On March 24, Radovan Karadzic, the former Bosnian Serb leader, was found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity during the 1992-95 Bosnian war by the International Criminal Court (ICC) based in The Hague, Netherlands. In pronouncing its verdict, the UN Tribunal described the atrocities during the war as the worst crimes committed in Europe since the Second World War and sentenced the 70 year-old Karadzic to 40 years in prison. Judges at the world court found him guilty of 10 out of 11 counts of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and other atrocities in the Bosnian war of the 1990s, including leading the slaughter of thousands of Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks) and Croats.
The decision of ICC on the Bosnian war is timely and significant, coming at a time when Nigeria is debating the agitation for the reemergence of Biafra from the ashes of history. The verdict also deflects the argument that the International court targets African leaders only. Laurent Gbagbo, the former President of Côte d’Ivoire, Jean-Pierre Bemba, the former Congolese vice president, and Charles Taylor, Ex-Liberian Leader, were former African leaders who faced trial at the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The Rome Statute that established the International Criminal Court (ICC) was adopted at a United Nations diplomatic conference in Rome on July 17, 1998 but was formally ratified July 2002 by over 149 countries including Nigeria. Having deposited its instrument of ratification to the Rome Statute on September 27, 2001, Nigeria therefore acquiesced to ICC’s jurisdiction over crimes committed on the territory of Nigeria or by its nationals.

If ICC’s conviction of former Bosnia Serb leader for an offence committed before the establishment of the world court is any guide, it follows that the court should consider a trial of Nigerians living or dead who perpetrated war crimes during the Nigerian civil war of 1967-1970. About 3 million people were massacred during the war in what resembled the ethnic cleansing that occurred in the Bosnian war of the 90’s. An estimated 3 million lives were lost in the Nigerian civil war compared with 750,000 lost in the Bosnian war and both wars occurred before the establishment of the Rome Statute.
So far, the world court acknowledges that Boko Haram’s acts of murder and persecution are enough bases to believe that crimes against humanity are being committed in Nigeria. But, the court ignores the truth that the greatest perpetrators of crimes against the Nigerian people are the country’s leaders. While the heinous activities of Boko Haram are criminal and unacceptable in a modern society, the problem about bringing charges against the non-state actor is that the group is invisible. This is the more reason why the court should focus more on past and present leaders who committed war crimes during the Nigerian civil war and subsequent wars in peace time that the country had had to deal with from the 90’s to date.

Although Nigerian leaders past and present refuse to acknowledge the enormity of the atrocities committed during the country’s fratricidal three-year war, it is undeniable that the Nigerian government wanted to annihilate the Igbo nation during the war. Those who fought on the side of Biafra during the Nigerian civil war were subjected to hunger, starvation, and mass murder by the Nigerian army on the instruction of Nigerian officials including military and civilian leaders. Hunger was used as an instrument of war and pictures of starving Biafra children who suffered from malnutrition- induced disease - Kwashiorkor were all over the place and pricked the conscience of the world. No situation better exemplified genocide or war crimes than what happened to the secessionist Biafra nation. The simple definition of genocide is the deliberate killing of a large group of people, especially those of a particular ethnic group or nation. The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on December 9, 1948 almost two decades before the genocidal elimination of Ndi Igbo through starvation, displacement, and killing.

The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide is an international law which Nigeria recognizes and as such the war crimes against Nigerians can be adjudicated by the court. The fractured politics of the heterogeneous country makes it necessary for a neutral body to intervene and dispense justice as appropriate. The suggestion to surrender to the neutrality of the international court recognizes the concerns of nationalism and judicial independence from foreign powers and especially past colonial overlords. No doubt, concerns about imperialism associated with the world court in relation to undermining the sovereignty of African nations often disrespected by western powers are noted. But how long can the country’s leaders delay genuine reconciliation, retribution, and rehabilitation?

Whereas the conviction of Karadzic is a related development that should resonate in Nigeria, it must be pointed out that activists in Nigeria have the duty to bring Biafra genocide to the attention of the world court to seek redress. The world is more connected today than the 60’s and 70’s. This means that mobilization of the conscience of the world will be easier than in the past. Even though Karadzic made efforts to escape justice for a long time, yet the world remained united in bringing him to justice. That the way to appreciate the world court’s 40-year jail sentence on the war criminal who supervised the massacre of more than 7,500 Muslim men and boys in the Srebrenica enclave in July 1995, which the UN said was part of a campaign to “terrorize and demoralize the Bosnian Muslim and Bosnian Croat population”.

The Nigerian civil war may have ended 46 years ago, but Ndi Igbo still yearn for justice and sense of closure to the egregious human rights abuses inflicted on them during the war. Ndi Igbo, otherwise known for their uncanny industry and determination still suffer today from different policy initiatives designed to dwarf their growth in a country that refuses to develop on its own and also prevents other segments of the population interested in collective growth and development. In reality, article two of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide that defines genocide as instances that “cause serious bodily or mental harm to members of a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” is similar to the challenges different ethnic groups face in Nigeria. The letters of the law might be different from the spirit and of course the enforcement.

At the same time, the pursuit of justice can be winding and protracted. It calls for patience. For example, the trial of Karadzic lasted five years followed by an additional 18-month deliberation by the bench before last week’s verdict and possible appeal. This should be a lesson to Biafra agitators. Instead of young Nigerians challenging the recalcitrant and tone deaf government that often considered the agitation for Biafra as sedition or felony; they should channel their energies to the rule of law and international law for that matter. It requires patience. The late civil rights icon, Martin Luther King’s famous quote that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice” should be instructive.

Everything considered the war crimes in Bosnia and Nigeria were perpetrated by leaders of both countries at different times in history but the similarity deserves similar justice.
*Dr. Uchenna Ekwo, President of Center for Media & Peace Initiatives writes from New York

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  1. the hypocrisy of United Nations will be exposed in Biafra restoration project because it is God's ordained project