It would be easy, from afar, to believe that Nigeria, Africa's
most populous nation, is moving admirably away from its violent
and troubled past and is, in fact, quite ready to take up the role
of West African superpower that G-7 nations desperately want it
The democratically elected administration has withstood two years
without a coup. Nigeria's notorious military is learning--with the
help of U.S. Special Forces--the often ambiguous skills of modern
peacekeeping in preparation for yet another intervention in Sierra
Leone. And perhaps most important, in an acknowledgment of the country's
troubled past that's rare for an African country, the new administration
has impaneled a Human Rights Violations Investigation Commission
in an effort to atone for the sins of a long succession of tin-pot
But that's the superficial view of present-day Nigeria. Sadly,
the new Nigeria greatly
resembles the old. Nigerians are learning that functional democracies
aren't necessarily the natural and immediate result of elections.
Coup or no coup, the administration of President Olusegun Obasanjo--who
was a military dictator himself in the late '70s--continues the dictatorial
tradition of keeping a tight grip on revenue earned from oil, and
cracks down like a bullwhip on restless villagers seeking their share
of the wealth pumped daily from the country's southern Niger Delta
On the streets of Akaraolu,
an impoverished Nigerian village. A two-hundred-foot tall
gas flare looms
constantly in the background. The column of fire
has burned constantly since it was lit in 1972.
And the Human Rights Violations Investigation Commission, roughly
modeled on South Africa's cathartic Truth
and Reconciliation Commission, is, in the eyes of many Nigerians,
hardly providing an opportunity for healing and release. Instead,
its investigation into allegations of past atrocities committed
by various and sundry military and police officials is widely regarded
as an insulting waste of time that is serving more to marginalize
the complaints than to reconcile them.
This could be the most damaging failure of modern Nigeria. Instead
of a cleansing of the national soul, many of the country's citizens
believe the commission's goal is a whitewashing of Nigeria's past
for the sake of its emergence as the latest West African democratic
According to most opinions, Chief Justice Chukwudifu Oputa, chairman
of the Human Rights Violations Investigation Commission--commonly
called the Oputa Panel--is a qualified jurist with impeccable credentials.
But even those aren't good enough to overcome the commission's inherent
flaws. "If you want to draw a comparison, the difference I saw with
the South African example is that the participants actually came
out and confessed," says Williams Wodi of the University of Port
Harcourt. "In the Nigerian example, what we saw was like a circus.
Nobody ever came out and said 'I did this.' That is the contrast
and the failure for me. No one pleaded for reconciliation for their
No one necessarily had to, he adds.
The commission is charged with the overwhelming responsibility
of investigating allegations of mysterious disappearances, extrajudicial
executions, torture, assassinations and other abuses from January
1966 through June 1998 with little or no funds: Seven months after
his inauguration, Obasanjo's administration still hadn't passed
a budget, initially paralyzing the commission. More than 10,000
cases from Ogoniland alone--a small region of high-profile tension
and violence in the oil-rich Niger Delta--were submitted to the
commission. The sheer volume of cases required consolidation of
some and seemingly arbitrary rejection of others, which resulted
in an early blow to the commission's credibility.
In addition, the commission has no authority to compel witnesses
or defendants to testify and cannot offer immunity or amnesty in
exchange for truthful testimony. Thus many Nigerians assume that
military leaders who voluntarily take the stand are lying to avoid
implicating themselves. "It is a waste of time and a waste of resources,"
says George Nafor, a resident of the small Ogoni village of Ebubu.
"Maybe if reconciliation happens, it would be worth it, or if people
confess and become better from confessing. But nobody confesses.
They all deny."
Wodi himself testified before the Oputa panel as a witness to the
machete death of Senate minority leader Obi Wali, who was outspoken
in his criticism of the government. Wodi named names and provided
enough evidence that Oputa ordered the head of the police in Abuja
to reopen the investigation into the murder. But the accused ignored
orders to appear before the panel and by March, three months after
Oputa ordered the new investigation, nothing had been done. "It
was an experience of anger," Wodi says. "I named people who killed
this man. His murder was very unjustified and needed to be talked
about, so on that level, yes, I suppose it was beneficial to have
it out in the air. But on an institutional level where it matters
most, it did not achieve anything because the panel is not empowered
to summon people and put them through all the rigors of a society
governed by laws."
