NO one knows how well the Nigerian government bears the continuous needling of the international rights group, Amnesty International (AI). At its International Day of the Disappeared, which was marked in Abuja last Wednesday, Amnesty asserted that hundreds of Nigerians were being held in secret detention camps nationwide. Some of the relations of the alleged victims of secret detention reportedly attended the Amnesty briefing. Furthermore, the rights group restated its conclusions about the killing of over 300 Shiite members during a clash with soldiers in Zaria about two years ago. But in a spontaneous reaction, Information minister, Lai Mohammed, claimed that Amnesty did not get its facts right. No one, he said, was in any secret detention.
According to Alhaji Mohammed: “I should know if such a thing exists. This government is not in the least repressive. This government is tolerant of all views. It is a big shame if an organisation like Amnesty International will cook up this kind of story. I should know. Who are the dissidents that are being kept in an unknown place? I should know. I face a lot of criticism, I face a lot of attack. Who are the dissidents that are being detained there? It is certainly untrue, let them come out with facts and should stop relying on hear-say and some so-called NGOs. When they have this kind of story, they should contact the government before they go out to smear the name of the country. They should know that at Amnesty International, people take them seriously.”
Perhaps it is normal to spontaneously respond to questions touching on government policies, especially as a spokesman. But except in witty exchanges where ripostes are de rigueur, it is often hard to gauge the effectiveness or necessity of spontaneity. Would it not have been proper for the Information minister to ask for time to study the report, which he almost certainly had not seen? Had he done that, he would have been able to take the report apart, if he had the controverting facts he claimed to depend on in denying Amnesty’s story. But even in his spontaneous reaction, Alhaji Mohammed said nothing about the December 2015 killings in Zaria under the Buhari presidency. The minister will remember that Kaduna State government set up an inquiry to investigate the killings, and it was confirmed that at least 347 Shiite members were killed and buried in two mass graves. Amnesty made reference to that gory fact as well; but Alhaji Mohammed glossed over it.
Indeed, during the public presentation in Abuja, Amnesty brought a few people to share their experiences of family members who allegedly disappeared or were imprisoned in secret detention facilities. One of them was Zainab Isa who said her husband, Abdullahi Abbas, and their six children’s whereabouts were not known since the night of December 14, 2015 following the clashes in Zaria. According to her, “He sells books at the Husainiyyah (in Zaria) where the clashes took place. All six of our children were with him that day. Up till now, we don’t know their fate. We don’t know whether the seven of them are alive or dead and no one is giving us any information that can ease our pain.” Given his angry rebuttal, however, Alhaji Lai seemed more interested in safeguarding the image of the government than in responding to the anguish of some of the families of victims of forced disappearance. Without a closure, however, the matter will not go away, and one day, those responsible for these horrendous crimes in the name of national security will be held accountable.
With security forces and law enforcement agents periodically engaged in reprisal and extra-judicial killings, including razing of whole communities, such as was witnessed in Odi in Bayelsa State and Zaki Biam in Benue State during the Olusegun Obasanjo presidency, government spokesmen must be more measured in refuting reports of rights groups, be they local or foreign. In fact, only last Sunday, soldiers allegedly invaded two riverine communities in Ekeremor Local Government of Bayelsa State to avenge the murder of a soldier by pirates. They, however, claimed it was not an invasion. But with such periodic lawlessness and lack of restraint and precision by law enforcement agents, it is not hard to understand why Amnesty will continue to produce fat reports on Nigeria detailing forced disappearances, secret detention facilities and extra-judicial killings. Rather than react angrily to such reports, often without real substantiation, it is time the government took another look at its methods and practices in order to build a society anchored on justice, rule of law and equity.