It was the civil rights icon Martin Luther King (1929-1968) who once declared that “the moral arc of the universe bends at the elbow of justice.” This declaration has stood the test of time as mankind has evolved from the era of the trans Atlantic slave trade, conquest and colonisation to an era of human rights, territorial sanctity, the right to self determination, democracy and the rule of law. Much of this human progress was achieved through the erosion of ignorance, civilisation and the advancement of knowledge which increasingly revealed the evil, barbarity and lack of natural/universal justice in the practices of that ignoble era.
The aftermath of the 2nd world war was particularly epochal in the institutions created and the sweeping human rights advances it engendered. With the 2nd world war the world came to face the realities of gross human rights violations particularly with the Holocaust and the injustice of colonial subjugation. The 1945 United Nations charter which established the right to self determination under international law, the Nuremberg trials of indicted Nazi war criminals, the Geneva Convention on the rules of war and war crimes, The 1960 United Nations decolonisation charter, the establishment of the international criminal court (ICC) amongst others all came as a response to the genocide and gross human rights violations of the 2nd world war.
Those who engage in pogroms, genocide, rape, subjugation and other such human rights violations always find justifications for it. The Nazi’s during the 2nd world war justified the Jewish Holocaust and found much support for it amongst those who bought their propaganda, but the creation of the special Nuremberg court brought the Nazi culprits to justice. The establishment of the Geneva Convention and the international criminal court has also made sure that other such culprits will not escape justice. These initiatives have made it possible to prosecute culprits such as Charles Taylor for crimes against humanity during the Liberian civil war, Slobodan Milosevic, Radovan Karadzic and others for crimes committed during the Serbian war. President Al Bashir of Sudan is presently indicted for crimes against humanity in the Darfur crisis. Laurent Gbagbo the former president of Ivory Coast is presently on trial for post election violence, while President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya and his deputy William Ruto are presently facing trial in the Hague based ICC for their part in the 2008 post election violence in Kenya in which scores were killed.
The special international criminal tribunal was established by the United Nations in 1994 to try culprits implicated in the Rwandan genocide, rape, torture and other violations. The tribunal has accordingly convicted many culprits while other suspects are still on trial. Robert Bales an American Soldier who massacred sixteen civilians in Kandahar Afghanistan in March 2012 was recently sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole by American military authorities. He only avoided the death penalty because he pleaded guilty. Though he committed the crime while on active duty in conditions of war he was found guilty because he violated the Geneva Convention and other human rights conventions by killing civilians. In Bangladesh the International crimes tribunal (ICT) was set up in 2009 to try those implicated in human rights violations during the 1971 war of independence. Following the report of the “war crimes fact finding committee,” notable persons such as Abdul Kalam Azad and Abdul Kader Mullah amongst others have recently been convicted for murder, rape and torture. The same is true of the Democratic republic of Congo from whence Thomas Lubanga and other culprits were hauled to the international criminal court (ICC ) in the Hague to face trial for rape and other human rights violations.
The advancement of rights and the recognition that as Martin Luther King also famously declared “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” has galvanised the world to act against criminals who are so willing to subject others to barbarities that if unpunished constitutes a mortal danger for the whole of humanity. The world is a freer and better place because a mechanism was created to hold accountable and punish those who engage in heinous crimes against humanity. Mass killings, genocide, rape, torture, dispossession, conflicts, marginalisation and other such violations of human rights is an assault on our collective humanity and a setback for human civilisation. It entrenches impunity and injustice in any society in which such atrocities are left unpunished. Any society that desires to live in harmony, enjoy human dignity, freedom, social justice, the rule of law and mutual respect must hold accountable those who violate or have violated human rights and redress those who have been victims of such violations.
In recognition of this necessity, Ghana began paying reparations to all those who were victims of human rights violations under military rule as recommended by the National Reconciliation Commission (NRC) in 2006 and Ghana has emerged a better nation for that effort. It is impossible for Nigeria to become a successful nation or to enjoy social justice without coming to terms with a shocking past of pogrom/genocide, a needless and illegal war and atrocious human rights violations under both military and civilian regimes. It is thus time for Nigeria to come to terms with her ignoble past by setting up in partnership with the United Nations a “war crimes investigative committee” which will investigate and issue a report on findings and an “International Criminal Tribunal For Nigeria” (ICTN) that will bring to trial Yakubu Gowon, Theophilus Danjuma, Murtala Muhammed, Mohamed Shuwa, Ibrahim Haruna, Benjamin Adekunle and all those implicated in the pogrom/genocide and the tragic crimes against humanity perpetrated before and in the course of the Nigeria-Biafra war on both sides of the conflict. Notable massacres such as the Northern pogroms, the Asaba massacres, Benin Massacres, The Onitsha Apostolic Church massacre and other such heinous atrocities should come under the remit of the tribunal.
Those amongst the suspects who are late should be tried posthumously and where there is overwhelming evidence of human rights violations should be convicted. The federal government should be under obligation to remove the names of those convicted from all national monuments. The tribunal should also recommend reparations for the surviving victims or relatives of victims who suffered human rights violations. Nigeria has become a land of entrenched impunity, injustice and gross human rights violations because those who violated human rights in the past went unpunished and indeed emerged as the elites and ruling class. The atmosphere of impunity gradually extended to all spheres of national life with monumental looting, dictatorship, brutality, oppression, exclusion, assassinations, extra judicial executions, mass killings, election rigging, pauperisation and total deprivation and dehumanisation of the citizenry becoming the order of the day.
Because they got away with injustice they exterminated whole communities in Odi and Zaki Biam, because they got away with injustice they kill for 20 naira on police road blocks, because they got away with injustice they killed, raped, tortured and terrorised in the Niger-Delta with a military task force, because they got away with injustice they frequently sponsor ethno-religious riots, because they got away with injustice they flog and frog march innocent Nigerians, because they got away with injustice they made sure there are no roads, no electricity, no pipe borne water, no functional hospitals, no functional schools, no jobs, no social welfare amongst others, because they got away with injustice they institutionalised corruption and impoverished the masses, because they got away with injustice Dogs, Cats and other animals in the Western world have more dignity and a better standard of living than the average Nigerian, because they got away with injustice prisoners in foreign lands have better standards of living with guaranteed three square meals and medical care than the average Nigerian who is free.
Nigerians continue to pay a heavy price for allowing those who slaughtered women including pregnant women, children, innocent civilians and engaged in rapes, a needless war and other unconscionable barbarities that violate all norms of law and natural justice go scot free. It has fundamentally debased our society and created a Frankenstein of injustice and impunity that is devouring the nation. It has also nurtured and consolidated a culture of violence. With no social, economic or political justice, Nigeria resembles more a jungle than a human society. This is the 21st century and if we desire to march along with the rest of the world in advancing human civilisation, it is necessary and urgent to bring Yakubu Gowon and his accomplices to trial for only by such a reckoning can Nigeria be freed from the demons of her past and unshackled from the prison of monumental injustice and impunity in which she remains presently chained.
Lawrence Chinedu Nwobu