Sunday December 19, 2004
Oputa Panel Report: Matters Arising
THE decision by the Federal government to withhold the report of the Human Rights Violation and Investigation Commission (HRVIC) from public scrutiny is one of the most unfortunate actions taken by this administration.
Although the decision was supposedly predicated on a judgment of the Supreme Court to the effect that the law under which the commission was set up had no support under the 1999 constitution, we believe it is a travesty of justice for government to have reached the conclusion it did. The casual and controversial manner in which the Federal Government has handled the matter is condemnable. This is one case where the court may be legally right and yet it did not do justice.
In an exclusive interview with The Guardian, the Attorney General of the federation and justice minister, Chief Akinlolu Olujinmi had told the nation that government decided not to release the report in deference to a Supreme Court’s judgment delivered on January 31, 2003. Basically, the court’s verdict was that the 1999 Constitution made no provision for tribunals of inquiry as did the 1963 constitution in item 39 on the Exclusive list and item 25 on the concurrent list.
Therefore the power to make a general law for the establishment and regulations of tribunals of inquiry in the form of Tribunals of Inquiry Act, 1966 is now a residual power under the 1999 constitution belonging to the states. The judgment was delivered in an appeal involving Chief Gani Fawehinmi, Justice Chukwudifu Oputa (retired) and HRVIC (as appellants) against General Ibrahim Babangida, Brigadier-General A.K. Togun and Brigadier- General Halilu Akilu (as respondents).
Our disappointment with government’s decision starts with the fact that nowhere in that judgment did the Supreme Court specifically bar government from releasing the report. We believe that at the worst, the effect of the court’s judgment was to make the recommendations of the commission, particularly where these involved criminal prosecution, to be legally unenforceable. It was not to suppress the truth. The government ought to have taken cognisance of the fact that when the commission was set up, the mood of the nation was not necessarily that of vengeance. It was one of pronounced yearning for the truth. Indeed, the commission was, on several occasions likened to the Truth Commission set up in South Africa in the immediate post-apartheid era.
Yet, from the comments of the federal attorney general while disclosing government’s decision, the public’s quest for truth was not lost on government. Olujinmi himself admitted that the judgment of the Supreme Court, on account of the absence of a constitutional base for the establishment of the commission, meant that releasing the report “will not make any meaning because it cannot be enforced.” While we agree that the report cannot be enforced, we certainly disagree that it will not make any meaning.
Making the report public would have calmed nerves and soothed troubled minds. Olujinmi also admitted that everyone welcomed the commission’s establishment, based on an initiative to expose all human rights abuses. The exposure involved spending huge taxpayers’ money, but it was worth it, considering the huge abuses that occurred during the military era.
Popularly referred to as the Oputa Panel, after Justice Chukwudifu Oputa, the retired justice of the Supreme Court who headed it, the HRVIC was, by circumstance, different from most other panels previously set up by government. It sat for three years, three weeks and six days. As Chief Fawehinmi pointed out, the commission was so thorough, so profound, so well-conducted, so conclusive and so painstaking that it probably had no rival in the country’s history.
What makes no sense is how all that thoroughness was thrown into the dustbin by government’s action. How does the government expect thousands of Nigerians who testified directly or were indirectly involved in the commission’s proceedings held across the country to feel? What feeling do we expect from the chairman and members of the commission who for more than three years sacrificed their time and energy for the duty of unearthing the truth with the aim of reconciling aggrieved Nigerians and paving the way forward?
The Federal Government should not foreclose the Oputa panel’s report as it announced. Even now, many Nigerians individually and in representative capacities are still yearning for the report’s release. These are the people that government sought to appease in setting up the commission. Does it then make sense that these concerned Nigerians are shut out on account of the fact that two or three persons obtained a judicial pronouncement supporting their perceived lack of constitutional base for the law setting up the panel? Is it not a fact that government itself constituted the commission largely as an administrative rather than a judicial panel? Hasn’t government a moral obligation that overrides any other purpose in releasing the report?
The government ought to hearken to the voice of the people. We share the sentiments of the Reverend Mathew Kukah, a member of the Oputa panel and a former secretary general of the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria when he declared thus: “Nothing stops the government from releasing the report to the Nigerian public as a moral obligation. Releasing the report would not have, and will not solve our problems. It will not put bread on the table, but would have helped to establish confidence that government is sincere about seeking a way out of the problems of Nigeria.”
No responsible government should allow the selfish individual interests of a few to override public interest. No doubt, the Oputa panel generated perhaps more public interest than any other issue since the advent of this government. It is in fact intended as a cardinal offer of government to move the country out of the doldrums. Nigerians accepted it as such. The people have a right to know the outcome of the Oputa Panel. Denying them that right is like taking them for a ride. It shows insincerity on the part of government and it is capable of breeding deep mistrust of future government’s actions and policies.
We do recall the numerous interesting features of the commission’s proceedings, which clearly confirmed the interest and expectations of Nigerians. To confine such features and proceedings to the refuse bin of history in such a ready and willing manner displayed by the attorney general is unacceptable. We regret that too many otherwise lofty ventures of the Obasanjo administration have been treated with similar undue levity.
Even now, the government has failed to publish reports of the Christopher Kolade Commission of Enquiry and the Rotimi commission of Enquiry to mention a few. Yet, government is busy setting up more panels such as the recent Makarfi interim Panel on national dialogue. How can government expect to be taken seriously in the light of its treatment of previous panels? We believe in fact that the report of the Oputa Panel could have made it unnecessary for Nigerians to keep up agitation on several issues affecting them.
There are grave dangers in using official might to suppress the truth. Countries like South Africa and Ghana recognised these dangers and avoided them when they made open reports of similar panels that they had set up at different times. The Federal Government should reconsider its position and release the Oputa panel report forthwith. The National Assembly also owes Nigerians a duty to show interest in this matter of urgent national importance with a view to persuading the executive to act wisely.