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The Emergence of the OPC

Nigeria's population of more than 120,000 million is composed of more than 250 ethnic groups. The Yoruba are among the largest; a 1991 government census put the number at 29 million. The current number is likely to be significantly higher, although no accurate population statistics are available in Nigeria. Their historical homeland is the southwest of the country, where they are the majority group. However, like many other ethnic groups, Yoruba have moved around the country over the years and have settled in other regions too. Before and after independence from Britain in 1960, there were conflicts among different ethnic groups in Nigeria in the competition for political control. Following the withdrawal of the British colonial authorities, the Yoruba found themselves pitted against the Hausa, in particular, the majority ethnic group in the north of Nigeria who had tended to be favored by the British under colonial rule and who dominated the political and military elite.

The OPC, which derives its name from that of Oduduwa, the ancestor of the Yoruba race, was formed in August 1994 with the primary aim of defending, protecting and promoting Yoruba interests.6 Some other ethnic groups, such as the Igbo and the Ijaw, had also formed their own organizations. However, under successive military governments in the 1990s, freedom of expression and association were even more severely restricted, and members of groups calling for autonomy or agitating for greater power for particular ethnic groups were arrested and harassed by the authorities, in some cases on the basis of allegations that they had carried out acts of violence. Those arrested included Frederick Fasehun, leader of the OPC, who was detained in 1996 for a year and a half.

In addition to its broad aims, the creation of the OPC was a specific reaction to the annulment of the elections of June 12, 1993, by the military government of the time, and the subsequent arrest of Moshood Abiola (a Yoruba), the candidate widely believed to have won the cancelled presidential elections, who later died of a heart attack in detention in July 1998. Outrage at the annulment of these elections, combined with the broader struggle against military repression and frustration at political and economic marginalization, acted as strong motivating factors to galvanize the disenfranchised population, particularly the youth.

The OPC professed to protect the integrity of the Yoruba people and promote Yoruba culture and heritage, including the Yoruba language. The fundamental objectives set out in its constitution include the following: "to identify with our historical and cultural origin with a view to re-living the glory of our past for the purpose of posterity; to educate and mobilize the descendants of Oduduwa for the purpose of the above; to integrate the aspirations and values of all the descendants of Oduduwa into a collective platform of an Oodua entity; to monitor the various interests of descendants of Oduduwa [...] and struggle for the protection of these interests; [...] to further the progress of Oodua civilization by protection and promoting our value, mores and the inter-generational transmission of same."7

The OPC advocates autonomy for the Yoruba people, although there appear to be differences of opinion as to whether it is seeking autonomy within the Nigerian federation, or aspiring to the creation of a separate republic. In its constitution, one of the aims of the OPC is "to ensure maximum self-determination of the people of Oodua."8 Its O'odua Bill of Rights states "The Yoruba people have hereby resolved [...] to ensure that the Yoruba people in Lagos, Oyo, Ogun, Ondo, Osun, Ekiti, Kwara and Kogi States are brought together as a distinct federating unit within the Federal Republic of Nigeria."9 Several OPC representatives and others close to the OPC have stated that, in practice, the organization's minimum demand is an autonomous Yoruba region within the Nigerian federation, with its own political authorities, security forces, and other institutions, but if this is not possible, they will demand complete independence. The former National Secretary of the OPC described their campaign as leading "to the emergence of either an autonomous Southwestern region in a friendly Nigeria or an independent Oduduwa republic out of an unfriendly Nigeria."10

One of the principal demands of the OPC and other self-determination groups, which has also been voiced by other actors in Nigerian civil society, is the organization of a "sovereign national conference," which would bring together representatives of all ethnic and regional groups to discuss their situation within Nigeria's federal structure and weigh their various demands, with a view to reaching some kind of consensus on the future of that federal structure. To date, the demand for a national conference has been resisted by the federal government, presumably for fear that it would encourage demands on the parts of various groups for a greater share of the nation's resources, or even autonomy or secession which could eventually lead to the disintegration of the federation. Federal government officials would obviously be reluctant to relinquish the significant financial benefits they have derived from the current federal structure.

