PERSONALITY OF THE WEEK WE ARE NOT TRULY SECURED UNTIL OUR PEOPLE LIVE ABOVE THE POVERTY LINE –Felix Morka

Editors Note:

As a result of the number of mistakes and omissions from our Computer Department, in our last week�s edition of our personality of the week, we have decided to repeat it this week to give a true picture of the interview. We are sorry for the mistakes which was unintentional

Felix Morka is the Executive Director, Social and Economic Rights Action Centre (SERAC) and Convener New Dawn Centre for Leadership and Development (ND-CLD), both non-governmental and non-profit organizations with headquarters in Lagos. Through SERAC and New Dawn Center, Morka has impacted greatly on the lives of the poor and other vulnerable populations that lack access to basic social services such as education, potable water, electricity, roads, housing, health care and economic opportunities.

Felix Morka is a world-renowned expert on International Law relating to economic and social rights, and a leading champion of the rights of urban poor communities around the country. He has served in various capacities at the United Nations and sits on the boards of various prestigious national and international institutions. The Agbor born, Harvard trained Lawyer, was also an important actor in the human rights and pro-democracy movement that campaigned to end military dictatorship and usher in electoral democracy in 1999. A couple of weeks ago, Morka announced his intention to engage politically, and expressed his desire to seek an opportunity to serve the people.

In this exclusive interview with Ika Weekly at his residence in Agbor, Morka declared that ensuring the welfare of the people is the primary essence of government. Describing the chronic levels of poverty as unacceptable, he maintained that there will be no real security in the country as long as political office holders continue to be self serving rather than concentrate on devising ways of uplifting the living conditions of the citizens.

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It’s a pleasure meeting you sir, can you please introduce yourself?

I am Felix Morka, the Founder and Executive Director, Social and Economic Rights Action Centre (SERAC). SERAC is a Lagos-based human rights organization concerned with the promotion and protection of economic, social and cultural rights in Nigeria. I am also the Convener of the New Dawn Centre for Leadership and Development (ND-CLD), an organization that has existed and carried on its activities in Ika Land for nearly three years.

What informed the establishment of SERAC and New Dawn?

