Debo Adeniran, a consultant educationalist was the pioneer secretary-general, Committee for the Defence of Human Rights. He was the first general secretary, Gani Fawehinmi Solidarity Association and Inaugural Assistant general secretary, Campaign for Democracy (CD). In a chance meeting two weeks back with the Editor, FOLORUNSHO HAMSAT, the executive chairman of the Coalition Against Corrupt Leaders (CACOL), shares his affairs as an activist, human rights crusader, including his unknown soft side. Excerpt…
What do you honestly think of activists contesting for political offices and not making it; what is really wrong with the system?
It is not totally incorrect that activists don’t get elected when they contest in elections; contrarily in recent times, activists have won gubernatorial elections; National Assembly slots, and at the level of Local Government. However, it is clear that the state and ruling class that have subsisted for so long under bourgeois democracy always do try to ensure that activists are alienated from the process of governance using any means possible; including, but not limited to violence, monetary influence, intimidation etc. So the dominating ruling class and their underbellies consciously and constantly put ‘obstacles’ on the path of activists contesting in elections and this is because the state and ruling class know that if the activists get into power, the music will change and business will not be ‘as usual’. It should not, in anyway, be surprising as to why genuine activists seeking elective offices don’t always make it. Given the corrupt and often monetized atmosphere under which our political activities operate in this part of the world, activists’ incursion into the murky waters may just be like a fish out of water – in a strange environment, so to say. Furthermore, birds of the same feather flock together, they say. It shouldn’t, in anyway, be surprising as to why genuine activists seeking elective offices don’t always make it. He just doesn’t belong. The system has been so tailored to suit the whims and caprices of the bourgeois godfathers who have overtime held sway and have also succeeded in brain-washing and inducing the average electorate into doing their bidding. These ones often see the activist as a potential ‘spoiler’ to their selfish, exploitative tendencies and so would do anything to block his chances. They already know that the activist is most unlikely to tolerate their anti-people stance and not ready to compromise on most issues of governance. And because they would always want to ensure that the status quo is maintained and sustained to their selfish advantage, everything would be done to stop the already identified ‘enemy’.
How would you describe the relationship between the civil society groups and the government of the day?
In terms of relationship between the government and civil society, it can be described as flourishing. This position is, however, not general, as government at some levels remain hostile to the civil society. The relationship could rightly be described as the one between two partners in the same business but with clearly different callings, methods and approaches.
Whilst the government possesses the mantle of authority and resources to govern and to provide for those elements of growth and development for the benefit of the people in their domain, the civil society, on its own part, serves as a watchdog, snooping at every step of the government, watching closely with keen interest, diligently and critically scrutinizing every policy, action and pronouncement of the government with a view to either give support where necessary, provide checks where the former appears to be digressing from the set goal of providing good governance, commend or condemn as the case may be. Simply put, they serve as the voice of the masses. It must, however, be noted that as to whether these two partners would relate as friends or foes at any particular time or stage, is naturally determined by how pro-people government’s policies and actions had proved to be.
People are saying since the death of Chief Gani Fawehinmi, real activism has literally gone to sleep. Do you share this view?
I don’t share the view that activism died along with Gani Fawehinmi; the legendary chief relied on the present crops of activists to carry out his socio-political agenda while his activism lasted. That is why we still see activists criticizing and engaging the evils of the society till date. So I would not subscribe to that view. Yes, the late Chief Gani Fawehinmi, in his days, was exemplarily vibrant, bold and courageous; a brilliant and articulate mind, no doubt. However, I dare say that his exit, rather than leave behind an unfilled vacuum, had only broadened the scope of activism in the country. The indices are there to evidently prove that, the masses overtime have become more mature and informed politically; the last general elections evidently attested to this fact and this development, in turn, has equally paved the way for the emergence of various civil society organizations and as you might have noticed, each tending to specialize or focus, if you like, in one particular aspect or the other. For example, today, we have some, focusing mainly on electioneering issues, others on government budgeting and implementation, good governance and constitutionality and of course, anti-corruption which is one of our own thematic area; I can go on and on. So, while the late Chief Gani Fawehinmi and his likes would always enjoy a place of relevance and reverence in the history of activism in this country, I can assure you that those of us still alive will continue to keep the flame aglow.
What does the civil society in Nigeria most need by way of support or other interventions from the international community?
What the civil society in Nigeria most need by way of support or other interventions from the international community is solidarity which can be by actively supporting the struggles of the oppressed, kind or funds.
Civil society community is a global one. That is why the activities of any civil society organization are never restricted to a particular territory or clime. You must have observed that prominent organizations like the Amnesty International, Transparency International, Human Rights Watch and so on, regardless where they are based, can afford to reach out to any part of the world in their activities.
Since the world is now a global village of sort, we in this clime enjoy good synergy and collaboration with our counterparts in other international organizations which are sympathetic to our cause. Certainly, a lot can be done together.
What’s your soft side like, because activism seems to be all about exerting energies?
I prefer my watchers to describe my soft side. However, I am not addicted to anything, but, as Karl Marx would say, nothing human is strange to me. I don’t do anything excess but I don’t deny myself anything my body asks for as long as I can afford it.
