Oby Theodora Nwankwo, a Nigerian activist who tirelessly advocated for the International Criminal Court (ICC) and women’s rights, died on December 9, 2017. She was 61 years old.
I got to know Oby through our common work to push back against unprincipled attacks by some African leaders on the ICC. The attacks surged after the ICC issued arrest warrants in 2009 and 2010 for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for alleged genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity in Darfur.
At the time, people had limited knowledge of the ICC’s role as a court of last resort, and many did not know that several African governments had requested the ICC to investigate crimes in their countries. The court’s critics exploited this, spreading false information about the court being biased and targeting Africa.
Oby stood out as someone willing to jump in and speak up on behalf of victims, whether in Nigeria or around the world, countering the prevailing narratives in African media. “It is high time African governments and the AU [African Union] put themselves on the right side of history and support justice for victims, not abusive leaders,” she said.
Over the years, Oby was a member of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, and she led the Nigerian Coalition for the International Criminal Court and the Civil Resource Development and Documentation Center. Oby also helped guide the work of the global Coalition for the International Criminal Court through its steering committee.
Oby encouraged strategic activism. When al-Bashir turned up in Nigeria after the ICC issued warrants against him, Oby went to court to insist on his arrest – after which al-Bashir hightailed it out of the country. Activists in Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Zambia, and South Africa have taken up similar efforts, campaigning on the streets and in the courts for al-Bashir to be arrested when he arrives or threatens to arrive in their countries.
I looked to Oby for guidance, sound advice, and the passion needed to keep at it even when the landscape was challenging. Her efforts have made a difference. In the past year, some of the worst attacks on the ICC emanating from Africa have ebbed, and more than a dozen countries stepped forward to reaffirm their commitment to the ICC.
Nigeria – and Africa – lost a tremendous activist. Oby’s energy for the cause will remain in my heart as the work continues.