SERAC is a human rights organization. It was established in May, 1995 to promote and advance the realization of economic and social rights in Nigeria. It has a mandate to advocate respect, protection and fulfillment of basic human rights, including the right to education, the right to adequate housing, the right to work, the right to health, the right to electricity and the right to a healthy environment. These rights are guaranteed under national, regional and international human rights law. Every citizen, irrespective of ethnic origin or class, is entitled to these rights and the government is obligated to ensure that citizens enjoy them. This means that the government must ensure that it uses the maximum of available resources to secure citizens’ access to these important human rights.Implicit in these rights, is the idea that the government has a duty to provide or ensure the provision of basic services to the people and that the decision whether or not to provide them cannot be left to the whims and caprices of the government and its officials. By making the provision of social and economic goods and services the subject matter of human rights, the law recognizes the right and duty of citizens to demand that these rights be respected and fulfilled. The widespread impoverishment of our people across Nigeria, across Delta state and across Ikaland testify to the failure of the government to fulfill its social, economic and political obligations to the people. SERAC was established to raise awareness and social consciousness about these rights, and build their capacity to hold the government accountable to uphold the dignity of the human person and provide basic social and economic goods and services that increase the quality of life of our people. The New Dawn Centre is anorganization dedicated to promoting political consciousness and effective citizen engagement in pursuit of good governance, responsible leadership, justice and development. New Dawn responds to the dire need for a sustained program of political education aimed at transforming widespread political apathy in Ika land. The organization also responds to the lack of good and effective governance and the betrayal of the democratic purpose by our political managers. Unfortunately, 14 years of electoral democracy has done very little to improve the material conditions of existence of our people in Delta state. In Ika land, basic amenities are withheld from the people. Infant and maternal mortality is on the rise while our youth beat the streets everyday for jobs that do not exist. The local economy in Ika land has been severely stifled by lack of stable access to electricity and the timeless curfew that has reduced BojiBoji Township to a dark and forlorn caricature of a once vibrant regional economic center.Our youth continue to beat the streets in search of jobs that simply do not exist. Even the most basic natural freedom of movement is hampered by the gruesome state of our roads makings many parts of our communities inaccessible. It is inexcusable that our people are compelled to live with nothing in the midst of plenty. It is inexcusable that our farmers who toil everyday under the sun do not get any help from the government to rise above subsistence farming because access basic farming inputs such improved seedlings, fertilizers and machinery are either unavailable or subject to crass corruption and patronage. It is inexcusable that many of our children are denied good quality education. Even the government’smodest efforts at improving education are concentrated on the physical aspects such as school construction and renovationwhile very little attention has been paid to the standardization of school curricula and the continuous education of our teachers. While I commend the government for its efforts to improve the physical integrity of our some of our schools such as the Agbor Model Primary School, my alma mater, I would observe that the school. Like many others, should never have been allowed to fall that much into ruin. Our children are far too important to be subjected to such degrading treatment. They are our future and deserve only the very best education that there is. I know that we can afford it. We can afford to invest in the future of our children. They are our best hope to rise out of the quagmire of poverty and underdevelopment. New Dawn was establishedto grapple with these kinds of issues of importance to the wellbeing of our people. It seeks to increase the demand for good governance by educating and strengthening the capacity of our people to ask questions and demand answers from those that govern. But New Dawn also seeks to educate our people about their own duties as citizens. The good citizen cares about the individual and collective wellbeing of his or her community. The good citizen must respect and obey the law. The good citizen must participate (or demand to participate) in decision making about matters that concern the community. The good citizen must be proactive and engage in democratic debate or efforts to change laws or policies that are unreasonable or inimical to the interest of the people. The good citizen must exercise his or her voting rights to select those who govern and hold them accountable. The good citizen of voting age must vote and must not intimidate, be intimidated or sell their votes to perverse politicians and their agents. Overall, New Dawn seeks to clarify the role of the government and duty of citizens in a democracy and to mobilize our people to become active agents of social and political change.

To what extent has New Dawn been able to enlighten the Ika people since its establishment more than two years ago?

In the over two years that it has been active in Ika land, New Dawn has made tremendous progress in its goal of sensitizing and conscientizing our people about democracy, governance and development. The organization has convened over 35 meetings, seminars and workshops (including a major rally on Poverty as a Violation of Human Rights) to examine a wide range of issues relating to its core areas of focus. Through these fora, New Dawn has sought to forge a better understanding of the role of the government and the limits of its authority. It has sought to clarify direct causal linkages between acts of corruption and widespread poverty of our people. It is popularizing the idea the people are the sovereign and in them lies ultimate political power. Further, that our political leaders are our political agents and, like agents in any relationship, must remain accountable to their principal. New Dawn is striving to dispel the widespread misconception that government funds are nobody’s funds in particular. The organization is seeking to reorient our people to see and treat government funds as the people’s funds and that those who hold the public trust must be transparent and accountable to the people. In a functional democracy, information about public finances and expenditures are matters of public record. How can citizens participate in the affairs of their community when vital information is withheld from them?Despite the passage of the Freedom of Information Act that recognizes the right of citizens to demand and receive information about the income and expenditures of public institutions, these institutions and their officials continue to withhold information about the government’s income and expenditure. This is wrong and only promotes speculation and suspicion. Public disclosure of income and expenditure of the government can only held to build public confidence in the government and may help enlarge understanding that the government may not have sufficient funds to solve all the problems that exist. I do not think citizens are in the business of micro-auditing every item of expenditure of the government. That is impracticable. All that they care about is the knowledge that the government is using the maximum of available resources prudently and equitably to address the problems that exist.This way, the people will be in a position to reason with and support the government in true democratic partnership. The refusal of the HPM-led Ika South Local Government to disclose information about its income and expenditures compelled me to bring a lawsuit seeking a Freedom of Information Act disclosure of the requested information. Similarly, New Dawn also went to court to challenge the continued failure to conduct election into local government councils in the state as constitutionally mandated. Local government by democratically elected officials is the only method recognized by the Constitution for the selection of council managers. I am aware that the state government has taken certain stepsin this direction. I strongly encourage His Excellency, Dr. Emmanuel Uduaghan to conduct election into local government councils without further delay. It is the right thing to do and will help improve the legitimacy and effectiveness of local governance in the state. I also urge Mr. Governor to ensure that when the elections are conducted that they are free and fair.

