Truth, Reconciliation and the Nigerian
By Femi Olugbile
One of the most powerful experiences this writer has ever had was meeting and working for a period with a man named Sam Jerry Oni. Sam was a tall man with a ready smile and a gentle kindly voice. In 1963, sponsored by Baptist missionaries, Sam travelled from his home in Ghana to Georgia to become the first black and African student to enrol at Mercer University, an all-white private University. There, he endured the most heinous racism, and was refused entry even into the Churches in his neighbourhood. The loudest voice on the political scene at the time was George Wallace, governor of nearby Atlanta whose rallying cry was ‘Segregation now, segregation forever’ and who openly touted his belief that black people were inferior to white people and they should not be allowed to mix.
Sam Oni studied in this pot-boiler hostile situation from 1963 to 1967. He graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology. He went on to receive a Master’s Degree in Journalism at the University of California in Berkeley.
At the 30th Anniversary of his matriculation, which was also the 30th Anniversary of the desegregation of the University, in 1994, Sam was the star guest and speaker on the campus, receiving standing ovations from past and present students, as well as members of the Georgia community. A large portrait of him now stands in the University’s Alumni House, and a scholarship has been created in his name to sponsor one African student to the University annually.
Governor George Wallace of Alabama, whose speeches had whipped up frenzied hatred against Sam, had himself experienced his own ‘Road to Damascus’ transmogrification by the time the Ghanaian-Nigerian went back to Mercer as a hero. He had been shot by a white would-be assassin during a political campaign. He would thenceforth devote the rest of his political and physical life to apologising to black people like Sam and trying to make life better for the people he had wronged.
‘I was wrong’ he kept saying, sometimes with tears in his eyes. ‘I was wrong’.
The point of the Sam Oni story is that in a good society, it is possible to take a wrong political stance based on ignorance, ideology or prejudice, and later to repent of that belief, show remorse and go on to make peace with people who have suffered because of one’s wrong actions. It is the basis of Restorative Justice, which is a higher, more psychologically wholesome form of justice than the Retributive Justice that is the normal business of the law courts. It starts with the wrong-doer saying publicly – ‘I am sorry’. He shows remorse, apologising to the wronged persons and showing willingness to do what he can to right the wrong. There may be reparations. The community, containing both the wrong-doer and the aggrieved is strengthened. There is reconciliation, and peace and harmony.
This is the psychological basis for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, such as the one pioneered in South Africa by Mandela in 1996, and headed by Desmond Tutu. At its best, it can provide catharsis for individuals and communities that have wronged one another, and offer a basis on which they may put the past behind them. The essential ingredients are – The Truth, a genuine Remorse (‘I am sorry’) along with a request for Forgiveness.
Nigeria is a country of two hundred million people where the wrongdoings of some individuals and groups have dislocated and destroyed the lives of millions of people. Some of these misdeeds, misjudgments and mischievous acts are still at the root of the travails and insecurities in the land today. Many of the ‘guilty’ individuals and groups remain very prominent and powerful in the politics of the country.
At the inception of the fourth republic, Olusegun Obasanjo must have thought along the lines of Mandela, in creating the Oputa Panel in 1999. Nigerian citizens who had suffered violations of their human rights were to come forward and face their perpetrators. The unwritten assumption was that the guilty would tell the truth and seek forgiveness.
Despite the patriotism and passion of Justice Oputa and his panel, the exercise barely scratched the surface of injustice and did not bring any restoration. An illustrative incident, perhaps apocryphal, may be given here. Zakari Biu, the dreaded police chief and Abacha-era enforcer came face to face with journalist Chris Anyanwu, who he was alleged to have physically and psychologically assaulted. After the testimonies, the panel advised the two persons to embrace and forgive each other.
But embrace for what? Forgive what? There was no confession, no truth, no remorse in the statement and body language of the ‘offender’. On what basis was there going to be forgiveness, or reconciliation?
We arrive at a crucial insight. Nigerian leaders never say, ‘I am sorry’, as Governor George Wallace did in Alabama, to Sam Oni and others like him. They do not show remorse. They just double down on their wrongdoings and move on.
To illustrate this, one man who is aspiring to be Vice President of Nigeria in 2023 is on record as saying that Boko Haram was fostered by President Jonathan and facilitated by business profiteers from the South-Eastern part of the country, and that attacks on BH were tantamount to attacks on the North. Hopefully he does not believe this mumbo-jumbo anymore. But he has not recanted, not apologised. He has just moved on.
People achieve public prominence by stigmatising and denigrating other persons and groups. Years later, they may be wiser and better informed, and no longer holding those prejudices. But because there is no apology, no remorse, the odour of their past positions continues to poison the atmosphere. Nobody is quite sure who this ‘leader’ is or what he truly stands for, despite the fact that he will be ‘one heartbeat away from the Presidency’ if he wins the election.
If it is not in the nature of Nigerian leaders to say a genuine ‘I am sorry’ when they are wrong, if they believe, as they do, that apology is a sign of weakness, not of strength of character, it is advisable they undergo psychotherapy to imbibe the virtue, rather than continue to deny, double down, or seek solution in empty gestures such as a Zakari Biu embracing a Chris Anyanwu.
Restorative justice requires much more, but the benefit it could bring to this troubled nation and the people who lead it is truly incalculable.