Three Amazons, One Cause, By Chidi Anselm Odinkalu

Human Rights Day coincides with the end of the 16 Days of Activism on Violence against Women. It’s the day we affirm our shared humanity and the need to defend it.

 The promotion and protection of human rights is a joint enterprise. It involves active citizens of humanity willing to live by their convictions, take risks and set examples; it involves national institutions willing to apply the rules and to speak truth to power; and it needs professionals – lawyers, doctors, accountants, clerics of all faiths and more – willing to show that their vocation is worth much more than any price in cowrie beads or Shekels.

 Most people are indifferent to these rights. Many successful professionals think defending human rights is the preoccupation of a particular type of ideologue.

Protecting human rights also implicates regional institutions such as the Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States; the African Court and Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child.

At the international level, a complex network of treaties and institutions for human rights exists within the United Nations. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has been in existence for six decades. The High Commissioner for Human Rights was established 20 years ago.

All these agencies – from active citizens at one end to national leaders and international institutions at another – need one another. We cannot take their collaboration for granted.

In the week that the world rose to acknowledge one of the greatest ever advocates for human rights, it never hurts to remind ourselves of the significance of what Nelson Mandela at his Rivonia trial called “the struggle for the right to live.”

This is why to conclude Human Rights Day this year, the human rights community in Nigeria in collaboration with the Pan African Lawyers Union, the Open Society Foundations, the Human Rights Institute of the Nigerian Bar Association, and the National Human Rights Commission must spotlight three exemplary human rights defenders who have worked to defend human rights and build institutions for their protection within and beyond Nigeria.

All three are outstanding professionals who have chosen to eschew indifference.

Boma Ozobia is a commercial lawyer whose daytime job includes energy, natural resources and financial services laws and commercial arbitration. Boma did her High School at Federal Government Girls College, Abuloma, Rivers State. Thereafter, she attended Rivers State University of Science and Technology and became a lawyer in Nigeria in 1988. She subsequently enrolled as a Solicitor in England and Wales, making partner in two law firms before becoming founding partner in another. Besides running a transboundary law practice, Boma’s passion lies in defending the vulnerable with her legal skills and mentoring a successor generation.

Among her writings, Boma is the author of Sisters-in-Law, a book on career choices for young women lawyers confronting a profession that is institutionally sexist. In 2005, she was elected Chairwoman of the Association of Women Solicitors in England and Wales. In 2011, Boma became the first female President of the Commonwealth Lawyers Association (CLA). Under her, the CLA was transformed from a mere trade union of Common Law practitioners to an established advocate for justice and human rights of women, the poor, the vulnerable, and in difficult places, including The Gambia, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Uganda. After Boma’s tenure and because of it, the CLA has found a voice for the unseen people of the Commonwealth.

Most lawyers who win a big pay day spend it on acquisitions and fun. Hajiya Maryam Uwais gave away her biggest pay day in starting up the Isa Wali Empowerment Initiative (IWEI), an advocacy and skills undertaking to advance the human rights of some of the most deprived but able women and children in Nigeria’s biggest state. Born in Kano, Maryam did her High School at Queens College, Lagos. She received undergraduate and graduate degrees in law from the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria.

In a legal career spanning over 32 years, Maryam has excelled in both public service and private practice, having worked as a senior public prosecutor, senior researcher at the Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, as a central banker, and as an educational administrator. Since leaving public service formally, Maryam has remained a treasured adviser of and advocate for the public good. As a commercial lawyer, she is involved in various policy roles with the Bureau of Public Enterprises on competition and anti-trust law in Nigeria; sits on the Bonds Sub-Committee of the Securities and Exchange Commission, and on the Board of the Stanbic Bank PLC.

A former member of the Presidential Advisory Committee, Maryam is also co-founder and trustee of the Nigerian Women’s Trust Fund. Her vocation is human rights advocacy. Maryam lost her father, Isa Wali, before she was nine years old. In spite or because of that, she has gone on to forge a deserved reputation as the most accomplished advocate for the human rights of children in Africa and is the architect of the Child Rights Act in Nigeria. A two-term member of the Governing Council of Nigeria’s National Human Rights Commission, Maryam is also the first National Rapporteur on children’s rights in Nigeria. From 2008 to July 2013, she was a member of the African Union’s Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child where she was a leader in establishing the Committee as a capable regional human rights institution.

Catherine Dupe Atoki was the first Head Girl of Federal Government College, Ilorin. Following undergraduate studies at the Ahmadu Bello University, she was admitted to the Nigerian Bar in 1978. She is also an alumnus of the Washington College of Law and of Oxford University. Mrs Atoki is former member of the Governing Council of Nigeria’s National Human Rights Commission.

Until October 2013, Mrs. Atoki served as Chairperson of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. There, she transformed the management of the Commission, eliminating an awful backlog of cases and ending interminable delays in the Commission’s decision making. Before becoming Chairperson, she established a remarkable record as the Special Rapporteur on Prisons and Places of Detention in Africa and also chaired the Committee for the Prevention of Torture in Africa.

Under her, these mandates became effective watchdogs for the rights to personal liberty and to human dignity in Africa. A widow and proud grand-mother, Mrs Atoki is also the winner of the 2013 Gusi Peace Prize, the Asian counterpart of the Nobel, becoming only the third African woman and the first Nigerian to win that recognition. Having spent much of her life in defence of the citizens of Africa, Mrs. Atoki in May 2013 agreed to undertake another tour of duty on behalf of the consumer: she is doing a turnaround job as the Director-General of the Consumer Protection Council. Her job of advocacy for rights just got more interesting.

We set out in search of exemplars of active citizens who embody the values of this year’s Human Rights Day. We ended up finding three women from Nigeria. Remarkably also, all three are products of the network of Unity schools. Their stories provide us with three resounding pieces of evidence, in case we needed any, of why good basic education is essential for development. The Unity Schools are a High School system introduced in Nigeria in 1966. There are presently 104 of such schools in Nigeria.

These three truly amazing Amazons have weathered personal adversity and excelled in their professions. They could easily have chosen to enjoy cloistered comforts with profound indifference to the rest of us. United by one cause, however, they remind us why we must never give up on defending rights. On human rights day 2013, we honour their commitment and hope they inspire many to do even more.

Dr. Odinkalu is chairman of Nigerian Human Rights Commission.


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