Days of Atonement
Searching for Justice in Nigeria
by Greg Campbell
In These Times magazine, June 2001
It would be easy, from afar, to believe that Nigeria, Africa's
most populous nation, is moving admirably away from its violent
and troubled past and is, in fact, quite ready to take up the
role of West African superpower that G7 nations desperately want
it to be.
The democratically elected administration has withstood two
years without a coup. Nigeria's notorious military is learning-with
the help of U.S. Special Forces-the often ambiguous skills of
modem peacekeeping in preparation for yet another intervention
in Sierra Leone. And perhaps most important, in an acknowledgment
of the country's troubled past that's rare for an African country,
the new administration has impaneled a Human Rights Violations
Investigation Commission in an effort to atone for the sins of
a long succession of tin-pot dictators.
But that's the superficial view of present-day Nigeria. Sadly,
the new Nigeria greatly resembles the old. Nigerians are learning
that functional democracies aren't necessarily the natural and
immediate result of elections. Coup or no coup, the administration
of President Olusegun Obasanjo-who was a military dictator himself
in the late '70s-continues the dictatorial tradition of keeping
a tight grip on revenue earned from oil, and cracks down like
a bullwhip on restless villagers seeking their share of the wealth
pumped daily from the country's southern Niger Delta region.
And the Human Rights Violations Investigation Commission,
roughly modeled on South Africa's cathartic Truth and Reconciliation
Commission, is, in the eyes of many Nigerians, hardly providing
an opportunity for healing and release. Instead, its investigation
into allegations of past atrocities committed by various and sundry
military and police officials is widely regarded as an insulting
waste of time that is serving more to marginalize the complaints
than to reconcile them.
This could be the most damaging failure of modern Nigeria.
Instead of a cleansing of the national soul, many of the country's
citizens believe the commission's goal is a whitewashing of Nigeria's
past for the sake of its emergence as the latest West African
democratic success story.
According to most opinions, Chief Justice Chukwudifu Oputa,
chairman of the Human Rights Violations Investigation Commission-commonly
called the Oputa Panel-is a qualified jurist with impeccable credentials.
But even those aren't good enough to overcome the commission's
inherent flaws. "If you want to draw a comparison, the difference
I saw with the South African example is that the participants
actually came out and confessed," says Williams Wodi of the
University of Port Harcourt. "In the Nigerian example, what
we saw was like a circus. Nobody ever came out and said, 'I did
this.' That is the contrast and the failure for me. No one pleaded
for reconciliation for their sins."
No one necessarily had to, he adds.
The commission is charged with the overwhelming responsibility
of investigating allegations of mysterious disappearances, extrajudicial
executions, torture, assassinations and other abuses from January
1966 through June 1998 with little or no funds: Seven months after
his inauguration, Obasanjo's administration still hadn't passed
a budget, initially paralyzing the commission. More than 10,000
cases from Ogoniland alone-a small region of high-profile tension
and violence in the oil-rich Niger Delta-were submitted to the
commission. The sheer volume of cases required consolidation of
some and seemingly arbitrary rejection of others, which resulted
in an early blow to the commission's credibility.
In addition, the commission has no authority to compel witnesses
or defendants to testify and cannot offer immunity or amnesty
in exchange for truthful testimony. Thus many Nigerians assume
that military leaders who voluntarily take the stand are Iying
to avoid implicating themselves. "It is a waste of time and
a waste of resources," says George Nafor, a resident of the
small Ogoni village of Ebubu. "Maybe if reconciliation happens,
it would be worth it, or if people confess and become better from
confessing. But nobody confesses. They all deny."
Wodi himself testified before the Oputa panel as a witness
to the machete death of Senate minority leader Obi Wali, who was
outspoken in his criticism of the government. Wodi named names
and provided enough evidence that Oputa ordered the head of the
police in Abuja to reopen the investigation into the murder. But
the accused ignored orders to appear before the panel and by March,
three months after Oputa ordered the new investigation, nothing
had been done. "It was an experience of anger," Wodi
says. "I named people who killed this man. His murder was
very unjustified and needed to be talked about, so on that level,
yes, I suppose it was beneficial to have it out in the air. But
on an institutional level where it matters most, it did not achieve
anything because the panel is not empowered to summon people and
put them through all the rigors of a society governed by laws."