One of the revealing facets of the hearings, however, was that
they provided a glimpse into how the government has been self-succeeding,
even under the guise of "democracy." Former Army Chief of Staff
Major Gen. Ishaya Bamaiyi testified that, shortly after the 1998
death of Gen. Sani Abacha, the most recent of Nigeria's most ruthless
leaders, he was called into the office of Abacha's successor, Gen.
Abdulsalam Abubakar, to discuss who should be the country's next
leader. "When Gen. Abubakar invited me to his office," he says,
"he told me of his government's resolve to consider an ex-military
officer to be the civilian president."
The man chosen to run with the general's backing was Obasanjo,
who ruled Nigeria
from 1976 to 1979, and who was imprisoned for three years under Abacha's
rule for allegedly plotting a coup. With the military leaders' support,
Obasanjo easily won the election in February 1999. Although it was
tainted by reports of widespread vote-rigging, and criticized by Jimmy
Carter, the election was quickly endorsed by European and Western
leaders. An emerging democracy in battle-torn, disease-ridden West
Africa--particularly one that happens to be the world's 12th-largest
source of crude oil--is something to be embraced, no matter how flawed
it may be.
President Olusegun Obasanjo
It's significant to note that many of the more important figures
from Nigeria's darker days have been given a wide berth by the Oputa
Panel, most notably Ibrahim Babangida, a former military ruler and
mastermind behind several of the country's bloodiest coups, including
the one that brought Abacha to power. "Big flies somehow pass through
this net," Wodi observes, "99.9 percent of those in government are
all products of Abacha and Babangida. Those people are backing the
government to shed their skins. They impressed the West so much,
but there's not one of them who can stand up and claim to be a democrat."
In spite of the commission's shortcomings, many see a silver lining
to the public hearings. "It is good that these things are brought
out," says Ebubu Chief Isaac Osaro Agbara. "Whether the government
is going to do anything to alleviate the trauma that has passed
through we still must see. However, even the most tragic government
is better than the military." Through the public airing of grievances,
Wodi says, Nigerians have become more aware of their suffering at
the hands of those in power and they aren't likely to allow it to
happen again. "Nigeria today is not the Nigeria of yesterday," he
says. "People are becoming more enlightened. The military police
are not a match for an angry people."
Nowhere is such anger more evident than in Ogoniland, a humid 400-square-mile
tropical region in the heart of the Niger Delta's oil fields. For
decades, the Delta has vividly illustrated the corruption of the
military juntas that have defined the country's character for most
of the past 30 years. While six international oil companies extract
a combined 2 million barrels of crude oil per day from the Delta--and
provide royalties to the government that amount to 80 percent of
federal revenue--the approximately 7 million people in the oil regions
live in such poverty that the term "abject" seems quaint.
Electricity, potable water, medical facilities and competent educational
programs are rare amenities in most Delta villages. Pleas for equitable
wealth distribution have been routinely ignored, leading to violence
in the form of kidnapped oil workers, sabotaged pipelines and interethnic
warfare as communities fight over coveted oil jobs with all the
passion of hungry dogs over table scraps. Whenever the unrest threatens
oil production, the military has been summoned, often with scorched-earth
consequences. Delta residents not only have remained poor, but under
the ever- tightening screws of authoritarian rulers whose personal
wealth often has been derived from the oil royalties. Abacha alone
is suspected of having siphoned off as much as $2.2 billion from
the Nigerian Treasury.
In theory, the military rulers are gone, although several police
roadblocks still host
unruly soldiers who extort "dash" from passing motorists along all
roads leading to Ogoniland. And there's still no power in places like
the rural Ogoni village of Bane. "There has been no reconciliation,"
says 96-year-old Chief Jim Beeson Wiwa, seeming somewhat astonished
to have to verbalize something that's so obvious to those in Ogoniland.
