Professor Olufemi Odekunle's Arrest and Trial and His Experiences in Prison

ANSD's Introduction to TELL's Interview with Dr. Femi Odekunle

Thousands of documents have been generated from the political crisis that has mushroomed in Nigeria around the Affairs of June 12, a complex of events that have followed from the nullification of the Presidential election of June 12, 1993, which Moshood Abiola was about to win. Many of these are liable to be quickly dated and to lose their immediate appeal. The Association of Nigerian Scholars for Dialogue has no desire to include such documents in the pages of its Web site, no matter their sensational value for the moment. On the other hand, a few of them will endure because they represent important principles in the Nigerian crisis of governance. We believe that the contents of TELL's interview with Dr. Femi Odekunle deserves to be included in these pages because they expose and raise many problems associated with the conduct of military rule.

We received the text of Dr. Odekunle's twenty-two, single-spaced, pages of interview by the famous TELL magazine from the President of the Civil Liberties Organization of Nigeria. Ayo Obe's brief message in transmitting this lengthy interview is instructive and deserves to be repeated. Labeled "Food for Thought," she said of it, "it . . . bears reading and thinking about. It's not pleasant." We agree with that judgment. Although the brutalities and acts of barbarism that appear in this interview are exceedingly troubling, there are many lessons that can be drawn from it.

First, Nigerian scholars are anxious to learn why and how their colleagues seek jobs under military dictatorship. They also want to know how they behave once they join the machinery of military rule. It is significant that TELL's sensitive and nuanced questioning of Dr. Femi Odekunle continually reminded him of what his former students thought of his behavior while serving military dictatorship.

Second, those concerned with understanding the changes that have occurred in Nigeria's criminal justice system under military rule will have a great deal to glean from the lurid accounts of Dr. Odekunle's suffering. The Association of Nigerian Scholars for Dialogue is particularly concerned about the militarization of Nigeria's criminal justice. The Nigerian Prisons are the only custodial services in the country for maintaining prisoners under incarceration. Like other such institutions, they are completely centralized under military rule. Apparently, they have deteriorated to barbaric standards.

Third, pro-democracy groups and human rights organizations around the world have reasons to be concerned about the increasing disappearance of Nigerians' civil rights. We ask the readers of Dr. Odekunle's account to understand that his suffering in prison was minimized because he was a "Professor," an important title in Nigeria. From his own accounts of his prison experiences, the routine punishment of ordinary people is intense. Consider this little fragment from Dr. Odekunle's interview: "We even heard that those in the general store area, who were more than 20, were regularly flogged. In other words, as bad as our own case was, we had, I hate to use the word, a better status treatment compared to those in the general guardroom. . . . Corporals, sergeants and others like the Cokers, the Owatimehins and the Kotangoras. Those people suffered more.[Guards] would just come and say, 'Oh, yes, we have to cane you now.' And wham, fiam, wham, wham, fiam, the bulala[horse whip] would be sounding on their bodies. They would, at times, beat them before breakfast. They would say, 'Do you want your 'hot tea' before or after food?' The 'hot tea' is either six or 12 strokes of the cane. There was a day one of those flogging detainees saw one detainee and said, 'Your body is too smooth, it needs some patterns' and he caned and caned and caned him until he collapsed only to cover himself with a towel, the only 'dress' on him when he was arrested." What disturbs Nigerians in such accounts is that prison conditions were never so brutal in years past. All the key officers mentioned in Dr. Odekunle's account are still in military service. Some of them have been assigned to higher positions in the management of security matters, apparently in recognition of past good services. In other words, this sort of behavior has become a standard under military rule.

Fourth, Nigerian Scholars for Dialogue are gravely fearful that these abnormal structures and processes of criminal justice system will be unreformed in the hurried period of transition from military rule to civil rule, that is, between August 1988 and May 1999. They will be around to haunt Nigerians, even under civil rule. Dr. Odekunle had a high-profile job in the affairs of Sani Abacha's military government. Even he was unaware of a secret police organization called Presidential Strike Force until its units arrested and tortured him. There is no report that this Strike Force, or any of the several other security forces that have marginalized the regular police force, is being dismantled or reformed under Abdulsalam Abubakar's transition program. We urge that the transition program from military rule to a civilian government will be defective if all it does is to organize a show-case election which the international community is invited to watch.

We should reiterate the position of the Association of Nigerian Scholars for Dialogue that a genuine transition from military dictatorship to civil rule should amount to a transformation of the current processes and structures, which have empowered military rule, into a machinery for civil governance. Such changes may well include a requirement that some of these structures and processes, such as the notorious SSS and other secret police formations which serve military rule, should be dismantled. It is clear that Abdulsalam Abubakar's hurried transition program cannot achieve such a transformation. We therefore urge that any resulting governments in May 1999 should be clearly designated as a regime of Provisional Civil Rule whose major responsibilities should be to reform Nigeria's programs of governance. This is the time for the United Nations and the Commonwealth to be involved in Nigeria's affairs with suggestions regarding a substantive and meaningful transition program. Their presence in Nigeria will be hollow if all they do is to come in 1999 as guests to Abuja to watch an election that is ab initio deformed.

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