One of the revealing facets of the hearings, however, was
that they provided a glimpse into how the government has been
self-succeeding, even under the guise of "democracy."
Former Army Chief of Staff Major Gen. Ishaya Bamaiyi testified
that, shortly after the 1998 death of Gen. Sani Abacha, the most
recent of Nigeria's most ruthless leaders, he was called into
the office of Abacha's successor, Gen. Abdulsalam Abubakar, to
discuss who should be the country's next leader. "When Gen.
Abubakar invited me to his office," he says, "he told
me of his government's resolve to consider an ex-military officer
to be the civilian president."
The man chosen to run with the general's backing was Obasanjo,
who ruled Nigeria from 1976 to 1979, and who was imprisoned for
three years under Abacha's rule for allegedly plotting a coup.
With the military leaders' support, Obasanjo easily won the election
in February 1999. Although it was tainted by reports of widespread
vote-rigging, and criticized by Jimmy Carter, the election was
quickly endorsed by European and Western leaders. An emerging
democracy in battle-torn, disease-ridden West Africa-particularly
one that happens to be the world's 12th-largest source of crude
oil-is something to be embraced, no matter how flawed it may be.
It's significant to note that many of the more important figures
from Nigeria's darker days have been given a wide berth by the
Oputa Panel, most notably Ibrahim Babangida, a former military
ruler and mastermind behind several of the country's bloodiest
coups, including the one that brought Abacha to power. "Big
flies somehow pass through this net," Wodi observes, "99.9
percent of those in government are all products of Abacha and
Babangida. Those people are backing the government to shed their
skins. They impressed the West so much, but there's not one of
them who can stand up and claim to be a democrat."
In spite of the commission's shortcomings, many see a silver
lining to the public hearings. "It is good that these things
are brought out," says Ebubu Chief Isaac Osaro Agbara. "Whether
the government is going to do anything to alleviate the trauma
that has passed through we still must see. However, even the most
tragic government is better than the military."
Through the public airing of grievances, Wodi says, Nigerians
have become more aware of their suffering at the hands of those
in power and they aren't likely to allow it to happen again. "Nigeria
today is not the Nigeria of yesterday," he says. "People
are becoming more enlightened. The military police are not a match
for an angry people."
Nowhere is such anger more evident than in Ogoniland, a humid
400-square-mile tropical region in the heart of the Niger Delta's
oil fields. For decades, the Delta has vividly illustrated the
corruption of the military juntas that have defined the country's
character for most of the past 30 years. While six international
oil companies extract a combined 2 million barrels of crude oil
per day from the Delta-and provide royalties to the government
that amount to 80 percent of federal revenue-the approximately
7 million people in the oil regions live in such poverty that
the term "abject" seems quaint.
Electricity, potable water, medical facilities and competent
educational programs are rare amenities in most Delta villages.
Pleas for equitable wealth distribution have been routinely ignored,
leading to violence in the form of kidnapped oil workers, sabotaged
pipelines and inter-ethnic warfare as communities fight over coveted
oil jobs with all the passion of hungry dogs over table scraps.
Whenever the unrest threatens oil production, the military has
been summoned, often with scorched-earth consequences. Delta residents
not only have remained poor, but under the ever tightening screws
of authoritarian rulers whose personal wealth often has been derived
from the oil royalties. Abacha alone is suspected of having siphoned
off as much as $2.2 billion from the Nigerian Treasury.
In theory, the military rulers are gone, although several
police roadblocks still host unruly soldiers who extort "dash"
from passing motorists along all roads leading to Ogoniland. And
there's still no power in places like the rural Ogoni village
of Bane. "There has been no reconciliation," says 96
year-old Chief Jim Beeson Wiwa, seeming somewhat astonished to
have to verbalize something that's so obvious to those in Ogoniland.
