Nigeria has experienced numerous political crises and instability, including the forceful overthrow of elected governments, attempts at secessionism and revolution, regional unrest and militancy, ethnoreligious violence, election-related violence, terrorism and, recently, banditry and herders/farmers’ crises in some parts of the country. Each of these cases resulted in the loss of many lives and the amplification of ethnic and religious divides. In response, the government has experimented with several processes with transitional justice elements to help affected communities deal with the aftermaths of violence.
Events of 1966
Six years after independence, Nigeria had its first military coup in January 1966. Major Kaduna Nzeogwu, a young military officer of the Igbo ethnic group in southeastern Nigeria, led other young officers in a bloody revolution against the government. Although their actions were initially hailed for the nationalist reasons they advanced, they lost much support after the deaths of 22 prominent Nigerians, mainly of Hausa-Fulani group of northern Nigeria, and their wives. This included the prime minister, two regional premiers and a federal minister. Nzeogwu later admitted that the killings were failures of the planned operation. In the confusion that followed, Nzeogwu could not assume control of the country. Major-General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, another Igbo officer who at the time was the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, became the first military head of state.
Most Nigerians of northern extraction considered Nzeogwu’s coup part of an Igbo agenda to dominate the country. Ironsi’s administration did little to allay those fears. He promptly did away with the federal system of governance by which northerners were more assured of development, and refused to prosecute the coup plotters for the murders. Six months into Ironsi’s term, several military officers from the north staged a “rematch coup” in July 1966. The attack resulted in Ironsi’s assassination and was so brutal that within three days “every Igbo soldier serving in the army outside the east was dead, imprisoned or fleeing eastward for his life.” These events effectively polarized the country’s armed forces along ethnic and religious lines, and shaped the country’s future political trajectory, which included a bloody civil war.
Following the countercoup of July 1966, General Yakubu Gowon, a Christian from the middle belt region of the country, became head of state. He immediately returned the country to a regional system of administration, with the federal military government at the center. But the killing of Igbo soldiers was not the end of the countercoup. A series of massacres of mainly Igbos took place around northern states, especially in Kaduna. An estimated 30,000 Igbos and other easterners were killed in what is now called the anti-Igbo pogrom.
Nigerian-Biafran Civil War
Frustrated by the targeted killings and other injustices against his people, and the federal government’s obvious inaction, Lieutenant Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, the military governor of the eastern region, began agitating for the secession of the region from Nigeria. In response, the Gowon-led federal military government took steps to undermine the movement, including creating 12 new states out of the four existing regions, with the intention of giving independence to non-Igbo speaking ethnic minorities in the east and thereby weakening Ojukwu’s support base. Things came to a head on 30 May 1967 when Ojukwu declared the secession of the Republic of Biafra from Nigeria, plunging the country into a 30-month civil war that resulted in serious humanitarian crises in the east and the deaths of an estimated 3 million people, including children who died of acute starvation.
Post-Civil War Crisis
The Nigerian-Biafran war came to an end in January 1970, when Biafran soldiers surrendered to federal forces. Most of the injustices and complaints which gave rise to the conflict were still there, even as the military clung to power. In 1975, another coup overthrew President Gowon while he was on a state visit to Uganda. Brigadier-General Murtala Mohammed, a Muslim from northern Nigeria, took over as head of state, but his regime was short-lived as he was assassinated in a failed coup attempt in 1976.
Lieutenant General Olusegun Obasanjo became the head of state, and in 1979 handed power to a democratically elected government, with Shehu Shagari as president. Shagari’s civilian government lasted four years, until the military struck again in December 1983. Shagari was overthrown in a bloodless coup by Major General Muhammadu Buhari, but was then himself overthrown by General Ibrahim Babangida in 1985.
Babangida’s regime banned all political activities and frustrated attempts to return the country to civil rule. It clamped down on press freedom, committed human rights violations, and was reportedly responsible for the assassination of Dele Giwa, a renowned journalist and democracy activist, via a parcel bomb in 1986. In 1993, the regime annulled the freest and fairest elections in Nigeria’s history. Amid the civil unrest that followed, Babangida was forced out of the presidency and an interim civilian government was set up, only to be overthrown by General Sani Abacha later that same year.
Abacha’s junta was the most despotic of all the military administrations in Nigeria. It tolerated no opposition, banned all political activities, and engaged in forced disappearances, political assassinations, imprisonment without trial, and other human rights abuses. Its violations included the infamous trial and execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni environmental and socioeconomic rights activists, despite an international outcry; the arrest, imprisonment, and eventual death under suspicious circumstances of Moshood Abiola, the winner of the 1993 presidential elections; the alleged assassination of Kudirat Abiola, Moshood Abiola’s wife; and the execution of prominent retired and serving military officers on trumped-up coup charges. Many Nigerians were forced into exile. The regime came to an end with Abacha’s sudden death in 1998, paving the way for democracy in May 1999.