In its various demands, the OPC has claimed to represent majority public opinion within the Yoruba community. One of the founding members of the OPC told Human Rights Watch: "We represent people and we must tell the government what people want."11 Generally, few Yoruba publicly contradict or criticize the OPC, but it is not clear whether this is because they agree with or support the OPC, or because they are afraid of the consequences of speaking out against them.

Among the founding members of the OPC was Dr. Frederick Fasehun, a medical doctor by profession, who became first its convenor, then its national coordinator.12 Its founding or leading members also included a number of other highly skilled professionals and intellectuals, including several activists involved in the struggle for democracy and human rights. As the organization evolved over the following years, a split emerged between elements described as "moderates," loyal to Frederick Fasehun, who were prepared, to some extent, to engage with mainstream politicians and the existing political processes; and a more radical, militant wing, led by the younger Gani Adams, a carpenter by training, who were less willing to compromise and objected to the OPC playing any part in Nigeria's program of political transition. From the start, the OPC had taken a strong position on refusing to participate in the political system. Its constitution states: "The OPC being a non-political organization would not canvas for any political post under any political dispensation."13

By early 1999, the divisions had became so serious that the OPC split into two factions, one led by Fasehun, the other led by Adams. Tensions escalated and there were several violent clashes between members of the two factions in 1999 and 2000, resulting in killings, injuries, and attacks on property, including an attack on Fasehun's clinic in Mushin, Lagos, by members of the Gani Adams faction. Fasehun was branded as a traitor by the Gani Adams faction; there were allegations that he had been involved in corruption and had accepted money from senior federal politicians and others, and that he had helped the police track down Gani Adams and his supporters. At one time, Fasehun had even requested police protection against further attacks on him by Gani Adams' supporters-an ironic situation as he himself had had confrontations with the police and been arrested on several occasions.14

When Human Rights Watch interviewed the leaders of the two factions in May 2002, both Frederick Fasehun and Gani Adams played down their differences and sought to present a semblance of unity. While there have been fewer open clashes between the two factions in recent months, it is clear that divisions persist, despite several attempts at reconciliation by members of both factions, by Yoruba elders, and by other respected figures in the Yoruba community. In practice, in 2003, there are two parallel structures. For example, at the local government level, there are two OPC chairmen, one for each faction. OPC members from the Gani Adams faction often wear T-shirts or caps proclaiming "OPC Gani Adams faction" or bearing a picture of Gani Adams. Gani Adams told Human Rights Watch: "Effectively there are two OPCs. But relations are OK now. They are no longer confrontational."15 Frederick Fasehun said that after the split, "there were stringent conditions for return: they [the Gani Adams faction] had to be prepared to obey the [OPC's] original rules and regulations [...] We now have regular contact with Gani Adams but he has not been re-absorbed yet as a person, so he has no official position."16 Yet Gani Adams continued to call himself president of the OPC.

Other Yoruba Self-determination Groups

Yoruba self-determination groups have existed in the southwest of Nigeria for several years. Some were formed before the OPC, others since. The O'odua Youth Movement (OYM), for example, predated the OPC; some of its members went on to form the OPC. Prior to its internal split into two factions, some disaffected members of the OPC had already broken away in 1997 to form a separate organization, the O'odua Liberation Movement (OLM). Believing that the OPC lacked political direction and had become too confrontational, the OLM attempted to articulate a clearer ideological agenda and encourage more constructive relations between its members and even with its allies among northerners. More recently, two other groups have been formed: the O'odua Republic Front (ORF) and the Federation for Yoruba Culture and Consciousness (FYCC); the FYCC was formed in October 2001 by disillusioned members of the Gani Adams faction, including Kunle Adesokan, Gani Adams's former secretary and a founding member of the OPC.

