"With Oputa Panel's Report, We Don’t Need National Dialogue" – Father Ehusani
December 28, 2006 | posted by Nigerian Muse (Archives)

Sunday Punch, February 13, 2005

With Oputa panel’ s report, we don’t need National Dialogue –Father Ehusani

Rev. Father George Ehusani is the Secretary-General of the Catholic Secretariat in Nigeria. He is also a frontline member of the Civil Society Forum (CSF), a coalition of civil society groups in Nigeria, which recently published an aspect of the Justice Chukwudifu Oputa-led panel on rights violation in Nigeria. In this interview with THEOPHILUS ABBAH Father Ehunsani speaks on the report, corruption and the National Dialogue. Excerpts:

You are one of the leaders of the Civil Society Forum (CSF) that published the abridged version of the Oputa panel report. We understand that the government does not want to release this report and you have taken steps to publish those recommendations. What exactly is your interest? Why do you have to go this length to publish the report?

Let me say that it is not an abridged version. It is the first volume of the seven-volume document, which you see on the Internet website where they have been posted. This volume we have published is called, “The Executive Summary, Recommendations and Conclusions.” This means that there are six other volumes.

Yes, I am one of the leaders of the Civil Society Forum. We consider that the Catholic Church is a major stakeholder in the forum, along with groups like the United Action for Democracy (UAD), Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO), Campaign for Democracy (CD) and other groups. Since the report is on the Internet, it means it is a public property. So, we decided to quickly publish it before it disappears from the Internet.

Now, part of our concerns is that on December 14, 2004, the CSF had a colloqium that reflected on the culture of impunity at every level in Nigeria, and what civil society could do to restore the rule of law. This was the colloqium, which was attended by every member of our civil society groups.

As we debated the issue, it kept coming back, that it is the same elements of impunity that we had suffered for the 30 years of military rule, which had consolidated and made Nigeria such a lawless state. When Obasanjo administration came in, it set up the Oputa panel to review this culture of impunity - by which people were locked up for no just cause, and kept in gulag; people were executed. We asked, so would this continue like this?

Then, we noted, during our deliberation, that some of the solutions to these problems are already proposed in the Oputa panel reports. The background information you need to understand where we are coming from, 1966 till today, in the history of the culture of impunity is there in the three years work of the panel. And this work, with all the experts who got to do the work, should not go down the drain.

So, we said let Nigerians see these and let us now think of how we can forge ahead. We cannot twist the hand of government to implement anything. For example, their recommendations about restructuring in the police. We all know that the police in Nigeria needs to be restructured. There are recommendations about how to deal with the Niger-Delta issues, about Federal Character and devolution of power. These are issues we discuss everyday. Let us hear what some people sat down for three years to put together. And, you know, the people who put them together are respected people.

Right now, there is National Dialogue. Why would you go into such other projects when we had actually done some dialogue?

The Oputa public sitting was some national dialogue. It was a major national dialogue that had brought some recommendations. If you read, in detail, you will discover that, perhaps, if we take that panel report seriously, we do not need to set up another dialogue, because it is either we have a full Sovereign National Conference or we stay with this kind of report and look at what it is saying. The amount of work done in the report is such that you don’t need another dialogue to talk about devolution of powers. Nigerians had given evidence and made their feelings known about devolution of powers, about the relationship that should exist between the security forces and the Nigerian people.

So, what I am saying is that there is a lot of valuable work that was done by the group, and whether it is constitutional or not, we are not contesting that, but that the intellectual work that took place is valuable. It is like somebody who wrote a book, you do not ban it, because every book has its serious intellectual value, no matter what the person has written. He has written it. You may not agree with what the person has said. You don’t ban the book.

We have left everything in the care of government. We want government to do this and do that. We are now saying, what can Nigerians do for themselves? They say some people get the leadership they deserve or deserve the kind of leadership they get. Do we, Nigerians, really deserve the kind of leadership we have been getting? If we do not deserve the kind of leadership we have been getting, then we have got to do something about evolving another kind of leadership.

I was in Singapore for leadership training last October. I came back convinced that our problem is leadership. When you read the history of Singapore, you will know that our problem is not the policeman who collects N20 on the road. And so we should not complain about the messenger who demands N50 before bringing out your file. The issue is that, when there is no vision, the people perish. That is what the Bible says. And who is to have the vision - the messenger or the police corporal? The vision is supposed to be things the leadership offers - leadership at all levels.

The blessing of Singapore is our own curse, the lack of leadership of integrity and vision. That also, is contained in many recommendations related to quality leadership in Nigeria and how we ended up with the kind of people that have been ruling us. This country is endowed with intelligent people. We have sent people in this country to go and be the Chief Justices in Botswana and Botswana is a better place. We have produced a Commonwealth Secretary-General.

