By Somadina Ibe-Ojiludu, OFM Cap
I often express the hope that one day all those who allegedly committed internationally-recognised crimes in Nigeria, especially during the Biafra-Nigeria Civil War, will be made to face justice. My hope is buoyed by those popular words expressed by the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal after the Second World War: ‘crimes against international law are committed by men, not abstract entities, and only by punishing individuals who committed such crimes can the provisions of international law be enforced …individuals have international duties which transcend the national obligation of obedience imposed by the individual state’. Thus, all is not acceptable in war.
Some soldiers during the Biafra-Nigeria Civil War targeted unarmed civilian population. Also, the Gowon-led government as a policy during the war punitively targeted innocent civilians in Biafra based on its conviction that ‘starvation is a legitimate weapon of war’. Those atrocities were committed by human persons. Consequently, they must be made to account for their actions.
In International Criminal Law, there is the concept of universal jurisdiction. Under this, a state can try an individual for a crime which he/she committed in another state if the said crime is an international crime. This is because an international crime is a crime committed against the entire human race. Thus, such a crime can be tried in any national court in the world. The exception to this is if the state in possession of the territory where the said crime was committed decides to take up the matter in her national court. All the 1949 Geneva Conventions, among other treaties, impose an obligation on state parties to invoke universal jurisdiction. The Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits targeting civilians during wars.
At the tail end of the 1990s, the Spanish court allowed the initiation of some criminal proceedings against General Efraín Ríos Montt for the crime of genocide which he allegedly committed in Guatamela when he was a military head of state in the 1980s. In 2017, Colonel Inocente Montano, the former Vice Minister of Defence and Public Security in El-Salvador, was extradited from the United States of America to Spain for his alleged complicity in the 1989 Jesuit Massacre in El-Salvador. In Spain, criminal charges were filed against him, the former president of El-Salvador and 19 former military officers for the Jesuit Massacre.
In 1998, Augusto Pinochet was arrested in London for the international crimes that he allegedly committed in the 1970s when he was Chile’s military head of state. He was arrested on the strength of an extradition order from a Spanish magistrate. Adolf Eichmann was one of the arrow heads of the Holocaust in Germany during the Second World War. At the end of the war, he escaped to Argentina under a false name. He was arrested and tried for war crimes and crimes against humanity in an Israeli court. In 2016, Hissen Habre, a former president of Chad in the 1980s, was convicted in Senegal for killing 40,000 people during his presidency in Chad. In R v Finta,  1 SCR 701, a Canadian case, a Romanian (who would later become a Canadian citizen) was charged in Canada for war crimes he allegedly committed in Hungary.
Lessons from the above are numerous. One, all is not acceptable in war. Thus, the atrocities against civilians allegedly perpetrated or allegedly allowed by officers like General Murtala Muhammed and General Yakubu Gowon during the Biafra-Nigeria Civil War cannot under any guise be acceptable. Two, the Geneva Conventions were already valid treaties in International Criminal Law before the commencement of the Biafra-Nigeria Civil War. Therefore, atrocities against civilians were violations of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Three, one can still be tried for one’s international criminal atrocity many years after committing the offence. Four, it is immaterial in the International Criminal Law jurisprudence – in other words, it is not a defence – that one committed an atrocity in one’s capacity as a head of state. Five, it is also immaterial, and thus not a defence, that one committed such an offence as part of one’s obedience to a command from one’s ‘legitimate’ superior. Six, one can be tried in a country other than one’s for an international crime allegedly committed in one’s home country.
Quest for individual accountability in the face of atrocities in war time and in peace time is one of the goals of International Criminal Law. This is aimed at strengthening the international legal framework in such a way that it would guarantee a minimum level of humane treatment of the human person, reinforce the existing structures of human rights protection and foreclose a reoccurrence of the dirty past. All these inspire my desire that all those who allegedly committed internationally-recognised crimes in Nigeria, especially during the Biafra-Nigeria Civil War, will not escape justice.
Somadina Ibe-Ojiludu, OFM Cap, a Capuchin Franciscan Friar, is currently a Phd researcher in law.