A terrorist army and state?
On December 12, 2015, some members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) were doing their normal procession in Zaira and blocked the convoy of the Chief of Army Staff, Lt. Gen. Tukur Burutai. After some altercations, the army promptly mowed them down and for added measure, levelled their Hussainiyya centre, brutalised and arrested the leader of the group, Ibraheem Zakzaky and his wife. To cover up the gruesome killings, the army took away the corpses of those killed, set fire on them and buried them in mass graves.
When the news broke, the military attempted to lie its way through, accusing the sect of trying to assassinate the Chief of Army Staff and denying that the army massacred a large number of the group’s members. However, a panel set up by the Kaduna state government to investigate the killings finally indicted the Nigerian army for the Zaria massacre. The Kaduna state government confirmed to the panel that 347 IMN members were killed and buried in secret mass graves. Specifically, the panel indicted Maj. General Adeniyi Oyebade, the General Officer Commanding the Nigerian Army’s 1st Devision in Kaduna for authorising the operation.
The Panel stopped short of indicting the Chief of Army Staff General Burutai who also bears responsibility for, and has defended, the killings on several occasions. From the videos of the encounter between the army Chief’s convoy and the sect members, it was clear the situation does not require the use of lethal force. Teargas, at worse, could have been used to dislodge them. But the army chose to massacre them, destroyed their centre and have continued to detain its leader illegally for having the effrontery to stand in its way. As the Panel rightly found out, the killings are a crime against humanity and those responsible should be brought to justice.
However, in a bizarre twist, the Kaduna state government banned the IMN from operating in Kaduna instead of pushing for the punishment of all those indicted. Also security agencies began a systematic clampdown on the group in major states in Northern Nigeria. Consequently, the group’s members have been brutally maimed and killed in Jos, Abuja, Kano, and Katsina while protesting government’s actions against the group and the continued unlawful detention of their leader, his wife and other members of the group since their arrest in 2015.
Also, in May 2017, Amnesty International released a report, backed by videos, photographs and eye witness accounts showing that between August 2015 and August 2016, “the Nigerian security forces, led by the military, embarked on a chilling campaign of extrajudicial executions and violence resulting in the deaths of at least 150 peaceful pro-Biafra protesters in the south east of the country.” The report, “a product of intense investigation comprising analysis of 87 videos, 122 photographs and 146 eye witness testimonies relating to demonstrations and other gatherings between August 2015 and August 2016 consistently shows that the military fired live ammunition with little or no warning to disperse crowds. It also finds 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.” According to the report, “this deadly repression of pro-Biafra activists is further stoking tensions in the south east of Nigeria. This reckless and trigger-happy approach to crowd control has caused at least 150 deaths and we fear the actual total might be far higher.”
Expectedly, the government has kept mum on the killings and have gone ahead to declare the two groups terrorist organisations.
If we are to accept the definition of terrorism as the use of violence or threat of violence in order to purport a political, religious, or ideological change, what is the difference then between, say Boko Haram and the Nigerian Army or state? Many Nigerian Sunnis are also silently or even publicly supporting the massacre of the Shiites. Of course, many Nigerians do not see the danger in a terrorist state and army. Neither did Germans under the Nazis. But the eternal words of Martin Niemoller ring true even today:
“First, they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
But a greater concern – and one that should worry every Nigerian – is the fact that the Nigerian army is gradually losing its fighting capability and now seems to win only wars fought with unarmed and defenceless civilians while failing spectacularly to route armed groups who have confronted it. While the army kill unarmed civilians with glee in Odi in Bayelsa, Zaki Biam in Benue, Zaria in Kaduna, Abuja, Onitsha, Aba and other places where they have been deployed to keep the peace, they have been helpless against the Boko Haram insurgents who have determinedly challenged the legitimacy of the Nigerian state now for upwards of ten years. So far, the army has only been able to technically defeat Boko Haram while the casualty figure in its ranks have continued to rise daily to the extent that the army and the government no longer acknowledge or report the casualties.
The same thing happened with the more violent groups in the Niger Delta who vowed to and successfully disrupted oil exploration in the Niger Delta despite the presence of the army until the government negotiated a solution that cost the country billions of dollars in Amnesty payments.
Recently, the army has been trying to cede control of lands recovered from the terrorists to the Nigerian police, whose men are vehemently resisting being sent to northeast in case they come up against Boko Haram insurgents. Yet, these same police personnel have been waging a relentless war against unarmed civilians, killing and maiming them at will with little or no response from the government. Or is it the army that fails to deal with the Boko Haram insurgents citing the excuse of inadequate personnel but have personnel to lock down Abia state over a burial of the parents of an irritant.
The military is trained to face armed opponents and even in war, soldiers are prohibited from executing other soldiers who surrender or even enemies rounded up. It is shocking that an entire nation will be just fine with its armed forces daily committing war crimes, not even against foreign enemies but against its own people!
Meanwhile, like I argued last week, these non-violent groups are taking notice of the fact that violence remains the only way of negotiating with the Nigerian state. We should not be surprised if more and more groups take up arms against the state.