Sacred Cows?: President Obasanjo's Reluctance to Bring Nigeria's Ex-Military Leaders to Justice Has Taken the Shine off His Stewardship. (Cover Story 1: Nigeria)

Article excerpt

As President Olusegun Obasanjo stood in front of the world on 29 May 1999 to take the oath of office at the Eagle Square in Abuja, no tears were shed for the demise of the previous "era" that had brought unspeakable agony to the country.

Sixteen years of military misrule had legitimised corruption and savagely abused the fundamental human rights of Nigerians. The emergence of a democratic dawn was the straw of hope that the exasperated citizenry desperately clung to.

But Nigerians were caught in a web of trepidation. The backroom deals preceding Obasanjo's election victory were, in their view, going to frustrate the intense desire of the people for a cathartic examination of the military era -- which would mean confronting its key players and, most importantly, dispensing justice to those who ruled with impunity.

General Babangida's substantial contribution to Obasanjo's election war chest, (you don't need to be a rocket scientist to figure out how he acquired his stupendous wealth), left a foul taste in the mouth.

Regarded as the ultimate symbol of what has gone amiss in Nigeria, Babangida was buying protection from a possible enquiry that would put his eight-year stint (between 1985-1993) as military president under scrutiny.

To the amazement of the ordinary people -- but not those who knew how the macabre business of Nigerian politics was, and is still, conducted -- Obasanjo has insisted that there are no legal grounds on which to commence a prosecution of Babangida for the public funds that were misappropriated under his rule. Obasanjo says no compelling evidence has been brought to his attention.

If the benefit of the doubt can be given to the president on this issue, he has backed himself into an extremely tight corner over his refusal to use the machinery of state to compel Babangida and other former heads of state to appear before the Human Rights Violations Investigation Commission (HRVIC), headed by the former Supreme Court judge, Chukwudifu Oputa.

Human wrongs

Babangida is alleged to have orchestrated the gruesome death in 1986 of Dele Giwa, editor-inchief of the weekly magazine, Newswatch. Giwa was blown to bits by a letter bomb. At the time of his death, he was said to be working on a story that would have exposed the alleged involvement of the Babangida family in the narcotics trade.

A stunning revelation at the Human Rights Commission by Abubakar Tsav, the police chief that headed the investigation into Giwa's death, insists that Babangida's regime shielded the two men against whom there was "strong circumstantial evidence for conspiracy and murder" -- Colonel Halilu Akilu, then head of the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DM1), and Colonel Kunle Togun, also of the DMI at the time.

"It is a known fact, but not known in Nigerian law, that the police cannot arrest senior military officers during a military dictatorship for any offence, without the support of the government of the day", Tsav told the HRVIC.

"I submitted an interim report highlighting my preliminary findings and recommended that both Col Halilu Akilu and Col A.K Togun, against whom there was strong circumstantial evidence for conspiracy and murder, be made available for interrogation and voice identification.

"Since then, I have heard nothing about this case. It is, therefore, safe to conclude that the case was suppressed in order to shield the perpetrators of this evil from prosecution. This would not have been possible if the military government of Gen Babangida did not know about the callous killing of Dele Giwa", Tsav said.

His revelation put Babangida on the defensive. When summoned to appear before the HRVIC in Lagos, he refused saying his appearance would be a "security risk", as his personal safety could not be guaranteed. "The atmosphere of the tribunal is too adversarial", said Babangida's lawyer, Clement Akpamgbo. …