Prof Chidi Anselm Odinkalu is our ICON for the week

Prof Chidi Odinkalu

For being an intellectual with radical edge, his sagacity, huge intellect, and unparalleled fortitude in navigating uncertainty, notwithstanding formidable adversaries; for being a maverick human rights activist who does not pretend like many others to work for the masses but patiently and dubiously waiting in line for his payday; for his die-hard persistence in his struggle against injustice wherever they occur with no intention of letting up or succumbing to pressure; for being a solitary force, fervently struggling to infuse a semblance of moral rectitude into a judicial apparatus marred by systemic injustice in spite countless threats from the highest echelons of authority including formidable political figures and few ‘roguish’ law lords adorning different levels of the nation’s judiciary; for refusing to succumb to the allure of powers when opportunities provided themselves or yielding to temptation of transforming into replicas of the politicians which he and many of his colleagues in the human and political rights community once opposed; for his uncommon depth in law and human rights issues which rubbed off on the quality of his interventions in his weekly un-put-down-able commentaries on legal, socio-politico cum human rights matters in the country; for maintaining, in the last three decades or more, a pattern of unspeakable courage to speak truth to powers no matter whose ox is gored in order to liberate Nigerians from the shackles of an oppressive system; for his aversion to injustice, and his belief that individual prosperity cannot insulate one from the failures of his society and for his modest contributions to the emergence of Freedom of Information Act, Prof Chidi Anselm Odinkalu, is our ICON for the week.

Born in Ihiala, Anambra State on June 12, 1968 into the family of Augustine Chukwuma Odinkalu and Anthonia Ihunna Odinkalu, both teachers from Orlu, in Imo State, the young Chidi started his primary school education at the age of three at Saint Mary’s Assah in East Central State before Imo State was created. Upon his successful completion of his primary school education in 1978, he gained admission to the Federal Government College, Okigwe in Imo State and successfully wrote and passed his West African School Certificate Examination in 1983. He proceeded to Imo State University in same 1983 to read Law. Odinkalu obtained his Law degree (LLB) at Imo State University in 1987 at the age of 19. He emerged as the best graduating student of the School of Legal Studies, Imo State University. He attended the Nigerian Law School between September 15, 1987 and August 31,1988 during which he won the Chief FRA Williams Prize for Best Student in Legal Drafting and Conveyancing in 1988.

As soon as Odinkalu finished his degree programme, he briefly went into academia. Specifically, he started as Assistant Lecturer at the Faculty of Law, University of Ibadan between 1988 and 1989 and later obtained a Master’s degree in Law at the University of Lagos in 1990. He ran the programme between September 15, 1989  and August 31,1990. In 1991, Odinkalu won the USIA Fellowship on the Bicentennial of the Bill of Rights. He also had a couple of postgraduate training at the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, University of London and School of Oriental and African Studies, London, United Kingdom as Chevening scholar in 1992. Odinkalu thereafter veered into the human rights world. He started his career with the Civil Liberties Organization as Director of Projects and Planning. During the June 12, 1993 Presidential election in Nigeria, there was intense pressure on human right activists including himself based on the role they played at the moment. He left Nigeria to United Kingdom, where he became the legal officer for Africa, INTERIGHTS between July 1998 and February 2003. Also in 1998, United Nations Observer Mission in Sierra Leone appointed him as a Human Rights Advisor.

However, while he was with the INTERGHTS, Odinkalu’s quest for more knowledge pushed him back to the classroom. Specifically, he was admitted to the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), London, United Kingdom to run his PhD programme in 2002. In February 2003, Odinkalu was appointed as the Senior Legal Officer for Africa for Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI). He is a 2007 PhD holder in Law. Odinkalu has acted as counsel in international human rights litigation before Africa’s regional human rights courts and tribunals and was involved in the creation of the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights. He is associated with several advocacy initiatives for the protection of human rights, including the International Refugee Rights Initiative.

Harnessing his profound knowledge and expertise, Odinkalu has assumed pivotal roles in various spheres. He has served as 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. In addition, 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. Recognised as a leading authority in his field, Odinkalu was appointed as a Professor of Practice in Human Rights Law at the esteemed Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in August 2021. He currently chairs the Truth, Justice, and Peace Commission, a transitional justice initiative established to address the crises of violence and agitation in the states of south-east Nigeria. He previously chaired Nigeria’s National Human Rights Commission and served on the panel of eminent persons that negotiated the return of The Gambia to the Commonwealth in 2017.

Odinkalu is not a run-of-the-mill Nigerian activist, pretending to work for the masses. He, at the detriment of his life, had engaged top political and judicial office holders in the country when they steered the ship of the country on the wrong path. He would also speak when leaders refused to do what were expected of them. For instance, on July 27, 2022, Odinkalu berated former President Muhammadu Buhari for jetting out of Nigeria to Liberia a few hours after operatives of the Guard Brigade were ambushed and gunned down by terrorists in Abuja. He had described President Buhari as a lazy and uncaring Commander-in-Chief, saying it was more frustrating that the President travelled to Liberia to speak on security while leaving an insecure country behind. He has never spared top judicial officers as well particularly heads of court when they failed to follow their rules.   

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