The Oputa Witch-Hunt
December 28, 2006 | posted by Nigerian Muse (Archives)


 

 


 


The Oputa witch-hunt

Daily Trust (Abuja)

June 19, 2002
Posted to the web June 19, 2002

Mohammed Haruna
Abuja

I have been reading the "Synoptic Overview of the HRVIC Re-port" submitted recently to President Olusegun Obasanjo by the chairman of the Human Rights Violations Investigation Commission (aka Oputa Panel), Honourable Justice Chukwudifu A. Oputa, CFR. The report contains, among other things, the panel's conclusions and recommendation on the incidences of human rights violations in the country between 1966 and 1999. It also contains the panel's recommendation on how to guard against their future occurrence.

By now we are all familiar with its highlight, which is its indictment of the three former military rulers of the country who declined its invitations to appear before it to answer various charges of human rights abuse during their tenures. These rulers are Generals Muhammadu Buhari (1983 to 1985), Ibrahim Babangida (1985 to 1983) and Abdulsalami Abubakar (1998/99).

During the panel's sitting, some of us had defended the generals for declining its invitations on the grounds that it was essentially President Obasanjo's instrument for vengeance for the human right abuse former head of state General Sani Abacha subjected him to in 1993. Now that the report is out, I no longer have the slightest doubt in my mind that the panel, with the greatest respect to its distinguished chairman and its other distinguished members, was what Abubakar Gimba, author and former president of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), called Obasanjo's "camouflaged battle-tank to get the Abacha men (principally) and Abdulsalami's men". From what we can see of the report, Gimba might as well have put Babangida, who, alone among the villains of the panel's piece, did not serve Abacha, on top of Obasanjo's vendetta list.

My good friend Reverend Father Matthew Hassan Kukah, the panel's unofficial deputy chairman, who must have played a key role in writing the report, would no doubt object to my cynicism about the report. First, he may argue that the panel's opinion is not necessarily shared by government, which is yet to issue the conventional White Paper on the panel. That would be a specious argument because, rightly or wrongly, the public does not see the distinction. Certainly, Newswatch, which is one of the country's most distinguished publications, does not. "Oputa's recommendations", it told its readers in its current edition, "appear to be the first time a government official document is openly indicting the former head of state and his two security officers over the death of Giwa".

At any rate, President Obasanjo seems to have even gone ahead of himself by appointing an implementation committee before even setting up a White Paper Committee, never mind issuing the paper.

Second, Father Kukah once wrote (Daily trust, October 20, 2001) in a rejoinder to an article by Adamu Adamu which was critical of the panel, to argue that the panel was not set up to witch-hunt anybody. Accordingly, Adamu, said Kukah, should have intervened, "beyond the limited purview of those regional hegemonists who have continued to spin strange conspiracy theories about the commission".

I do not know about the reverend father's fanciful "regional hegemonists", but like him, I do not believe that Obasanjo set up Oputa to get at Buhari and company because they are from the North or because they are Muslims.

And even though I share Gimba's remarks about the panel as Obasanjo's camouflaged battle tank to get at Abacha men, I also think it is somewhat exaggerated considering the fact that, as Father Kukah put it, there is a prevalence of Abacha "collaborators in today's dispensation".

Unlike the reverend father, however, I have had little doubt in my mind that Obasanjo created Oputa essentially for vengeance and for politics.

Their various crimes seemed to have been, in Buhari's case, the presumed betrayal of the alliance of retired top military brass that ran Babangida out of office in 1993 compounded with dining with Abacha while he was tormenting Obasanjo. Babangida's crime seems to have been his apparent harbouring of an ambition to return to power just like Obasanjo, while that of Abubakar seems to have been his daring to equal Obasanjo's feat as hitherto the only Nigerian military leader to voluntarily surrender power.

In my previous interventions on the controversy surrounding Obasanjo's motives for setting up Oputa, the list of my reasons for suspecting those motives included (1) his original time frame (1993 to 1999), essentially the years of Abacha's tenure), (2) his haste in setting it up (two weeks after being sworn in compared to four years of spade work for Tutu's commission in South Africa), and (3) his terms of reference for the panel whose heavy emphasis was on fingering alleged culprits of human rights violations and punishing them. I had two other reasons at the back of my mind then but I kept them to myself because I thought the panel ought to be given the benefit of the doubt concerning those reasons. Now that the panel's report is out, I no longer have any doubts.

The first of these two reasons is the composition of the panel itself. Of its seven members, only one is a Muslim. In a country whose population is at least half Muslim, this composition simply does not make sense whichever way you slice it. Father Kukah would probably say this should not matter.

As he told Adamu in the Daily Trust article I mentioned earlier, "in certain serious matters of national interest or crisis . . . writers (should) seek to go beyond the limitations imposed on us by circumstances of birth, region, religion, ideology and other spurious and humanly invented shibboleths that are employed to hide the truth and postpone the day of reckoning".

Father Kukah would be right in theory. In practice, it is a different matter entirely. Fact is, birth, region, religion and ideology etc are not spurious. They define our being as individuals and groups. And unless there are others to remind us of other points of view, one is always tempted to think that one's way is the only way.

