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Human rights and pro-democracy groups in Nigeria have vowed to create a South African-style truth tribunal. They say their goal is to expose allegations of human rights abuses and theft by the government of the late General Sani Abacha. They hope the tribunal will encourage the current government of General Abdusalam Abubakar to open a panel of its own to examine past abuses by military rulers.
Although the idea was borrowed from South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, there will be a significant difference in Nigeria’s tribunal. According to Ayo Obe - President of the Lagos-based Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO), the tribunal will initially focus less on “reconciliation” and more on “restitution.” She argued that Nigeria was rife with people who have stolen huge amounts of money from the country, thereby plunging the country into its current state of economic chaos. As such, restitution is important.
According to Ms Obe, “the truth part comes in that we’ve had assassinations of a clearly political nature. We have to know the truth about them. And we have more and more ex-detainees coming up saying they were tortured into implicating others in coup plots. The truth about all of this has to come out.”
Another difference between South Africa’s commission and Nigeria’s proposed commission is that the Nigerian panel will not have the official backing of the country’s current military government. It will be backed by human rights groups and other private organisations. Hearings in the tribunal will include testimony by former detainees, former torturers and the police, and the proceedings will be aired by the opposition-backed short-wave station Radio Kudirat - named after the assassinated wife of the late opposition leader, Chief Moshood Abiola. The radio station is located outside of Nigeria and broadcasts in 14 languages for two hours per day.
The former exiled opposition leaders like Nobel laureate Professor Wole Soyinka hope the tribunal will pressure the government of General Abubakar to set up its own “National Crimes and Restitution Commission”. General Abubakar has warned members of his government that he will not tolerate corruption - and he is said to be working silently to recover stolen funds. The General has categorised missing funds into three categories: monies advanced for contracts that were never executed; funds that were advanced for contracts with inflated values, and amounts withdrawn from the state budget for other purposes. He has however so far resisted opening any formal judicial hearings into past abuses of power.
The Nigerian press is rife with allegations of government embezzlement of state funds or oil profits. They include the former Federal Capital Minister, Jeremiah Useni, the former Foreign Minister, Tom Ikimi and the late General Abacha who is said to have hidden away up to a billion US dollars. Observers say Abubakar has prodded some former officials into handing over stolen money voluntarily but there are no signs that the government plans to punish these people.
Allegations of torture of detainees under General Abacha have also been circulating and the CLO insists that not only should all allegations be investigated, victims should also be allowed to sue for damages. The CLO claim that they do not want a witch hunt. Rather they would ensure that those accused would be treated fairly and openly before the law.
Opponents to a truth tribunal are running full page advertisements saying the way to move the country forward is by ignoring the past, but Ms. Obe says the time to start an inquiry is now. She encourages civil servants - and especially those working for the security services - to make public their own knowledge of abuses during the long years of military rule. She says pro-democracy activists are looking toward the future formation of a constitution and want to collect documentation to convince lawmakers not to include any provision that would ban a civilian administration from investigating past military governments.
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