Former Chairman of Amnesty International (AI), Nigeria chapter, Dr Simeon Aina, has chided President Muhammadu Buhari for his administration’s flagrant disregard of court orders.
He said that the president’s unabashed disobedience to court rulings puts his administration in bad light.
In this interview with Sunday Sun in Ibadan, Oyo State, Dr Aina bared his mind on the ongoing friction between the army and Amnesty International. Excerpts:
How was it like in your leading a human rights group during the dark days of military rule?
Back then, I must tell you that it was hell for me. I was the Amnesty International chairman during the Abacha junta. And we faced constant onslaught by security officials. In one of the attacks, more than 10 men from the State Security Service (SSS) traced and raided my house. I was the only one living here in Akingbile back then. So, they came asking people the mechanic shop behind Dr Aina’s house. The people got confused telling them that there’s no mechanic behind my house, the area was bushy. They knew the men were from SSS and were making inquiries to trace my house. They stormed my house that morning alleging that I’m suspected to be in possession of stolen government documents and ammunition. I told them I was innocent, showed them the dane-gun I inherited from my father and told them that I don’t even know what a government document looks like. They ransacked my house for several hours and barred my children from going to school. They found nothing to incriminate me. When they left, they told me to still report at their base the next day for further interrogation. But in less than 30 minutes after I got there, Amnesty International all over the world began to call out the government, condemning the raid at my house, and calling for my immediate release. Then in 1995, the time they killed Ken Saro-Wiwa along with the other Ogoni Eight, we immediately organized a meeting in Surulere. I don’t know the exact location we held that meeting, because we were moving from one house to the other to avoid being traced by the SSS. At the meeting, we had other rights activists like Ayo Obe of the Civil Liberties Organization (CLO), and together we spoke out against the killings. I bluntly said the military government has shamed us, so we have to shame them out of government. So, the Amnesty then organized to deliver lectures at four areas in Nigeria – Lagos, Abuja, Enugu, and Kaduna. The lecture in Lagos, which held at Maryland went peacefully. Then at Enugu, security officials refused to allow our lectures to hold. That day, Abacha was billed to come for a state visit to Oyo State. So, I left very early for Enugu for my lecture. I went via commercial vehicles because driving a private car will expose me to great risk. When I got to Enugu I observed that I was being followed by SSS operatives. I gathered that the men were given strict orders to disrupt my lecture from taking place. But I remained resolute to deliver my speech because we have spent so much money to organize the event at a hotel. But on getting there, I noticed the police came with two vehicles to block the entrance. I went to their DPO to know why they don’t want us to hold the lecture. and he simply told me that they were following orders from above.
Again at Abuja, we secured the hall at the National Theatre and held our lecture. But we had more of SSS men sitting in the hall. At Kaduna, the lecture billed at the National Library, Kaduna couldn’t hold because the venue has been shut down for three days, and a shoot-on-sight order was issued on anyone or group that came there for any form of lecture. It was really a terrible experience.
Looking back at the sacrifices you made for democracy in Nigeria, are you satisfied with how the country has faired having attained democratic rule?
No, I am not happy. I expected Nigeria to be a leading country in human rights, governance, and democracy in Africa. Take a look at our police stations, go there and see the rot for yourself. Then go to our courts. The term ‘justice delayed is justice denied’ doesn’t apply here. Our slow court process in Nigeria can make one to give up on getting justice, and then opt to take laws into their hands. Nigeria should be progressing not retrogressing. PMB should not be above the law, but in our democracy he is everything. How can a government arrest Sowore and others, and refuse to release them when the court grants them bail. When a judge says ‘release this person’ a responsible government must obey. That is why our standards continue to fall. Here in Nigeria, when people get into political positions, they become too big and powerful. They don’t want to discuss the people that are suffering. It is a pity. The people we fought for have been disappointing us. The leaders we have are only out for self-enrichment and aggrandizement. Hence, I’ve lost interest and hope for whatever happens in our political scenery. I’ve opted not to bother following Nigerian news. Now I prefer to just watch CNN or Yoruba and Igbo movies on television.
There seems to be friction between the AI and the Nigerian army which have resulted in both organisations making disturbing accusations and counter-accusations. The AI accused the army of gross human rights abuses in their war with Boko Haram insurgents, and the army has accused AI of supporting terrorists. What do make out of this situation?
When I chaired the group during the Abacha era we told the world everything that was going on. We were not quiet back then, and I don’t wish people to keep quiet now. Amnesty International is a very credible and respectable organization that should be listened to whenever they speak. AI during my time never issued any statement without facts, we don’t deal with fiction. So, if the army is in conflict with them, then both parties need to sit down on a roundtable and embrace dialogue.
But what is the place for human rights in the army’s war against Boko Haram terrorists?
The fight against Boko Haram should not be termed as ‘war’. they are terrorists. In any war situation, two countries fight and have rules of engagement in the war. For example, if Nigeria and Liberia declare war, we draw up a rule of engagement that must be adhered to by both combating parties. Terrorism must be fought, and terrorists must be dealt with because they (terrorists) are out to kill, rape and maim mindlessly. Terrorists don’t respect anybody, they don’t believe in any rule of engagement. They brutalize and kill civilians. Look at how they are messing up America. If America drops a bomb in a civilian area, they apologize for it, but terrorists don’t do that. So, to me, when two nations engage in formal war, there are rules of engagement, but when it comes to fighting terrorists by the national army, the rule changes.
So, should the army have rules of engagement or consider human rights when fighting these insurgents?
No, they should not. But they must also remember that these fighters are still humans. Hence when the army arrests them, or when they surrender, they should be treated with some fairness. The army must not round them up to be killed or tortured. So to avoid messing up the image of the national army, when they arrest suspected terrorists, let the soldiers not treat them in a beastly manner. However, there’s a great need for these insurgents to be confronted because if you don’t, they’ll take over the country – the Chibok and Dapchi girls are still missing till today. How do we find them? One thing the army needs to do is to call the international observers, and dialogue with them on some of their activities, explain what they are doing, what is going on in the areas being overrun by insurgents, tell them that there is no rule of engagement in fighting terrorists. Until they do that they will be seeing the Nigerian army’s fight against terrorism in a negative light. The way Amnesty sees things is not the way the army sees it. That is why they need to sit down and dialogue.