In more recent years, the OPC and a number of other groups have come together to form a network of Yoruba self-determination organizations. The first coalition was formed in January 2000, and 2002 saw the official creation of the Coalition of O'odua Self-Determination Groups (COSEG). COSEG has attempted to bring together the various organizations which are sometimes willing to work in concert with each other, but have also shown fundamental differences in approach and tactics. A Yoruba human rights activist described Yoruba self-determination groups as falling into three categories: those who concentrate on intellectual and political development and articulate their beliefs in detailed written documents; those who are more militant and aggressive; and those who argue over the centralization of power in a federalist system.17 COSEG has tried to unify these different tendencies and articulate the demands of Yoruba self-determination groups in terms which would increase their political relevance and legitimacy. It has sought to present an acceptable face for the Yoruba self-determination lobby and to discard the more violent image of the OPC by replacing it with a more developed ideology. It claims to have mediated in several potential conflicts between Yoruba and other groups, and to have resolved them peacefully. By mid-2002, COSEG included all the Yoruba self-determination groups, with the exception of the Gani Adams faction of the OPC. Frederick Fasehun was the chairman of its board of governors. COSEG had also forged links with self-determination organizations from other ethnic groups and regions, including the Ijaw, from the Niger Delta region, the Igbo, from the southeast, and groups from the Middle Belt (central Nigeria).

Structure, Composition and Membership of the OPC

The OPC claims to have more than five million members, spread over the whole of Nigeria. The greatest concentration of members are in the southwestern states commonly referred to as Yorubaland, including Lagos, Ogun, Osun, Ondo, and Oyo, as well as in Ekiti, Kwara, and Kogi. It also claims to have members in several West African countries, including Benin, Ghana, Liberia, and Sierra Leone; as well as Brazil, Germany, Jamaica, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America.

While many of the OPC leaders are professionals and people with a high level of education and political awareness, their members cover a broad range of ages and include many women. The majority of rank-and-file OPC members are believed to have little or no education and include a high proportion of young, unemployed people, many from a rural background. The OPC prides itself on being a grassroots movement, with mass membership at all the local levels in the states where the Yoruba are in the majority. In fact, there is a distinction between those who are registered, card-carrying members of the OPC-thought by some OPC officials to number no more than one million-and a possibly much larger number of sympathizers, who join in OPC activities at various times. This confusion has sometimes been deliberately encouraged, either by the OPC leaders themselves so as to increase the perceived strength of the organization, or by the OPC's opponents, in order to blame the organization for any or all abuses committed by Yoruba. At other times, for example following incidents in which the OPC has been accused of acts of violence, the OPC has sought to distance itself from this mass of supporters, claiming that it cannot be held responsible for the acts of Yoruba youth who are not members of the organization.

In practice, this confusion has meant that when investigating specific acts of violence attributed to the OPC and clashes between Yoruba and other ethnic groups, it has sometimes been difficult to ascertain the exact extent or nature of the OPC's involvement. When witnesses or local residents describe these events, they sometimes use the term "OPC" as a shorthand for Yoruba, whereas there may have been no clear evidence of the OPC's involvement. In other cases, it would appear that the OPC leadership may not have been involved in planning or orchestrating incidents of violence, but that their members actively joined in once the clash had erupted, and their leaders did little to restrain them. However, in cases of vigilante violence, it has usually been clear that those responsible were OPC members.

The OPC has especially drawn support from the less-educated sectors of the population by surrounding itself with myths, which have a strong appeal. The belief that OPC members have charms to protect themselves against gunfire and that they can overpower their opponents through secret, magical means has been a powerful aspect of their public image and has increased the awe which some members of the public feel towards them. Human Rights Watch researchers were told about a number of beliefs about the OPC, including the belief that OPC members are not harmed by bullets or ammunition; that the canes they carry have magical powers; that if they touch a police vehicle, it will not work; that if they throw a raw egg towards a house, the house will catch fire; that if they spray water over a house, it will be protected; or that if they wave a white handkerchief, no harm will be done. A readiness on the part of some sectors of the population to believe in these special powers and in the use of fetishes and charms has provided the OPC with an easy way to mobilize people and to give new recruits a sense of courage and confidence, however artificial, with which to fight their cause.

      It would appear that people have joined the OPC for a variety of different reasons, some because they specifically identify with their political ideology and the Yoruba self-determination agenda, others because they may feel they need a form of protection against what they perceive as political, economic or social discrimination and may have been impressed by the image of the organization. Others, mainly the mass of young, unemployed men, have simply taken advantage of the organization as a channel for venting their general frustration.

