The Nigerian Human Rights Violations Investigation Commission – later named the Judicial Commission for the Investigation of Human Rights Violations, and commonly known as the Oputa Panel after its head Chukwudifu Oputa – was inaugurated on 14 June 1999 by then President Olusegun Obasanjo and operated until 2001. The commission was mandated to investigate the gross human rights violations that occurred from 15 January 1966, the day of the first military coup after the country obtained independence in 1960, until 29 May 1999, the date of the official transition to democracy (HRVIC, 2002a, p. 20).

This period was marked by the secessionist Biafran War (1667-1970), led by Lt. Odumegwu Ojukwu in the East Region of Nigeria. The war is estimated to have to led to 1-3 million deaths as a result of fighting and the famine prompted by the government’s decision to blockade Biafra (Philips, 2000). The start of this 33-year period, which saw nine successful and unsuccessful coup attempts, would also usher Nigeria into years of military rule characterised by further human rights abuses, particularly in oil-producing areas such as Ogoniland in the Niger Delta.

The Oputa Panel found that sexual violence was prevalent during the period under investigation. Sexual abuse, rape and forced marriages occurred during the Biafran War and the state-sanctioned violence in Ogoniland during periods of military rule. Although the commission acknowledged the existence of this violence, it did not make recommendations towards reparations or any other measure for victims of conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) (HRVIC, 2002b, p. 156).

Conflict and Prevalence of Sexual Violence

Shifts between different authority structures in Nigerian society have been linked to the reshaping of gender relations between men and women. For example, Igbo women practiced more political autonomy and agency before occupation and subsequent colonisation by the British Empire (Anunobi, 2002, p. 45). Following the implementation of structures such as indirect rule, which prioritised systems of male chieftaincy under the direct occupation of the British, this declined. The political domain would soon be ruled as a “men’s concern,” which affirmed structures of patriarchy and the domination of women by men (Anunobi, 2002, p. 45; Matandela, 2020).

The period between 1966 and 1999 would not differ, with women being seen as objects within the systems they occupied, even when they practiced significant forms of agency. The Oputa Panel’s findings demonstrate that the breakdown in the rule of law in the country increased targeting of women and exacerbated existing structures of patriarchy and violence that increasingly objectified women.

Biafran War (1967-1970)

Upon independence, tensions around religion and ethnicity as well as patronage networks formed along ethnic lines became a prominent feature of political affairs in Nigeria (Heerten & Moses, 2014, p. 173). The Biafran War was triggered by the first ethnic countercoup in 1967, which resulted in the assassination of Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, the general commanding officer of the Nigerian army, who was of Igbo descent.

The war, seen as Ojukwu’s insurgency against the internationally recognised federal state of Nigeria, was characterised by human rights violations by both federal and Biafran troops across ethnic groups (Ogbonna-Nwaogu, 2008, p. 253). The documented violations included abuses of a sexual nature, such as rape, forced marriage, sexual slavery and the abduction of women and children from the Igbo ethnic group during the conflict. These violations were concentrated in the contested Niger Delta region. The Oputa Panel found that “also, in Asaba, many women were raped and forcefully ‘married’ by Nigerian soldiers” (HRVIC, 2002b, p. 39).

Indiscriminate gang rapes and other grievous violations against women were recorded during the war. According to Ogbonna-Nwaogu (2008, p. 253), this “happened routinely in the war zone among many more horrendous tales of mothers who were raped in full view of their children before being bludgeoned to death and stories of machete-wielding soldiers who split open the bellies of pregnant women at roadblocks, ‘to find hidden rebels.’” The Biafran War would account for only some of the many accounts of sexual violence experienced by women during the investigated period

Military Rule (1966-1999)

The Oputa Panel found that government troops committed violations against ethnic groups such as the Ogoni during the Niger Delta conflict in the 1990s. It also documented sexual harassment and abuse of women during their incarceration by criminal justice agents of the military state (HRVIC, 2002b, p. 196). As Ekine (2008, p. 74) notes with regard to this ethnic targeting, “in this instance, rape also has an ethnic dimension as the military and police deployed in the Niger Delta are not indigenous to the region with many of them coming from the North of the country.”

The militarisation of oil-producing areas in the Niger Delta, where the state assisted oil companies like Shell, led to further violations such as the executions of activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and his colleagues and the use of sexual violence against women. The commission reported that state agents would “kill, maim, rape and destroy properties in those communities in the real tradition of an army of occupation” (HRVIC, 2002b, p. 44). Odoemene (2012) coined this ‘national security rape,’ often done to torture or humiliate women perceived to be from a ‘subversive’ group that challenged the interests of the state.

Such violations occurred particularly in Ogoniland, where protests against the environmental occupation and degradation by petro-businesses were called an insurgency by the government. The government’s response to the Ogoni people’s agitation “included rape, forced prostitution, sexual slavery, sex-related threats, sexual harassment (fondling the bodies of women and young girls). Similarly, instances of forced pregnancy, though of lesser occurrence, were also acknowledged” (Odoemene, 2012, p. 234). Children as young as 12 were targeted and threatened with rape if they refused sexual relations with soldiers (Ekine, 2008, pp. 74-75).