On Wednesday, 24thApril, 2013 at Oak Resort, Agbor you declared your intention to engage in politics, can you tell us your reasons for taking that step?

Indeed, on Wednesday, April 24th, 2013 at about 12.10pm, I announced my decision to engage in partisan politics to friends, colleagues and participants at a meeting convened by New Dawn at the Oak Resort, Agbor. Although, I am a very political person, a prodemocracy campaigner, I have never engaged in partisan politics. Like many citizens, I am distressed by the lack of good governance and the poor quality of political leadership available to our people. For nearly 25 years, I have defended the human rights of the defenseless and spoken out for the voiceless. I have critiqued government policies and participated in designed policy frameworks aimed at expand social and economic freedoms. I have advised governments and worked to hold governments accountable. I have watched with chagrin as officials who swore on oath to uphold the Constitution have desecrated the same Constitution. I have challenged violations of the rule of law and offered ideas for respecting the rule of law. I devoted many years of my life campaigning for the enthronement of democracy. By my announcement, I expressed a commitment to work as best as I can to help translate the promise of democracy into reality for our people by offering my talents and my tenacious capacities to help make government work for our people. We must end prevalent political mercantilism that has shortchanged our people and denied them their just due. Government must be about people. We must put our people first. I believe that I can contribute positively to the improvement of political governance in the country.

Are you aware of the fact that contesting for any elective office is not a tea party anywhere in Nigeria. If yes, hope you will not chicken out when it matters most as most people do?

It is regrettable that our political landscape is filled with people who say one thing and do another. I think that is exactly the bane of our politics.It is the reason why our people have lost so much confidence in the political process. I have mentioned that for nearly 25 years I have been a human rights lawyer and a major actor in the pro-democracy movement. I was in the vanguard that helped to end military dictatorship and pave the way for our present electoral democracy. Through SERAC and so many other institutional platforms, I have vigorously defended the rights of urban poor communities around the country, including Maroko, Badia, Makoko, Mpape, Abonnema Wharf, Rainbow Town, Njemanze, Ogoni Community, Ozorro, Chika, Galadimawa, Otto Ilogbo, Itumara and many others. I represent them in their struggle for equitable access to resources. As Chairman of the United Nations Expert Committee on Forced Evictions, I drafted Comprehensive Human Rights Guidelines on Development-based Displacements that has been adopted by the UN General Assembly and now globally applicable in protection of poor and vulnerable communities and populations around the world. I also served as a member of the UN Global Reference Group on Law, HIV/AIDS and Human Rights. I am a resolute and tenacious person. I do not begin what I cannot finish.I have a strong dislike for injustice and unfairness. I have a good sense of real politik. I know how it works. I have not make the decision to engage in politics lightly. It is a serious decision and that’s why I date, time and venue where I made that public announcement. I want that to be my bond. I know that I will engage in the politics that puts the people first, the kind of politics that is beyond me, the kind of politics that is about sets service, not leadership, as the essence. I am interested to ask for an opportunity to serve the people. I have yet to decide what service opportunity I will seek. I am consulting widely. I am asking questions, exchanging ideas with people, trying to understand how best I may be of service. For the past three years, I have been in our community quietly, listening and talking to our people, convening meetings, asking questions, and getting answers, A huge part of our problem is that we often recruit people who are grossly unsuitable for political positions. I come from a long tradition of selfless service, and I hope that at the end of the day my track record in that regard will count for something.

Which political platform are you going to achieve your vision?

I have not decided on what platform I will pursue my political aspiration. For now, I am consulting to see how best I can be of service to our people. Once I have made that decision, then I will decide on the appropriate platform to use.