Nigeria’s return to democracy in 1999 signaled an end to military interference in politics. Yet less than a year into the civilian administration under President Olusegun Obasanjo, continued agitation for oil mineral rights in the Niger Delta, in the South-South region of the country, became cause for serious concern for the administration. The agitation turned violent on 4 November 1999, when 12 Nigeria police officers were reportedly murdered by a militant gang in Odi, a small community in Bayelsa state. In response, the Obasanjo administration deployed soldiers who invaded the community under the guise of engaging the fleeing criminals. The soldiers opened fire on civilians and, according to a report, “the rural town of Odi was levelled. Only a church and a bank building survived the operation. Nothing which had life – man or animal – was moving. They were either dead or in hiding in the bushes.”
Although a federal high court would later find against the government and order compensation for the excessive use of force, no individual has been held accountable and the truth of who ordered the operation remains unknown
Zaki Biam Massacre
In October 2001, two border communities – the Tivs and Jukuns of Benue and Taraba states, respectively – were locked in ethnic clashes. According to reports, about 19 of the soldiers deployed to the area were abducted by Tiv militia groups and later found dead. In a coordinated attack that resembled collective punishment, soldiers descended on several communities in the area, killing, plundering, and pillaging without hindrance, with Zaki Biam being the worst hit. More than 300 civilians were reportedly killed in the attack, including women and children as young as 12.
The government’s reaction was first a dismissal, then a denial, and eventually a justification of the operation. Six years after Obasanjo’s administration ended, the government admitted wrongdoing and made a public apology for the killings. No individual has been held accountable for the massacre.
Jos Religious Crises
Between 2001 and 2004, Plateau state in the north-central region witnessed a series of ethnoreligious crises between Christians and their Muslim neighbors. Jos, the capital city of the state, was the epicenter of the clashes. According to a report released by the government, more than 53,000 people were killed, forcing the federal government to declare a state of emergency on 18 May 2004. Although the recurring clashes were said to be about land ownership, the relationship between Christians and Muslims was affected by religious intolerance and the recent introduction of Sharia laws in the state. In response, the government set up several judicial and executive commissions of inquiry, both at the national and state level, to proffer solutions to the recurring violence.
Niger Delta Militancy
The discovery of crude oil in the Niger Delta came with serious concerns about the safety of the environment of host communities due to the exploration activities of multinational oil companies. Tensions were worsened by the degradation of the ecosystem and the loss of livelihoods by indigenous communities, and by the government’s insensitivity to these concerns, which dates back to the injustice of the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and his comrades.
Although originally non-violent, continuous crackdowns on lawful agitators and the invasion of indigenous communities eventually resulted in reprisals against government forces by now militarized groups, including the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta and the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People. The result was the militarization of the region and a proliferation of arms. In 2006, the situation became a full-blown war, with armed groups engaging government forces in guerrilla warfare, with serious humanitarian and economic implications.
The militancy largely took the form of crude oil bunkering, piracy, kidnapping of foreign expatriates for ransom, and the bombing of oil and other installations. There was also a sustained attack on government forces and other security agents, including the police. The government launched large-scale attacks on suspected hideouts in local communities, with serious fatalities. An estimated 1,000 people were killed in each year of the crisis, while many more were displaced or forced to flee their communities.
Boko Haram Insurgency
The Boko Haram insurgency in northeast Nigeria is a movement ideologically opposed to western education and governance systems and demanding the establishment of an Islamic state. Within a few months of its activities coming into the national consciousness in 2009, the insurgency had grown exponentially, both in geographical spread in the northeast and the gruesomeness of its sustained attacks. The group bombed the United Nations building in Abuja in 2011, killing scores of people.
Boko Haram militants have carried out deadly attacks on local communities, killing people, abducting and raping women and girls and forcing them into marriage. In 2013, scores of women and girls were abducted, while others who were rescued from previous abductions were found pregnant or with children. In 2014, 276 school girls were abducted from their school in Chibok community. By the fourth anniversary of the Chibok abduction, an estimated 1,000 women and girls had been abducted, with fears the number could be far higher. In 2018, another 110 school girls aged 11 to 19 were taken from their school in Dapchi, Yobe state. An estimated 36,000 people have been killed in the war, which has also caused a humanitarian crisis in the region.