According to the OPC leaders and individuals close to them, the organization has a strict hierarchical structure, chain of command, and efficient systems of communication. It has structures and executive committees at national and state levels, with the Annual National Conference at its supreme decision-making body, and the National Executive Council as its governing body. At the local level, every member is required to belong to a branch and the branches are grouped into zones, which are in turn grouped into sub-regions. There are different wings, including a women's wing, and sections responsible for different activities. One section known as Eso ("which goes to fight"), also called "ushers" in the Gani Adams faction, is involved in vigilante activities and ensuring discipline, for example during meetings or public events.18 Another group, known as the monitoring group, "clears the road ahead for us to go to rallies."19

The OPC has a disciplinary procedure, outlined in its constitution: members who carry out any one of a range of specified offenses may face "reprimand, payment of compensation and/or performance of useful task, suspension and expulsion." The offenses listed range from acts that undermine the effectiveness and reputation of the organization, to corruption, sexual abuse, fighting, and "sowing religious or any other form of discrimination." OPC representatives were not able to confirm to Human Rights Watch the precise number of members dismissed or suspended for participation in acts of violence, but said that over the years, there had been "many" dismissals, and that people "of bad character" or who joined the organization for the wrong reasons (for example, in order to take revenge or settle personal scores) were removed.20 When individuals join the OPC, they are apparently asked to take an oath which includes a commitment not to take part in criminal activity. In July 2002, as part of an effort to give the OPC a new, cleaner image, Gani Adams reportedly stated in an OPC meeting that any member of the group who indulged in political thuggery would be suspended or dismissed, and that such moves were necessary as the 2003 elections draw nearer. These comments were made in the context of widely-expressed fears that ethnic militia could play a negative role in the lead-up to elections in Nigeria. 21

      Human Rights Watch researchers tried to find out whether OPC members were put through any form of training, but the answers given by OPC members were vague and contradictory. Most claimed that they did not receive any specific training, and that being a Yoruba was sufficient to qualify for membership. However, Frederick Fasehun told Human Rights Watch that members were only given an identity card after training, and that they were trained in self-defense. Some members said that they received training or education about the history and culture of the Yoruba. Others said they were taught how to relate to the police, in order to avoid confrontation. All those interviewed denied being trained in the use of weapons and denied being given weapons. Gani Adams told Human Rights Watch: "Our members are trained in conscience and determination, not in the use of weapons."22


From around 1999, the OPC began to get involved in crime-fighting activities. It is not entirely clear what prompted this shift in direction, other than a desire to boost the organization's popularity. Some observers have linked it to the surge in popularity experienced by self-appointed vigilante groups in other parts of the country, notably the Bakassi Boys, a vigilante group active in the southeast of Nigeria. Despite using extremely violent and brutal methods, the Bakassi Boys were hailed as heroes by many residents in the southeast and credited with dramatically reducing the rate of violent crime in their areas of operation. Their success may have partly inspired the OPC to take on a similar role in the southwest.23 Indeed, among some sectors of the Yoruba communities, the OPC's vigilante role succeeded in enhancing its image.

However, other ethnic groups have complained that the OPC vigilantes have been imposed on them; groups such as the Hausa, who have been at the receiving end of serious ethnic violence on the part of the OPC, have felt especially uneasy with entrusting their security to such an organization. Several Hausa in Lagos told Human Rights Watch that they felt threatened by the presence of OPC patrols and preferred to keep their distance from them. A Hausa man in Ogun State said: "We don't talk to them. We ignore them. We fear them as they have weapons. Some of our people don't like to hear the name OPC."24 An Igbo man in Lagos said: "The OPC are around. They haven't killed people recently, but they patrol at night with vehicles. They still hold monthly meetings [...] We feel uncomfortable with OPC as they are only looking after Yoruba interests in a selfish way. They are hostile towards other tribes."25

Underlying all these vigilante groups' ability to operate freely and without accountability is the fundamental inability of the national police force to perform its law enforcement functions effectively, and the consequent lack of public confidence in the police. For many years, the Nigerian police has suffered from a severe lack of resources, insufficient or inadequate training, poor pay and conditions, and widespread corruption. This has resulted in the perception on the part of the general public that it is futile to report crimes to the police, or expect any remedial action from them. All too often, the police are more likely to be involved in crime, corruption, and human rights violations themselves than to have the will or ability to solve these problems. Meanwhile, the rate of violent crime has continued to soar across Nigeria, leaving the population in a state of permanent insecurity-a situation which many cite as justification for taking the law into their own hands. Vigilante groups have been formed in many parts of Nigeria, although, according to Nigerians from different parts of the country, the local patrols and other community-based groups have usually not been responsible for the kind of extreme violence associated with the OPC or the Bakassi Boys.

