Lagos - Two generals and top officials of Nigeria's feared State Security Service had to testify at the National Human Rights Commission's hearing on the killings of unarmed civilians — a "quantum leap" in accountability in Nigeria, according to the country's top rights advocate.
The December hearings were the first time such high-ranking officers, including the chief of army staff, have been held to account since Nigeria's military dictatorship, said Chidi Anselm Odinkalu, chairman of the National Human Rights Commission.
"It may look very little in any other country — but in this country, it's huge!" he told The Associated Press, describing how Nigeria, a country of 170 million, needs "brain surgery" to emerge from the mentality instilled during decades of military rule when officials enjoyed impunity from the law.
The commission published a report this week blaming State Security agents for the unlawful gunning down of eight civilians and wounding of 11 others, and ordered the government to pay reparations of some $820,000.
Other allegations of extrajudicial killings by the security forces are being investigated by Odinkalu's commission, as well as domestic violence, the electoral process, political disputes and forced evictions.
The most violent challenges confronting Nigeria, the Islamic uprising in the northeast and increasingly deadly conflicts between mainly Christian farmers and Muslim nomadic herders, are in part caused by climate change, he said.
In Nigeria's northeastern corner, Lake Chad has lost 90 percent of its water over half a century which, combined with desertification that has overtaken territory the size of Germany, is affecting 30 million people and twice as many livestock, Odinkalu said. "Climate change is real, the consequences are real and it's got a serious national security consequence," he said. But Nigerians "don't take it seriously."
He cites the massive pillage of state funds as the root cause of the many woes of Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation, its biggest oil producer and economic powerhouse. Corruption impoverishes people and "human dignity over time is destroyed, and that really is related to the crisis of mass violence that we have, extremist violence." Because people no longer believe the government can work for them and keep them safe, they turn to "circles of narrow identity" based on faith and clan relationships and pit themselves against the state, said Odinkalu.
This week's report is carefully worded and restrained — rather like Odinkalu himself. But it does not pull punches in expressing the commission's disbelief of evidence from State Security agents that on Sept. 20 last year they opened fire in self-defense on a residential neighborhood of Abuja, Nigeria's capital, shooting for half an hour into an unfinished building where about 100 unarmed artisans were sleeping.
Security agents claimed they were responding to information that the building housed a sleeper cell of the Boko Haram terrorist network that was planning attacks in Abuja.
But the evidence given by the informants, the son of the property owner and security agents ranged from "unreasonable and suspiciously unusual" to "inexplicable" and "implausible," the report said. Security agents failed in the months since the attack to follow up on their charges that the victims were terrorists and provided no evidence, it found.
It cleared the names of the eight men killed and 11 injured in the attack, finding they were, as several witnesses attested, motorcycle and taxi drivers who slept in the building. The commission ordered the government to pay reparations equivalent to $60,600 for each person killed and $30,300 for each wounded.
It also ordered the attorney general to present evidence of payment within 30 days. That is insurance against another form of impunity where successive governments have failed to honor court orders. For example, the government has never honored a federal court order a year ago to pay reparations of 37.6 billion naira (about $230 million) for a security forces massacre of hundreds, some say thousands, of civilians in Odi town in the oil-rich Niger delta in 1999. This came soon after elections restored democracy to Nigeria.
The National Human Rights Commission was set up by military decree in 1995 but for years was a largely toothless unit of the Ministry of Justice, Odinkalu said. It became independent and was given the powers of a court in 2010, the year before Odinkalu was appointed. A human rights lawyer with a doctorate in philosophy from the London School of Economics and Political Science, he has been an International Fellow at Brandeis University's Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life in Waltham, Massachusetts.
Many influential Nigerians tried to block his appointment because they worried that he could not be manipulated or bought, according to local news reports.
Odinkalu said he inherited a staff that needed "brain surgery in the sense that you have got to re-wire the way that they perceive public service and perceive themselves."
Results are incremental and slow, he says. But he lists among "quantum leaps" President Goodluck Jonathan's support to investigate allegations of misconduct by security forces fighting an Islamic uprising in northeast Nigeria and winning the confidence of people subjected to forced evictions by the state government in Lagos, Nigeria's commercial center.
Many people were afraid to testify in the hearing on the security forces, Odinkalu said, because such forums have been organized as a lure to round people up. "When they were not arrested, when they saw that we seemed serious, in the four days that we took evidence, 13 people withdrew their cases from the courts and brought them to the commission," he said, triumphantly.