed that he did not sleep the whole night, calling his contacts in Kajuru, but that none could verify the story. He did not deem it fit to call his friend, El-Rufai, or any security agencies in the area, yet he went on air to dispute the report. In our days in the human rights movement, we would have found a way to confirm the story from one of the security agencies. But in what has become the typical Odinkalu fashion, he knows more than all the security agencies in the country. In his words,
“Let us all go because this is too serious for anybody…this is too serious for any governor to say and get away with at this election. I will not let this Kajuru matter go. I’m sorry but when you say 66 people were killed, you must produce them. I will not let this Kajuru matter go”.
He went further to ask, “Why would the governor who is running for office, on the eve of these elections go and allege the killing of members of one community – 66 of them in one location – without telling INEC, without telling SSS, without telling the police, without telling any security agency … is it a PR affair that 66 of your people have been killed?”
The question that Odinkalu did not bother to ask is how he would know about the conversations and briefings the governor had with security agencies? Do the security agencies in Kaduna State report to the governor through him?
During his self-indulgent posturing on the Kajuru killings, I tried to reach out to him. I was unable to speak to him, but I passed a message across to him through mutual friends not to speak on issues about which he knows nothing. But the feedback I received was that he was adamant. Odinkalu claimed that for him, speaking out was not a public relations exercise, but that is exactly what it was – a self-serving PR exercise to gain media attention. If that wasn’t his motive, why didn’t Odinkalu apologize to the Governor and the people of the State when the army confirmed that 66 people were killed and showed the mass graves where they were buried? The killings were reported by reputable media houses, including Al Jazeera, Premium Times, and the Daily Trust newspaper. However, Odinkalu did not have the humility to retract his previous statement.
Although Odinkalu claimed that his denial of the killings wasn’t politically motivated, discerning observers may think otherwise. Even if he wasn’t a card-carrying member of the PDP, he was a sympathizer and was appointed by the President Jonathan-led PDP government as the Chairman of the National Human Rights Commission. He also served as a member of the Transition Committee of the short-lived PDP administration of Governor Ihedioha. (I must declare that I support Tinubu for two reasons: he was with us in the pro-democracy movement, and his record as Lagos State Governor was commendable. In my view, Tinubu is the best presidential candidate to address the country’s crises.)
My response to Odinkalu stems from the fact that, with less than two weeks until the 2023 presidential elections, he has engaged in yet another infantile outburst. This time, Odinkalu, operating from London, launched another unwarranted attack against El-Rufai. He insulted the Governor in a tweet, which is against the culture of human rights activism. Odinkalu’s immaturity is evident in resorting to personal abuse, distracting from any point he may have wanted to make. This is one thing that Odinkalu didn’t learn from working at the CLO. Let me ask the careerist activist this question: what advantage does your size give you over El-Rufai?
In his recent claim that Governor El-Rufai and others “have collected public money and want to launder it in the election” to buy votes, Odinkalu continues to spread disinformation, as he has always done. During an interview on Channels TV on February 17, 2023, he alleged that:
“Some governors, including El-Rufai, who have collected money that should have been used to develop their people, have locked it up to use it to buy votes … and they are getting the Supreme Court involved … and those Governors including El-Rufai… and people like El-Rufai want to buy votes”.
When challenged by the Channels TV anchor, Seun Okinbaloye, to provide evidence to support his claims, Odinkalu responded that his allegation is justified by El-Rufai’s frequent appearances on various media platforms. His claims are baseless, and as a lawyer, he is aware that his statements are defamatory. In an immature display, he told Seun that he would not “show good manners” and would not stop being offensive. He also threatened that “this matter is going to get ugly”. No authentic human rights activist would speak like that on national television.
If the self-proclaimed activist had taken the time to follow the developments in Kaduna State under Governor El-Rufai’s administration, he would not have gone about spreading disinformation that the Governor has locked up money meant for the development of the people to buy votes. It is easy to sit in the comfort of one’s London home and pontificate on issues about which one no does not know that is what Odinkalu seems to do best. Many observers have attested to the fact that El-Rufai has transformed Kaduna State. To paraphrase President Buhari when he came to launch various projects in the state last year, he told the Governor, “You have written your name in gold.”
Despite the numerous challenges of insecurity, a recession, and a decline in global oil prices, the El-Rufai administration has achieved tremendous transformation through efficient management of public finances, measures to increase internally generated revenue (IGR), and the appointment of capable individuals from all parts of the country. I invite Odinkalu to come to Kaduna State and see for himself the significant strides that have been made. Spreading disinformation from London will not diminish the Governor’s developmental achievements.
When he reviewed El-Rufai’s book, Odinkalu was effusive in his praise for both the book and the author, stating that
“In this book, this author (El-Rufai) says in effect that Nigeria is bigger than any one person and he cares more about Nigeria than any temporary benefits from partisan politics … The Accidental Public Servant is also a passionate advoadvocate firm, equal and non-discriminatory application of rules to everyone irrespective of status or other irrelevancies. It makes a solid case for the normalization of processes in governance”.
I wonder what has changed for Odinkalu that he has now made it his mission to be El-Rufai’s public enemy.
In the same interview on Channels TV, Odinkalu alleged that the insistence of the governors who took the Federal Government to the Supreme Court and argued that the old and new naira notes must co-exist amounts to treason. While I will not venture into legal arguments as I am not a lawyer, I will reference some of Odinkalu’s senior colleagues at the Bar who argued otherwise. For example, citing several Supreme Court judgments, Mike Ozekhome SAN argued that once a court, including the Supreme Court, has issued an order, it must be obeyed until it is set aside.
But Odinkalu wants El-Rufai to be hanged merely because he called on the Federal Government to obey the Supreme Court’s interim order.
As part of his disinformation campaign, Odinkalu also claimed in his Channels TV interview that El-Rufai says nothing when innocent people in Southern Kaduna are killed. However, nothing could be further from the truth. The Governor cares about the lives and properties of all residents of the State and takes action in that regard. The pseudo-activist should know that the administration of El-Rufai is the only State government in the country that publishes data quarterly on insecurity, including the number of victims of murder and kidnapping. It is also one of the few States that established a Peace Commission to promote harmonious relations among people in the State.
Throughout the Channels TV interview, Odinkalu demonstrates that El-Rufai is living rent-free in his head. He is obsessed with the Governor, which he needs to cure himself of. This brings me back to the issue of the two groups in the CLO that Agbakoba called the “Crazy Right” and the “Loony Left”. It is necessary to learn, unlearn and relearn if one is to be useful to our country and the world. Being stuck in the early 1990s while the world has undergone remarkable changes will not get anyone anything. In this regard, Odinkalu needs to be more reflective and learn to control his temper and the language he uses in public discourse.
*Prof. Edigheji is Special Adviser (Research and Special Programmes) to Governor El-Rufai, and a Visiting Associate Professor of Practice, University of Johannesburg. He writes in his personal capacity.