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Chidi Anselm Odinkalu

Posted by By Chris Ajaero on 2005/09/01 | Views: 2212 |

Chidi Anselm Odinkalu


He is a brilliant lawyer, academic and human rights activitist. Chidi Anselm Odinkalu, senior legal officer for Africa, Open Society Justice Initiative, OSJI, and Jeremiah Smith Jr. visiting professor, Harvard Law School, Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States is a leading member of the new generation of African legal minds.

He is a brilliant lawyer, academic and human rights activitist. Chidi Anselm Odinkalu, senior legal officer for Africa, Open Society Justice Initiative, OSJI, and Jeremiah Smith Jr. visiting professor, Harvard Law School, Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States is a leading member of the new generation of African legal minds.

Odinkalu who is well known in Europe and the United States for his expertise in the legal and criminal justice system in Africa set out quite early in life to be a public interest lawyer. He told Newswatch that in 1980 when he decided to read law, it was clear to him that he would not end up like many other Nigerian lawyers whose interest is on land litigation and other related matters. Rather, he was interested in using the expertise he would acquire to contribute to the improvement of the wider public good. Indeed, his commitment to the transformation of the legal and criminal justice system in Nigeria and the entire African continent has remained profound.

To adequately equip himself for the task of actualising his grand vision of an African continent where peace and justice would reign, Odinkalu read law for his first degree at the Imo State University in 1987. He was called to the bar in 1988. Between 1988 and 1989, he was an assistant lecturer at the Faculty of Law, University of Ibadan. Still desirous of further sharpening his legal skills, the young man went to the University of Lagos where he earned a masters degree in law in 1990.

Thereafter, he joined the Civil Liberties Organisation, CLO, in Lagos as director of projects and planning as well as head, legal resources. At the peak of the struggle for the revalidation of the June 12, 1993 presidential election in Nigeria, when pressure by human rights groups crystallised into a kind of opposition, Odinkalu left for the United Kingdom. This was based on the invitation extended to him by his colleagues in the human rights struggle in UK who were keen that he should start a development programme on human rights in Africa targeted at African governments and countries. It was an opportunity for him to broaden his scope in human rights activism. And he did not hesitate to utilise it.

On arrival in London, he became the legal officer for Africa, INTERIGHTS. Odinkalu used his position to pioneer the development and implementation of Africa niches and strategies for this leading international human rights group.

In 1998, he was appointed human rights advisor of the United Nations Observer Mission in Sierra Lone, UNOMSIL. It was during the one year period he served in this capacity that he developed, supervised and managed the projects for capacity building of the judiciary and legal system in Sierra Leone.

This upwardly mobile personality was also the senior legal officer of INTERIGHTS for Africa and the Middle-East between July 1998 and February, 2003.

Impressed by his intellectualism and sound knowledge of the human rights situation in Africa, the Open Society Justice Initiative, OSJI, made him its senior legal officer for Africa in February 2003. His responsibilities include, developing and co-ordinating the implementation of reforms in the legal and criminal justice system in the continent.

Odinkalu gave an insight into the activities of the Open Society Justice Initiative. He told Newswatch that it is part of the open society initiative popularly referred to as the Soros Network. According to him, the Soros Network was named after George Soros, a Hungarian American, who decided to invest quite a great deal of his personal resources in trying to transform undemocratic societies in Central and Eastern Europe into open and democratic societies. This initiative which began in the late 1970's was later extended to other parts of the world, including Africa.

In Africa, there are four OSJI foundations. Odinkalu co-ordinates the activities of OSJI in the whole of Africa from his office in Abuja, Nigeria and the challenges are daunting. Because of the enormity of the work the group is doing in Africa, he criss-crosses the length and breadth of the continent seeking ways of transforming the legal and criminal justice system.

However, rather than considering the job as daunting, he told Newswatch that it is a blessing. He said: "I am grateful that it has offered me the opportunity to do three things: think about change in Africa on a 24-hour basis, keep active watch over Africa which rather than call it a challenge, I think is a blessing. It is a thing of joy to walk into every country and have a friend. So on a personal level, it is quite enriching trying to affect the continent and affect the world." Odinkalu believes that radical transformation of the African society and criminal justice system are central to moving Nigeria and other parts of the continent forward. According to him, it is only by so doing that foreign investors could be attracted. ''Nobody wants to invest in a country where there is no effective police, where there are no effective and efficient courts, where criminals are not caught, where the wrong people are put in detention for 15 odd years, and where the tax systems are inefficient. All these are the functions of the transformation of the legal system and the criminal justice system,'' he said.

