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Chidi Odinkalu: A profile in extraordinary courage, by Osmund Agbo

Despite Taylor's indictment, he was hosted by Nigerian authorities under President Obasanjo, sparking controversy...


Chidi Odinkalu: A profile in extraordinary courage, by Osmund Agbo

On August 5, 2005, the observatory team representing a coalition of the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) raised a matter of urgent concerns. Agents of the State Security Service (SSS), acting on orders from above, were searching for Chidi Odinkalu, a 37-year-old lean lawyer leading an international coalition advocating for justice against former Liberian President Charles Taylor. Despite Taylor’s indictment, he was hosted by Nigerian authorities under President Obasanjo, sparking controversy.

It has been several years now since that brush with the Obasanjo government , and Charles Taylor has been cooling his heels in Frankland Prison since October 2013. Throughout this time, Chidi Odinkalu has unwaveringly persisted in his struggle against injustice wherever they occur, with no intention of letting up.

I once approached the man with a proposition akin to a cold-call: to intern in his office for a few months, eager to absorb his wisdom, resilience, and all nuances in between. Uncertain of the existence of such a position, but it didn’t matter to me one bit. I was prepared to forge one, yearning for even a week under his tutelage. His sagacity, intellect, and unparalleled fortitude in navigating uncertainty, notwithstanding formidable adversaries, captivated me. Chidi Odinkalu is not your run-of-the-mill Nigerian activist, pretending to work for the masses but patiently waiting in line for his payday. He is a maverick.

As a profoundly successful individual capable of living out his days in gilded mansions and attended to by a coterie of aides, there must be a unique motivation for the man to opt for a hard knock life. Apart from his aversion to injustice, I suspect that, unlike many caterpillars of Nigeria’s commonwealth,
he acknowledges that individual prosperity cannot insulate one from the failures of his society.

Many Nigerians fail to grasp this fundamental concept, treating their country as a mere cash cow to be milked to death. They ascend to positions of power, looting the nation’s resources while their actions systematically undermine the country’s well-being. Oblivious to the far-reaching consequences, they bask in their wealth, only to encounter humiliation abroad simply by virtue of being Nigerian, failing to recognize the correlation with their own actions.

We’ve also witnessed a slew of supposed activists and civil right champions transform into replicas of the politicians they once opposed, succumbing to the allure of power. From media figures turned Joseph Goebbels to civil rights champions who became election manipulators, morality crumbles in the face of opportunity.

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In today’s world, however, human actions scarcely surprise me. To be fair, I’m uncertain how I’d personally navigate the challenges facing families in Nigeria if I were to live there. It’s easy to preach morality with a full belly and a clear head, but for the impoverished, survival takes precedence. The political elite has remarkably succeeded in perpetuating poverty, ensuring few escape its grasp, making it nearly impossible to resist the allure of corruption. But I digress.

Prof. Odinkalu’s educational journey reflects a remarkable commitment to excellence. He obtained his law degree (LLB) from Imo State University in 1987, where he distinguished himself as the top graduate of the School of Legal Studies. Recognised for his exceptional skills, he was awarded the Chief FRA Williams prize for outstanding achievement in Legal Drafting and Conveyancing upon his admission to the bar in 1988. Continuing his academic pursuit, Odinkalu earned a master’s degree in law from the University of Lagos in 1990, followed by a Ph.D. in law from the prestigious London School of Economics and Political Science.

Harnessing his profound knowledge and expertise, Odinkalu has assumed pivotal roles in various spheres. He has served as the former Chairman of Nigeria’s National Human Rights Commission and presently holds the esteemed position of senior team manager for the Africa Program of Open Society Justice Initiative.

Additionally, he has lent his advisory prowess to renowned institutions such as the Ford Foundation New York, World Bank, African Union, and International Council for Human Rights Policy. Recognized as a leading authority in his field, Odinkalu was appointed as a Professor in Human Rights Law at the esteemed Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in August 2021.

Prof. Odinkalu speaks with the sagacity of a revered elder, drawing you into his counsel as if you were sitting across from your venerable grandfather. An intellectual endowed with a radical edge, his discourse instills a profound sense of introspection, leaving even the most influential figures apprehensive of his insights. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly.

Over the years, he has emerged as a solitary force, fervently endeavoring to infuse a semblance of moral rectitude into a judicial apparatus marred by systemic injustices. As a legal luminary himself, his vigilance against the rampant corruption permeating the courts transcends mere concern. Despite encountering threats from the highest echelons of authority—Supreme Court luminaries, formidable political figures—he remains resolute, steadfastly refusing to succumb to coercion.

In ancient Igbo culture, the transition into manhood was marked by a profound ritual: the granting of an ikenga, a meticulously carved wooden totem. The Ikenga becomes not only his proud possession to be preserved and honored for the rest of his life, but is also an integral part of his identity as a unique individual

Signifying the owner’s potential for success and his mastery over his own destiny, the sacred object transcended mere symbolism; it encapsulated his Chi (personal god), Nnaochie (ancestral spirits), and Ike (power). Indeed, a man’s ikenga was a tangible manifestation of human endeavor, accomplishment, triumph, and an unwavering testament to his dedication to society. I am firmly convinced that Chidi Odinkalu was among the final recipients of his Ikenga before the gods, in a moment of fury, reclaimed it from our midst.

Whether it’s inquiring about the whereabouts of citizen Dandiyata, being pursued by the federal government of Nigeria in the case of Charles Taylor, slugging it out with Gov. Nasir El-Rufai over alleged human rights abuses, or addressing rogue justices in Nigerian courts, Odinkalu’s numerous battles have shaped his life and career as a human rights lawyer and academic

Today, we raise a toast to a man’s exceptional profile in courage. In the ongoing struggle against judicial malfeasance in contemporary Nigeria, Chidi Odinkalu embodies the fusion of both “Ogbuagu” and “Aare Ona Kakanfo”. May divine protection accompany his courageous striving to emancipate Nigerians from the shackles of an oppressive system. Dikeogu, as long as your Ikenga lives, you can wrestle in the land of the spirits.

Osmund Agbo is the author of ‘Black Grit, White Knuckles: The Philosophy of Black Renaissance’ and a fiction work titled “The Velvet Court: Courtesan Chronicles,” along with other publications.

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