The nature of sexual violence would take different forms during the period under investigation, with socio-political conditions and ethnic and religious tensions playing a key role (Odoemene, 2012, p. 237). While it remains underexplored and largely undocumented, some studies have noted the pervasive nature of the sexual violence, particularly in cases of state-sanctioned violence against ethnic groups such as the Ogoni and mass gang rapes and forced sterilisation of Igbo men during the Biafran War (Martins, 2019, p. 6). This demonstrates both the repressive and the genocidal nature of the CRSV and the weaponised nature of sexual violence in the period under investigation.

Contributing Factors around Sexual Violence

The sexual violence during the investigated period could be attributed to various factors, including the prevailing norms and military cultures that arose from the different occupations by state troops.

Nigeria, after the colonial experience under the British, embarked on a national project of uniting people across ethnic and religious identities, with each identity consisting of its own particular characteristics that informed gender. Odoemene (2012, p. 228) notes that notions around sexual violence were loaded with sociocultural constructions and that “this construction is a masculine representation that ironically reinforces the definition of women as property, the exclusive sexual territory of their husbands.” The normative ideologies that existed in the context of Nigeria would often feed into the numerous abuses that women faced in society, as their position was relegated to fitting the existing structures of patriarchy.

At the height of the conflict and state repression, various actors manipulated these norms in targeting women, men and children along ethno-religious lines. As Odoemene (2012, p. 228) argues, “within a sociocultural context, an attack on a victim can be construed as an attack on a position within the community. Thus, the victim is selected for assault because of where she fits within a people – a member of a group under attack.” The targeting of victims of sexual violence transcended the gender element as it was entwined with ethnicity and religion.

This was seen throughout the Biafran War and again in the Niger Delta, with the targeting of Ogoni women (Martins, 2019, p. 6). It demonstrates the notion of women being stripped of their autonomy, as they were moved from being an individual body to a collective body that belonged to their community rather than themselves. The documented violations were often done publicly, in front of people close to the victim, to humiliate and silence women and to affirm the gender ideal of ‘putting women in their place’ (Odoemene, 2012, p. 238). According to the commission’s findings, this was often referred to as the “rape of women in the name of maintaining peace and order” (HRVIC, 2002c, p. 149). Through these violations, the repression against the Ogoni could be ensured by government.

Another factor that drove targeting of Ogoni women was the socio-cultural idea that acts of sexual violence against them humiliated Ogoni men. In the Niger Delta, the military would orchestrate this violence to send a message to Ogoni men at the height of the demonstrations (Odoemene, 2012, p. 238).

Transition and Establishment of the Truth Commission

Nigeria’s transition from military to democratic civilian rule in 1999 came as a result of several intersecting factors, particularly high-level domestic and international pressure. This included the breakdown in mediation initiated by African heads of state with the Nigerian government over concerns of human rights violations (AP Archive, 1996). Since the Niger Delta conflict, Nigeria had an active set of civil society organisations, which also highlighted the nature of violations that were occurring under the military regime. The state’s execution of activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and his colleagues after the demonstrations in the Niger Delta illuminated the human rights abuses that were occurring under the military government (APA, 1995). They triggered international sanctions against Nigeria (Hakeem, 2018).

Following the death of General Sani Abacha in 1998, the military government conceded to a transition to democracy. This came as a result of negotiations that are commonly referred to as the “elite pact,” which involved the military leadership and civilian elites. The elite nature of the transition set the stage for the similar nature of the transitional justice process in the country, which Hakeem (2018) notes accounts for the uncoordinated process of ensuring justice for victims of human rights violations.

The Oputa Panel was established on 29 May 1999 through Instrument No. 8 of 1999, “under powers conferred on the President by Section 1 of the Tribunals of Inquiry Act” (HRVIC, 2002a, p. 28). The commission framed its purpose as moving from the institutional and structural decay that occurred under the military by reviewing the past and providing redress for the injustices that occurred (HRVIC, 2002a, p. 29).

The commission consisted of eight commissioners, six of whom were from the six geopolitical zones that make up the 36 states under the federation, in line with the state’s aim of decentralisation. Six of the commissioners were men and two were women. The commission consisted of a Legal Department, Research and Investigations Unit, Media Liaison Unit, and Logistics and Human Resources Unit. It did not have a gender unit or specialised staff dedicated to examining the abuses against women and other marginalised groups.

The international actors that worked closely with the commission were mainly donors, which provided assistance and technical support during the process of establishing the commission and support during the course of the inquiry. They include the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, the Ford Foundation, the British Council and the German Embassy (HRVIC, 2002a, p. 17).

