How far, how deep will Nigeria's human rights commission go?

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A Nigerian government-established body, the Human Rights Violations Investigation Commission, led by Justice Chukwudifu Oputa began public hearing on October 24, 2000. It has a schedule for five cities within five months. The Oputa Commission terms of reference mandate it to investigate human rights abuses in Nigeria which occured between January 15, 1966 (first military coup in the country) to May 28, 1999.

The hearings should include assassinations, unjust arrests, the 1986 parcel bomb assassination of Newswatch magazine co-founder Dele Giwa, pogrom committed against the Igbos of south eastern Nigeria in the northern region of Nigeria in 1966, the assassination of late presidential claimant M.K.O Abiola's wife, Kudirat, the suspicious death of Alhaji Abiola himself, the 1995 execution of radical Ogoni rights activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, the jailing of the incumbent president, Olusegun Obasanjo by Abacha in 1995, the suspected murder of his former deputy Shehu Musa Yar'Adua and a number of other gross violations.

An interesting twist occurred when Obasanjo, himself a former military dictator (February 1976 to October 1979) and signatory for a number of draconian laws in Nigeria responded to the concerns of some Nigerians regarding whether his own first tenure of head of state will receive adequate review without fear or favor (since he established the Oputa-led commission) said he should be treated like others.

Also, Obasanjo's military colleague, confidante and someone he refers to as one his "best friends", retired Lt. Gen. Theophilus Y. Danjuma serves as his Defense minister. But he was actively involved, according to interviews and public statements made by other soldiers and historians, in the 1966 violent murder of Gen. John Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi Ironsi, the first four-star General in the Nigerian Army (enroute becoming Africa's first and real Field Marshal). Danjuma attended the October 24 public event with Obasanjo as government officials; and not as witnesses. The five years of Abacha's rule with scorpions and snakes and whips seems of immediate interest to the Obasanjo government. Embarrassing, too, is the other fact that some of the late Abacha's praise singers and canvassers for "Abacha-must Rule or Nigeria will not move forward" troop are also in appointive positions in the Obasanjo government.

Meanwhile, Chairman Oputa has said his commission was not established for not an-eye-for-an-eye mission; lest everyone became blind. He said recently that "The commission was not set up to judge - that is the function of the court of law - but rather to clarify the history of the events of 30 years of crisis," It will subpoena witnesses, issue findings, and discretionarily seek symbolic atonement.

The historic event started at the African Peace Hall of the Women Development Center, Abuja, with with revelations of the depravity of the late Sani Abacha junta. A certain retired Captain U.S. Suleiman (and former instructor at the Nigerian Defense Academy in Kaduna ) recounted his being chained in a dungeon at 78 Alexander Avenue, Ikoyi-Lagos. One of those he alleged to have tortured him, ACP Zakari Biu, was at the proceeding. He cited Col. Frank Omenka, ACP Zakari Biu, Col. F.K. Olu and others as the executors of his excruciating torture.

In terms of international comparison, the Oputa-led Commission is similar in its rationale to the Guatemalan, Chilean and especially the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Regardless, while the South African forum, set up in 1999 by the government of former president Nelson Mandela has received and reviewed almost 11,000 complaints and protests regarding human rights abuses, the Nigeria team has settled for 200 of the "most grievous" cases. They will take cases in Abuja for two weeks, four weeks in Lagos and two weeks each in Enugu, Port Harcourt and Kano.

Specifically, too, it neither has the power to prosecute anyone nor the mandate to grant amnesty to those who abused the rights of other Nigerians. Essentially, as the intellectually-savvy jurist Oputa added that his commission will offer "Nigerians the opportunity to unravel their past, discuss it, embark on genuine reconciliation and move ahead as a cohesive nation." But there's one public interest problem. Nigerians have always argued that one significant reason why crimes and abuses continue to occur in their country of almost 110 million people is that crimes, abuses and embezzlement of public funds are not decisively prosecuted. Sanctions are fewer; if ever.

In a social sense, I'll attempt to modestly summarize the opulent but decadent lifestyle of some of Nigeria's so-called elites/leaders and their ruinous gang who loot the national treasury. That is, those who have since the past 40 years turned Nigeria into their barnyard and playpen for corruption. With the help of their aides, they gather their loot from Monday through Friday noontime. In the afternoon, they simply catch the next flight to wine and dine in London. Next day, on Saturday, they party at the enchanting Bellagio in Las Vegas. On Sunday, they shoot the breeze and drink fine champagne at Half-Moon Bay in California. (For full disclosure, I lived as a workaholic immigrant in California's beautiful Bay Area, briefly, before settling in Houston).
On Monday, since it's usually pleasure before business, those fellows will then proceed to transfer some more money to the Caymans islands, the Antilles or whichever secretive banking location beckons their filthy lucre. It's an all too familiar cycle.
And, here's the other interesting part. When (s)elections and democracy-related matters arise, they'll return with their money, or shall we say, "recall" some of the loot &endash;&endash; in "hard currency" &endash;&endash; to ensure a landslide victory. Any how, as we say back home in Nigeria, I think that's an issue for another day, another column. Back to the key issues regarding the human rights probe in Abuja.

As we join other Nigerians to ponder that question, I recall my favorite secular quotation from Chester Barnard, which says: 'To try and fail is, at least, to learn; to fail to try is to suffer the inestimable loss of what might have been.'

But who will even try to ensure that Nigeria's historical records of corruption, abuse of rights (individual and group), assorted ancient mannerisms and military excesses are not part of what some 70-something year old American politicians would classify, artfully, as "youthful indiscretions"?

Or, will the government and its apologists dismiss Nigerians as, again, "expecting too much, too soon" from the aforementioned terms of reference of the Commission?

Who will try to ensure that a judicious measure of law and justice are applied; and that punishment follows crime to become the new currencies for public service and accountability in the richly-blessed Nigeria? Who will try...?
The answer, my friends, is blowing in the wind.
(October 24, 2000)

Chido Nwangwu, Founder & Publisher of the Houston-based, USAfrica The Newspaper, The Black Business Journal,, and, is the recipient of the Journalism Excellence Award, 1997. He serves as an adviser to the Mayor of Houston on international business (Africa). Nwangwu is writing a book on the experiences of recent African immigrants in the U.S. He covered U.S President Bill Clinton's visit to parts of Africa, March-April, 1998, and the August 26-28, 2000 visit to Nigeria.

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