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

by Uche Ohia

Port Harcourt the capital of Rivers State was once dubbed the “Garden City” and the state prided itself as the “Treasure Base of the Nation”. The days were busy and full of opportunities; the nights were calm and full of thrills. That was until ethnic and communal strife coupled with uncontrolled youth militancy spiraled into full-blown banditry and brought the well-manicured city that was once the destination of choice for local and foreign professionals, businessmen and multinationals to its knees. Now, Port Harcourt is like a “Garbage City” and Rivers State has earned a derisive reputation as the “Kidnapping Base of the Nation”. Among the elite, only those occupying political offices still stay in PH; most others including those who only just relinquished high political offices have relocated to Abuja and other cities with their families. After years of applying repressive military solutions with minimal success to stem the ugly trend, a new initiative to restore peace to the troubled state was introduced with the establishment of the Rivers State Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) headed by retired Justice of the Supreme Court, Kayode Eso.

The mandate of the Rivers State TRC is to look into the atrocities perpetrated by militants, cultists and their sponsors in the state which have raised insecurity levels to unprecedented heights and put a knife to the economic jugular of the nation. The TRC will, of course, make appropriate recommendations. For weeks, unfolding events at public hearing of the TRC have been brought into many homes and offices across the nation in living colour by the African Independent Television (AIT) and NTA. Sincere declarations were expected to be made at the hearings of the TRC. What has come up so far appear to be a hodgepodge of truths, half-truths and untruths but which are, nonetheless, expected to facilitate reconciliation of feuding parties in this volatile oil rich state. Rivers State Governor Rotimi Amaechi himself set the stage for the buck-passing that has become the vogue when at the first sitting he took the witness stand to wash his hands like Pontius Pilate off the mayhem in the state.

One challenge faced by any growing democracy particularly in multi-ethnic polities is how to ensure that different component groups with varying problems, potentials and aspirations co-exist peacefully. Such societies emerging from an era characterized by violence and serious violations of human rights face the challenge of dealing with the past. Since the 1970s and particularly from the 1990s, the international human right community has encouraged the institution of TRCs to fast-track the peace process. And the establishment of TRCs has helped several countries through this process. Feelings of resentment and the desire for revenge cannot be alleviated unless the individual or group is enabled to undergo a catharsis – an experience or feeling of spiritual and emotional release and purification brought about by an intense experience. When there is no acknowledgement or accountability for past acts of violence or abuse of power, tensions among former disputants fester until they explode in a blaze of violence. Confronting and reckoning with the past is, therefore, seen as vital to sustainable transition from conflict to harmony because when virulent opponents confront each other eyeball-to-eyeball and unburden their hearts, it becomes easier for them to look forward to a future shared in peace, unity and amity.

Thus, the raison d’etre of TRCs lies in their ability to serve as platforms for exorcising the minds of all parties to a conflict. Their distinctive feature is that they are usually non-punitive and non-adversarial which avails victims and alleged oppressors with a comfortable environment to talk. From 1974 to 2007, at least 32 truth commissions were established in 28 countries of the world. Many TRCs were set up in countries of South America where human rights violations and state sponsored violence are as common as coca-cola. Such bodies have also been set up in many countries on the African continent where crude competition for political power among selfish elites has aggravated ethnic strife and unleashed unspeakable orgies of violence that have shocked the world and fired the imagination of morbid movie producers. Examples include Uganda (1974), Zimbabwe (1985), Chad (1991-92), Rwanda (1992-93), South Africa (1995-2000), Nigeria (1999-2000), Ghana (2002), and Sierra Leone (2002). TRCs have also featured in Cote d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Burundi, Central African Republic, Kenya, Liberia, and Morocco. In Asia, Europe Middle East, North America, TRCs have also been employed in restoring social harmony.

However, a TRC need not be national in scope. The Greensboro Truth and Community Reconciliation Project in North Carolina set up a TRC in May 2004, to examine racially motivated killings by the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party in 1979. Sometimes too, such bodies need not be governmental at all. It is on record that South Africa‘s ruling African National Congress (ANC) created two TRCs in the early 1990s to investigate the internal activities of the party. If only Nigeria’s ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) could do the same, the future of the party – and, by logical extension, of democracy in Nigeria – would be the better for it. Even (NGOs) have sometimes created their own truth commissions where governments have failed to do so. Other commissions of inquiry have also been set up ordinarily to examine individual events or incidents.

