Overcoming fear: Nigeria’s quest for justice

Nigerian boy
Nigerian boy (© Eric Beauchemin)

For nearly three decades, Nigeria was ruled by a succession of military dictators. Thousands of Nigerians were the victims of massive human rights violations, including summary executions, kidnapping, illegal detention, torture and rape. In May 1999, Africa’s most populous nation returned to democratic rule. One of the first steps taken by the new civilian president, Olusegun Obasanjo, was to establish the Human Rights Violations Investigation Commission, also known as the Oputa Panel.

“Instead of ordinary citizens being afraid of the military, it is the soldiers who are now afraid of ordinary citizens,” says Father Mathew Kukah proudly. He is a member of the Oputa Panel, which will be presenting its final report within the next few weeks.

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: December 5, 2001


To mark International Human Rights Day on December 10th, Radio Netherlands looks at Nigeria’s attempts to come to terms with nearly 30 years of military rule and repression.

Radio Netherlands, the Dutch International Service, presents “Overcoming Fear: Nigeria’s Quest for Justice”. The programme is produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin.

They have tremendous impact on you as a commissioner, just sitting and watching other people tell their stories. They also renew my faith, not only in Nigeria as a country, but also in the capacity of the human being for good and for evil.

In 1999, Africa’s most populous nation emerged from nearly 3 decades of military rule. Over that period, thousands of Nigerians suffered from massive human rights violations, including summary executions, kidnapping, illegal detention, torture and rape. Nigeria finally returned to civilian rule in late May 1999. Two weeks later, the country’s new president, Olosegun Obasanjo, inaugurated the Human Rights Violations Investigation Commission, also known as the Oputa Panel. The commission’s goal was to close a dark chapter in Nigeria’s history and to help the nation move forward in its new democratic experiment. The Oputa Panel was modeled on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, says Father Mathew Kukah, himself a member of the Nigerian commission.

Father Mathew Kukah
Father Mathew Kukah (© Eric Beauchemin)

We lifted most of what we have from the South African situation because if you read the instrument setting us up, it even mentions liberation movement. We have never have had a liberation movement in Nigeria [chuckle]. But just to tell you, we substantially borrowed from South Africa. Apart from just being part of one continent, we also felt that the post-Truth Commission elections in South Africa, a certain amount of sanity and stability could be deciphered and even the process of reconciliation – difficult as it turned out to be – we felt greatly that there was a lot we could learn from South Africa. And that since we are more or less are in the same continent, we’ve been victims basically of the same excesses, except that in South Africa, you’re dealing with white people, but the thrust and the essence were basically the same.

But there were major differences, says Bronwen Manby, the deputy director of the Africa division of Human Rights Watch.

The Nigerian Commission is simply investigating and preparing a record of the past and can make recommendations. There’s no similar process, as there was in South Africa, of individuals who felt themselves likely to be prosecuted for crimes to be able to apply for amnesty for those crimes from the commission. There’s no similar process to that in Nigeria and indeed that South African process is unique amongst all the truth commissions that have been set up around the world. EB: Why didn’t Nigeria adopt that same principle? I think it has to do with the type of transition in Nigeria compared to the type of transition in South Africa. The South African commission was set up very much in the course of the negotiations for the transfer of government from minority white rule to a democratically elected majority black government. In the course of that negotiations, you started off with the ANC, the African National Congress, for the majority black party demanding complete accountability for past crimes and prosecutions. You started off with the National Party representing a white minority, saying there should be an amnesty, “we should forgive and forget”, or rather “you should forgive and forget”. In the course of the negotiations which…and the bargaining power that each side had, it was agreed that there would be an amnesty but it would only be on the basis of individual applications, and so that you wouldn’t have a blanket amnesty for everything that was done, and it would in particular and importantly require disclosure of what you had done. The Nigerian context was very different. You had the military making the transition really without a negotiation with anybody representing the majority of Nigerians. So you didn’t have that delicate negotiation surrounding the issue of amnesty. At the same time, the chances of prosecutions in Nigeria were fairly low for most people. So there wasn’t a sort of demand for amnesty in quite the same sense from many of the people who might fear prosecution otherwise. And so you had almost President Obasanjo who came in in May 99, setting up a truth commission, I think almost because it was a sort of fashionable thing to do. Truth commissions are what you do nowadays.

The government provided hardly any funding to the Commission, and human rights circles expressed the fear that the Oputa Panel would be nothing more than a cosmetic exercise. But the panel did succeed in getting additional funding and support from other organisations. The biggest number of cases came from the Niger Delta, the nation’s oil-producing region. The people who suffered most were a small ethnic minority in the Delta region: the Ogoni people. In the early 90s, under their leader, the playwright Ken Sara-Wiwa, the Ogoni staged large protests against the military dictatorship and the Anglo-Dutch oil giant, Shell.