"Look around you. ... There is no water, there is no electricity,
there is no good school. And yet it is here where the resources of
Nigeria come out, from this Ogoniland."
Cheif Jim Beeson Wiwa
Bane is the hometown of the Delta's most famous figure, Chief Wiwa's
son Ken Saro-Wiwa, the playwright who orchestrated the most successful
campaign--albeit one riven with internal strife--to publicize the
inequities in the Delta in recent history. He was the golden-child
spokesman for the Movement
for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), a politically
astute resistance organization that won favor from activist groups
Such support didn't translate into protection, however. When a
U.S. contractor for the Shell Petroleum Development Corporation--the
Nigerian arm of Royal/Dutch Shell--was confronted by protesters
in Ogoniland in April 1993, the military was called in. Security
forces opened fire when the protesters refused to disperse, and,
after three days of clashes, 11 people were wounded and one was
killed. This set off retaliation attacks by MOSOP's youth wing,
the National Youth Council of the Ogoni People. Clashes in Ogoniland
escalated in the weeks leading up to that year's presidential election--which
was subsequently nullified by Babangida--and culminated in massacres
of civilians in the village of Kaa and along the Andoni River.
At the height of the problems, Shell collaborated with the military
to restore regional oil operations, which had been suspended due
to the violence. To resume production, Shell later admitted that
it provided supplemental wages to the security forces in the area.
According to a secret memo uncovered by Delta activists, the operation's
goals were chillingly detailed: "Wasting operations during MOSOP
and other gatherings making constant military presence justifiable";
"wasting targets cutting across communities and leadership cadres,
especially vocal individuals in various groups"; and "wasting operations
coupled with psychological tactics of displacement/wasting
as noted above."
Ten days after the memo was written, on May 13, 1994, the "wasting
operation" against Saro-Wiwa went into effect. He was arrested along
with MOSOP leader Ledum Mitee for supposedly inciting a riot that
ended in the deaths of four conservative Ogoni leaders. According
to Human Rights Watch, in the wake of the killings, security forces
rampaged throughout Ogoniland, executing civilians, raping women
and destroying homes.
Saro-Wiwa was found guilty of the charges by a special tribunal,
even though no credible witnesses were ever presented to back the
government claim that he incited the crowd that committed the murders.
No one even placed him at the scene of the crime. Two of the prosecution's
witnesses later admitted they had accepted bribes to provide false
testimony. Though the tribunal was globally condemned as fraudulent,
Saro-Wiwa and eight others were hanged on November 10, 1995.
It comes as little surprise, then, that when Oputa traveled to
Bane to speak with Chief Wiwa about his son's case, the judge was
greeted with deep skepticism that the commission could do anything
of value to atone for a past as ruthless as that in Ogoniland. "They
came here in this place," Chief Wiwa says. "But if they were wise
enough, why don't they see the truth?"
In a modest cinder-block room furnished with stiff chairs and outdated
calendars, Chief Wiwa dismisses the notion that justice or reconciliation
can be found through the Nigerian government. The commission, he
says, "is like getting medicine after death. God will punish Nigeria
because of the punishment they've given to my son Ken. Can they
pay for all these people they've killed in Ogoniland or all the
houses they burned or all the crops they looted? God will decide."
For the Ogonis and other ethnic groups that live in the Delta,
atonement has much less to do with talk than it does with action.
Living in an impoverished region polluted by endemic oil spills,
ablaze with the light of gas flares that burn around the clock and
denied the financial benefit of the oil wealth that lies literally
beneath their feet, atonement can only find a foothold if their
decades-old pleas for justice and fair treatment are heard in the
presidential palace and acted upon.
There's little indication that such a thing is likely to happen
First of a two-part series. Next issue: Despite a new democratic
government, the Niger Delta is still a polluted wasteland, where
frustration with oil companies and lax federal oversight of their
operations is rising to dangerous levels.
Greg Campbell is a freelance reporter living in Colorado.
He's currently working on a book about diamonds and their impact
on the civil war in Sierra Leone.