As a complex phenomenon, corruption has been identified as a hydra-headed monster with grievous effects on development, thereby making it a human rights issue both in Nigeria and the African continent.
This assertion found merit in the various campaigns being mounted by human right lawyers, activists and scholars in the continent because of the intrinsic effect of corruption on the rights of their people.
To these human rights lawyers, corruption per se is a human rights violation, insofar as it interferes with the right of the people to dispose of their natural wealth and resources and thereby increases poverty and frustrates socio-economic development.
Thus, in aligning with a popular American abolitionist and reformer, Frederick Douglass, a firm believer in the equality of all people, known for his famous quote: “I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong”, human rights activists in Nigeria and in Africa, have pursued spirited campaigns against corruption and corrupt practices.
One of such Nigerian lawyers and advocates of human rights, who has like the Sage of Anacostia” and “The Lion of Anacostia” as Douglass was referred to, fought the menace with all his vigour is Dr. Kolawole Olaniyan.
The astute lawyer of international repute has not only remained a notable figure in the fight against rights abuses and corruption in Nigeria and the African continent but has also demonstrated it through action and in books.
To him, the fight cannot make headway without knowledge and this was more glaring in his recent book: “Corruption and Human Rights Law in Africa”.
The book described as the first comprehensive work on the subject in the market alluded to one of Douglass’ thoughts that “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”
Olaniyan, in his new book, provides a framework for complementarity between promoting and protecting human rights and combating corruption.
Incidentally, Olaniyan’s foray into the human rights world started at the Lagos State University (LASU) where he studied law.
During his stay at LASU, he did not leave anybody in doubt of his passion for activism, when he coordinated the Taslim Olawale Elias Family, the Lagos State University chapter, Nigeria (a family for the advancement of the ideas of late T.O. Elias, a former Justice of the International Court of Justice.
The late Elias was known for the promotion of judicial activism.
From then, Olaniyan has not looked back as he waded through the rough waters of activism in the dark days of the military rule in Nigeria to become the legal adviser of foremost international human rights movement and one time Nobel Peace winner, Amnesty International, London.
Born in Lagos over 40 years ago to parents from Ibadan, the rights lawyer and scholar obtained his Barrister at Law from the Nigerian Law School in 1990.
He also obtained a first-class master’s degree and doctorate in international human rights and comparative constitutional law from the prestigious University of Notre Dame Law School, USA in 1998 and 2003.
Olaniyan cut his legal teeth during the mandatory National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) at Pius O. Akiya & Co, a popular law firm in Jos, where he appeared in courts almost on a daily basis, including before the Court of Appeal, Kaduna and the Supreme Court.
He recalled with nostalgia his success in a case he handled as a corps member on behalf of Akiya in 1992 before the Zaria High Court where he appeared against a former president of Nigerian Bar Association, Mr. Joseph Bodunrin Daudu. After the court session, Daudu told him of his argument in court: “that was a brilliant submission but it was somewhat academic”.
Olaniyan later became head of the Legal Services Unit of the Constitutional Rights Project (CRP).
At CRP, he worked with AIT’s Mike Areluba to present a radio programme called “Know Your Rights”.
He filed several cases in court, which led to the unconditional release of several people who had been unlawfully detained without charge or trial for periods ranging from five to 12 years.
He filed several successful cases before the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights in Banjul, and worked with renowned lawyer and Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Tayo Oyetibo, on the Zamani Lekwot case. In that case, Justice Moronkeji Onalaja relied on CRP complaint before the African Commission to stop the execution of General Lekwot and six others. Onalaja circumvented the dreaded ouster clause in a Decree enacted by the military government and Lekwot and others who had been convicted and sentenced to death, were set free.
He also filed a case on behalf of CRP before the Federal High Court in Ikoyi to stop the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and other environmental activists sentenced to death following a seriously flawed judicial process. But he unsuccessfully persuaded the then Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, Babatunde Belgore, to stop the execution as the judge told him that “the government won’t dare kill them”. Unfortunately, the activists were soon after executed.
He also filed a case in court to challenge the media law of 1993, which aimed to limit freedom of the media and expression.
