Buratai and soldiers’ excesses in Plateau – Punch

In their attempt to unravel the circumstances of the disappearance of a retired Nigerian Army Major General, Mohammed Alkali, who went missing on September 3, soldiers are running riot in Plateau State. On Saturday, masked soldiers invaded a restaurant in the capital, Jos, and arrested 37 persons, including The PUNCH Correspondent in the state, Friday Olokor. They were detained in an uncompleted building. Such brazen human rights violations occur constantly on the watch of Tukur Buratai as Chief of Army Staff. Those detained illegally should be released immediately.

Olokor stated that he was detained for 28 hours and interrogated five times. All his pleas and the evidence of his ID card that he is a PUNCH journalist were ignored. Olokor was lucky as he was later released. Other innocent residents of Jos are languishing in military detention over a civil case that should be handled by the police. It is apparent that, 19 years into democracy, the military have yet to subordinate themselves to civil authority. “All the male suspects were chained in pairs, hands and legs,” Olokor said. This is a barbaric way to investigate crime. Even on the battlefield, the international community detests such inhuman tactics which is why the affected victims should consider the option of going to court.

Civilised countries punish individuals who commit specific acts of violence in a civil war.  A set of United States laws, referred to as “Leahy laws” after Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, prohibits the Department of Defence and Department of State from funding foreign security forces known to engage in human-rights abuses. But it is alleged that documented reports of large-scale human rights abuses by the Nigerian military have shadowed the country for years, often straining relations with international partners, including the US, in the fight against Boko Haram. In its 2016 report, Human Rights Watch said the euphoria and optimism that followed the relatively peaceful 2015 elections that brought in the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari gradually gave way to concerns in 2016. “Many of the grave human rights challenges he promised to address in his inauguration speech remain largely unaddressed and unresolved. Across the country, allegations of abuses including arbitrary arrests and detention, torture, forced disappearance, and extrajudicial killings continue to trail security operations.” HRW asserts that there is a disturbing pattern of anti-human rights and civil society rhetoric by the Buhari administration.  Amnesty International’s 2016 report alleged that 240 people, including infants, died in military detention camps in the North-East, while 177 pro-Biafran agitators were allegedly extrajudicially killed in the same year. In response, the Buhari government instituted a Presidential Investigation Panel to review the compliance of the Armed Forces with human rights obligations and rules of engagement in August 2017. But has anything changed?

Excessive use of force by security forces should be condemned. The unspeakable brutality of the military in the Odi and Zaki Biam attacks during the Olusegun Obasanjo administration was the most egregious atrocity of a government against its own people in recent memory. Buhari should not allow his government to be so tainted.  The functionality principle limits military jurisdiction to crimes committed in relation to the performance of military duties, which effectively limits the principle to military crimes committed by elements of the armed forces. Section 29 of the UN Project of Principles on the Administration of Justice by Military Tribunals states: the jurisdiction of military tribunals must be restricted solely to specifically military offences committed by military personnel, to the exclusion of human rights violations, which shall come under the jurisdiction of the ordinary domestic courts or, where appropriate, in the case of serious crimes under international law, of an international or internationalised criminal court. This distinguishes a democracy from other types of regimes.

It is against the norm in Britain, France or the US for the military to interfere rudely in civil matters. This was the case in May 2013 when two Britons of Nigerian descent, Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, hacked a British soldier, Lee Rigby, to death. Although they committed the crime near the Royal Artillery Barracks, Woolwich, London, only the police intervened. Buratai should teach the military not to take the law into their own hands, but relate with the police in civil matters. The US regularly punishes its soldiers who abuse even active enemy combatants and terrorists. Israel, despite facing existential threats, moves against its troops engaged in extrajudicial killings. Despite its military’s fierce notoriety for brutality, South Sudan recently jailed 10 soldiers for rape and murder, while the world is confronting Myanmar’s atrocities against the Rohingya ethnic minority.

Nigerians are in anguish under the Army’s oppressive jackboots. The Jos outrage follows a familiar and notorious pattern of thuggish impunity by Buratai’s troops. Apart from the invasion of the Shiite enclave in Zaria, during which a Kaduna State Government panel said 347 persons were killed, reports detailed how, in September 2017, about 50 soldiers besieged the Nigeria Union of Journalists Press Centre in Umuahia, Abia State, beat up journalists and damaged iPads, laptops, tape recorders and furniture, ostensibly as part of a clampdown on Biafran activists.

Unchecked by their superiors, impunity gains ground as senior officers, who, by their training and exposure to international best practices, ought to know better, often see nothing wrong in the lawlessness of their troops. Thus, Mohammed Bello, a brigadier-general and commander of the Nigerian Army’s 23 Armoured Brigade, Yola, could, without batting an eyelid, confirm in January this year that 11 persons, including a district head, had been arrested by soldiers after a soldier was killed in Opallo town, Lamurde Local Government Area of Adamawa State. It is the police that should investigate and make arrests. In April, it was the turn of Naka community in Gwer LGA to taste the military’s impunity: buildings, goods and vehicles were burnt and an elderly man died in a reprisal by soldiers from the 707 Special Forces Brigade, whose spokesman, Olabisi Ayeni, a major, said troops were sent to the town after one Private Danlami Gambo was killed by unknown persons. Six persons, including a mother and her six-month-old baby, were feared dead in Oluasiri, Nembe LGA, Bayelsa State, in June after soldiers allegedly invaded the community ostensibly in search of pirates, oil thieves and militants.

Buratai must end this culture of revenge and impunity. Agreed, it is very sad and regrettable that an officer of the rank of a Major General in the Nigerian Army could just disappear in such unclear and suspicious circumstances, which is a further confirmation of the general insecurity to which every Nigerian is exposed on a daily basis.  But it is wrong to have unleashed soldiers on the civil populace under the guise of investigating the unfortunate incident. It is barbaric and unfashionable in a civilised society, where the rights of every individual should be respected.

For any assignment that the military embark on, there must be acceptable rules of engagement.  But in Nigeria, such rules are usually observed in the breach, which is why the military should never be assigned the duty that should be taken up by the police. For instance, the case in hand is not one that requires show of force; rather, it is an assignment that requires the gathering of intelligence that could lead to the apprehension of the criminal elements responsible for the heinous act. Storming a community to effect indiscriminate arrests of citizens, most, if not all, of who might be innocent, cannot unravel the crime.

In fact, in a society where there is so much security challenge like ours, it serves the cause of law enforcement and criminal investigation for security agents to be in good and harmonious relationship with citizens. It is these same citizens that will provide information that could lead to the arrest of criminals. This cannot be achieved by intimidation and brutalisation of the civil populace the way Nigerian soldiers normally do. To the military, this may be classified as collateral damage, but some damage ought to be avoided altogether.

Once again, the military authorities should know that they cannot continue to function under different laws; this is a democracy and the military are supposed to subject themselves to the authorities of civil rule. Incidents such as what has just happened in Plateau State should be enough to compel the military authorities to put their men on a leash. As much as possible, soldiers should be confined to their barracks while police handle the investigation of crime.

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