Transitional Justice Initiatives
The crises and human rights violations outlined above are by no means an exhaustive account of the crises that have taken place in different parts of Nigeria and at different periods. Other notable examples include the killing of hundreds of members of the Shia Islamic Movement in Zaria by security agents in 2016; the #EndSARS protests that led to the shooting of peaceful protesters in Lekki tollgate, Lagos, in 2020; and the persistent herders/farmers clashes in different parts of the country, which have resulted in deaths and the destruction of property.
Several aspects of the nation’s past and current political, social and economic life sadly reflect the untreated injuries of its past experiences, including inequalities created by colonial administrations. National issues continue to be shaped by the legacies of these occurrences. Several reintegration and transitional justice programs have been initiated by the government to address the aftermaths of some of these crises. A few of them are considered below.
Colonialism and Transitional Justice
Like most African countries, Nigeria experienced colonial incursions, first by the Portuguese in the 15th century and later by the British in the 19th century. The amalgamation in 1914 of the northern and southern protectorates of the areas now known as Nigeria by British imperialists was entirely for their administrative and economic convenience. It did not take into account the ethnic, linguistic and religious plurality of the peoples, particularly of minority or indigenous groups, most of which had established their own social and legal systems. The colonial administrations in Nigeria left legacies in form of policies, laws, and institutional, economic, administrative, security and political structures, most of which are still in existence.
Analysts have observed that most of the current injustices in the country are connected to this colonial past. The repeated military coups can be blamed on the lopsided military architecture bequeathed by colonial administrations. Another colonial legacy is the weak criminal justice system, which is epitomized by a policing pattern that has failed to shed its oppressive and disruptive roles in coercing dissident and minority communities during colonial administrations. In 2020, this repressive tendency was seen in the excessive use of force by the military and the police with peaceful protesters who were calling for the disbandment of a rogue police formation called the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, codenamed SARS.
Post-Civil War Transitional Programs
The end of the 30-month Nigerian-Biafran war was announced with a ‘no winner, no loser’ declaration by the federal military government of Yakubu Gowon in January 1970. It set the ball in motion for the roll-out of a nine-point transitional program to address the legacies of the crisis. The nine-point program is roughly categorized under reconciliation, rehabilitation, and reconstruction initiatives. One of the most successful of these initiatives was the establishment of the National Youth Service Corps, which required all Nigerian graduates to undertake a year-long national service period in any part of the country other than their region of origin, to encourage national unity.
However, the federal government also proceeded to sell off Igbo-owned properties located outside Igboland in line with the infamous ‘abandoned property’ policy, and to pursue the ‘twenty-pound policy’ where Igbos who owned monies in Nigerian commercial banks were only entitled to an equivalent of £20 at the time to rebuild their lives, irrespective of how much they had in their accounts before the war. These are just two examples of the many policies that were considered to be against the purported reconciliation programs. Most of the injustices and dissatisfactions that gave rise to the civil war have remained unaddressed.
Judicial Commission for the Investigation of Human Rights Violations
Established in 1999 as a presidential initiative, the Judicial Commission for the Investigation of Human Rights Violations was mandated to look into the causes, nature and extent of human rights violations committed from the first military coup in January 1966 to the return to civil rule in May 1999, and to identify perpetrators and the role of the state in those violations. It was also mandated to make recommendations on the means to achieve justice and prevent future human rights abuses. The eight-person commission was headed by the respected retired Supreme Court Justice Chukwudifu Oputa, and so is commonly referred to as the Oputa Panel.
Although the Oputa Panel received over 10,000 statements from across the country, only a paltry 150 were actually heard. Some of the challenges that undermined the panel’s work included its lack of subpoena powers; the absence of a legal framework upon which to predicate its powers; lack of adequate funding; and the inability to conduct independent investigations into allegations made before it.
Despite these challenges, the panel managed to submit its report to President Obasanjo in 2002, although the contents were never officially released to the public. An unofficial release indicates that its recommendations included compensation for victims of gross human rights violations; close monitoring of the environmental conditions in the Niger Delta due to oil exploration; and reforms to improve human rights conditions in the country.
State Truth Commissions
Nigerian states have established truth commissions of their own. In November 2007, the Rivers State Truth and Reconciliation Commission was created to investigate the conflict and human rights violations that occurred in the Niger Delta region, specifically Rivers, from 2000 to 2004. The process included a special amnesty program, through which amnesty was offered to individuals who disclosed their crimes and the fates and whereabouts of victims. As this program was unsuccessful, another amnesty program was developed in Rivers State pardoning militants who surrendered their arms within a certain time period. Osun State also established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in February 2011, which investigated human rights violations committed starting in 1993, as well as previous administrations of the Osun government. The final reports of the two commissions have not been made public.