With the level of your exposure, education and record of selfless service, don’t you think you will be seen as a threat to some political leaders?

I don’t see any problem at all. So far I have had good discussions with many of our people. In nearly 3 years that I have engaged in political education in Ika Land, I have not met anyone that is oblivious of the enormous challenges of governance and development in our community. At least, we all are united in our realization that things have really degenerated to a point where some serious attention need to be paid to our governance and the way our communityis organized. I think there is virtual consensus that things cannot remain as they are. It cannot be business as usual. Yes, there are a lot of entrenched interests that will obviously resist the idea but we must work for the people. We cannot continue to pander to primordial interests to the extreme detriment of the majority of our people. The wealthy cannot be truly secure when majority of our people live below the poverty line. They cannot be truly safe when everyone is sliding deeper and deeper into poverty. Government should provide opportunity for farmers, mechanics, tailors and others in the informal sector of the economy to grow their small businesses, and if possible,create other employment opportunities. What the people are looking for is just a little help. The woman who sellstomatoes in the market needs help to buy just another basket of tomatoes, the same goes for the hair dresser who has one dryer and may need a second one so that she can increase her income and maybe employ another hand. A famer at Idumuesathat needs to transport his crops to the townshipto sell should not have to use all the profit he would have made on transportation due to bad roads. I reject the idea that these things are impossible to do. I also reject the idea that helping our people will in any way diminishthose who command political power. As a matter of fact, this is why America is a successful capitalist state. American is a country where the rich and the poor are able to access basic minimum amenities. No matter how poor you are you can afford a hamburger at MacDonald’s just like Bill Gates. You have access to electricity, basic quality health care, just like Bill Gate. When you go to school you can get a scholarship that will make you to be in a classroom with the children of the richest men in the society and therefore in a position to, hopefully, rescue yourself and family out of poverty. But when we make these things impossible and impoverish everyone in our society, we are not truly secure or free. Those who that do not have opportunities must be enabled to have the barest minimum of basic services, amenities and opportunities.

How do you intend to handle political sycophants, who for example, during the April 2011 general elections milked many candidates and abandoned them when the needed their help the most?

This is a very important question. I observed and monitored the 2011 general elections so I understand the question you have asked. Let me say that it is a political error for any candidate to undertake certain programmes and distribute material things in anexpectation that votes will be given in exchange.It is total a miscalculation. In a real democracy people entitled to choose the candidates to vote for entirely based on their own reasons and preferences. If a candidate expects the votes of the electorate because he has distributed money of other material things, then such a candidate is entitled to be disappointed. I am all fordoing everything to raise the standard of living of the people.But if it is done as a solicitation for votes, then it is not in good faith, and the people have a right to vote their conscience. Hopefully, my experience as a veteran community organizer will help me navigate the murky waters of political treachery and sycophancy.

What is your message to the people?

As a community we really have to come together. There is a lot of mistrust, a lot of bickering, a lot of wounded aspirations, and mutual suspicion. These things impede our progress. I am appealing to our political, cultural and religious leaders to work together to promote the common good of our community. God Almighty has given us so much to improve the quality of our lives. We must eschew extreme selfishness and corruption that have set us apart from our people. Our people must also understand that nothing will be given to them free of charge. They must demand performance from the government. It is not enough to just vote. Beyond voting, we must take democratic action and engage our leaders and turn them to our priorities. We must ask questions and more questions until we get the answers we desire and deserve as good citizens.

Any advise to Governor Uduaghan’s government?

I think that the Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan’s government can do so much better in Ika land. It is not too late to embark on a development drive that will enrich the legacy of his government. I think the government can do more in micro-enterprise development and in the agricultural sector as well. Youth unemployment remains unacceptably high and the government can and should design interventions to tackle the problem. The administration should strive to complete ongoing major projects like the Lagos-Asaba Road. Major roads in Agbor remain impassable and there is no excuse for the administration not to do more. Finally, I urge the Governor Uduaghan to conduct local government elections in the state without further delay

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