Ken Saro-Wiwa poster
Ken Saro-Wiwa poster

The Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, which represents many people in Ogoniland, submitted a list of 10,000 cases to the Oputa Panel, including different types of violations: detentions, torture, executions. So in that context, there is a very serious case. There were certainly probably several thousand people killed in summary executions or in one way or another and very widespread repression in Ogoniland from around about ’93 up until ’98. EB: It wasn’t just killing. It was also torture, it was also rape, those types of things. Yes, you had a special security force unit set up to police Ogoniland. Roadblocks all over the place which at the starting off, at the sort of lowest level of human rights violations, imposed a very severe financial cost on people who had to pay to go through the roadblocks. Then yes, quite a lot of rapes of women, torture, arrests, arbitrary detentions and up to and including summary executions.

All Nigerians were aware that the military had executed Ken Sara-Wiwa and 8 fellow activists, but the Oputa Panel’s public hearings in Port Harcourt – transmitted live on Nigerian television and radio like the rest of its public proceedings – awoke the nation to just how violent the repression had been for ordinary people in the Niger Delta. The Oputa Panel also looked into high profile cases such as the death of Mashood Abiola. He’s widely believed to have won the presidential elections in 1993. The military annulled the polls and imprisoned Chief Abiola, who died in jail. According to Anthony Nwapa of the Constitutional Rights Project in Lagos, a group trying to stop human rights abuses in Nigeria, the panel also looked into other well-known cases.

Anthony Nwapa, Constitutional Rights Project
Anthony Nwapa, Constitutional Rights Project (© Eric Beauchemin)

Deli Giwa is the editor of a news magazine in Lagos. He was murdered through a letter bomb. They sent a letter bomb to him and he opened it and it blew off his brains and he died in the process. That happened during the regime of General Ibrahim Babangida in 1993. And also the case of abduction of the former minister for transport, Omaru Diko, by the regime of General Buhari in Nigeria. There were so many other ones: the cases of bomb blasts, people that were incriminated unjustly, they were detained for several years. Most of the cases that came up were political cases, people who were victimised because of their political opinions during the dark days of the military regime, especially during the period of General Abacha.

General Sani Abacha is generally regarded as the worst of Nigeria’s military rulers. Not only was his government responsible for grave human rights violations, General Abacha is also alleged to have embezzled 4 billion dollars of state money during his five years in power. Father Kukah has no illusions about General Abacha, but after having listened to hours and hours of testimony to the commission, he believes that history will judge General Abacha more favourably than today’s Nigerians.

I’m not saying the man was not a wicked man or an evil man. He had his own excesses. But in reality when you listen to testimony, even of those who were opposed to Abacha, when you look at evidence, and spurious security reports that were written by very senior military officers against other senior military officers, allegations of involvement in coups and counter-coups and so on and so forth, and when you hear people who are not necessarily supporters of Abacha under cross-examination saying what the man did and what he didn’t do and the kind of power that he had and he didn’t use, what then becomes very clear is that indeed in very many respects, a lot of the things that took place under Abacha, including killings, were things that were initiatives of people pursuing private agendas, not necessarily things that Abacha himself ordered. But the system spun out of control, and as they say, the buck stops on the big man’s table. But it is clear that under the kind of system that we ran and since Abacha ran very limited government, what it meant was that a lot of people had enormous powers, and they used those powers using the name of General Abacha. I’m not saying he’s innocent but a lot of things just spun out of control. So it is right to say that the excesses came to the fore during Abacha’s time but I think if you say that, it doesn’t explain the whole story because Abacha worked very closely with at least two or three military regimes that preceded him, beginning from December 31 1983, from Bohari to Babangida, whom he worked extremely closely with. The only difference between Babangida and Abacha is that Abacha probably was a bit more stupid, less clever than Babangida, but in terms of corruption and so on and so forth, definitely the record under Babangida was far worse than what we had under Abacha.

Bronwen Manby
Bronwen Manby (© Eric Beauchemin)

I think possibly grand corruption on that level is a problem that is not unique to Nigeria but it is in many ways a very Nigerian problem which has to do with the structure of the economy and the poverty and the amount of oil money there is sloshing around that is available to people to steal and the lack of controls over that. In that sense, I think that the Oputa Panel dealing with that issue is an unusual one. Most truth commissions have not explicitly dealt with corruption in that sense. I think that grand corruption on that scale certainly has human rights implications at various different levels. The money that you put into a bank account in the Cayman Islands is not being spent on schools and the right to primary education is not being fulfilled. Equally the criminal justice system is not being funded or all those other issues. So I think it certainly has human rights implications, although it’s not usually seen as a straight-forward human rights question.

