It would be extremely difficult to tell the story of Nigeria’s military, or that of any nation, without pages dedicated to human rights violation. To attempt to do so would be to chose to not tell the truth, because the nature of warfare and the power that life taking implements give the soldier results in untold hardship for civilians.
In Nigeria, this story speaks of large scale attacks on the civilian populace (The Civil War, Odi, Zaki Ibiam, Zaria and many others are reference points here) and the much-reported spattering of violations by errant soldiers and policemen.
With the exception of a few cases, the default reaction of the military is to deny these violations or claim it acted lawfully: something we saw in Odi, Zaki Ibiam and most recently the Zaria massacre of December 2015.
For Nigerians, the concept of human right violations by armed uniformed personnel is encapsulated by the all too common phrase: ‘Kill and Go!’. Every Nigerian of a social class that is lower than that of those assured of deference and protection by the powers that be is aware of or has had that encounter with a military personnel or a policeman that is punctuated by that deeply hurtful statement: ‘I will kill you and nothing will happen!’ This statement underscores the reckless impunity for rights violation fueled by the military’s attitude of shielding errant soldiers from civil prosecution by issuing the blanket denial of reported cases or insisting the military system will handle the prosecution.
Years of military rule in no small way helped to normalise this despicable behaviour by our military personnel and helped in shaping a security class that most probably ranks among the most undisciplined (in their relations with those they call ‘bloody civilians’) in the world.
Soon after he assumed office, President Muhammadu Buhari promised to investigate allegations of rights violations by the military, especially those allegedly committed against civilian populace in the fight against the Boko Haram terrorists. But, two years into his presidency, not much has been heard of that inquiry.
In fact, the president appeared to have supported the unbridled use of force on the Shi’ite community in Zaria after its confrontation with a convoy of the Chief of Army Staff, Lt. General Tukur Buratai. Over 300 people, including minors, died after the army laid an overnight siege on the community.
When asked about the incident during his maiden Presidential Media Chat, President Buhari accused the Shi’ite of constituting a state within a state. When pressed further to what is being done to probe the killings he said he would wait for an inquiry being undertaken by the Kaduna State government.
That panel has since indicted The General Officer Commanding the Nigerian Army’s 1st Division, Zaria, Major General, Adeniyi Oyebade, for authorising the attack on the Shi’ite without recourse to the chain of command. As we speak, General Oyebade has not been punished for his role in the massacre and is still a top commander in the army.
The commission also blasted military officers for refusing to give useful information that could have helped it reach a more detailed conclusion.
“All the officers who testified were not forthcoming in providing full disclosure on the number of the dead, wounded and missing persons,” the report of the panel of inquiry said.
Similarly, the medical examiner in charge of the bodies kept at Nigerian Army medical facility in Kaduna also withheld support for the judicial panel.
“It is unfortunate that the medical officer in charge of the Nigerian Army Depot Health Centre who took custody of some of the corpses was not forthcoming in giving evidence that would have enabled the commission to ascertain the actual number of people killed,” the report said. “The officer said he didn’t even ascertain the gender of both the adult and children corpses that were deposited in his medical centre.”
Similarly, the military still operates a detention camp in the notorious Giwa Barracks in Maiduguri where those suspected of links with Boko Haram and kept indefinitely under dehumanising conditions.
And of the Shi’ite group, several hundred others are still in military detention to this day. The leader of the group, Ibrahim El-Zakzaky and his wife are still being held in an undisclosed location despite a court order that they are released.
Another notable recent attack is the army’s brutal clampdown of hundreds of member of the separatist group, Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB). Like nearly all other attacks by soldiers, the military hierarchy virulently denied it did anything wrong despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
It is in the light of the above that the announcement by Acting President Yemi Osinbajo of a panel of to investigate human rights abuses and violation by the military and other security agencies should be commended.
According to a statement signed by Osinbajo’s spokesperson, Laolu Akande, the seven-man judicial panel of inquiry to be headed by a Court of Appeal judge, Biobele Georgewell, will review the armed forces compliance with human rights obligations and rules of engagement especially in local conflict and insurgency situations.
According to the presidency, the panel will review extant rules of engagement applicable to the Nigerian Armed forces and the extent of compliance
“It is also empowered to investigate alleged acts of violation, (by Nigerian security agencies) of international humanitarian and human rights law under the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended), Geneva Conventions Act, African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (Ratification and Enforcement) Act and other relevant laws,” Mr Akande said.
Akande added that the “the commission equally has the mandate to investigate factors that might be militating against a speedy resolution of local conflicts and insurgencies and also advise on means of preventing violations of international humanitarian and human rights law in conflict situations.”
The panel was given 90 days to review the military’s human rights record after which it is expected to submit a report to the presidency.
A bird in hand is worth two in the bush so the saying goes. We are not where we want to be yet but this is a start. For a government which is headed by a former dictator, it takes a lot of effort and political while to accept that the human rights record of the military needs to be vacuumed.
The statement, however, did not say if punitive measures will be taken on those indicted by the panel.
Nigeria has a long list of panels and judicial inquiries whose reports have ended up nowhere. This inquiry should be an exception.
The military hierarchy has consistently rebuffed every attempt for an external investigation into cases of human rights violations by its personnel before now. They must not be allowed to interfere with the mandate of this panel.
Also, there should be no sacred cows. Every military officer, no matter his or her rank or position, who has been linked with extra-judicial killings, or rights violation should be made to appear before the panel and if indicted should be prosecuted according to the dictates of the law of the land.
Above punishing those complicit in rights abuses, the panel should be able to recommend a sustainable mechanism within and outside the armed forces that will be responsible for promptly investigating cases of alleged right abuses and recommending punishment for those indicted.