Between Truth And Justice: The Dilemma Before the Rivers State TRC

by Uche Ohia

For many watching the unfolding drama at the Rivers State Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) from the sidelines, there are many points to ponder. Former Governor Peter Odili’s income and expenditure account which he so freely flaunted before the commission at Abuja would have served a better purpose if it had been handed over to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) with whom the former Governor had been engaged in the sort of hide and seek game that ends up making Nigeria’s legal system seem like a farce in the eyes of the enlightened global community. On the whole, Odili’s testimony was very interesting even if some of his submissions (such as the one about meeting militant gadfly, Ateke Tom for the first time at the Presidential villa, Abuja) required a pinch of salt to digest. But his fears of possible victimization by commission appeared exaggerated. The presence of Ambassador C.D. Orike, said to be Odili’s maternal uncle in the TRC makes it more so: Orike, an elder statesman, was Odili’s ambassadorial nominee and was appointed Ambassador to Uganda during the Obasanjo regime. In fact, Odili’s critics have pointed out that rather than being biased against him, the commission should be watched for possible bias in favour of the ex-governor!

Ousted Governor of Rivers State, Celestine Omehia, who also testified in Abuja reportedly broke down in tears while relieving the ordeal his aged mother, Cecilia, went through in the hands of cultists who kidnapped her shortly after his election that was nullified in court. In his testimony, Omehia referred to Governor Rotimi Amechi who took over from him on the orders of the Supreme Court as his “brother” but fell short of leveling a direct accusation against the governor for the death of his father six months after the arrest of the old man over land and chieftaincy disputes allegedly at the instance of Governor Amechi when he was the Speaker of the State House of Assembly. Prompted on the possibility of reconciliation between them, Omehia stated that any serious reconciliation between him and Amechi should take place not in public glare but in the confines of a room with their wives present. It was a notable point by a man generally seen as a pawn, a victim of circumstance unschooled in the art of doublespeak but one of the few that raised the spectre of possible reconciliation.

But it was Abiye Sekibo that most bluntly exposed the venomous hatreds, the deep seated discord and outright distrust existing between the past and present leadership in Rivers State. He denied allegations linking him to the killing of Harry and Dikibo. Sekibo who repeatedly referred to Governor Amechi as “unelected governor” throughout his testimony expressed serious reservations about the impartiality of the Commission vis-à-vis the true intensions of the man who set it up. This reservation was based on his belief that he was the target of a smear campaign by Rotimi Amaechi whom he accused of misusing the power of government by using the TRC that had no power to convict to subject him to a humiliating media trial rather than using the weighty criminal allegations against him to institute a criminal charge if there was any substance to them.

To the credit of the Rivers TRC and in spite of the vitriolic exchanges and ding-donging going on at it’s hearings, some good ideas are already wafting through the testimonies of key witnesses. While punching holes in the allegation that he patronized cultism, Sekibo told the commission that the only way to end armed struggle and related cult related violence in the Niger Delta was for the Federal Government to grant amnesty to militants and cultists. According to Sekibo, it is only by inducing militant youths and cultists to renounce violence and surrender that the Federal Government could hope to end violence in the Niger Delta. Ikwerre ethnic nationality spokesman, Prof. Otonti Nduka, attributed the violence in Rivers State to maximally high levels of youth unemployment, illiteracy, injustice, gas flaring, systemic neglect and pervasive poverty. Peter Odili recommended that the panacea for youth restiveness in the Niger Delta is to arrest frustration and idleness through provision of jobs and to address prolonged systemic neglect through massive and robust infrastructural development – especially construction of roads and bridges in riverine areas which, he opined, could only be driven by the strong political will of the Federal Government. Is the Federal Government listening?

Still, one thing the Rivers State TRC has not quite been able to do is to shrug off the slur cast on it’s integrity: Odili, Sekibo and Omehia were united in contending that the commission was incapable of getting to the root of the crisis in the state being, in their view, primarily set up not to reconcile warring parties but to demonize some of them. There is no doubt as some parties implied that TRCs could and have often been used to serve the purpose of demonizing preceding regimes or legitimizing new governments. The 1986 Ugandan commission and the case of Chad are illustrative of truth commissions employed to discredit the previous regime. Uganda‘s 1974 commission also rather than being a sincere attempt to rectify the past, turned out to be little more than a flimsy effort to placate international pressure. In Zimbabwe and Haiti, the publication of the commission’s report was hindered or completely stopped because it was considered too critical of the new government. In Bolivia and Ecuador, TRCs were disbanded prior to completing their work because the investigations became too politically sensitive. And so the fear over the actual reason for setting up the RSTRC is as germane as the question of whether the government will have the political will to act on the recommendations that will necessarily arise from their findings.