For years Nigeria has had the dubious distinction of being near the top of the list of the world’s most corrupt nations. Billions of dollars from Nigeria’s enormous oil revenues have simply disappeared. Where to? The commission hasn’t been able to find out, and many corruption cases are now making their way through the Nigerian courts. Nonetheless, says Father Kukah, the Oputa Panel has been able to get some inkling of how corruption worked in Nigeria, and how Western companies helped to financially prop up dictators like General Sani Abacha.

My suspicion is that a good part of the money that Abacha stole, let me put it that way, may not have been stolen from the Central Bank of Nigeria. A lot of the money that Abacha is said to have stolen is just what had become part and parcel of the corruption that had been building up in Nigeria for a long time which is that there is an amount of money that international businessmen who are doing business in Nigeria attach to the signature of every little man from a clerk right up to the permanent secretary right up to the governor, right up to the president. On the testimony of Abacha’s son who said that he gathered about 600 million dollars, that is what was found in his bedroom. Now they asked him how he got the money, and he said his father used to phone him and tell him to come and carry the money. Now my suspicion is that a lot of that money will be money that big-time contractors, road construction people, construction people and so on and so forth would have brought to Abacha without Abacha necessarily asking them to do so. It may have been part of his cut. So the system in Nigeria is such that quite frankly to steal money, you don’t have to go to the Central Bank of Nigeria to steal money. It has been built into the system. And those foreigners who are doing business in Nigeria know that the standards they apply in Nigeria and many parts of Africa are standards that are unacceptable in their countries, which is precisely why they are not going to business in their countries with the kind of effrontery that they do business in many African countries. So you might see the Abachas and the governors and all these people who stole money, but they are part of a rotten racket that goes beyond the immediate environment here because the people who steal money from Nigeria or from Africa don’t necessarily physically carry the money themselves to Germany or to Italy or to London or what not. They don’t do that. It’s the same contractors who have designed a strategy of moving Deutsch marks and moving dollars and moving all these moneys to these safe accounts. The thing about Abacha’s money is a double-edged sword. The international contractors and businessmen who did business with Abacha, who helped him hide the money, the banks that are keeping the money and the governments that are turning a blind eye, that is really where the blame should lie squarely. Abacha is already dead and gone.

Father Kukah gets angry when he thinks how quickly Western governments acted after the September the 11th attacks to freeze the accounts of Ousama bin Laden and his associates, but how they’re still dragging their feet to seize the billions of dollars stashed away by Nigeria’s leaders in foreign bank accounts. As military rule continued, corruption only increased. Everyone was trying to get a share of the pie. Those at the top took the biggest share, and so they faced the greatest risk of being toppled.

There were a lot of the senior military officials that had become corrupted by economic interests, members of the economic elite, people who had a bit of money, and so on. Because as you know a coup is a very expensive thing. Largely some of the soldiers who organise coups don’t have the money. So they end up befriending rich businessmen, and this has been the history of coups in Nigeria. They end up befriending rich businessmen who then sponsor coups and when those coups take place and they succeed, it means you may have the military in office, but the powers behind the throne are largely big-time contractors. So these were some of the things that came out very clearly in the public hearings. There were a range of other excesses within the civil service and it became very clear to us that under the military, anything was possible.

I think one case that illustrates some of the difficulties facing the Commission is a case brought by Femi Kuti who is the son of Fela Kuti, the well-known musician from Nigeria, who was long a thorn in the side of the military, singing songs about soldiers, describing them as zombies and other very needling lyrics that really upset the military. At one point, under the military government of General Babangida, his house was invaded and his mother in fact thrown out of a window, and she later died. The commission was asked to investigate this and attempted to subpoena General Babangida to answer the charges, and he’s refused to do so, and the Commission is really faced with an enormous difficulty. They don’t effectively have the power to enforce that subpoena somebody of the stature of General Babangida.

The only former military ruler who did appear before the Commission was the current president, Olosegun Obasanjo, but he is now a civilian ruler. The other military dictators sent lawyers to represent them.

All the three generals have gone to different high courts and gotten court injunctions. Well, you can get a court injunction in Nigeria by bribing the right judge. These things are possible and if you have ever ruled Nigeria, every person of that status is at your beckon call. They are paying lawyers extremely large sums of money, but they are missing the point. It’s not the commission calling you. It is the people of Nigeria that are summoning you. And if God has given you a chance to rule this country, you are morally under obligation to answer the call of Nigerians.

