'Access To Justice' Wants Torture, Abuse To End
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. In a moment, South Africa's goodwill ambassador for the upcoming World Cup soccer tournament talks with us about his sport, his country and his life as a top international athlete - this in just a few minutes. But first, many people have heard of the so-called genius grants. They're not really called that. The real name is the MacArthur Fellowships and the purpose is to reward especially creative individuals.
But perhaps less well known but equally important and life changing are the MacArthur Foundation Awards to creative and effective nonprofits. The goal of the award is to aid institutions in addressing quote "some of the world's most challenging problems" unquote. This year the foundation handed out eight grants to groups, including Access To Justice, which is based in Lagos, Nigeria. The group, which won a $350,000 award, defends the human rights of people who find themselves entangled in the country's legal system. Specifically they're looking to end torture and abuse in prisons, as well as corruption in the courts.
Joining me to talk more about this is the group's executive director and founder Joseph Otteh. He is on the phone with us now from his home in Lagos. Welcome. Congratulations.
Mr. JOSEPH OTTEH (Founder, Executive Director, Access to Justice): Thank you very much.
MARTIN: Where were you and what were you doing when you found out that your organization had received this award? Was it a big surprise?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. OTTEH: You know, first of all, I was here with one of my colleagues in the office and we really couldn't contain ourselves with joy and excitement. It was really good, you know, very well received, too.
MARTIN: What will you be able to do with this award? How will it make a difference?
Mr. OTTEH: Well, first of all, it's really going to help us begin work in an area that we've always wanted to work in, but up till this time, hadn't really had the capacity to begin work in this area. We want to setup a public interest program in Nigeria, where we can use the courts and use networks of lawyers to begin to press some of the most important economic, social, political issue that we think need the courts' resolution.
And begin to get the courts to be more proactive with the same human rights. And going beyond individual cases and looking at actions that can affect communities of people in single lawsuits. So that's the area we're looking to give a look with this grant.
MARTIN: How did you get the idea for this organization? This has to be one of the most frustrating and in some ways dangerous kinds of advocacy work to do. I mean, part of what you investigate are police killings, for which you do not believe there are adequate explanation, and corruption in the courts, whereby those killings are overlooked.
Mr. OTTEH: Well, the organization was founded at a time Nigeria was making a political transition from the (unintelligible) government to a democratic government. And it was very clear that we really couldn't make any significant progress with democratization if institutions of justice and law enforcement remained the way they were because they had been corrupt. So we said, well, if we managed to get out the truth about each individual instance of police involved killing, perhaps that will go a long way.
MARTIN: How do you keep going, doing work like this that could be so discouraging at times? And does this award help kind of keep your spirits up?
Mr. OTTEH: You know, when you are working in any community or anywhere there has been deprivation or where there's been brutalization, you know, you've really got to keep your own spirits up. And in spite of the despondency around you, there's always a job to be done, there is always the hope that things will get better. It may not get better in the very short term but in the long run, you are investing some kind of energy that will produce some results in the near future.
And that hope, I think, for me has been one of the inspirations. And then we've gotten some outcomes that also encourage us very much. And then awards like this from the MacArthur Foundation, also the people are saying, well, you know, you guys may be working in a very rough terrain, but you're doing something and it's (unintelligible) but you are doing something, so that's also very encouraging and that keeps us going as well.
MARTIN: Joseph Otteh is the founder and executive director of Access to Justice. It's an organization looking to fight police abuse and corruption in Nigeria. His organization is one of the awardees of the MacArthur Foundation's recent awards to creative and effective nonprofits. And he was kind enough to join us on the phone from Lagos. Thank you so much for speaking with us and congratulations once again.
Mr. OTTEH: Thank you very much. Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.