INTERVIEW: I See Files As Human Beings — NHRC Boss Ojukwu Reveals How Commission Helps FG Prevent Repeat Of EndSARS

Chief Tony Ojukwu SAN is the Executive Secretary of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), a federal government agency responsible for the promotion and protection of human rights in Nigeria.

He was nominated for the position by former President Muhammadu Buhari in 2017 and was reappointed for another term in early 2023.

The NHRC under his leadership convened a panel on the Independent Investigative Panel on the defunct Special Anti-Robbery Squad and other units of the Nigerian Police Force (IIP-SARS), recommending the dismissal of 25 police officers found guilty in 2022. Ojukwu has remained vocal about human rights violations across the board.

In this interview with NewsNGR, he shares his thoughts on human rights issues in Nigeria. Excerpts…

The NHRC Is An Agency Of The Federal Government But The Commission Has Been At The Forefront Criticizing Government For Human Rights Violation. What Informs This Courage?

The thing is, the National Human Rights Commission, even though it is established by the Government, is actually an international obligation of Nigeria to establish a Human Rights Commission. The United Nations in Resolution 48134 of December 20, 1993, mandated all countries who are members of the UN to establish a National Human Rights Institution.

But they don’t only have to establish National Human Rights Institutions, the Human Rights Institutions must also be independent of the government, that is why you can see that even though the government established the NHRC, the Commission also tells the government what it is not doing right.

In the Government establishing the NHRC, it says part of our duties is to point out those things it is not doing well; so in criticizing the human rights situation, I am doing what the government asked me to do.

Government is a big institution, it must have those who will tell it the truth because unless you do that, Government will not be able to see clearly and it doesn’t serve Government any good; that is why you even have an opposition.

Opposition is allowed, opposition is not to bring down the Government but to draw the government’s attention to areas it is not seeing because government is a whole structure.

So within the government itself, it established a National Human Rights institution to tell them that the prison conditions are not proper so that the government can make it right; to tell them that police are brutalizing citizens so that you don’t have that kind of EndSARS protest and things are destroyed.

So, in telling the government what is not happening well, we’re helping the government to prevent larger conflict.

For instance, here, people bring individual complaints and we solve them. Now, when you solve all those things, you are creating a positive achievement for the government because if not, the number of people who will have grievances against the government will be too many and they will match into the streets and be violent but as we solve all these small complaints everyday, we are reducing the challenges government have.

An institution like this (NHRC) is very very useful, it is not an opposition to the government. Government in its wisdom decided to create it to draw its attention to issues.

So, what we are doing is not to be seen as anti-government, no, the government is very intelligent, it says it wants somebody who will tell it what is happening out there.

I mean, we are the eye of the government, we go to prison and it says go and visit prison and police detention every time because it knows that somebody needs to tell them what is happening because the prison officials will not tell the government some things.

Government is not stupid, what NHRC is doing is not against Government, it is rather, what government expects it to do to improve its services to the people.

As A Staff Of The Commission, You Rose Through The Ranks To Become NHRC Executive Secretary And Became A SAN While In Office. What’s Your Work Schedule Like?

My work schedule is a crazy one but my principle is that no file stays on my table or mail stays overnight. Whenever I finish it, that is when the work ends.

If I finish my schedule by 12 midnight or 6pm, that’s when the work ends that day.

I see files in front of me as human beings, I don’t see it as paper. For instance, if a file of someone that’s detained is before me , every one hour it stays on my table, the person stays in detention. So, you see why the policy is ‘no file stays overnight’ because I don’t want to be held responsible for somebody being held in police detention or prison for more than the period.

If I go to sleep, the person is in detention, so the earlier that file leaves my table, the earlier something can be done and the person will get his freedom. That is my work principle.

Have You Sent The Human Rights Alternative Report On Nigeria To The UN Human Rights Council ?

Yes, we have sent our comments to the Universal Peer Review (of the UN). You know by February next year, Nigeria will be up for the UPR again.

I believe by October also, the federal government will send its own. We have done our consultations even with the civil society and government and we have been able to submit our own report on UPR coming up next year.

What Is The Biggest Challenge You Have Faced As The NHRC Executive Secretary?

There are many challenging moments.

During the COVID-19 lockdown period, when the Commission released its report while monitoring the Covid implementation; we said at the first two weeks of implementation, that the Covid had killed about 14 Nigerians, however, the law enforcement agents while enforcing the Covid guidelines had killed 18 Nigerians.

So, we were wondering what kind of Covid guidelines was that; that meant that law enforcement agents were more dangerous than Covid.

Somebody out there was like, this guy (the NHRC ES) is against the government and saying something that is going to make the government very uncomfortable but that singular report changed the entire implementation of the Covid lockdown.

After that report, the pattern of enforcement by law enforcement agents changed, they started allowing the mobile courts to try people and allow lawyers to attend to people who were arraigned as well as allowing journalists to go and report on their cases.

Even COVID-19 patients in the hospital were now given a choice to decide on drugs they were going to take.

There was some freedom. Prior to that, they were just kept somewhere as if they had committed one heinous offense.

For some key government officials, they were questioning that NHRC was saying something that is putting the government in a bad light but I thank God for the government of President Muhammadu Buhari because some people in his government were able to see that I was doing my job.

After that, the enforcement of the lockdown was improved.

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