Father Kukah and others in Nigeria believe that if the media in the developed world had paid more attention to the Oputa Panel’s proceedings, there would have been greater pressure on the generals and other perpetrators of human rights abuses to account for their acts.

I think it’s really a tragedy and it’s really unfortunate that the Western media has failed woefully to understand that indeed ordinary people in Nigeria take BBC, they take Voice of America, they take Radio Deutsche Welle, they take all these things quite seriously. If you are ready to knock the government, then you also should be able to say when things are going the right way. And we felt that this Commission needed a lot of international support, not because of the fact that we are as it were on the way to genuine democracy, but in spite of the problems. We felt very strongly that the more the Western media and the West showed interest in the working of the Commission, the better the chances of the government and the perpetrators, the better the opportunity for them to see that other people are taking us quite seriously.

I think it’s probably true to say that the majority of the Nigerian population has been less caught up with, engaged with the work of the Oputa Commission than South Africans were with the South African Truth Commission, and I think that has a variety of reasons. But the fundamental one being a profound cynicism that most Nigerians have about the possibility of government action, of the possibility of really obtaining justice for the past, of something serious coming out of this. And that’s got to do with the decay of government structures that has happened over the last couple of decades under military rule, and I think that, you know, your average poor Nigerian is scrabbling for their day-to-day existence. Now that is also true in South Africa, but I think that the massive sort of psychological trauma in South Africa caused by white rule – the fact that every single South African had a sense of what apartheid meant – that that gave it an emotional power and the fact that it was also symbolic of the very real transition that has happened in South Africa. But in Nigeria, you’ve really had very little transition, in the sense that here we have…I mean most symbolically of all, we have President Obasajano who himself is a former general, and that in many cases the people now running the government in Nigeria are pretty much the same people who were running it under military rule, and the transition has been much less pronounced. And therefore an examination of the past is seen as less gripping because the transition has been less important.

Nonetheless, Father Kukah and the other members of Nigeria’s Human Rights Violations Investigation Commission witnessed moments of great emotion.

You had people that you held in high esteem, I mean you very senior military officers breaking down and crying. You had very senior bureaucrats breaking down and crying. You had ordinary people just telling their stories and emotionally breaking down. But then that is the other side of the emotions, you had the positive side of emotions in which perpetrator met victim eye-ball to eye-ball. “Hey listen, I’m really sorry that this thing happened. Let’s put the past behind us.” For example al Haji Umary Diko who in 1985 was to be brought to Nigeria in a crate – I don’t know if you remember but the attempt was foiled in the Stansted Airport in Britain – now, one of the people that he accused was the present minister of defence, Lieut. General T.Y. Danjuma. But you know when the man gave his testimony yesterday and explained very clearly that this event happened when he had been out of government for five years and he’s had no business with government. But he told his side of the story so well that at the end, Umary Diko and himself, both of them went into the witness box, told their stories, hugged, and you know.

It’s difficult for outsiders to comprehend the importance of events like these, perhaps because the names are unfamiliar, perhaps because the Oputa Panel didn’t have a charismatic leader like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, perhaps because Nigeria – despite its size and its population of 120 million people – rarely makes the headlines. Even Nigerians, admits Father Kukah, tend to be incredulous about the Commission’s attempts to bring about reconciliation.

Sometimes ordinary Nigerians look at this, and say no, no, no, but individuals shaking hands and all this back-slapping, that’s not what reconciliation is all about. But people are forgetting that reconciliation is a three-phase event. You have individual reconciliation in which an individual who’s been living with the burden of the loss of her husband, the loss of her son, the loss of a…whatever, and suddenly somebody tells you this is what has happened and begins to ask you for forgiveness. A lot of people have a lot of that burden taken away. They reconcile themselves to the situation, not necessarily because husband is back or son is back or whatever, but just knowing that this is really what has happened. It’s enough for many people. The second is reconciliation at the level of communities, namely the kind of thing we had with the Ogonis and the kind of thing which happened with a lot of other communities right across the country. There are a lot of them that are managing to put the pieces together so to say. And then now we have the programme of national reconciliation. EB: Do you think this has been a cathartic experience, the Commission, for the nation? People now know and even the soldiers themselves say they didn’t know that things were as bad. Ordinary Nigerians say they didn’t know that the excesses of various security agencies were of that magnitude and of course what was also very interesting is that people now discovered from Sokoto to Lagos, from Katsina to Madugiri, everywhere in this country, the modus operandi of the police and other security institutions basically the same. That it is not only in the south or the southwest or the Niger Delta that you have extrajudicial killings. It’s not in the north or the east or the west that you have police brutality, but this thing is endemic. So it seems to me that in a way, the very realisation that it’s all of us that have been hurting should make the process of reconciliation much easier.

