Africa, Headlines

POLITICS-NIGERIA: Chorus of Appeals Follows Condemnations

Remi Oyo

LAGOS, Apr 29 1998 (IPS) - Shock, sadness and a chorus of appeals Wednesday followed the death sentences that a military tribunal has imposed on six men for allegedly plotting to overthrow the regime of Nigeria’s Gen. Sani Abacha.

The six — including the former number two in Nigeria’s armed forces, Gen. Oladipo Diya, two other generals, a colonel, a major and a civilian — were Tuesday sentenced to death in the central city of Jos by a Special Military Tribunal.

The tribunal was headed by Gen. Victor Malu, who had led the West African peacekeeping force, ECOMOG, that intervened in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Ten other people were sentenced to terms ranging from life to two years imprisonment.

Appeals for the lives of the six have come from various quarters, including from relatives of former minister Gen. Abdulkareem Adisa in Ilorin, 350 km north of here, where his family home is located.

“I beg General Sani Abacha to spare the lives of my son and others,” said Adisa Bakare, father of the man who, until Nov. 17 had been Minister of Works and Housing and a vociferous campaigner for Abacha’s continuance in office.

“If we had known it would end this way, each family of those convicted would have trooped to Abuja to beg for clemency to spare their blood,” Bakare told journalists who gathered at his home after the penalties were announced.

Most people said they were shocked and disappointed by the condemnations, which came on the heels of a visit to Nigeria in February by Pope John Paul II, who had appealed for clemency and for the release of political detainees.

Olubunmi Okogie, Catholic Archbishop of Lagos, confirmed the papal plea and added his personal appeal to Abacha. “We pray the Federal Government will think twice before taking the lives of those sentenced,” Okogie said. “Blood means taking life. Judgement should be left to God, Allah or whatever you call God, who is going to judge the living and the dead.”

Sunday Mbang, President of the Christian Association of Nigeria, called for the abrogation of the death penalty. “My advice to all Nigerians is to stop killing. Killing will not help us,” said Mbang, a Methodist priest. “Whether soldier or civilian, it will not help matters at all. We have killed enough so let us stop killing in order not to offend God any more.”

At least 200 people, mostly soldiers, have been detained and 146 of them executed in connection with coups in Nigeria since the first one was carried out in January 1966.

Mbang insisted that “only God can give or take life”, but by law it is the Provisional Ruling Council (PRC), which Abacha chairs, that will determine — at a yet unspecified date — if some or all of the people sentenced Tuesday will be executed.

The penalties could, in fact, be softened since that has happened before: in 1995, the PRC commuted the death sentence passed on late Major-General Musa Yar’Adua for his involvement in an alleged coup plot to 25 years in jail, and that of ex-head of state Olusegun Obasanjo to 15 years imprisonment.

Human rights and pro-democracy groups have raised questions about the trial, which began Feb 14. “It was not a fair trial and we call on all Nigerians and the international community to reject it,” declared Abraham Adesanya, chair of the main opposition group, the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO).

Adesanya, a lawyer, explained as he did at the onset of the trial that NADECO was not opposed to any trial as long as it is carried out in open court. “To give the judgement respectability, it should have been done in the open,” the septuagenarian argued in a late Tuesday reaction.

“We are not convinced that they committed the offence for which they were found guilty,” added Adesanya. “Judging by the past record of this government, with regards to Ken Saro Wiwa and others, it is a waste of time to plead. But God is higher than everybody.”

Ken Saro Wiwa and other minority rights activists from the Ogoni ethnic group were executed after being convicted by a military tribunal in November 1995.

The Eastern Mandate Union (EMU), another pro-democracy movement charged that the trial was against “acceptable standards and norms and (was) a relegation of international legal procedures”.

In a statement circulated Wednesday, the EMU said: “Our position is that the trial proceedings are flawed. They ought to have been tried in open court which guarantees them access to information and lawyers of their own choice”.

The group alleged that the trial and judgement were deliberate strategies which would be used to perpetuate Abacha in office after a controversial transition to democracy that should have culminated in a presidential election in August and the inauguration of a civilian government in October.

The government decided to replace that election by a referendum on whether Abacha should continue in office following a decision by the country’s five registered parties, earlier this month, to choose the general as their presidential candidate.

“Our position fundamentally is that having gone ahead to pass death sentences, the self-succession plot will now be elevated,” EMU said. “It is a distraction from the issue now which is that of terminating military dictatorship.”

The Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO) was also unhappy with the judgement. The “sentences (will) further compound the socio- political and economic problems of the country,” CLO’s Olawale Fapohunda said in a statement. “We are concerned and we state that death sentences are no longer fashionable. We hope that the sentences would be commuted.”

Human rights lawyer Gani Fawehinmi commented that any killing “will further exarcebate the tension in the country.

“I appeal to the PRC not to ratify the sentences,” said Fawehinmi, who described Diya’s travails as ironic since “Diya single-handedly helped to stabilise this government”, through a series of peace meetings held in southwest Nigeria after the annulment of a presidential poll held on 12 June 1993.

The presumed winner of that election, Moshood Abiola, has been in detention on treason charges since 1994. Abiola is from the Yoruba-speaking Southwest as are the six who received death sentences on Tuesday and four others who were given life imprisonment.

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