When this administration came in 1999, it talked about anti-corruption. A situation where you talk of anti-corruption and the next day, a deputy, an assistant, an aide of yours, is involved in multi-million naira corrupt practices? And Nigerians are very much aware of all these atrocities, and you are still talking of anti-corruption, it doesn’t work. Now, these are the issues that, I think, the Nigerian civil society must take up.

You mentioned just now that the government is not serious about the war against corruption. But the Inspector General of Police, Tafa Balogun, has just been sacked over allegations of corruption?

The government did not tell us that it removed him for corrupt practices. It said Balogun was retiring and going on terminal leave. And the president thanked him for a job well done. So, from the point of view of the government, we have not heard anything - that Balogun was removed because of corrupt practices. No such things. It is the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), we are told, that made a comment that it would nail him for corrupt practices. And, as you know, Tunji Abayomi, his lawyer, came out to say, if you are investigating, investigate first. And, I agree with that. Investigate first before you come to the public. Why the hurry? If he has been investigated and the EFCC has the facts, and Balogun is going for trial, then it won’t be a retirement again.

If he goes on trial and is found guilty, he should be dismissed. But you had already retired him with full benefits, thanked him for a service well done. Then the next day, we hear that he was actually retired for corrupt practices. That is not acceptable to me. Follow proper procedure. If, indeed, you heard rumours and had investigated it and you discovered that some of them are true, then put him through trial. Then, tell us, you are removing him from office because there are substances in the rumours. It is not acceptable to me for one government agency to now say that they are retiring him for corruption.

The issue of corruption in this country is like the sickness of the eye, not of the stomach, as our people would say. It is not something you can’t see; it is something you see glaringly. We have been so unfortunate, as a society, that we have not had people in leadership with courage to fight the demon of corruption. We have not had people of courage because the leaders have been more concerned about retaining power than sanitising the Nigerian society. I am convinced that if President Obasanjo was ready to fight corruption when he came in in 1999, the people were ready then. Nigerians were ready that it was no longer business as usual. When he said it was not business as usual, Nigerians took him seriously.

But, a few people decided that they would continue business as usual, and since he wanted a second term, he did not want to be impeached; he wanted to remain in power, there was evidence of election rigging. And so, he doesn’t seem to have the credibility to truly fight corruption. And what some people are saying today is that the fight against corruption is selective. That is to say that, if you fall out with the executive, then you are investigated and prosecuted. Otherwise, why is Chief Chris Uba not tried for corruption? Why is it that you have somebody like Chief Audu Ogbeh being investigated by the EFCC because he fell out of favour with the powers that be? Then, you have people like Chris Uba, who in broad daylight, confessed to the fact that he attempted to take over power, by removing a sitting governor.

If, indeed, you wanted to fight corruption, the entire Anambra scenario is a metaphor of corruption par excellence. All the election frauds in the state - are they not corruption? The president knows that. And a serious issue of indictment against the president is that, over a year ago, two people came to him, one accused the other of not winning the election and the other one agreed. And what he did was to say, “You are two armed robbers, get out of my office.”

As the chief law officer in this country, one would have expected the president to contact the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) immediately to resolve this problem. We would have expected him also to call the Inspector General of Police to investigate this case. He kept quiet until Audu Ogbeh’s letter came. It means we don’t have integrity at the level of presidency. In fact, using the Anambra State alone, we have serious problem of integrity in the leadership of Nigeria.

You know that, that Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria carried out our own election monitoring programme. And we came out that the elections were totally flawed. Our assessment was the same as that of the Commonweath monitoring group. Even the Supreme Court majority judgment late last year that said the PDP won the election against the ANPP, said it had not enough technical evidence to disqualify them. It is just that our hands are tied. We can’t find sufficient evidence to prove beyond reasonable doubt that there was no credibility for this election. The majority judgment said the election results were terrible in many ways, but that Buhari’s people could not prove beyond reasonable doubt. So, you can see that everybody knows that this ‘good’ was stolen.

On the Oputa report,what are the options open to the civil society?

Like I said earlier, the civil society has an obligation to monitor political developments in this country. It is not only the official organs of government that should monitor what is going on. In fact, civil society has a responsibility of even preempting government on a few things. That is why I am one of those who believe that, actually, all these call for Sovereign National Conference. If the civil societies are well organised, we can organise our own conference. So, the attempt by Anthony Enahoro and Prof. Wole Soyinka is in the right direction.

At least, it may achieve limited success, but it would have made Nigerians know that you don’t just wait for the government to do something. In some places, there were no countries. People organised themselves together to form a country. So, if a country is collapsing, people can also gather together and take actions against it. So, civil society members in this country, including okada riders, market women and other voices, if we can come together and do what they call referendum, it would help.

The members of the National Assembly have variously argued that we do not need any conference again since they are representing the people, even though many of them did not win elections. But, if we gather together in our millions, signing cards, sending mails and we are able to co-ordinate ourselves, we will be getting somewhere. Our leaders will begin to hear the voice of Nigerians. That is what is called the people’s parliament. If all civil societies, with their wide constituencies, come together and agree on one thing, the leaders will recognise it. For example, every Nigerian agreed that there would be no fuel price increase. In a society of enlightened citizenry, for the price of fuel to go up from N25 to N35 or N40 per litre, is impossible.