Federal Amnesty Program
The Federal Amnesty Program was introduced by the federal government in 2009 to address the protracted Niger Delta crisis. Preceded by the establishment of the Niger Delta Development Commission as a major institutional reform, the amnesty program was essentially a Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) program that encouraged militants to voluntarily surrender their arms in exchange for state pardon for their crimes. The program also involved training for the demobilized militants in various vocations, including scholarships up to PhD level at foreign universities.
One of the most significant implications of the amnesty program was the implied admission of the government’s excesses and the complicity of multinational oil companies operating in the region. Over 30,000 militants applied to the program, surrendering several kinds of weapons, including gunboats, rocket-propelled grenades, and machines guns. Despite pitfalls and criticisms, the program is arguably one of the most successful post-conflict interventions in the country, going by the impact it has had on militant youth and the relative peace that has since returned to the oil-rich region.
National Conference (Dialogue)
To find a lasting solution to the ongoing ethnoreligious crises and other issues threatening the country’s unity, President Goodluck Jonathan in 2014 called for a national dialogue. Five hundred delegates representing diverse ethnic, religious, linguistic and other groups met in Abuja to discuss contentious issues facing the country, including revenue sharing and political structures.
At the end of its five-month deliberations, the conference submitted its report to the president, recommending the restructuring of the current local government system; the return of the country to a parliamentary system; rotation of presidential and other elected positions among the geopolitical zones; and the creation of 18 additional states. Even though the conference was considered a success, it had no legal backing and its recommendations are not binding. Critics consider it a diversionary tactic, as it was convened a few months before the general elections, amid tensions in different parts of the country. They also argue that the report left much to be desired, as it failed to meet the expectations of those calling for restructuring and reform of the current system. As with other similar reports, the recommendations in the conference report have not been implemented to date.
Operation Safe Corridor
Operation Safe Corridor is an ongoing initiative of the federal government of Nigeria, established in 2016 as a DDR initiative in response to the Boko Haram insurgency. The program is implemented through the Federal Defense Headquarters, and was designed to rehabilitate and reintegrate Boko Haram militants into their communities. Many insurgents have undergone the program and are currently deployed to various vocational trainings, including service in the Nigerian army. Although the intention of the government is to bring an end to the protracted insurgency, the initiative has not yielded the desired result. There are even reported cases of demobilized fighters acting as informants for insurgents.
One of the major flaws of Operation Safe Corridor is the lack of ownership and trust among local and other stakeholders, who insist that the government’s priority should have be the victims of the insurgency. There is also the implied admission of defeat on the part government forces which have so far failed to contain the insurgency.
Crisis, Gender and Transitional Justice in Nigeria
Like in most conflict situations, women in Nigeria have been disproportionately affected by internal crises and targeted for conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV). During the civil war, women and girls, especially on the Biafran side, suffered sexual violence, including gang rapes, mass rapes, military sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, and genocidal rape. Similarly, the Boko Haram insurgency is largely a gendered war, where the bodies of women and girls serve as a fiercely contested battle ground. For example, apart from the horrific sexual violence that characterizes their operations, insurgents used an estimated 21 children for suicide bombings in 2015 alone, some as young as nine years old and all girls.
Despite the disproportionate way they are affected, the needs of women and girls are not adequately accommodated, nor are women considered an integral part of the decision-making process for rehabilitation programs and other transitional justice processes. There is yet no national acknowledgment of the sexual violence committed against women by both government forces and armed groups or of the experiences of children born out of war. Again, neither the post-war transitional programs, the Oputa Panel report, nor the DDR programs have acknowledged their experiences.
Nigeria’s religious, ethnic and other diversities are reflected in the many crises it has undergone. Most of these crises have resulted in the loss of lives and serious humanitarian problems for the affected communities. In response, the government has experimented with different transitional justice measures, including amnesties, rehabilitation and reintegration programs, judicial and executive commissions of inquiry, and institutional reforms. The suitability of these interventions to each specific crisis and whether they achieved the purposes for which they are initiated is debatable. One thing is clear: Nigeria is a country in constant search for peace and stability.
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 Ibid, (n 40above).
 Ibid (n 40 above)
 E Zwanbin ‘The Challenges of Transitional Justice in Nigeria: Echoes from the Oputa Panel, 1999’ (2017) Journal of language, Technology, and Entrepreneurship in Africa Vol 8, pp73-91.
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 OE Ubhenin ‘The Federal Government’s Amnesty Programme in the Niger Delta: An Appraisal’ (2013) Journal of Administrative Science, 179.
 Ibid (n 48 above)
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 Ibid, (n 46 above)
 Ibid, (n 52 above)
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