Talking Drums

The West African News Magazine

Nigeria's secret trials - are they really necessary?

Eze Onyeka

How are Nigerians to be convinced that a person accused of embezzling millions of naira who ends up being acquitted and discharged is really innocent?
Nigeria's tribunals trying political detainees of the Second Republic started work on Monday 14th May 1984 and, as has been feared, these trials are being held in SECRET!

The reasons given for holding these trials in camera, according to the Chairman of the Lagos Tribunal and member of the ruling Supreme Military Council, Brigadier Paul Omu, are the sensitive nature of the matters to be discussed and the demands of national security.

After the coup of 31st December 1983, the SMC through its spokesman, Brigadier Tunde Idiagbon, the Chief of Staff, came out at several press conferences to announce that the government had laid its hands on evidence of corruption and gross abuse of power by members of the political class in the second republic.

There were other vague and unclassifiable allegations such as those against Chief Emeka Ojukwu whose charge was that up till the day of the coup he was being surrounded or "protected" by the fanatical "Ikemba Front", a youth wing of the former NPN in Anambra State who were, up till the 31st December 1983, allegedly armed. These press conferences were obviously to justify the coup and gain its leaders legitimacy in the eyes of the Nigerian public and the world at large.

By so doing, the SMC was clearly the prosecutor and one would have ordinarily expected that those "evidences' would have been turned over to the regular courts which still operate under the partly suspended 1979 constitution for a free, fair and impartial trial.

But the government, instead, decided to set up military tribunals made up of officers of the Armed Forces with a judge as a legal advisor, whose views on the admissibility or otherwise of any "evidence", may not necessarily be acceptable to the 'khaki boys'.

It has been argued by the Chief of Staff, Brigadier Idiagbon that any tribunal which chose to ignore the advice of the judge will not have its decisions confirmed. But this is neither here nor there. It is inconceivable that one judge's advice will be able to turn the decision of the entire military men on the tribunal especially coming from a tribunal headed by a member of the SMC itself.

Nigeria's new military rulers have openly committed themselves to the rule of law and a fair trial demands that justice should 'not only be done, but must manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done.' A tribunal that does not allow the public the right (or is it privilege now?) to know the conduct of its proceedings is bound to provoke disillusionment as to how it arrived at its decision.

It is a mystery how the SMC will be able to convince the public both at home and abroad that secret trials will produce the same positively salutary effects on the public which a public trial will do especially in bringing out the message of accountability which these trials seek to impress on the society's mind. In any case, sensitive and state security issues have been handled by courts in the past without jeopardising state security, by clearing the public gallery.

Some of the people involved in these trials are politicians with their own constituencies which are loyal to them even now, and in view of the allegations made earlier in the year by the Chief of Staff against these people, the need for an open trial becomes even more imperative, if justice is not only to be done, but also seen to have been done.

Already, there are rumours of a conflict between the Head of State, thereafter. General Buhari and Brigadier Idiagbon, the Chief of Staff over the preferential treatment given to ex President Shagari and his ex-vice President Dr Alex Ekwueme the former being under house arrest and the latter in Kirikiri Prison.

To ensure that no grounds are given for unfounded speculation as to the trials' fairness, it is necessary that they are held in public. How are we to be convinced that they are not going to be held in the same way as those held in Ghana during Flt.-Lt. Rawlings' AFRC days where an accused person had a soldier standing by him to slap him or kick him into a pulp until he or she 'confessed?'

How are Nigerians to be convinced that a person accused of embezzling millions of naira who ends up being acquitted and discharged is really innocent of the accusation, but not that some of those millions have changed hands?

This is not a far-fetched speculation if it is considered along the mysterious way in which the General-Secretary of the disbanded NPN Alhaji Uba Ahmed vanished from the Murtala Airport on the day of the coup. He had arrived in Lagos on an international flight on the 31st December 1983 when the Airport had been closed because of the coup.

He is alleged to have demanded that the Air Traffic controllers allow his plane to land whatever the reason (not knowing there was a coup on). The plane was allowed to land, and he was picked up only to mysteriously vanish

And supposing a person who evokes intense sympathy or loyalty such as former Lagos State Governor Lateef Jakande or 'Biafran' Leader Emeka Ojukwu found guilty of some nebulous offence, how are we to be convinced that that person deserves it if the trial was held in secret? Won't we be jeopardising national security rather with these secret trials?

Again, how is the public to be convinced that (as it is being rumoured) the trials are being held in secret so that some of the SMC members with some blots on their name from involvement in the previous military administrations will not have their 'sins' exposed? We want the extradition of the Umaru Dikkos and Isyaku Ibrahims from Europe back home to face trial. How do we convince the world about the fairness of the trials they will be facing in Nigeria if these are going to be held in secret? Such trials lack legitimacy and acceptability.

And talking about legitimacy and acceptability, how can we convince the public to accept the verdicts of the trials of a tribunal chaired by Brigadier Paul Omu, a member of the SMC which is the same government which overthrew these politicians and which is prosecuting them? Isn't this a classical case of a person being a judge in his own cause? Isn't this a case of the same person being both a prosecutor and a judge at the same time?

In any case, even if the decisions of these tribunals have to be confirmed, how do we expect the SMC to reverse a decision of a tribunal on which one of their member is sitting as chairman?

Again, decisions of these tribunals are final and not subject to any appeal.

This is not going to help in finding legitimacy and acceptability for the decisions of the tribunal and with the boycott of these secret trials by the Nigerian Bar Association, the situation is made even worse.

With all these reasons, it is quite clear that the reasons advanced so far for holding these trials in camera are, at best, porous. The SMC must neces sarily reconsider the issue or it should not be surprised to find that as soon as their backs are turned, these decisions will be thrown into the gutter, and the 'villains' of today will be the martyrs and heroes of tomorrow, who will be voted for out of sympathy into power again!

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