Blessed are the human rights defenders

Ogunsakin Mustapha
9 Min Read
Owei Lakemfa

By Owei Lakemfa

MY mind raced back 34 years as I stood on Saturday in the assembly of human rights defenders who had gathered in Ilorin.

In 1989, some of us had the choice either to surrender or confront the rampaging Generals who had seized both power and the national treasury and were ruling Nigerians as they would: a conquered people. The 1775 words of Patrick Henry, an American planter, rang in our heads: “Give me liberty or give me death!”

We were guided by the examples of our ancestors like Oba Ovonramwen Nogbaisi, Raji Abdallah, Bello Ujumu and our mothers in Eastern Nigeria in 1929 who fought what seemed to be unwinnable battles for freedom.

Back in1989, under the Babangida dictatorship, Femi Aborishade, a campaigner for change in the country, who had been detained for three months the previous year, was again, seized by the State Security Services, SSS. He was detained in the Intercity detention centre at the Ikoyi Cemetery. Rather than just sit and bemoan the situation or issue press statements, some like minds went on an all-out campaign to get him released.

To further the campaign, we set up the Free Femi Aborisade Campaign Committee. As the campaign gained ground over the nine months Aborishade was detained without trial, we expanded it to include other political detainees, and in the process, changed the name to the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights, CDHR.

We were unapologetic that what we wanted changed, was the political system. It was a purely voluntary organisation and many made lots of sacrifices like Femi Ojudu who helped build the secretariat at Imaria Street under the leadership of Ransome-Kuti; Femi Falana whose chambers handled civil rights cases, especially those involving students, pro bono; and Sam Omatseye who helped build the Lagos branch.

In 1990, led by Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti, we formed a coalition with similar organisations like the National Consultative Forum, NCF, led by Alao Aka-Bashorun, and the Olisa Agbakoba-led Civil Liberties Organisation, CLO. We called the coalition, Campaign for Democracy, CD.

Within three years, we built the CDHR and CD to the level that by 1993 when the Babangida regime annulled the elections, we were ready to take on the military in street protests and battles.

In what became the Pro-Democracy Protests and Struggles, CDHR members were quite active with Ransome-Kuti leading the charge. In Lagos, for instance, most sectors into which the mega city was sub-divided for action, were led by CDHR leaders: Femi Falana in charge of Ikeja, Debo Adeniran in the Ogba-Fagba axis, Shina Loremikan taking charge of Ipaja and Sylvester Odion-Akhaine, sent to Lagos Island. I was in charge of the Murtala Mohammed Airports, Mafoluku and Oshodi, while the most militant area, the Lagos Mainland, was effectively mobilised under Dr Osagie Obayuwana.

The human rights fighters on the Mainland who belonged to various organisations, coalesced into an undefeatable coalition called ‘Militant Mainlanders’ with people like Wale Balogun and the ‘Don’ Olawale Salami, mobilising under the Obayuwana leadership. There were many across the country from various other organisations who played pivotal roles.

These included Dr Frederick Fasehun and Abiodun Aremu who made the Mushin-Isolo areas and the Oshodi-Apapa Expressway impregnable; the ever-alert Chima Ubani who was in charge of Ikorodu Road onwards Ikorodu and Funsho Omogbein who handled the Badagry Road/Ajegunle intersection. There were, of course, women like Glory Kilanko, then CD Treasurer, who played major roles. This type of organisational cohesion was replicated across the country.

I told the assembly this October 28, 2023 that I salute all who fought against military dictatorship and particularly remember those who lost their lives like the 118 killed in Lagos on July 6, 1993 following the massacre by the military.

I asserted that human rights emanate from natural rights, the most fundamental being the right to life. I posited that life is irreplaceable and once taken, cannot be restored; once it snaps, it cannot be retied. This, I explained, is partly why some of us are opposed to the death penalty because life, once taken, even if by judicial error or prevailing circumstances as in the case of Ken Saro-Wiwa, can never be restored.

I quoted Fela Anikulapo-Kuti who in his ‘Beast Of No Nation’ sang: “Human rights na my property. So therefore, you can’t dash me my property.” I also referred to Bob Marley who in ‘War’ sang that: “Until the philosophy which hold one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned everywhere is war.”

I ended by cautioning that human rights should not be taken for granted as eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.

Dr Obayuwana, outgoing CDHR President and former Edo State Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice, said Nigerians being hungry is a violation of citizen rights, adding: “An attack on our conditions of living, is an attack on our human rights.”

He said the ever-rising inflation and Naira devaluation have drastically shot up the prices of drugs leading to needless deaths in the country. He paraphrased Matthew 8:20, saying: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but many Nigerians have nowhere to lay their heads.”

Obayuwana concluded that the CDHR is resolved to defend the rights of the citizenry and asked Nigerians to support it, adding: “We want a Nigeria that will serve the Nigerian people.”

The Director General of the Michael Imoudu National Institute of Labour Studies, MINILS, Issa Aremu, who was the Chief Host, said since workers are not just workers, but are also citizens with fundamental human rights, the MINILS will introduce human rights into its curricular. He also announced that the institute would inaugurate an annual lecture in honour of Labour Leader Number One, Michael Imoudu, after whom MINILS is named.

Aremu said labour and the human rights movement should be actively involved in partisan politics like Imoudu was from colonial times. He added that without political power, all struggles will come to naught and urged that a struggle be waged to make the fundamental principles of the Constitution justiciable.

The DG said never again should the military be allowed to rule Africa, “regardless of our experiences in democracy; if there is any problem with democracy, what you need is more democracy, not less.”

The International Federation of Women Lawyers, FIDA, Kwara State Chair, Gloria Okodua, said Nigerians in fighting for human rights, are fighting for themselves.

The Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, Kwara State Chairman, Yinka Seriki, said if the human rights and Labour Movement want a breakthrough and liberation, they need to take power.

I left the assembly convinced that blessed are the human rights defenders for to them, not the violators, shall history belong.

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