Nigeria is to investigate the sins of its military past in an unprecedented attempt to curb the power of the generals who have ruled for most of the years since independence.
The creation of a truth commission, along with the announcement that the government is slashing the army by almost half and sacking 150 top officers, has sent shock waves through the senior ranks of Africa’s most powerful military.
President Olusegun Obasanjo, the former military ruler who took office on May 29 after democratic elections, has told Western diplomats he is committed to cracking down on his former colleagues, insisting “there will be no sacred cows”.
The so-called Oputa Panel is modelled on the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions set up in South Africa to investigate human rights abuses during the apartheid era and those of Chile and Argentina to examine the activities of military regimes. Headed by Justice Chukwudifu Oputa, Nigeria’s most respected judge, the seven-member panel began hearings last week and will spend the next year investigating alleged torture and killings carried out by Nigeria’s various military regimes since 1976.
Most of the focus is expected to be on Gen Sani Abacha who held power from 1993 until his sudden death last year and is generally agreed to have been the country’s most repressive ruler, particularly through his secret police, called “the Gestapo”.
President Obasanjo will be in the unusual position of being both answerable to the panel as military ruler between 1976 and 1979 – and able to appeal to it as a victim, having spent two years in jail under Gen Abacha.
Already thousands of submissions are pouring in, including such high profile cases as the hanging of Ken Saro Wiwa, the playwright, and eight other Ogoni activists in 1995 and the death last year in detention of Moshood Abiola, the winner of the annulled 1993 elections, who was locked up by Gen Abacha after declaring himself president.
The largest number of cases to date have come from the Niger Delta, the country’s main oil-producing region, which has been under de facto military occupation in recent years because of unrest from tribes fighting for a share in the country’s oil income. Several British oilworkers have been kidnapped in the Delta over the last year and last week one was killed.
So far the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (Mosop), one of the most prominent Delta tribes, has presented 8,000 cases in graphic detail of shooting, killing, raids on villages in which villagers were randomly shot, raped and assaulted. One incident described how a senior military officer personally ordered the shooting to death of a 14-year-old disabled boy at point blank range.
“We are asking the panel to recognise the degree to which the government of Gen Abacha instituted a reign of terror against a peaceful population,” said Ledum Mitee, Mosop’s acting president. “The record we present is one of soldiers shooting law abiding citizens, looting property, detaining individuals at will and torturing those it suspected of being Mosop activists.”
Kayode Fayemi, the director of the London-based Centre for Democracy and Development, which is advising the Truth commission, said: “It’s important for the country to go through this process if we are not to repeat the same endless cycle of impunity.
“This is being watched carefully all over west Africa”.
But the panel has no institutional status and critics say it is not clear what powers it will have and whether it could ever result in prosecutions. The issue of whether or not to offer amnesty to those who come forward to admit abuses is still being discussed. “It needs to be an exercise in truth telling rather than revenge seeking,” Mr Fayemi said.
Many witnesses do not have the money to travel to Abuja where the commission is based, or to meet the requirement of producing 10 copies of each case submitted. Olua Kamalu from Mosop said last week: “The peasant economy of Ogoni will collapse if we do so much photocopying.”
Coming at the same time as sweeping reductions in the size of the armed forces, there is a fear that too much investigation into the past could prompt a backlash among a military which has ruled for all but 10 years since independence in 1960.
Last week, Theophilus Danjuma, the defence minister, unveiled plans to reduce the armed forces from 80,000 to 50,000 as part of a cost-cutting exercise.
As a result of last-minute spending by the last military regime, the government inherited a pounds 1.6 billion deficit in this year’s budget.
The reduction was presented as part of a programme to “professionalise” the military but those close to Gen Obasanjo say it was a protective “anti-coup” measure designed to counter any future threat.
The president has already changed all the battalion commanders and sacked 150 officers who held political posts in previous regimes.
Reduced defence spending is one of the main requirements of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in resuming lending to Nigeria and many military officials argue that Gen Obasanjo’s reforms are designed to pander to the West rather than deal with the country’s underlying economic crisis.
Ishola Williams, a retired general, pointed out that Nigeria has led peacekeeping operations in Sierra Leone and Liberia.
“It is totally unrealistic and illogical for the western world to expect us to both demilitarise and do peacekeeping,” he said.
“We are a rich country and can afford a large army providing our resources are properly managed. That’s what Obasanjo should be tackling.”
The Sunday Telegraph (United Kingdom), August 22, 1999