In early 2002, the Nigerian Human Rights Violations Investigation Commission is due to present its findings and recommendations to the government. Like others in the human rights community, Bronwen Manby of Human Rights Watch wonders if the panel’s final report will actually lead to reforms.

That will be the crunch question. I think if the Oputa Panel really means something, then they are undoubtedly going to make recommendations about things that should change and I think there are huge numbers of systemic changes that are needed in terms of not so much the sharp-edge political violations but the general decay of the system, of the criminal justice system, of the justice system generally, of the health, of education, all of those issues. They can make recommendations but they have no power to enforce and one’s fear is that the governing elite in Nigeria will just ignore what happens.

Reverend Kukah is fully aware of the enormous burden which he and the other Commission members carry. They also know that their final report must go beyond the thousands of complaints presented to the commission and address more fundamental issues.

What has become clear to us is that what we have as petitions are largely symptoms of the decay in the institutions, whether it’s the bureaucracy, whether it’s the police, whether it’s the military, whether it’s the political system, whatever. So we do not see the guarantee of human rights as something that is going to be as a result of the goodwill of the operators of the system. No, you need very fundamental and deep institutional reforms. It’s important to know that these are going to be long-term things, the whole programme of retraining the police, giving them a bit of training on even the rights of ordinary citizens. I’ll give you a simple example: ordinary people who want to join the police force, who want to join the army, who want to join all these institutions, are told they have to pay. Now, if you have to pay to join the police force, well naturally it becomes an investment. And if after paying you join the police force, and you discover that your salary is meagre. The police force does not take responsibility for your going from point A to point B on official duty, then you have to find a way of survival, because when you look back at how much it cost you to get into the system and when you discover that the idea behind getting into the system has not been realised, somebody has to pay the price, and it is the ordinary citizen. So when we talk about institutional reforms it’s not about telling people to do the right thing because the truth of the matter is 110% of Nigerians know what is right but they don’t have the tools with which what to do is right. Now the problem is what kind of institutions do you need to really compel people to do the right thing?

Bronwen Manby agrees that institutional reforms are essential to ensure that Nigerians’ human rights are observed in future. But she believes that – like in other countries that have experienced state-sponsored terror and dictatorship – Nigeria must put an end to the culture of impunity.

Another important part of transition is actually prosecutions. A truth commission can make a difference, but it is actually important that the people who were responsible for the worst violations are brought to justice. Otherwise you continue a culture of impunity in which people know that they can do the worst possible things and nothing will happen to them. You can never expect to have perfect justice, but it is important that there is at least some accounting for the worst abuses. Do you think that will happen in Nigeria? There have been a limited number of prosecutions but they have been rather too obviously limited to certain people. Not that those people do not deserve to be prosecuted, but that other people who equally deserve to be prosecuted have not had prosecutions brought against them because they are too powerful to touch or because they are currently useful.

Be that as it may, Father Kukah believes that the Human Rights Violations Investigation Commission has brought about fundamental changes that would have been unimaginable only a few years ago.

Fear has now changed places. Instead of the ordinary citizen being afraid of the military, it is the soldiers who are now afraid of ordinary citizens. That is a fundamental change. Watching ordinary Nigerians come and say to an army general, “you listen, you answer my questions. Don’t talk to me. I’m a lawyer, I’m talking to you, so you listen!” Now, you could never contemplate telling a private in the Nigerian army to listen to you, even if you were a professor. That is why for a Commission of this nature it is symbols that you are looking for, not really concrete issues and you can see those things in the small pictures. A woman for example whose child was abducted and was kept away for more than 4 years. The Commission compelled the people who were keeping, the police. “Let this woman know,” because she just believed that her son must have been killed. You could see, just looking at her son, although you saw the face of the boy. He had been badly bruised and beaten over these years, but looking at her son, even for that frozen moment, she could have paid anything for it. So these are the kind of things, they have tremendous impact on you as a commissioner, just sitting and watching other people tell their stories. But they also renew my faith, not only in Nigeria as a country, but also in the capacity of the human being for good and for evil. And it also just makes one say well, now that we know, nobody will forgive us if we don’t try to do our best to do the right thing.

“Overcoming Fear” was produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin. This has been a Radio Netherlands’ presentation.