June 12: Twenty-one Years After Oputa Panel, Justice Yet To Come My Way

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By Francis Ede

I feel compelled to talk about an issue that concerns me and Nigerians in very profound and paramount way. I would have been killed on June 8, 1998 by the Abacha junta alongside NADECO members for an offence I knew nothing about. This is an issue I have struggled with for two decades because of its psychological effect upon me. Today is June 12, the anniversary of the 1993 presidential election in Nigeria’s Third Republic. The election was the outcome of General Ibrahim Babangida’s transitional process to civilian rule. Though the result of the election indicated a victory for Moshood Abiola of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), it was unofficial as it was not declared by the National Electoral Commission (NEC).
The election was subsequently annulled by Ibrahim Babangida, citing electoral irregularities. The annulment led to protests and political unrest across the country, including the resignation of Babangida and installation of a weak interim civilian government of Chief Ernest Shonekan which paved way for General Sani Abacha to ascend to power as the military head of state via a bloodless coup later in the year. That was the prelude to my travails.
The events of that ignoble era inflicted unimaginable wound upon me, destroyed my economic and financial enterprise, and subjected me to economic crisis that set me back many decades.
I was arrested along some others over the allegation of conspiring and attempting to bomb NNPC, Ejigbo Depot, Lagos. During my travails, which began on September 12, 1994, I was taken to DMI where I and the others were put into a sack and sealed for some hours before they presented us with confessional statements to sign. Eventually, we were taken to the Presidential Task Force on Anti-Abacha headed by ACP Zakari Biu at Alagbon Close, Ikoyi Lagos, and subjected to several days of rounds of torture by security agents.
Days later, we were made to sign confessional statements implicating some NADECO members. In the statement they gave us to sign, one DSP Emma Ogolo told me that the only condition under which I would be released was to admit that Senator Bola Tinubu sent me to throw the bomb in NNPC, Ejigbo depot.
I was detained variously at 32 detention centres, including DMI Lagos; Alagbon Detention Camp; SSS Detention Camp, Ikoyi; Adeniji Adele Robbery Cell; Area F Robbery Cell, Ikeja; Lion Building Police Station, Lagos; Moroko Police Station; Ita Oke Detention Camp, Ekpe; Felele Police Station, Ibadan; Molete Police Cell, Ibadan; Sango Ota Police Station, Ogun State; Gombe Central Police Station, Bauchi; Kuje Prison, Abuja; Kirikiri Maximum Security Prison, Lagos.
At the DMI, I was tortured and my parents and brothers also arrested and detained on the order of Lt. Col. Frank Omenka for several months. Due to the blistering torture by the security agents which filtered out to the human rights organizations, I was released on court order by the DMI only to be rearrested by agents from Alagbon Close on September 12, 1997. I was then taken to the dreaded Ita Oke detention camp at Epe, Lagos.
The prelude to my plight was General Sani Abacha’s bid to eliminate members of the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) considered opponents of the regime. Abacha’s government conceived a plot to implicate and possibly kill them in the process. They included Senator Ahmed Bola Tinubu, late Ambassador Senator Polycarp Nwite, Senator Mac Nwulu, Professor Wole Soyinka, Senator Ameh Ebute, Dr. Beko Ransome Kuti, and Chief Gani Fawehinmi. Others were Dr Fredrick Faseun, Dr Olu Falae, Chief Anthony Enahoro, Chief John Oyegun, Rtd General Alani Akinrinade, Brigadier General Anthony Ukpo, Rev. Moses Adasu and Senator Okorafor.
The security operatives organized and stage-managed series of incidents of bomb blasts across the country. Following this plan, arrests were made on spurious allegations that they planted the bombs across the country with a view to destabilize the nation.
Consequently, the security agencies arbitrarily arrested and forced some unfortunate individuals to sign “confessional statements” they prepared implicating these prominent men and NADECO members and other opponents of the regime of being the brains behind the various bomb blasts and had intent to remove him from power.
These prominent men and over 291 other persons were to be executed on June 8, 1998 but were delivered by the mysterious death that brought the reality of vulnerability of humans to Abacha. He died without accomplishing one of his greatest desires, the killing of his perceived enemies, which would have taken place same day. I was among those detainees slated to be executed on that fateful morning Abacha died.
All the detainees were assembled from the various detention camps across the country and attired in the green robe meant for those awaiting death. Execution duty soldiers had been assembled at the Kirikiri Maximum Security Prison preparatory for the purpose. But they cheated death by the death of he who wanted to put them to death.
