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Stakeholders drum support for Transitional Justice

By Ameh Ochojila, Abuja
30 November 2021   |   4:06 am
For over a decade, Nigeria’s Northeast region has been bedeviled with the heinous activities of the Boko Haram terrorists.

Ojukwu

For over a decade, Nigeria’s Northeast region has been bedeviled with the heinous activities of the Boko Haram terrorists. The criminal activities of these groups have led to loss of thousands of precious lives, millions displaced, lots of children orphaned, women turned widows and the aged left to fend for themselves in a very hostile economic environment.

The impacts of banditries and insurgencies are not only on the battered citizens’ psyche, but have led to loss of social cohesion in the affected areas. In Adamawa, Niger, Katsina, Borno, Yobe, among other states, the activities of these insurgents have continued unabated. More worrisome is the fact that it is gradually eroding the trust in the government’s capacity to secure life and property of citizens, while existing bonds among neighbours are crashing.

As part of strategies to reverse the ugly trend, judicial experts have called for an all-inclusive justice for all stakeholders, victims, perpetrators and the society. While some are calling for summary trials of perpetrators of the egregious crimes in the conventional courts, others argue that transitional justice mechanism is the answer.

Historically, the term transitional justice was first used by legal academics in the United States in the early 1990s to describe the process of rebuilding societies that suffered human rights violation, recovering from civil wars or long military rules.

It gradually became prominent in countries that suffered long despotic rules or undemocratic rules, where the U.S helped to restore democratic governance as witnessed in Liberia, Latin America, South Africa, Kosovo, among others.

In the case of Rwanda, for instance, on taking over power, the People’s Liberation Army eventually rounded up the perpetrators of the genocide. At least 80 per cent of the perpetrators were tracked. Instead of open court trials, the authorities opted for an ad hoc community mechanism for redress (transitional justice), and today, they are better for it.

However, the use of this kind of ad hoc mechanism designed to heal wounds through reconciliation is yet to be properly activated in pursuit of rights violations in Nigeria, although the defunct Oputa panel set up by the then military government of President Olusegun Obasanjo was an attempt at it.

Ogbonna

Unfortunately, the report of the Oputa panel was not followed through to its basic implementation, unlike the other similar Ad- Hoc mechanisms developed in other countries of Africa, which recorded successes. For instance, South Africa and Rwanda used transitional justice to attempt justice for citizens as well as reconcile and re-bond the people after the days of apartheid and genocide, respectively.

These countries, which had used the non-traditional judicial mechanisms engaged in sincere national conversations and their citizens came out better informed on what led to such uprisings, the ills associated with the atrocities and charted ways forward.

One of the major merits of this transitional justice mechanism, as argued by lawyers, is that, when used, it fosters institutional inclusion, repair social relations in divided societies; facilitate durable solutions to displacement; address root causes and transform formal messages.

Expert studies have shown that contribution of transitional justice to prevention is rather straightforward by dealing with the past effectively, the risk of recurrence is reduced and the possibility of sustainable peace is assured.

The project coordinator for Transitional Justice in Nigeria, Hilary Ogbonna, observes that the Nigerian judiciary at the moment does not have the capacity to simultaneously handle the trial of just 5,000 offenders, let alone contemplate the trial of an estimated 50,000 Boko Haram insurgents.

The lawyer, therefore, advocates the use of transitional justice mechanism in addressing the issue of justice for all sides, as a panacea for peaceful coexistence and enhancement of social cohesion rather than trying the suspects in the open courts.

He argued that the use of transitional justice mechanism would, among others, save the already overstretched Nigerian judiciary from being further overloaded with more responsibilities.

Ogbonna further emphasised that there is an urgent need, more than ever, to rebuild the northeast region, broken down by violence.

He said: “People have to go back to their normal lives without fear and mistrust of the other person. Most importantly, there is a need for the people to forgive each other, reunite and reintegrate to forge ahead with life, and in doing so, no one would be left behind.

“Transitional justice is ideal for communities that have experienced conflicts and systematic human rights violations, as a process of rebuilding them as well as attaining peace.

“For victims of these heinous activities to contend with the massive and serious human rights violations as well as finding solutions to issues of livelihood which they have been denied as a result of the unfortunate situation, there has to be justice for all.” This, he argued, can only be attained through such ad hoc mechanism to heal the wound of injustice.

Also, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) Executive Secretary, Anthony Ojukwu, agreed that in addressing these thorny and often difficult issues and other critical challenges in the country, the transitional justice processes are necessary.

Ojukwu explained that the essential premise of transitional justice is for the society to move from a condition where rights were massively violated to one where rights are generally respected, adding that the crimes of the past and their consequences must be addressed.

According to Ojukwu, in building capacity for peace and reconciliation, the transitional justice project must set up a community framework for the process and provide a platform for community participatory and restorative justice. The project, he said, is community-based and its success will be achieved with the full cooperation and partnership of traditional, community and religious leaders.

According to him, the transitional justice mechanism provides quick access to justice, specifically for victims of human rights violations, and generally for society to build confidence in the ability of the affected communities to adequately deal with such violations. “This can be achieved when community members are allowed to discuss common threats and problems, proffer solutions to peaceful co-existence, while holding people accountable for their crimes,” Ojukwu said.

The NHRC scribe further argued that it could foster institutional inclusion, repair social relations in divided societies; facilitate durable solutions to displacement, address root causes, and transform societal norms. Ojukwu explained that it was the recognition of the importance of such justice mechanism that the United Nations prioritised its development in its global policy agenda, particularly through the implementation of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the prevention of violent conflicts.

Available information reveals that the European Union (EU) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) have embarked on the project of promoting reconciliation, reintegration and transitional justice in Adamawa, Borno and Yobe State. Four processes are ongoing in Borno, two in Adamawa and one in Yobe State, which are expected to launch Nigeria into a similar state of wound-healing toward transforming human resources as achieved in Rwanda after its war.

Funded by the EU, it seeks to promote a community-based non-judicial transitional justice for victims and the community, while reintegrating the returning ex-fighters into the communities after adequate screening.

Ochogwu

While partnering with the EU on the subject matter, the NHRC said inclusive and effective responses to massive human rights violations occasioned by conflicts could be valuable to victims and affected communities and at the same time contribute to societal development.

Another use of transitional justice, according to Ojukwu, is that it would help to ensure public access to information of truth-telling initiatives and trials, as well as provide the public with information previously not widely known about the nature of a crime or violence committed during armed conflict.

The lawyer argued that the path to reconciliation, reintegration and reconstruction would only be sustained in an atmosphere of peace, and a community process of transitional, restitutive and restorative justice.

However, other lawyers, who expressed their opinions on the use of the informal judicial processes called for holistic involvement of troubled states.  While the lawyers agreed that transitional justice could be appropriate in the current circumstance, they feared that it could be abused if not properly constituted.

According to an Abuja based lawyer, who requested not to be named, Nigeria needs to exercise caution in approaching an ad hoc mechanism to handle matters that are directly against the state.

According to him, it is a great approach, but due to the diverse nature of the country, the pulse of other regions of the country must be felt, while adopting the justice mechanism as an alternative to a conventional trial.

The lawyer said Nigerians must be properly engaged, and educated towards understanding the essence of the new justice mechanism. The legal practitioner, therefore, called for proper sensitisation on the concept before, and during the project so as not to be misunderstood, such that it becomes counterproductive.

“Why would such a commission or mechanism not be set up holistically so as to look at the general injustice leading to the various uprising across the country, atrocities committed by citizens in their course of reaction to injustice, and socioeconomic circumstances,” he queried?