There is no love lost between Amnesty International and the Nigerian Army. The latest row is underpinned by the former’s 2017 report alleging sundry human rights violations in detention cells at Giwa Military Barracks in Maiduguri, Borno State, leading to the death of 240 Boko Haram suspects, including 29 children. The cells were reportedly crowded. This, along with the charge that 177 Biafra irredentists were extrajudicially killed, appears to have put the Army in the dock.
The initial reaction of the Defence Headquarters was to dismiss the report as a mere fabrication, orchestrated to blackmail the Nigerian military. The Director of Defence Information, Rabe Abubakar, alleged that AI had unsuccessfully tried to do so in the past. He wondered why its sympathy should lie with non-state actors who had taken up arms against the Nigerian state. The latest report came barely two years after the global human rights watchdog had accused the military of beheading Boko Haram fighters in the North-East.
Among the many stakeholders that vehemently denied the claim was Yakubu Gowon, a former military Head of State. He said, “It is Boko Haram that has been committing atrocities and horrendous, mindless killing of innocent citizens and security personnel.”
But mere denial of these human rights breaches, then or now, will not suffice. It does not assuage the anxieties of either AI or local human rights groups. The Chief of Army Staff, Tukur Buratai, seems to have realised this. Last week, he set up a special board of enquiry headed by Ahmed Jibrin, a retired General, to look into the alleged killing of members of the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra. AI however spurned that action, insisting on an investigation panel independent of the Army.
The ill-fated Republic of Biafra, entombed in 1970 after the Nigerian Civil War debacle, still represents a dream to the agitators, mostly youths from the South-East region, who exuberantly demand its actualisation. Consequently, this has brought them on a collision course with law enforcement agents. The Army has never hidden its resolve to crush any such rebellion; hence it launched Operation Python Dance last November. Reports abound of bloody clashes arising thereof, or even earlier from encounters with the police. To deny this fact is to play the ostrich. What is contentious, however, is the number of casualties the AI claimed in its report.
While the human rights of innocent citizens in the North-East should be protected and all rules of engagement observed by the military, concern for the rights of some mindless felons should not be more important than the security of the country and the good of the majority.
The AI in the controversial report noted that over-crowding, diseases, dehydration and starvation were rife in the cells. Instructively, these inhuman conditions are not peculiar to such cells. All prisons and police cells in the country share these shortcomings and therefore demand attention by the authorities. However, the organisation should appreciate the fact that what is going on in the North-East is a full-scale war. Equally critical is the need for its full knowledge of the Islamist salafist ideology that drives Boko Haram’s murderous campaign. Apart from killing men, women and children, the jihadists kidnap women for rape, ransom and forced marriage. The most odious case is the abduction of the Chibok schoolgirls in April 2014.
Within the context of global insecurity, Boko Haram’s place was unfurled in the November 2015 Global Terrorism Index, which ranked it as the world’s deadliest terrorist organisation, ahead of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, Taliban, Fulani herdsmen and al-Shabab. This is shocking. Members of a sect with such notoriety deserve to be visited with the full might of the state.
After eight years of its campaign, the North-East has become a massive graveyard. According to Governor Kashim Shettima of Borno State, Boko Haram has killed 100,000 people and left 2.1 million others internally displaced, just as it has orphaned 52,311 children and produced 54,911 widows. The United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator, Edward Kalom, said recently that the global body planned to reach 6.9 million victims of the crisis this year. The figure is part of the 8.5 million people that need urgent assistance. They face the worst privation of their lives, either in Internally Displaced Persons camps or in their devastated villages.
This does not in any way justify wanton abuse of human rights by the military, which is why the AI allegations should be thoroughly investigated and those indicted punished. The military, in whatever condition, should operate within the rules of engagement. The Army may have last November received the UN approbation of the way it has so far handled the Boko Haram crisis, and the setting up of Human Rights desks at its headquarters, and in all of its divisions, as credentials of its adherence to international best practices. Yet, the Kaduna State Government’s White Paper on its 2015 clash with Shiites, which revealed that 347 sect members were killed, as against seven people the military claimed, is a denial that will always count against the Army on integrity matters.
In the same vein, AI should be accurate in its claims, as it has no direct access to military facilities where the rights abuses are purportedly perpetrated. The credibility of its reports is sometimes questioned worldwide as the reports are based on accounts by witnesses who may not be totally objective. The latest is the alleged massacre of 13,000 persons at Saydnaya prison, Syria, which a former British ambassador to that country, Peter Ford, says cannot stand the test of scrutiny, based on his knowledge of the prison and AI’s reliance on interviews from anonymous sources.
However, more work is required so that the Nigerian Army will not be a place for the likes of corporals Bature Samuel and Abdulaziz, who beat up a physically-challenged Chijioke Oratu at Onitsha, Anambra State, recently.