A few months ago, video footage appeared online showing Nigeria’s armed forces committing human rights abuses in Orlu, Imo State. A few days ago, another video emerged showing soldiers shooting live ammunition at some houses in Awgu, Enugu. From the video, the soldiers were clearly having fun while at it. Also, it appears that the footage was recorded and posted by one of them. It has also been reported that they were there under the guise of chasing after members of the proscribed Indigenous Peoples of Biafra – a group that has been blamed for much of the insecurity that has plagued the South-East in the past year.
Insecurity in Nigeria has taken diverse forms, but its sources and proponents have remained the same and are finding novel ways to exacerbate an already tense situation. This is even more true in the Nigerian military, which has been accused of atrocities bordering on war crimes in their operations. Between January 2019 and September 2021, per SBM Intelligence, no fewer than 470 people were killed using extrajudicial force or killings attributed to state security forces. The military, which has between 250 and 330 bases across the country, is currently mired in internal security operations across the 36 states of the federation, putting out one flame or another while igniting several others as video evidence has shown in the South East. In the North East, the Boko Haram insurgency is in its twelfth year and has killed no less than 40 000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands of others. In the North West and Central, the military is fighting against hundreds of armed groups collectively called bandits who have displaced farmers, a subset of the larger Pastoral conflict engulfing the country. In the South, it deals with separatist agitations in the East, illegal bunkering and oil theft in the Niger Delta, and other vices in the West. There is a sense that Nigeria is at war. Usually, the definition of war means at least 1000 people killed in violence in one calendar year. In the first three quarters of 2021, nearly 8000 people have been killed in several violent incidents in Nigeria. While the country is not fighting an external, conventional adversary, the diffuse manner of sometimes orchestrated violence in its territory indicates that Nigeria is at war with itself.
Arguments that IPOB pushed the army into indiscriminate killings due to their targeted attacks on security formations in the region fall flat in the face of established norms and conventions on warfare. As Michel Veuthy wrote in Guerilla Warfare and Humanitarian Law, Guerrilla warfare can be compared to the retiarius who only has a net and a trident to challenge the Myrmidon clad in armour. It is David’s fight against Goliath, or even the eternal antagonism between Cain, the tiller of the land, and Abel, the simple shepherd. Guerrilla warfare, however, is not the prerogative of one party or ideology: it is in the image of man, both good and evil, liberating his noblest and basest instincts. If war is the ultimate ratio of princes, guerrilla warfare is the last resort of desperate people. For, as Sartre said, “all violence is failure.” Granted that the Nigerian army is fighting guerrilla warfare against separatists. However, conventional international humanitarian law and statutes that Nigeria is a signatory to invest greater responsibility on the shoulders of the State and its agents.
What the Nigerian military did in Awgu as it has been doing in the South East all year round is simply war crimes–shooting at defenseless, unarmed combatants and civilians in their own homes. This is the kind of thing that gets one their time at the Hague for crimes against humanity. Given how much experience it has garnered in its 12 years of fighting against Boko Haram, the Nigerian military ought to know better in these circumstances. Clearly, it has not learned anything, and herein lieth the problem. Boasting about one of Africa’s most unprofessional fighting forces is a reprehensible shame that stains our national conscience.
The Nigerian security force is one agency that is resistant to change. And drawing upon this writer’s personal experience in an encounter with senior military officials, it has been made clear that the combat ideals of the stone age and its scorched earth policy are the hills on which it has–as an institution–chosen to die on. This year alone, the air force has been involved in several mishaps that have led to the death of hundreds of civilians in indiscriminate air raids under the guise of chasing after bandits. Fresh from killing 300 civilians at an internally displaced person camp in Rann, Borno State, in 2017, the Airforce dropped bombs close to Sububu forest in the North West a few months ago, killing a woman and her two children. The Airforce, unfortunately, continues to deny this incident, citing the infallibility of its intelligence. The army has not been left out of the action as it outrightly abuses citizens under cover of going after IPOB. What was shown in the reprehensible video making the rounds is something very profound that is now hitting home–the army is no longer going after the separatists and is now focused on ethnic cleansing.
Let’s be clear. The Nigerian State brought this calamity upon itself. Its refusal to listen to logic and common sense led to the degeneration of security in the South East. Sending in the big guns to quench a fire set alight by the government has only served to worsen things irreparably. The military headquarters denying the incident, while it is not new–heck, these guys shot at peaceful and unarmed protesters last year on live TV, which over 130 000 people watched, and denied it!–is an indication that we are not getting better soon.
The level of self-awareness required for national growth has been very much lacking in all of Nigeria’s history. Even worse is its penchant for sticking with terrible ideas and actions even in the face of better alternatives that encourage hard work, which has sadly been the death of it. The responsibility to protect (its population from external threats, and ironically, itself), vested on the State by a social contract is lost on the Nigerian government. Its bad behavior has also been noted internationally. Having run foul of the Leahy Act of the US Congress which prevents the US government and its defense industry from selling weapons to States accused of committing rights violations, the government has found itself in difficult waters of finding good weapons to fight terror. Instead, she has found succor in undemocratic states (China, Pakistan, Turkey, and Russia) with no compunction to be accountable to human rights. The Super Tucano jets recently ordered from the US were held back since the Nigerian government stated that it was to be used against “Bandits” in the North West. This term is unrecognized by the US Congress compared to the more conventional “terrorist.” The accelerated velocity of the terminological inexactitude has prevented the Nigerian military from actively identifying who poses a threat from someone who must be protected–a semantic headache caused by the convolution of Fulani herdsmen, bandits, and other terrorists–is like a double entendre designed to escape scrutiny and accountability.
The lack of discipline exhibited by junior and mid-level officers is an emulation of the recklessness of senior officers who could not be bothered about understanding human rights. To the average Nigerian soldier, he is a machine designed to kill or be killed. The robotic approach to training soldiers identifies the very many problems producing this poor showing. Secondly, denialism does not help anyone. It does not protect the soldiers involved. It does not help the credibility of the military’s leadership and the Defence Headquarters, which has taken a big hit. Denialism pushes more people with legitimate grievances against the military to join armed movements in an uprising against the State. The actions of the Nigerian army have simply made IPOB’s recruitment easier. In this race for the abyss, the Nigerian military has thrown the gauntlet, not to the armed separatists, but to the innocent Nigerian bystander who has not committed to any side. Nigeria’s social contract has to be revisited if things will get better. It simply does not help that the country’s history is littered with one atrocity or another committed by the military. The first-ever involvement of the military in Nigeria’s internal affairs was the Tiv Riots which resurfaced in 1962 and was brutally suppressed by the army by orders of the Balewa government. Ever since, successive governments have thrown dialogue into the annals of common sense and have embraced the use of force for settling even the most basic movements, such as one aimed at stopping police brutality. This overuse of the military has stretched it thin, leaving the country defenseless, with casualties of security agents piling daily.
The Nigerian government and its agents must realize that it is far more expensive to maintain peace through organized, orchestrated violence (the military has consistently gotten the largest budget share since 2013) that comes with no accountability. Any state which does not respect its people has lost the legitimacy to present itself as a guarantor of peace and is a failed state. This is the grim Nigerian experience.