They included those detained incommunicado for inciting disaffection and sedition, those convicted by the Aziza Military Tribunal, those held under Decree 2 without trial over alleged economic crimes, and those convicted for alleged coup plot. Others were those held in connection with bomb blasts and other offences, those arrested as a result of the spontaneous protest that greeted the announcement of Abiola’s death and those arrested and detained in connection with the April 22, 1990 aborted coup.
General Abdusalami Abubakar who took over after the death of Abacha, withdrew all the charges against the political detainees and released us from detention. I was abandoned in detention because I did not possess political status. Thus, I became the longest detainee of the Abacha junta, followed by Chief Frank Ovie Kokori, former chairman, PENGASSAN.
However, on 19th May 1999, luck came my way as the Miscellaneous Offences Tribunal, Lagos presided over by Justice Tijani Abdulahi discharged and acquitted those of us left in detention and therefore ordered my release after five years and nine months in detention. It was achieved through the concerted efforts of Dr Clement Nwankwo of The Constitutional Rights Project, and Femi Falana SAN of The Committee For the Defence of Human Rights/Chairman, African Chamber, Lagos.
Following the widespread disaffection among Nigerians as a result of the repressive government of Gen. Sani Abacha, the Olusegun Obasanjo regime established The Human Rights Violations Investigation Commission of Nigeria, also known as the Oputa Panel in June 1999 to investigate human rights abuses during the period of military rule from 1984 to 1999. Part of its mandate was to determine steps that should be taken to alleviate the pains, anguish and loss of the victims of human rights abuses and their families. The commission submitted its final report to President Obasanjo in 2002, but the federal government has not taken any action to date. Its report was not released to the public until 2005, when it was published by two activist groups, the Nigerian Democratic Movement and Nigeria-based Civil Society Forum.
After my release, I proceeded to the Justice Chukwudifu Oputa Investigation Commission. My case was heard on 23rd April 2002 at Enugu. It is on record that the commission after its sitting recommended that I and Chukwuma Mba arrested together the same day should be paid N50 million compensation but nothing has been done to actualize this by anybody. Unfortunately, the report of the commission, which was submitted to the government of Obasanjo, was not made public, let alone being implemented. The non-payment of the N50 million is another injustice I have had to live with.
Whereas those detained along with me have all received reparation one way or another, mostly through political appointments, I have been forgotten. I and my family are still carrying the numbing indelible scars of the human rights violations we suffered through the traumatizing and dehumanizing illegal and unwarranted detention for almost six years. They include those I staked staked my life to save from the bullets of Abacha’s hit men, mostly of the Yoruba stock. Today they occupy major political positions in government but they have all forgotten the very man the Abacha junta felt could be used to nail and eliminate them. With the new spirit of reconciliation promoted by General Abdusalami Abubakar who took over after the death of Abacha, and the democratic consciousness sweeping across the country for 21 uninterrupted years, and with the new spirit of reconciliation promoted by subsequent governments in the country, I feel that I should be remembered, and I appeal to then NADECO members who suffered the same fate with me though I did not have similar political or social prominence or repute as them.
As we celebrate June 12, Nigerian people’s victory over the military, I, Francis Ede, the only Ebonyi man who appeared before the Oputa Panel, and who would have been killed in the morning of the day Abacha died, is yet to be remembered for his role in the victory. At the end of my chilling testimony at the panel, the Chairman of the commission, Justice Oputa personally offered to secure my life with his official security aides. It is instructive that if I was a Yoruba man, I would have long been settled by both my tribesmen and the government. It is onus on men of goodwill, political activists and civil society organizations, especially those who fought for the detainees to bring justice to bear on my case. My patriotism, courage and humanism must not be allowed to go in vain. As my family and I pine away in my village at Edda, Izzi, Ebonyi State, Igbo political leaders, especially from Ebonyi State can make a case for me as one of those who paid very painful physical and emotional price to achieve the democracy we are enjoying today.

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