"Look around you.... There is no water, there is no electricity,
there is no good school. And yet it is here where the resources
of Nigeria come out, from this Ogoniland."
Bane is the hometown of the Delta's most famous figure, Chief
Wiwa's son Ken Saro-Wiwa, the playwright who orchestrated the
most successful campaign-albeit one riven with internal strife-to
publicize the inequities in the Delta in recent history. He was
the golden-child spokesman for the Movement for the Survival of
the Ogoni People (MOSOP), a politically astute resistance organization
that won favor from activist groups worldwide.
Such support didn't translate into protection, however. When
a U.S. contractor for the Shell Petroleum Development Corporation-the
Nigerian arm of Royal/Dutch Shell-was confronted
by protesters in Ogoniland in April 1993, the military was called
in. Security forces opened fire when the protesters refused to
disperse, and, after three days of clashes, 11 people were wounded
and one was killed. This set off retaliation attacks by MOSOP's
youth wing, the National Youth Council of the Ogoni People. Clashes
in Ogoniland escalated in the weeks leading up to that year's
presidential election-which was subsequently nullified by Babangida-and
culminated in massacres of civilians in the village of Kaa and
along the Andoni River.
At the height of the problems, Shell collaborated with the
military to restore regional oil operations, which had been suspended
due to the violence. To resume production, Shell later admitted
that it provided supplemental wages to the security forces in
the area. According to a secret memo uncovered by Delta activists,
the operation's goals were chillingly detailed: "Wasting
operations during MOSOP and other gatherings making constant military
presence justifiable"; "wasting targets cutting across
communities and leadership cadres, especially vocal individuals
in various groups"; and "wasting operations coupled
with psychological tactics of displacement/wasting as noted above."
Ten days after the memo was written, on May 13, 1994, the
"wasting operation" against Saro-Wiwa went into effect.
He was arrested along with MOSOP leader Ledum Mitee for supposedly
inciting a riot that ended in the deaths of four conservative
Ogoni leaders. According to Human Rights Watch, in the wake of
the killings, security forces rampaged throughout Ogoniland, executing
civilians, raping women and destroying homes.
Saro-Wiwa was found guilty of the Oz charges by a special
tribunal, even though ,,, no credible witnesses were ever presented
to ~ back the government claim that he incited ° the crowd
that committed the murders. No one even placed him at the scene
of the crime. Two of the prosecution's witnesses later admitted
they had accepted bribes to provide false testimony. Though the
tribunal was globally condemned as fraudulent, Saro-Wiwa and eight
others were hanged on November 10, 1995.
It comes as little surprise, then, that when Oputa traveled
to Bane to speak with Chief Wiwa about his son's case, the judge
was greeted with deep skepticism that the commission could do
anything of value to atone for a past as ruthless as that in Ogoniland.
"They came here in this place," . Chief Wiwa says. "But
if they were wise enough, why don't they see the truth?"
In a modest cinder-block room furnished with stiff chairs
and outdated calendars, Chief Wiwa dismisses the notion that justice
or reconciliation can be found ~ through the Nigerian government.
The <` commission, he says, "is like getting medicine
after death. God will punish Nigeria because of the punishment
they've given to my son Ken. Can they pay for all these people
they've killed in Ogoniland or all the houses they burned or all
the crops they . looted? God will decide."
For the Ogonis and other ethnic groups that live in the Delta,
atonement has much less to do with talk than it does with action.
Living in an impoverished region polluted by endemic oil spills,
ablaze with the light of gas flares that bum around the clock
and denied the financial benefit of the oil wealth that lies literally
beneath their feet, atonement can only find a foothold if their
decades-old pleas for justice and fair treatment are heard in
the presidential palace and acted upon.
There's little indication that such a thing is likely to happen
Greg Campbell is a freelance reporter living in Colorado.
He's currently working on a book about diamonds and their impact
on the civil war in Sierra Leone.
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