Malachy Ugwumadu is the immediate past national president of the Committee for the Defence of Human Right (CDHR). In this interview he assesses the human rights record of the current administration and suggests what Nigeria must do to deepeen democracy among other issues.
#########You took over CDHR and revived the organisation, how was the experiences?
Thanks for starting with the comments you started with, and it appears you have your fact. What you said is true, it was the reality and it was not peculiar to CDHR alone, it cut across the first generation civil society organisations in Nigeria.
Across the country, CLO was the first civic society to be formed in 1987 and then two years later the CDHR was set up as the second civil society organisation and it has sustained till now. Kudos to the founding fathers, but CDHR and the other first generation civil society groups were formed in response to the very autocratic military regimes that we had; we needed to evolve something like that. So they were structured to engage a very brutal regime, it became the tool to engage the brutal government we had then.
When we returned to civil rule, this organisation also needed to change in terms of its operations to conform to the contemporary civilian rule, the people driven government, but we were able to realise that the posturing was different.
It took a while for this organisation which was set up during the military regime in Nigeria, during dictatorship and high volatile environment to turn its operation around.
Meaning that it created contradictions and force with in the same group as to the output and the way forward and created a question of who are we now and what was next.
The fact we had devoted energy to protection of human right does not mean that we went to school to study activism; it was because we can’t sit and watch the riot to continue.
We are also pro-democracy organisations; pro-people, you cannot rule out the fact that CDHR is one of the most successful organisations.
When I took over, we had 15 branches; but when I was leaving it had increased to 28 branches. People are free to participate in government, but as an elected member of this organisation you must resign.
That time was a process of indiscretion for the pro-democracy organisations, I was also the national secretary of JACON led by the late Chief Gani fawehimi between 1996-1999. A lot of the pro-democracy activist in the country were members, Falana, Onitiri Abiola, Femi Aborishade and the rest.
What happened is that there was not much faith in the transition programme of the military administration.There was the belief that we should not focus on the transition programme so that participatory democracy can be guaranteed.
######### There is the perception that activism has nosedived in Nigeria in recent years, do you agree?
I had alluded to the fact there was reduction in momentum. For example, in CDHR, it looked like a magic, it took a lot of hard work when I came on board, because it was mass movement, they were existing but they were not vibrant as they were and we had a national secretariat which was virtually non-existence. I took over an empty hall as an office and we rebuilded and turned the organisation to the one that had public image.
That was the building procured under the late Bola Ige, we had visionary leaderships like Beko Ransom Kuti, the late Iyayi who was the former ASSU national president and at this time when I resumed we did so much with all modernity to the organisation. We brought CDHR to the consciousness of Nigerians and made it a mass movement prime to defend the right of Nigerians. We rebuilded the structure of the organisation.
For a long time, the organisation was not registered; since it was founded under the military it was part the group’s belief that we don’t need a certification of the government to validate our right to belong to an organisation.
Today the organisation is stronger, we are more powerful, we have more activist and comrades from Kaduna State in the organisation and we had the AGM at Hamdala hotel in Kaduna State.
If you are talking about activism noise-devising, I think what happened was that there was proliferation of civil society organisations in the country. When you talk of CDHR in those days, you did not hear of YAGA, SERAP and the rest across the country, things have changed.
Perhaps may be you are looking for confrontational approach, civil society use to have that in the past and for us it was important then, because we were dealing with an oppressive military regime, but now the issues we are dealing with is about governance, legislation etc.
The civil society is doing the advocacy, the FOI bill is not an executive bill, and it was from the Media Right Group.
The administration of criminal justice bill, the Not Too Young Bill and the rest are efforts of the civil society.
You don’t carry placard at that level, you have to intelligently lobby and talk to the appropriate authority at that level. You have to come up with legislation that would benefit the people. We had a lot of civil society directing the space now and a lot of them are doing something different, a lot of the people are doing several things; electoral reforms, gender etc.
Quite a lot of effort is being made, it may not be with the same momentum, but these are people who came together to make contributions; similarly after the military left the funding partners concentrated their effort into other areas.
Those people are now focusing attention on other major issues, like displacement, gender issues, environment, water and the rest.
The independence of the judiciary has come into question in this administration; as it was in the past and previous dispensations. The funding and the manipulation of the judiciary process are high. So, when you don’t have all of this in place you can’t be talking of democracy, at the moment we have civil rule and not democracy.
All of us sacrifice a lot, look at the late Ken Saro-wiwa, the Abiola family, all these are heroes of the past. We sacrifice for human rights in the country and as a lawyer we are getting a far more disturbing state of human right in the country now.
########Are you worried about the human right record of this administration?
It is worrisome, look at your colleagues, from Sowore, Agba Jalingo they were attacked and imprisoned.
They go out to attack and muzzle the media; it is a former American President that said; if you give me a large military and a free press, I would take free press to drive democracy.
The place of the media and the press is very important and the constitution gives the press the power to hold government accountable to do their work.
The Freedom of Information Bill is there to hold them accountable; it gives the press the constitutional right to check any effort to undermine this power as pillar of democracy, this is the reason we are getting this resistance in the way you are seeing.
#######What do you think needs to be put in place to put our democracy on the right track and footing?
Our democratisation is not only by the deficiency of our electoral laws. It has suffered several deficiencies and so much need to be done and put in place to regain confidence of the people. Justice is rooted on the confidence of the people; we should change this attitude of thinking the media can be muzzled, the role of the media cannot be overemphasised. There had been electoral changes over the years; there is hardly any election circle where there is no electoral amendment.
###########What is your view on the clamour for restructuring of the country?
It is important that in the last few years we have had national conference, but it was not sovereign national conference, they said that it was too revolutionary because they were scared of it and they beneficiary of the system. That brought about the change of the word from a sovereign national conference to national conference.
The national conference happened in virtually all the regime and civilian administrations, but nothing happened because the sovereign was not there and it is what would bring life to the conferences.
We shy away from restructuring, but it is inevitable. What we also need is a reform in the way that we carry out the affairs of the country. We should give power of governance to the people; it is within their right, you need to empower the Nigerian to take over the governance of the country. If you want to pursue economic restructuring, you may continue to hear that Nigeria is very rich but the people are poor.