Mandate and Scope in Respect of CRSV

The Terms of Reference for the commission stated that it needed to establish the causes and nature of the gross violations of human rights that occurred between 15 January 1966 and 28 May 1999. They also said that any persons, authorities and institutions that were responsible for these crimes would be held accountable, with the commission determining whether an individual was acting on behalf of themselves or under the orders of the state.

The mandate of the commission was to establish the direct causes, nature and extent of the gross human rights violations for the set period. This was based on its fact-finding attempts in the form of petition applications that were open to the public in the different states. The commission was able to collect more than 10,000 petitions. The categories of violations that were found included murder/assassination, abductions and torture, harassment and intimidation, prolonged detention (with or without trial), attempted assassination, employment-related cases, and contractual and business-related cases such as wrongful dismissals and termination of employment (HRVIC, 2002a, p. 28).

The commission did not receive a significant number of petitions related to sexual violence, and therefore chose not to explicitly investigate violations of this nature.

Truth Commission Operations

The commission held hearings in the six geopolitical zones and a special hearing for civil society and human rights organisations. After receiving a petition, the commission would issue summons for the petitioner, relevant witnesses and the alleged perpetrator (HRVIC, 2002d, p. 6).

The public hearings were designed to ensure accessibility to the truth-seeking process. The most contradictory part that is often referred to as the greatest failure and case of impunity in the Oputa process was that the commission did not act when key military leaders, such as General Muhammed Buhari and General Ibrahim Babangida, failed to appear after receiving their summons (Zwanbin, 2017, p. 84).

The hearings did not include any procedures that explicitly addressed the needs of victims, such as special provisions for victims/survivors of CRSV. However, Elvira Melin (2016, p. 20) notes that “although no structural measures were taken to ensure gender sensitivity, in the Port Harcourt hearings for example, women were allowed to give testimony with their faces covered,” thus providing some ad-hoc protections.

Truth Commission Final Report

The Oputa Panel final report presents accounts of sexual violence in the form of rape, forced marriage, forced abduction of women and children, and sexual harassment (HRVIC, 2002c, p. 39). These violations were found to be systematic and pervasive during the Biafran War and under military rule. In some of the accounts, rapes were perpetrated by civilians, which indicates the normalisation of sexual violence in the society at the time. The commission did not define CRSV in its findings.

In an effort to bridge the gap between the petitions received by the commission and the undocumented experiences of individuals, including an exploration into women’s rights, the Oputa Panel published a research report compiled by external researchers on what it referred to as a “neglected history” (HRVIC, 2002e, p. 29). The report shows that rape and forced abduction of women and children were rampant during the period the commission investigated.

Referring to the Biafran War, the report states, “There were also rampant cases of sexual abuse, rape and forced marriages by federal soldiers in Cross River state during the war” (HRVIC, 2002b, p. 39). Other associated crimes included the molestation of women and girls, sexual slavery in the war camps and genital mutilation (HRVIC, 2002b, p. 157). This detail would then describe the widespread nature of sexual violence during the Biafran conflict. Although there is some documentation of men being victims of sexual violations such as forced sterilisation, these violations were not dealt with by the commission.

Under the military regime, violations included rape, sexual harassment and forced detention, which resulted in other violations, such as lack of antenatal and postnatal care and of sanitary provisions for women (HRVIC, 2002b, p. 194). This demonstrates how sexual violence was used as a war and torture tactic in the context of the military regime, and how the male-stream structure of prisons, which were often unaccommodating to women, would strip them of their reproductive health and rights.

With reference to the Port Harcourt public hearings, the report outlines the role of the state security forces in the rape of Ogoni women, and how this was often referred to as the “rape of women in the name of maintaining peace and order” (HRVIC 2002c, p. 149). The report also details the complicity of multinational corporations such as Shell in the rape of Ogoni women, as they colluded with the state in its use of violence to ensure access to oil reserves.

The period covered would reveal the pervasive nature of state-sponsored sexual violence in Nigeria. Although the commission also highlighted accounts of sexual violence committed by civilians, this aspect was underexplored.

Truth Commission Recommendations

Although the Oputa Panel final report discusses sexual violence, it makes no recommendations focused on victims/survivors of these crimes. The recommendations include symbolic and material reparations for victims in general.

The commission recommended prison reform, as prisons were sites for many of the violations during the period of military rule (HRVIC, 2002d, p. 53). Furthermore, it recommended the establishment of a Ministry for Women Affairs for the government to better understand the experiences of women during its nation-building pursuits. It made no specific recommendations on guarantees of non-repetition for sexual violations (HRVIC, 2002d, p. 53).

Implementation of the Truth Commission Recommendations

The final report of the Oputa Panel was not released by the government of Nigeria, due to a series of litigation attempts by former heads of state implicated in the report. Following the Fawehinmi vs. Babangida case and a Supreme Court ruling which stated that only state governments had the power to establish such a commission and not the federal government, implementation efforts ground to a halt (Hassan & Olugbuo, 2015, p. 131). Civil society organisations in the country have continued to advocate for the public release of the report. The report was unofficially released online. The state has implemented no recommendations to date.


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