But these things are possible in Nigeria because of the weakness of the civil society . So, our own concern in Civil Society Forum is: one, how do we strengthen the elements of the civil society, not just the Non-Governmental Organisations, but all the elements of the civil society: the press, market women, okada riders, farmers’ union, apart from government agencies and organs? How do we strengthen them? How do we see what their view is? If people in these various societies read some of these recommendations and they believe they can push them out of the context of Oputa panel, they can take it out and organise a referendum based on it. For example, we want the police to be reformed in these various ways, not because Oputa panel says so, but because we want it. And about a million append their signatures. That is one option. I am looking at a situation in which these things go beyond Oputa panel. It is like a group of consultants did some work for us and they consulted widely on the work they did for us. And we say, okay, give us that research work. Then, we can begin to use the work, in that case, no force on earth can stop us from using that research work that belongs to us.

For instance, the restructuring of the police, if we add a few things to what they recommended in the report and we say “we, the Nigerian people,” we want the Nigerian police to be like this. Do we now say because that recommendation was contained in Oputa panel report, we won’t take it? No. No power on earth can stop that kind of thing because it has become a people’s wish.

But do you think this is possible under the current atmosphere?

I hope that, no one is imagining in this country that because the Supreme Court might have voided the particular commission, therefore, the issues that the commission raised will never be discussed in this country. Even the National Dialogue Obasanjo is talking about, what will be the content? Almost all the areas of political discourse were reflected in the Oputa report. What I’m saying is that, it was a particular group that discussed the issue of Dele Giwa’s death, that have recommendations for Abiola’s death and June 12 and so on. You can void that group. But the issue of Dele Giwa’s death, has it died? The issue of Bola Ige’s death, has it died? A court may say don’t call Omisore over Bola Ige’s death again. But can you say Ige’s son should not constantly raise questions over his father’s death? Can you stop people from Yorubaland who question the circumstances of Dele Giwa’s death? Can you stop that? What I’m saying is that we need to begin to change our strategy and expand our vision and horizon concerning advocacy in this country. Government can initiate a programme, if it is a programme planned to fail, let the Nigerian people replan it to succeed.

For example, the government has set up an anti-corruption agency. Let us assume Obasanjo is not serious about that agency. You know, Nigerians can put pressure on Justice Mustapha Akanbi and the commission to make it succeed. That is the point I’m making. Let us not rely on “is he serious? Is he not serious?” This is the attitude today regarding the dialogue Obasanjo is initiating. They are saying, if he says he is setting up a dialogue, let him do that. While not take it as our own national conference and expand the terms of reference or force him to expand it? Afterall, we forced Obasanjo to expand the scope of the Oputa work to begin, not from 1983, but from 1966. Nigerians said, no way. They wanted to go back to the beginning of the military rule. Which means, it is possible that government brings a project with a limited vision, limited perspectives, and that Nigerians can take it on and expand the scope.

Are you saying that you can still expand the scope of the dialogue, when the Federal Government has said they are “no go” areas?

There are two ways of doing it. One is for pro-national conference group, to say, look, if you make up your mind that Obasanjo will not be willing to expand the scope, then, since you have a lot of hardworking people, we put up our pro-national conference that will be more successful than the Obasanjo own. He is not going to be the president for ever. It means we can come out with our own report and recommendations, give it to whoever is the president. It can even become an issue of election. Are you going to implement this or not? It can become an election issue for which you ask people to vote according to which party will accept the work with the new constitution produced by the pro-national conference. Or, the other alternative, to ask Obasanjo to tell the Makarfi group to accept to expand the scope, vision and framework of the dialogue. Then, we do a referendum as to determine who will be there because the very first thing is the representation. But for the president to nominate people that are going to be in that conference, we won’t accept. It is the way the president is running the country that we are not happy about.

We are not happy with the conduct of the president and governors in many states. So, if we really want to restructure Nigeria, how can we allow them to appoint one-third of the people at all levels? If that is the case, we are not going to have major changes. That is what Nigerians are saying. Therefore, can we use the force of public opinion to get Obasanjo to change? You need to get the representation right. So that is the things to be done.

If you are asked to submit a memorandum to the Obasanjo conference, will you do so?

First of all, the memorandum we should submit will be concerning the constitution of the 400-person group. We would study the terms of reference of Makarfi’s group and the number of people the president and governors would be able to appoint. And we won’t entirely agree to that. Having said no, how are they to emerge? If it is the same kind of characters that are hanging around the president and politicians and so on and so forth, then we say no to it. They are the ones we have been dissastisfied with. They are the ones that have ruined this country. So, we want to think of how a decent group of leaders can emerge. It is not those who have ruled and ruined Nigeria that would discuss a new Nigeria. For me, that is the basic.





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