In Nigeria, the Human Rights Violation Investigation Commission (HRVIC) established by the Obasanjo administration in 1999 still evokes painful memories. The sensational drama and outpouring of emotional and painful experiences witnessed at the public hearings of the HRVIC headed by retired justice of the Supreme Court, Chukwudifu Oputa are still fresh in many memories even as the report of that sobering exercise continues to gather dust among other reports in the multilayered shelves of the registry archives of the presidential villa in Abuja.

Like the HRVIC before it, many sensational allegations have been made before the Rivers TRC since it began sitting in PH. Inye Harry, son of the late politician, Chief Marshal Harry, accused former Governor Peter Odili and former President Olusegun Obasanjo of masterminding his father’s assassination. He also accused the Speaker of the state’s House of Assembly, Hon. Tonye Harry, and former aide to Governor Odili, Ipalibo Harry, of complicity in the crime. Former Secretary to the Rivers State Government and one time Minister of Transport, Dr Abiye Sekibo was also accused of being the architect of cult related violence in his native Okrika homeland and of being a co-conspirator in murder cases. Curiously, Marshal Harry’s eldest son, Sunny Harry, pooh poohed his bother, Inye’s testimony and disassociated the family from it. Chief Marshal Harry was the Rivers State Chairman of PDP in 1998-99 when Odili was elected and sworn in as governor. He became the National Vice Chairman (South South) of the party before he disagreed with Odili. He left PDP and joined the rival ANPP where he was also made the National Vice Chairman before his gruesome murder in his Abuja home on March 5, 2003.

Among other groups, the frontline NGO, Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO) sent in a memorandum indicting some political office holders in Rivers State as being behind the crises rocking the state. Celestine Omehia was specifically accused of legalizing cultism. Odili, Sekibo, and former Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives, Austin Opara, were also accused of sundry crimes. Aside from Marshall Harry, witnesses pointed accusing fingers at the principal officers of the immediate past administration in the state for masterminding the murder of Chief D.K. Dikibo. Dikibo, a genial political leader became the National Vice Chairman (South – South) of PDP after the exit of Harry but who was gunned down on his way to Asaba in circumstances that are yet to be unravelled. Asari Dokubo, leader of the Niger Delta Volunteer Front (NDPVF) dismissed Inye Harry’s testimony and called him a liar. Dokubo made other damning insinuations and dressed down Governor Amechi for diminishing everyone else before the commission in a bid to create a hallo around himself.

Quite clearly, there has been no dull moment at the Rivers TRC. From PH, the commission moved it’s sitting to Abuja to enable witnesses and personalities who did not find that venue safe or conducive to give their testimonies. Such is the transience of political power and the parlous state of security in Nigeria that men who held sway only a few months ago no longer feel safe or comfortable to make public appearances in the same state in which they loomed larger than life. It was an irony made more poignant by the fact that Peter Odili as Rotimi’s mentor positioned and bulldozed Rotimi’s candidature for the governorship election until political exigency compelled him to spring up Omehia. All that is now history buried in the hot hearth of hate and acrimony.

When Odili mounted the witness box in Abuja, he absolved himself of numerous criminal allegations leveled against him including reckless waste of the resources of the state and categorically denied having any hand in the brutal murder of Harry Marshal and D.K. Dikibo. A knight and prominent Christian, he swore to his innocence. While accusing the Chairman, Justice Eso, of prejudice against his person, Odili stated that but for the respect he had for the chairman and the commission, he would not have appeared before the TRC which he considered another ploy by Governor Rotimi to smear his name and that of his former SSG, Sekibo. On the allegation that he mismanaged the enormous resources which accrued to the state during his tenure, Odili revealed that the total receipts to Rivers State from 1999-2007 was N708.3 billion (contrary to the allegation that he collected N1.3 trillion) which appropriation or expenditure he went to great lengths to justify.

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