By Gloria Mabeiam Ballason Esq
By show of hands, how many people are tired of the blood letting in Nigeria? I see hands from the North, South,East, West, Middlebelt, South-south…more hands are going up… that’s about every conscientious human in Nigeria right now. And how many people are willing to do something to stop the killings or demand for accountability or at least learn what little they can do to reinforce human dignity in Nigeria? Please click on the link if you fall in any two or all of the categories mentioned.
In 2019, I along with 21 other conscientious citizens across very troubled countries of the world (Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Philippines, Jammu Kashmir, Lebanon, Gambia, Nigeria, Kenya, USA, Algeria, Columbia,Kenya etc) gathered in the Spanish-speaking country of Guatemala where we were hosted by the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala (FAFG). The team at the FAFG led by an outstanding man, Mr. Fredy Peccerelli, use DNA, archeology and story telling to find the bodies of those killed during the 30-year civil war in the country and to demand justice for the victims.
On Thursday 25 June, 2020, Mr. Fredy Peccerelli will be the Keynote Speaker at the House of Justice powered 2020 Molluma Medico-Legal conference here in Nigeria. His is a remarkable story of a citizen who is leading the fight for the entrenchment of human dignity even if it means excavating the evidence from DNA or human bones.
The theme for the Accountability conference coming up in just about four days time is: From Atrocity to Closure: Managing Victims and Deploying Forensics in the Aftermath of a Killing. A faculty of experts from Nigeria and abroad will provide insight on how Nigerian citizens can move towards accountability rather than just bemoan their fate at the virtual event. They include, Mrs. Osai Ojigho, the Country Director of Amnesty International, Mr. Khurram Parvez, the Chairman Asia Federation Against Involuntary Disappearance and Peter Kiama Esq, the Executive Director of the Independent Medico Legal Unit in Kenya. Ahmad Salkida, the Nigerian citizen who has worked tirelessly on the issue of insurgency in the North East and doubles as Editor in Chief,HumAngle will also speak at the event just as Abiodun Baiyewu, the cerebral and articulate Country Director, Global Rights. The event is not business as usual but a citizens movement who are willing to put their feet to their mouth in demanding an end to the killings in Nigeria.
BETWEEN GUATEMALA & NIGERIA.
Scratch language. Nigeria and Guatemala could be twin seeds of the same pod. From 1960 Guatemala was steeped in a Civil War that consumed over 200,000 of its 10.65 million population in 1996 when the war ended. Guatemala is the third biggest country in Central America. It has one of the highest disparities between the rich and poor as well as one of the highest poverty levels worldwide with 54% of the population living below the poverty line as at 2011.
By 2018, the Brooking Institution Report showed that Nigeria took over from India as the World’s Poverty Capital. India which had about 73million poor people was upstaged by Nigeria’s over 87 million extremely poor people out of its 206 million population with 6 Nigerians slipping into extreme poverty every minute.
Like Nigeria, Guatemala struggles with the problem of corruption, impunity and a lack of respect for the rule of law. But that is perhaps, where the similarities between the two countries freeze. Despite its woes, Guatemala shows promise by the work of its active citizens who take ownership of their country and engage in deliberate acts that move towards positive difference.
After the Civil war had ended, their citizens began a journey to accountability that have continued till this day. A few stories illustrate it: Myrna Mack, an anthropologist, was one of over 200,000 people killed during the conflict. Mack had been studying the Guatemalan army’s mistreatment of displaced rural communities when she was attacked in front of her office on September 11,1990 at Guatemala City, the country’s capital.
She was stabbed 27 times and bled to death on the street. The Guatemalan police initially informed her relatives that she had died from a tragic traffic accident. They later suppressed a 60-page report of their own investigations which concluded that the killing was politically motivated and that the killers were linked to the military.
In 1993, Army Sergeant Noel Beteta was convicted of the murder of Mack and was sentenced to 25 years imprisonment. The Sergeant was a serving officer in the Presidential Security Unit and took orders from three officers for the murder of the anthropologist. The investigation also found that Myrna Mack was only one of the many murders the presidential unit was responsible for. There were other victims such as Bishop Juan Gerardi who was bludgeoned to death after he released a Catholic Church’s report on abuses during the war which he titled: Guatemala: Never Again.
The killing of citizens by state forces was a thing. Guatemalans faced threats and violence. Some investigators were killed. Judicial officers were intimidated. The Guatemalan military often refused to cooperate with the civilian justice system and sometimes obstructed investigation.Yet as powerful as the State was and as vicious as the efforts made to deter truth and pervert the cause of Justice, the citizens did not relent in the search for accountability for the murder of their fellow citizens who were killed.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN NIGERIA & GUATEMALA IN THE SEARCH FOR ACCOUNTABILITY.
Quite clearly, Guatemalans were and remain willing to ask the right questions and to push for answers. They continue to insist on answers till this day. Their citizens form a united front and seek help from professionals like the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala (FAFG) to help in securing evidence in order that they may reinforce the value of those who were killed and to ensure that the killers never enjoy the spoil of their blood lust. They were also willing to seek and obtain help from the international community.
In 2007, the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, a United Nations- supported institution helped to investigate organized crime and to assist local efforts to combat actions that could impede the search for justice. Although the mandate of the UN organization was to expire in 2017, President Jimmy Morales sought and obtained an extension of the mandate.
The Attorney General’s office in Guatemala continues to exert its independence by investigating and prosecuting the politically powerful.By 2016, Guatemala known for its violent crimes, began to witness a corresponding decline in the homicide rates from 29.5% per 100,000 inhabitants in 2015 to 27.3% in just a year. No officer was too powerful to be insulated from questioning.Col. Juan Valencia Osorio who was one of the officers who used terror as tactic during Guatemala’s war was sentenced to 30-years for his role. It was indeed a testament to the extraordinary courage and perseverance of the citizens who refused to yield to intimidation and who were never in a hurry to walk away from the heinous realities of the murders that took place.
NIGERIANS ARE NOT HELPLESS.
Nigerians are not helpless. The role of our citizens in demanding justice for the murders around the country must go beyond holding placards and writing opinion pieces to asking the right questions and demanding for answers that lead to accountability. That is why every Nigerian from wherever they are around the world, must attend the conference coming up on Thursday 25 June,2020. Media organizations also need to log in to amplify the lessons we can learn from exchanging ideas with other countries. After we are done with the conference, we must resolve to do all we can to stop the madness of killings that now define our country.
Ballason is the Executive Director Molluma Medico-Legal Centre, Kaduna.