Since Odinkalu assumed office as the coordinator of OSJI in Africa, he has been unwavering in his resolve to use the organisation to impact positively on Nigeria and the entire continent. With particular reference to Nigeria, he said the organisation is at the moment assisting the police and civil society groups to reform the police and the criminal justice system. In order to contribute towards cleaning up the system and evolving a criminal justice system that works, Odinkalui is doing a lot of quiet work using the OSJI platform.

Humble and unassuming, he identified some of the reform efforts of OSJI. ''To transform the prison system, you need to begin to do a lot of quiet work to try and bring the system of investigation, prosecution and the judiciary working together. And that is actually the work we are doing. It is back-breaking but in the next two years, you are going to begin to see some outcome,'' he said.

Besides, OSJI in collaboration with the civil society is sponsoring two bills that would enhance the reformation process. They are the Criminal Justice Reform Bill and the Legal Aid Reform Bill. However, one remarkable achievement of the organisation in Africa was its ability to get the United Nations Security Council to refer the situation in the war-torn Darfur in the Western Sudan to the International Criminal Court. OSJI is also involved in restoring peace, law and order in Sierra Leone and Liberia.

However, as a human rights lawyer who has been actively involved in the Liberian war situation, Odinkalu is peeved that Charles Taylor, former war lord in that country who subjected many Nigerian soldiers and civilians to torture, could be granted asylum in Nigeria. He recalled that as the legal advisor of the UN in Sierra Leone, he watched at close range the trauma many Nigerian ECOMOG soldiers passed through under Taylor's torture chamber. He is currently working in his civic capacity as a Nigerian to get Taylor prosecuted for war crimes after the general elections in Liberia scheduled for October, this year.

Inspite his level of involvement in the activities of OSJI in Africa, Odinkalu still finds time for academics. Till date, he still teaches seminar series on Regional Integration and Human Rights in Africa at the Harvard Law School, Cambridge. He is also in the process of completing a P.h.D. programme at the Department of Law, London School of Economics and Political Science, later in the year.

Odinkalu attributes his rising profile in the society to the kind of upbringing he received from his parents as a child. He grew up in a strict Catholic family where he was tutored on hard work, love for humanity and justice. His father, Augustine Chukwuma Odinkalu and mother, Anthonia Ihunna were both teachers. His father later served in the customary court system. Born in Ihiala, Anambra State, on June 12, 1968, Odinkalu hails from Orlu in Imo State.

As a scholar, he has written books and edited several journals and periodicals. Some of his books include, Justice Denied; Area Courts in the Northern States of Nigeria, 1992; Building Bridges for Rights: Inter-African Initiatives in the Field of Human Rights which he co-authored with Marguerite Garling in 2001 and Behind the Wall: Prison Conditions in Nigeria and the Nigerian Prison System which he co-authored with Osaze Lanre Ehonwa in 1991.

Indeed, Odinkalu possesses intimidating credentials. He has consulted for and advised the Ford Foundations, New York, the World Bank, the African Union, AU, and the International Council for Human Rights Policy, Geneva, among other world bodies.

An erudite scholar, he has won several awards. He was the best graduating student, School of Legal Studies, Imo State University, 1987. At the Nigerian Law School, he won Chief FRA Williams prize for best Student in Legal Drafting and Conveyancing, 1988. And in 1991, he won the USIA Fellowship on the Bicentennial of the Bill of Rights. He is a member of boards of many international bodies.

Certainly, at 37, Odinkalu is fast becoming a colossus in the field of international human rights law.

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Comments (3)

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Abieyuwa(Edo, Nigeria)says...

Otasowie means evening life is better than morning life. There is an error in your “evening life is better than evening life”?

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Naija g(Houston, Minnesota, US)says...

Sokari doesn’t mean joy. Joy is Biobela. Go to the village and ask the meaning of the name.

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Fay(Katy, Texas, US)says...

Actually translates to bravehearted.