In 2001 and 2002, the federal government and the inspector-general of police announced a series of measures to reform and improve the conduct of the police force. Regrettably, some of these measures, such as Operation Fire-for-Fire, introduced in early 2002 in an attempt to deter criminals, have resulted in yet further human rights violations by the police, particularly extrajudicial executions, and will do little to restore public confidence in the institution. The results of other broader reforms, including some which are supported by foreign government assistance, can only be assessed in the longer term.26

The OPC, like other vigilante groups before and since, cashed in on this public disillusion with the police and concerns about persistent insecurity and rising crime. Proclaiming that it had magical powers and charms to overpower criminals and protect its members against conventional weapons, it built up a reputation as a fearless and bold force, more daring and, in the eyes of some, more effective than the police. A specific section of the OPC began to take charge of security and vigilante activities. When they caught suspected criminals, they often handed out instant justice, killing them summarily on the spot. Such cases were particularly common in 2000 and 2001.

The decision to take on vigilante work does not appear to have been clearly formalized within the OPC, and there are contradictions between the statements of OPC leaders and the day-to-day reality. According to Gani Adams, "only about two or three per cent of members are involved in vigilante activities. It is voluntary but some give token money. The OPC is against vigilantism, although some objectives tally, when defending the life and integrity of the Yoruba. Vigilantes act of their own accord. They are not ordered by the command."27 In a press interview, Frederick Fasehun said that crime-fighting was not one of the objectives of the OPC, "but when the crime wave became so high that people were living virtually in fear, the OPC took a diversion, mark my word, took a diversion, from its primary aims and objectives to assist the police to fight to secure life and property."28

However, many residents from different areas in the southwest, particularly in Lagos State, confirmed to Human Rights Watch that the OPC's vigilante role was well-established and that it maintained an active presence, patrolling the streets and ostensibly maintaining security in the local communities. A man living in Sagamu, Ogun State, also said: "We see OPC around. They ensure security at parties, functions etc. They wear red cloth on their head with `OPC' written on. They also wear white shirts with `OPC' written on. They use commercial vehicles or come on foot. They carry long guns, pistols, cutlasses and knives. They carry them openly. They walk around in groups of more than thirty, day and night."29

Involvement in vigilante activities has been an easy way for the OPC to make money. Many people interviewed by Human Rights in Lagos State said it was common practice for local residents to make a financial contribution to the OPC's vigilante activities, not always voluntarily. A community leader in Ajegunle, in Lagos, said: "They collect twenty or fifty naira [about U.S.$0.15 or 0.40] from bus drivers at every bus stop before allowing people to go. Ten or twenty per cent of this goes to local government, the rest is for the OPC. The local governments employ them. All local governments do this in Lagos State. The OPC leaders are very close to the local governments. Each house has to pay about 500 naira a month, some more, some less. It is supposed to be for security and their salaries. The tax is paid to the OPC directly."30

The OPC has provided security arrangements at official gatherings, including high profile events, and has been hired for parties and other social functions. Its members have reportedly been employed as guards at the private residences of some state government officials. Many people in Lagos State, in particular, told Human Rights Watch that the OPC was often seen ensuring security at public functions, effectively taking over from the police or sidelining them. These have included gatherings at which senior federal government officials have been present. The most striking example was the ceremony for the lying-in-state of former Minister of Justice and Attorney General Bola Ige31, held in January 2002 in Ibadan, which was attended by many government officials, including President Obasanjo. People present at the ceremony reported that the OPC had provided the security arrangements and was controlling the crowds and the traffic. The police were also deployed, but were apparently outnumbered by the OPC and were described by some as passive observers. Gani Adams was among the speakers at the ceremony and was seen leading a large number of OPC members there. In a less high profile event, a woman who attended a burial ceremony for the father of a former local government chairman in Lagos, in August 2002, described how a group of about forty young men, who she was later told were OPC, were given a separate table and provided with food and drinks. They had apparently been hired to provide security.32

The OPC has also been called in to settle scores between private individuals and has intervened, for example, in disputes between landlords and tenants. In several cases, OPC members have been responsible for killings in this context, and their intervention in these types of disputes has sometimes sparked off wider clashes between communities, as in Alaba, in July 2000 (see below). The threat "I will call OPC to deal with you" has become a common refrain in situations of argument between individuals.