However, whatever their inherent defects may be, institutions such as the Rivers TRC hold a great potential for therapeutic outcomes. While the goal of a criminal trial, as Ronald Slye of Seattle University (and a former consultant to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission) contends, is to determine that “we have sufficiently minimized the possibility that we may be about to punish an innocent person,” the goal of a TRC is to extract as much information as possible which, from experience, is often higher in quantity, and probably also in quality than the information that can ever be elicited from any criminal trial. Whereas victims’ testimonies are treated with great suspicion by defense attorneys and even by the court during trials, TRCs give victims the chance to deliver their testimonies to a sympathetic audience. The effect is positive for all parties and for the society.

Whatever, a serious moral question is raised when justice is subordinated to “truth”, “reconciliation,” or any other goal. The natural reaction of most persons after hearing the lurid details of an act of violence against a loved one is to desire that justice be done. This desire may only be moderated by the religious or spiritual inclination of the hearer. In Truth v. Justice: The Morality of Truth Commissions published by Princeton University Press, Gutmann and Thompson couched this tendency in a cliché: “once you know who did it, you want the next thing — you want justice.” They derive the statement from the account of a woman who listened to testimony by the killer of her husband. After learning for the first time how her husband was killed, she was asked if she could forgive the man who did it. Speaking slowly, in one of the native languages, she replied through the interpreters: “No government can forgive.” Pause. “No commission can forgive.” Pause. “Only I can forgive.” Pause. “And I am not ready to forgive.”

To this extent, the dilemma of TRCs as a substitute for the criminal justice system is that it short-circuits the very mechanism which most societies have established to right societal wrongs by punishing wrongdoers. The findings of TRCs in other countries have proved that exposing the truth about violence and human rights abuses in a particular era whets the ground for meaningful reconciliation and sustainable restoration of harmonious relations. From experience, however, for this goal to be realized, the final outcome must include some form of reparation or compensation to those whose fortunes have been unalterably affected by the incidences related at the commission. Already the Ikwerre ethnic nationality through the Prof. Otonti Nduka led Ogbako Ikwerre have catalogued the losses which the people have suffered and tabled a hefty N5b reparation demand. Public expectation is that the Rivers TRC should not ignore such demands in it’s final report even while it highlights the institutional factors that facilitated the perpetration and perpetuation of cult related atrocities in Rivers State that ballooned into incessant violence in the Niger Delta. In any case, the report of the TRC must be made public in order not to raise more suspicion about the role of the Rivers State Government past and present in violence and other criminal activities.

So far, part of the failure of the Rivers TRC could be said to be the small number of oil companies that submitted memoranda or made presentations at its hearings. Already, an Ijaw group, Ijaw Republican Assembly (IRA) has posited that the Eso commission will be a failure if it fails to tackle conflicts between the oil-producing communities and oil companies. According to media reports, the IRA claims that ‘’many oil-bearing communities rarely receive any compensation for land taken by oil companies, or rendered useless by oil spills, acid rain, and other forms of pollution. Protests against environmental degradation and loss of land rights by local communities have frequently met with violent repression by the armed security forces with the complicity of the oil companies’’.

Indeed, if there are any victims in the Rivers State saga that have suffered the severest misfortunes both in terms of business losses, physical violence, environmental degradation and economic deprivations, it is the oil companies and local communities. The expectation, therefore, was that the TRC would be a forum for them to meet and thrash out their problems. So far, this has not been the case. This raises a crucial question: what reconciliation can come out of a TRC in Rivers State where the activities of irresponsible oil companies and the impertinence of a deaf federal government unwilling to address simmering concerns about a skewed derivation formula and abysmal dearth of infrastructural development have combined to create a Frankenstein that is threatening to consume the nation? Whether the federal government cares to admit it or not, peace in the Niger Delta and particularly in Rivers State the operational headquarter of the oil industry in Nigeria is imperative if the nation is to survive for much longer as an entity. It is, therefore, in the national interest that oil companies are encouraged to attend the Rivers TRC.

From proceedings at the sittings of the commission, witnesses have either been accusing others or defending themselves. Can it serve the course of truth and reconciliation when witnesses are being economical with the truth? And can reconciliation be achieved when witnesses are neither willing to admit facts or to show remorse. The palpable animosity, bad blood and violence in Rivers State may escalate unless estranged relatives, feuding erstwhile allies and former friends who are now at each others throat elect to come clean, bury the hatchet and develop a framework for sustainable peace and harmony. Without that, the much desired peace and reconciliation that are imperative for the development of Rivers State nay the Niger Delta may remain a mirage.

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