When anyone chooses to tread this path we found ourselves, such a person must have put his destiny in his/her own hands and prepared for the struggles against the trend that wants to destroy our humanness. I have actually lost count of how many times I have either been threatened or harassed by state apparatus. So many times, I have been kept in police and prison cells and treated like common criminal. Worth recalling too are those times when I had, by sheer providence, survived flying bullets from the guns of the police and the army, during public protests. We give God the glory that we are still alive today to tell the story. Even from members of the public, insults, abuses and names-calling through the social media have virtually become a daily affair. For instance, when my position on issues didn’t go their way, some would even accuse me of having been ‘settled’ by their perceived opponents. Some at times would accuse me of being a non-registered member of the opposing political party. My consolation however, is that I am always on the side of the masses, seeking what is good for all and never regretted the choice I made to participate in activities that will better the lives of all. I am also consoled by the fact that well-meaning members of the public appreciate what we do. We are not oblivious, though, of the fact that those on the other side are rich and powerful and the tendency to use these privileges to their sinister advantage. One thing I never failed to acknowledge, however, is that the oppressive class can never be friends with those of us who stand out to defend the oppressed. We are just two parallel lines that can never meet. It is a universal phenomenon.
Have you ever been subjected to government surveillance and harassment and how has this impacted your activism?
That has happened to me on several occasions. The last was 2010 when there was advertorial publication by the True Face of Lagos and some supporters of Lagos State Government thought I was behind the publication and attempted abducting me with a waiting commercial bus in front of my office after being made to listen to a strange threatening voice on a phone. The incidence only strengthened our resolve to pursue the cause we have chosen for ourselves, rather than scare us to submission. It was after then we sought out and directly aligned with the True Face of Lagos in verifying the cost of project and services claimed to have been procured by the former regime of Mr. Babatunde Fashola in Lagos State. The rest, as they say, is history.
Many do not understand the core importance of human rights and civil society groups. How would you explain that? And what is the biggest threat to fighting for human rights in our society?
I would not subscribe to the myth that the people don’t know the importance of human rights. On daily basis, victims of human rights violation consciously seek for our intervention at our office. There is no doubt that, given efforts we have invested in human rights struggle, there are several reasons for us to feel fulfilled in the struggle. We can say with all sense of responsibility that our struggles have yielded fruit, including increased awareness and consciousness.
What is the current state of CACOL, it used to be fiery and a thorn in the flesh of oppressive leaders and dictators?
Our Coalition has remained in the limelight, our activities tell it all. You must also note that we are not ‘newspaper tigers’ and as such, we follow our strategies and tactics in a very organized form. As Coalition, we have been very vociferous on the allegations of corruption of the Senate President; we have been campaigning, holding press conferences, producing educative leaflets and handbills. As the Executive Chairman of CACOL, I have appeared and featured in some many media platforms to elucidate on issues that borders on humanness, corruption, human rights etc. We remain committed to our objectives of our Coalition. On several occasions, we engage in several activities that are not reported in the regular media but we have devised means of keeping records of our activities and opinions about issues. We maintained a couple of websites principal among which are www.thehumanitycentre.org which provides information on all cooperating organizations working directly with CACOL. We have online newspaper, Corruption Watch onwww.corruptionwatchng.com and hard copy publication viz: fortnightly Corruption Watch, Quarterly Humane Humanity, Annually The Whistle, occasional posters, handbills, leaflets, placards, banners etc. as situations and occasions demand.
How would you honestly assess the Buhari led administration in its one year of ascension to office?
One year is too short to effectively assess a government that took over from another that has reigned for as long as 16 years. We know it needs time to diagnose the systemic, administrative and structural ailments before it can apply whatever it’s considered to be the best remedy for the cure of any identified ailments. We need to know that Buhari may have good intentions but the encumbrances on his path may frustrate his intentions like we are witnessing. The President deserves kudos for his political will that he has demonstrated by tackling corruption head-on. This is borne out of the fact that any change from one orientation to the other always comes with its teething problems. We believe these are the problems that are manifesting in various forms and dimensions and the regime is doing its best to grapple with them despite the circumstances it has found itself.
Would you like to share briefly your family background and how much support you are getting from your wife and kids in this taxing adventure of yours?
I am from Iresi, Boluwaduro East Local Development Council Area in the State of Osun. I come from a peasant family with seven children; I am the third male and the fifth child of my parents. My parents are dead; my mother in 1996 whilst my father died in 2010. So I am an orphan. My wife has been the one playing the motherly and fatherly roles for me since then. And I should confess, that I have a damn good wife. She is supportive of everything I aspire to do and try to achieve. She is supportive of everything I engage in. She is a pillar of support for all I need; socially, economically as well as my struggles. I am also a father of four children; two girls and two boys.
What are your favourite drinks, food and vacation spots?
My favourite drink is red wine, and a home-made lime-ginger drink based on my wife’s recipe. I don’t have any favourite food as my wife decides what I eat at any particular time. And I find delight in enjoying whatever she prepares for me. The only time I choose my meals is when I am not at home. That is the only time I choose what I eat myself; mainly bananas or any other available fruit. If I am quartered in a hotel, I take vegetables and freshly made fruit drinks. My vacation spot is my home town, Iresi, where I unfailingly visit for two weeks during the end of the year local and traditional festivities. I seldom travel out of my base for vacations.
Share your most memorable moments in life.
I have two memorable occasions; the first one was in 1990 when the former President of South Africa, the Late Nelson Mandela was released from the 27 year-old imprisonment on an appreciation tour of Nigeria and the lot fell on me to address the gathering that came to welcome him at Tafawa Balewa Square in Lagos on behalf of the Civil Society community in Nigeria. That was my first experience of such popular engagement. The second was in 1991 when Chief Gani Fawehinmi filed a law suit on my behalf at the High Court of Oyo State against the then Olubadan towards stopping the Olubadan from installing the then military President of Nigeria, General Ibrahim Babangida as the ‘Jagunmolu’ of Yorubaland only for the Federal Military Government to announce the creation of Osun State the following week to the time we filed the suit. An act that obliterated the jurisdiction of the High Court of Oyo State from hearing the suit and my locus standi to institute the suit as my town has been cleverly excised from the old Oyo State. These made a lot of people consider the suit as the reason for creation of Osun State at that material time.