The recent Amnesty International’s report on Nigerian security forces’ crackdown on pro-Biafra protesters organised around the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) is as damning as they come. In the report, signed by its Interim Director, Makmid Kamara, Amnesty pointedly accused Nigerian security forces, led by the Nigerian Army, of being directly involved in the extrajudicial killing of “at least 150 peaceful pro-Biafra activists.”
The internationally renowned human rights group claims to have arrived at this conclusion following the analysis of “87 videos, 122 photographs and 146 eye witness testimonies relating to demonstrations and other gatherings between August 2015 and August 2016…” all of which “shows that the military fired live ammunition with little or no warning to disperse crowds.” Furthermore, Amnesty claimed to have discovered “evidence of mass extrajudicial executions by security forces, including at least 60 people shot dead in the space of two days in connection with events to mark Biafra Remembrance Day.”
Blaming what it described as a reckless and trigger-happy approach to crowd control on the Nigerian government’s decision to send in the military to respond to pro-Biafra events, Amnesty called on the Nigerian authorities to launch an impartial investigation and bring the perpetrators to book. The Army’s response was swift. Whilst insisting that the Nigerian military was innocent of any wrongdoing, military spokesperson, Colonel Sani Usman, was quick to indict Amnesty as a “Non-Governmental Organization which is never relenting in dabbling into our national security in manners (sic) that obliterate objectivity, fairness, and simple logic.”
This is not the first time that Amnesty has clashed with the Nigerian Army. At least twice in the past twelve months, the organisation has accused the Army of highhandedness in the prosecution of its military campaign against Boko Haram. In its 2015 annual report, for instance, Amnesty noted that many governments (including Nigeria) in west, central and east Africa, confronted with security threat from various armed groups, responded “with disregard for international humanitarian law and human rights.” Specifically, “Military and security operations in Nigeria…were marked by mass arbitrary arrests, incommunicado detentions, extrajudicial executions, and torture and other ill-treatment.”
Then, as now, the Nigerian Army has responded in a brusque and angry manner that does very little to clarify the situation. For instance, in its latest allegations, Amnesty has provided dates, cited actual events (including photographs) and named eyewitnesses. The illustration for its report is the distressing image of a 26-year-old man who claims that Nigerian soldiers sprayed acid on him on Biafra Remembrance Day in Onitsha. No credible evidence has emerged to disprove his claims.
What this means is that angrily denouncing Amnesty for poking its nose into what the Army spokesperson vaguely defined as “national security” is not going to be enough. Amnesty appears to have done its homework while the Nigerian Army appears out of its depth. A report that draws on 87 videos, 122 photographs and 146 witness interviews cannot be brusquely swept aside as mere “insinuation”. Were the photographs manufactured? Are the eye witness interviews made up? The military authorities owe Nigerians an explanation. In fact, they did not need to have waited until the Amnesty report to respond to the outrage expressed by Nigerians following media reports of the dastardly encounter between the security agencies and the pro-Biafra protesters.
While it is unfair to indict the Army before the veracity of Amnesty’s allegations can be definitively established, it is fair to say that official treatment of those categorized as a security threat by the government has been less than reassuring. For instance, the Federal Government has kept IPOB leader Nnamdi Kanu in detention since October 2015. Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzaky, leader of Shi’ite Muslims in Nigeria, and his wife Zeenat, have been in police custody since December 2015 at the pleasure of the government, and ostensibly “in their own interest”. This is utter lawlessness, to say the least, because democracy does not provide for indefinite detention of anybody without the instrumentality of the law courts.
Again, Shiites have been massacred and harassed ceaselessly by agents of the Nigerian state, with no less a personality than the Inspector General of Police, Ibrahim Idris, being the latest to justify the killing of members of the sect by claiming that they were armed. In addition, Kaduna State governor, Mallam Nasir el-Rufai, grudgingly quipped that they did not recognize him and President Muhammadu Buhari as governor and president, respectively.
In the current matter of the pro-Biafra protesters, Amnesty has made its case, and it is a robust and persuasive case. It is up to the government to disprove it.