Recently, precisely on January 18, former President Olusegun Obasanjo urged Nigerians to put the pains of the civil war behind them in the interest of the continued corporate existence of the country, saying it was worrisome that over four decades after the civil war ended, Nigerians were still mourning and groaning about the events around the 30-month war.
Obasanjo, who spoke in response to comments earlier made by Ben Gbulie, a colonel and one of the speakers at a grand civic reception organised by the South-West chapter of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) to welcome the former president home after his resignation as the chairman of the party’s Board of Trustees, said it was unnecessary and inimical to the corporate interest of the country for people to continue to prolong the healing process by their attitude and comments.
He said, “I believe the time has come when all of us in this country should put the civil war behind us…. How many years has the war been over now? January 1970, 43 years. If after 43 years we are still mourning and groaning about the civil war, I wonder. The Second World War ended in 1945 and the combatants became the best of friends less than 10 years after, I just believe that we should put the civil war behind us.”
On the face of it, the above statement by Obasanjo should be commended. Indeed, it is high time. Forty-three years is such a long time for any wound, no matter how deep, to have healed. Only that Obasanjo’s statement sounded like dismissing a crucial part of our history with a wave of the hand. The former president missed a crucial point: deep wounds don’t just heal; they are treated, and with the right medication, else they become infected by tetanus. Then you won’t just have the wounds to contend with, you will also be battling with the severe muscular spasms and contractions that go with tetanus – and this seems to be the point where we are right now.
The question to ask is: what genuine efforts have successive administrations in Nigeria made since after the civil war to heal the wounds of Nigerians – not just the Igbo, but all Nigerians, because as John Pepper Clark aptly captures it in his beautifully-crafted poem “Casualties”, we were all casualties, Biafrans as well as other Nigerians, only the degrees varied.
Much has been written about the attempt by the Yakubu Gowon administration to reconstruct, rehabilitate and reconcile. But commendable as Gowon’s efforts were, one thing that comes out very clearly is that they were half-hearted. To quote Paul Obi-Ani: “The post-war reconstruction of Igboland was shoddy. There were no genuine efforts on the part of the victorious Federal Government to assist the Igbo people towards the rebuilding of their war-damaged infrastructure…. The little assistance the Federal Government extended to the Igbo was mere window-dressing and inadequate to prevent thousands of them from dying of starvation immediately after the war” (Post-Civil War Social and Economic Reconstruction of Igboland: 1970-1983, p.125).
But besides Gowon’s efforts, recall that the Shehu Shagari administration granted state pardon to the former leader of Biafra, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu. That was a step towards true reconciliation. But what would have been the most effective effort towards total reconciliation was the setting up by the Obasanjo administration, on June 14, 1999, of the Human Rights Violations Investigation Commission (HRVIC), otherwise known as Oputa Panel, to investigate human rights abuses that took place from January 15, 1966 (when the first military coup occurred) to May 28, 1999 (the day before the last military handover to civilians). The seven-man commission, headed by Chukwudifu Oputa, a retired justice, began its sittings on October 23, 2000, and by May 21, 2002, submitted its “interim report” in six volumes to then President Obasanjo in Abuja. Seven days later, on May 28, the panel submitted its “main report” in 60 large boxes.
Unfortunately, when former military president, Ibrahim Babangida, was summoned by the Oputa Panel, he refused to appear, and instead went to the Court of Appeal where, on October 31, 2001, he got a favourable judgment that the Oputa Panel, lacking legal backing, had no right to summon him. The Federal Government appealed to the Supreme Court.
Further, on June 3, 2002, IBB filed a suit at the Federal High Court asking it to stop President Obasanjo from implementing the report of the Oputa Panel. The suit, jointly filed with Halilu Akilu, former director of Military Intelligence, and Kunle Togun, had as defendants Obasanjo, the Attorney General of the Federation, and Oputa and his commission.
Finally, on February 3, 2003, the Supreme Court ruled that the panel had “no powers to summon witnesses outside the Federal Capital Territory”, and further “that the 1999 Constitution made no provision for tribunals of inquiry”. This development ended further action on the Commission’s reports.
But how have commissions of this nature functioned elsewhere? For an answer, let’s look to South Africa. Following the abolition of apartheid in South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was set up, headed by Desmond Tutu, former Archbishop of Cape Town, where witnesses who were identified as victims of gross human rights violations were invited to give statements about their experiences, and perpetrators of violence could also give testimony and request amnesty from both civil and criminal prosecution. It was generally seen as a crucial component of the transition to full and free democracy in South Africa.
But the important thing about the TRC was that it was backed by law: it was set up in terms of the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act, No. 34 of 1995, and had the mandate to bear witness to, record, and in some cases grant amnesty to the perpetrators of crimes relating to human rights violations, as well as reparation and rehabilitation. Despite numerous criticisms, the TRC is generally considered to have been successful.
But not so in the case of the Oputa Panel. Till date, as shocking as the revelations in the panel were, the reports are still gathering dust in the shelves. Why? Because the Commission that produced the reports had no legal backing. So, why was the Oputa Panel not backed by law? With all his international exposure, was it possible that Obasanjo did not recognise the fact, ab initio, that such an important commission required legal backing to be effective? While the sittings were going on, many far-sighted Nigerians raised concerns that the panel might as well end up as “a toothless bulldog” – all barks and no bite. But the Obasanjo government kept mute, until the panel met a dead-end. Which also raises the question of whether Obasanjo truly, genuinely intended to reconcile all aggrieved sections of Nigeria for the “corporate existence of the country” that he is so very much concerned about now – because he ended up, through the Oputa Panel, reopening old wounds that were already gradually healing, leaving the totality of Nigerians dripping with fresh blood. He had a chance to change the course of history, but he bungled it.
As recent as May 2011, Matthew Hassan Kukah, secretary of the Oputa Panel, who is now the Catholic Bishop of Sokoto, reportedly expressed worry over the non-implementation of the final report of the commission. Speaking at the launch of his book, Witness to Justice: An Insider’s Account of Nigeria’s Truth Commission, in London, Kukah recalled that the commission did offer concrete suggestions on how to alleviate anxieties across the country, such as communal violence, religious crisis, culture of impunity and illegal detentions of people, saying: “My argument is that the inability or unwillingness of government to deal with very practical processes, especially the ones that arose from the findings of the Oputa Commission, is likely to have an impact on the politics of Nigeria.”
So, while sharing in the former president’s desire for true healing, it is also pertinent to point out that it doesn’t just happen; it is initiated and pursued to a logical conclusion. That is also why there are concerns each time a Nigerian leader mouths the mantra that Nigeria won’t break up without backing it up with concrete action to ensure that the country stays together.