6 According to its leader Frederick Fasehun, another of its main aims was to "ensure justice for all nationalities." Human Rights Watch interview with Frederick Fasehun, Lagos, May 22, 2002.

7 "Oodua People's Congress Constitution," Section 3: "Aims and objectives of the OPC."

8 According to one of its leading officials, few Yoruba realistically wish for or expect to constitute a separate republic, despite declarations to this effect in some OPC documents. Human Rights Watch telephone interview, July 2002.

9 "Oodua Bill of Rights" in "Oodua People's Congress (OPC) Constitution and Bill of Right."

10 "OPC is for Yoruba Autonomy," interview with Kayode Ogundamisi in Law Enforcement Review, July-September 2000, magazine of the Centre for Law Enforcement Education (CLEEN).

11 Human Rights Watch interview, Lagos, September 2, 2002.

12 Frederick Fasehun was a presidential aspirant for the now defunct Social Democratic Party, in 1991.

13 Section 4, "The Character of the OPC," OPC Constitution.

14 The information in this paragraph is based on Human Rights Watch interviews with a range of sources in Nigeria, including the OPC leaders of both factions and police officials, between May and September 2002.

15 Human Rights Watch interview with Gani Adams, Lagos, May 23, 2002.

16 Human Rights Watch interview with Frederick Fasehun, Lagos, May 22, 2002.

17 Human Rights Watch interview, Lagos, May 22, 2002.

18 Historically, the Yoruba term "Eso" refers to a kind of vigilante group or "people's army" which used to protect local communities and traditional rulers from external attack, and acted as police during peace-time. Within the OPC, the Eso are expected to have spiritual capabilities and knowledge of defensive weaponry.

19 Human Rights Watch interview with an OPC member, Lagos, September 14, 2002.

20 Human Rights Watch interview, Lagos, September 2, 2002.

21 "OPC reads riot act to members," P.M. News (Lagos), July 25, 2002. The article also mentioned that Gani Adams had recently dismissed the Oyo State coordinator of the OPC and two other members; the reasons were not specified.

22 Human Rights Watch interview with Gani Adams, Lagos, May 23, 2002.

23 The Bakassi Boys, actively supported by the governors of several southeastern states, have committed hundreds of serious human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings, mutilations, torture, and illegal detentions. For further details, see Human Rights Watch/CLEEN report "The Bakassi Boys: The Legitimization of Murder and Torture," May 2002.

24 Human Rights Watch interview, Sagamu, Ogun State, September 2, 2002.

25 Human Rights Watch interview, Lagos, September 1, 2002.

26 For example, the U.K. government, through its Department for International Development, has set up a seven-year program of assistance to the Nigerian justice sector, entitled Access to Justice, which includes a significant component for training and reforming the Nigerian police force.

27 Human Rights Watch interview with Gani Adams, Lagos, May 23, 2002.

28 See "`OPC will unite again - Fasehun,'" Newswatch (Lagos), September 10, 2001.

29 Human Rights Watch interview, Sagamu, Ogun State, September 2, 2002.

30 Human Rights Watch interview, Lagos, September 1, 2002.

31 Minister of Justice and Attorney General Bola Ige, a Yoruba, was shot dead in the southwestern city of Ibadan on December 23, 2001. He was the most senior government figure to be killed since President Obasanjo's government came to power in 1999. His assassination, which occurred against a backdrop of increasing political violence in Nigeria, sent shockwaves through the country. There seems to be little doubt that it was politically motivated, although the real motive behind it has not been confirmed. A variety of explanations have been advanced. Some commentators believe it was linked to internal power-struggles in his state of Osun, between the state governor and deputy governor; Bola Ige was perceived as a supporter of the governor. In October 2002, thirteen people were formally charged with murder and conspiracy to murder. Their trial began later that month. In December 2002, the deputy governor of Osun State was also arrested in connection with the murder of Bola Ige.

32 Human Rights Watch interview, Lagos, September 7, 2002.

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