I am therefore hardly surprised that because of Oputa's unrepresentative composition, it found itself highlighting the case of those who complained "of being under the stranglehold of religiously inclined hegemonic (there goes Father Kukah's word again) groups", namely "the Hausa Christian community in the North". Nowhere in the report was there any mention of the suffering of indigenous Muslim minorities in southern states like Edo where their children are wilfully denied Islamic education in government owned schools.

The second reason that has banished any doubt in my mind about the dubious motive behind Oputa was the timing of the sitting of the panel itself.

Obasanjo inaugurated it in June, 1999, but it did not begin sitting until over a year later. In retrospect, one can now see that this was deliberately timed to have the panel's report as close as possible to the run-up to the next general elections, the better to use it as a weapon against probable opposition from Babangida and, at that time, possible opposition from Buhari.

As if to further confirm one's suspicions, the panel's recommendations have completely done away with any pretence that its primary purpose was to engender forgiveness and reconciliation. To begin with, it is instructive that the report is deafeningly silent on the abuses of human rights during Obasanjo's military tenure. For example, throughout the report there is not one word about the infamous "Unknown Soldier" who sacked Fela Anikulapo-Kuti's Kalakuta Republic. Yet Oputa did receive a petition on the matter and Obasanjo himself did testify as a witness.

Far from making any reference to any incidence of human rights violations during Obasanjo's tenure, we are told by the panel that it was only "aware that in the last 20 years or so the country was subjected to gross injustice, misrule and brigandage by its rulers". Twenty years or so ago dates back to 1982. This effectively absolves the period of Obasanjo's rule of any abuses of human rights.

Apart from the panel's deafening silence on the incidences of human rights violations during Obasanjo's first coming, the panel's recommendations in respect of Buhari and company truly beggars belief.

Buhari, the report says, should apologise to the families of the cocaine pushers that were killed retroactively in 1984. Yet earlier, the report had approvingly cited the case in Chile where it was the serving president who apologised to the country for the horrendous human right violations of General Augusto Pinochet who is very much alive, though conveniently not too well in order to escape prosecution in Spain.

The panel knew, or at least should know, that Buhari did not approve of the death of the cocaine pushers as Buhari but as head of state. The wrong of retroactive death sentence should therefore not have been attached to Buhari as a person but the state.

In the case of Babangida, even Chief Gani Fawehinmi, his severest critic, could not have been more biased. For, throughout the litigations and counter-litigations over Dele Giwa's murder, Fawehinmi has never included Babangida as a defendant, along with Brigadier General Akilu and Colonel Togun, Babangida's security chiefs, beyond his (Fawehinmi's) trademark diatribes against the military president outside the four walls of a courtroom. And in all these litigations and counter-litigations, Fawehinmi had lost all but one. Indeed in one of the cases, a court of appeal had dismissed the litigious lawyer as "frivolous, hopeless, incompetent and an abuse of legal process". Fawehinmi did succeed in getting leave to prosecute Babangida privately, when he appealed to the Supreme Court.

Strangely, however, until Oputa came along, he never exercised the privilege for which he fought so hard and for so long.

Not only had Fawehinmi lost all but one of his litigations against Akilu and Togun, he even got slapped with a fine of six million naira for defaming the two officers. The judgement was later set aside on his appeal, but Akilu and Togun in turn appealed to the Supreme Court where the matter has been pending. In between, the newspapers that the two sued for carrying Fawehinmi's allegations also lost their cases. Daily Times, for example, settled out of court and paid half a million each to them, while Classique, a rested Newswatch publication, was slapped with a 10 million naira fine which it could not pay before it died.

Given Fawehinmi's failure to prove his case in any court of law and his inexplicable decision not to pursue the line of private prosecution, one must wonder what new evidence Oputa saw to reach its unequivocal conclusion that, not just Akilu and Togun, but Babangida as well, were "accountable for the death of Giwa by letter bomb". If, as the panel says in respect of the petitions submitted by Major-General Zamani Lekwot and six others, it has "no right to review the sentence of a tribunal", on what grounds did it feel confident to ignore the verdicts of the normal courts?

As for General Abubakar, isn't it strange that the panel would admit that he was never directly implicated in the death of Chief M. K. O. Abiola and still proceed to the firm conclusion that he has a case to answer simply because the testimony of his Chief Security Officer, Lt. Col. Aliyu, was inconsistent?

Isn't it also strange that a panel that wants Babangida punished for a 16-year-old crime and also wants Abubakar made to answer for something which the panel says he is not directly linked to, would also want Lt.-General Ishaya Bamaiyi, former army chief, Major Hamza Al-Mustapha, Abacha's Chief Security Officer and Mohammed, his son, among others, pardoned for a crime already in the courts? Would it not have been more just and more sensible to recommend accelerated hearing in the case against Bamaiyi and company? Isn't this inconsistency of the highest order?

Well, inconsistent it may be, but it is hardly surprising; in the end, the name of the game was vengeance and politics not justice, forgiveness and reconciliation. In the circumstance, who, except those in whose eyes Buhari and company can do no right, will blame them for deciding to risk Oputa's censure by avoiding the sure trap of public humiliation?

 

 


 

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