He also worked as Research Fellow with the Danish Centre for Human Rights in Copenhagen, Denmark; the Office of the Prosecutor for the UN International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, The Netherlands; and as Research and Teaching Assistant, University of Notre Dame Law School, USA.
As programme director at Amnesty International, he developed a vision and framework for Amnesty’s human rights work in Africa, managed over 45 staff members, and over £2 million annually for projects, and staffing.
Probably, his most significant contribution in this position was championing the award of Amnesty’s Prisoner of Conscience to the late Nelson Mandela in 2005, and was part of Amnesty International delegation to visit Pretoria to give the award to Mandela.
Olaniyan was a major contributor to the brief of argument, which persuaded the ECOWAS Court of Justice in Abuja, to declare that the right to education guaranteed in Article 17 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights is a legally enforceable human right in Nigeria.
This is the first time that a regional court would develop such jurisprudence. He also played a key role in the case where the ECOWAS Court found the Nigerian government responsible for oil pollution and associated human rights violations in the Niger Delta.
He contributed legal advice to Amnesty International’s memorandum to the UN Security Council’s decision to refer the situation in Darfur to the ICC in March 2005, and which subsequently led to the naming by the ICC Prosecutor in 2007 of Ahmed Haroun and Ali Kosheib, the first suspects accused of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur; and to the issuance by the ICC of an arrest warrant for Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir, on charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes.
He also led Amnesty International’s advocacy work to block Sudan’s ascension to the African Union (AU) Presidency on the ground of the serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law in Darfur.
This contributed significantly to Sudan withdrawing its bid for the presidency and Ghana’s election as the chair of the AU.
He played a leading role in advocating for the establishment of an African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights through his reports and public statements; government lobbying and coordinating civil society’s views and positions, and especially by organising a stakeholders’ workshop in London, which provided recommendations for the establishment of an effective African human rights court
In his new book, however, Olaniyan identified three major points regarding the relationship between corruption and human rights law.
He demonstrates that human rights mechanisms have the capacity to provide more effective remedies to victims of corruption than can other criminal and civil legal mechanisms.
Olaniyan also takes up one of the pervasive problems of governance - large-scale corruption - to examine its impact on human rights and the degree to which a human rights approach to confronting corruption can buttress the traditional criminal law response.
He examines three major aspects of human rights in practice - the importance of governing structures in the implementation and enjoyment of human rights, the relationship between corruption, poverty and underdevelopment, and the threat that systemic poverty poses to the entire human rights edifice.
According to Professor Rachel Murray, Director, Human Rights Implementation Centre University of Bristol, “Kolawole Olaniyan, as a well known and respected human rights activist in the African human rights system, is well placed to write on this topic. The issue is contemporary and politically relevant and a book, which focuses on the legal framework in the African continent is a very welcome addition to the literature and debate in this area.”
Also, Ndiva Kofele-Kale, a distinguished professor of Law at SMU Dedman School of Law, Dallas, USA, stated: “This study on the effects of grand corruption on human rights in Africa demonstrates the author’s mastery of complex jurisprudential and theoretical discourses. His review of the existing literature is extensive, the doctrinal analysis rigorous and the treatment of the subject innovative. Dr. Olaniyan’s willingness to introduce fresh eyes to the ways in which doctrine contributes to an understanding of seemingly mundane problems lays the foundation for fertile trajectories from which future scholars can launch exciting inquiries on the relationship between corruption and human rights”.
Olaniyan has received several honours and awards including in 2000, a tuition waiver and a fellowship from the Notre Dame Law School to pursue a doctorate degree in law; in 1997, a tuition waiver and a fellowship from the Notre Dame Law School to pursue a Master’s in law; in 1999, the prestigious Danish Foreign Affairs Fellowship (DANIDA).
Probably, the most challenging situation in his career was when he faced difficulties leaving Nigeria because of restrictions imposed on the movement of human rights activists by the regime of General Sani Abacha to pick up his scholarship for the Master’s programme at Notre Dame.
He was made to travel through the border with the driver hiding his international passport somewhere underneath the boot of his car so that he could “connect my flight to the U.S. from Togo.”
Olaniyan likes to relax at home with his wife and children.