On one hand, it is difficult to bash the Nigerian Armed Forces.
They have been, to put it mildly, undercut in recent times by political calculations. They have often been thin on resources, especially when elections are on the horizon. The case against Col. Sambo Dasuki (rtd) by the federal government hasn’t progressed quickly enough to inform the public on whom should be officially blamed for Boko Haram being active into 2015.
But from the moment Muhammadu Buhari, a former member of the Forces, became Commander-in-chief, things were supposed to be better.
In the early days, there was much optimism that troops on the frontlines would be taken care of in body and mind, stable and motivated to protect Nigeria’s territory. Under his ‘reformed-democrat’ leadership, the Armed Forces would be professional in conduct. They will strategically combine fierce, calculated enemy combat with respectful, dignifying treatment of civilians and innocent citizens.
Regretfully, this script has not been followed. All that hope actually unraveled almost immediately the administration kicked into gear.
Since Amnesty International reported the Zaria massacre of 2015, the Army has been frosty towards criticism. Every conversation or critique of the (in)appropriateness of their action is immediately tagged condescending and an attempt to destabilize Nigeria. Their watch-list now includes the United Nations Children Education Fund (UNICEF), an organization of many volunteers who have, in no small measure, prevented the fragile threads barely holding parts of North-East Nigeria (especially on the availability of education) from totally caving to the stress of insurgency.
But the reality of the Army’s deviant actions cannot be wished away by being angry and petty. Anyone who sees The New York Times documentary on the Army’s killing spree in Abuja late October becomes shocked, angry, worried and frightened.
Collecting hundreds of images and videos and recreating scenes using satellite imagery, The Times reverse-engineered the Army’s face-off with members of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN) along the Abuja-Keffi road. Cuts from the divided highway between Karu bridge and Kugbo furniture market where an Army checkpoint has been since the Nyanya bombings of 2014 are gruesome.
Among many dark details, the exposé shows the presidential guard – a special unit in a short chain of command to the President – was directly involved. Their involvement reveals how seriously the presidency takes/fears the Shiites protests. But it draws attention to an exercise of power so terrifying it bothers on crimes against humanity.
Were Buhari himself ever to address this, we should not be surprised if he expresses ignorance. It has been that kind of government where major decisions are taken on his behalf. But what would that say about his control of the Army, being the Commander-in-chief? If, without his assent, a guard almost directly reporting to him could go on such a fantasy excursion at a location sixteen minutes away from the Villa, not for a drill but to engage in blood-thirsty orgy, is Nigeria in safe hands?
But it is unlikely he wasn’t aware, placing full culpability for the gory pictures on him. Damned if he was aware, condemned if he wasn’t. This is a hot, boiling mess, one of President Buhari’s doing. As Zaki Biam and Odi remain in Olusegun Obasanjo’s file, so will this in Buhari’s.
Can there be any remedies? What can the Army do better?
Buhari did not act on the report of a judicial panel that recommended sanctions for the 2015 massacre. It is not surprising, then, that the Army has had license to not change. But instead of throwing toys out of the pram, the Army should be evaluating the reception citizens have of these reports. Whatever the ideological bent of these organizations, Nigerians are using common sense and judging these reports true and damaging. No spin or lamentation can thwart the force of their significance.
The directors and chiefs at Ship House should shelf bluster and knuckle down. Nigerians know that ‘fire and fury’ retorts are framed for messaging to terrorists, that the Army cannot be intimidated. Following Napoleon, never apologizing, retreating and never retracting seems best done by attacking the critic or fact-checker.
Those are rules for politics, however. An Army in a democratic setting, that functions in like a political machinery will never be trustworthy. The Nigeria Army for the 21st century has to be more circumspect and honest about its role and focus on doing it best; fighting clear aggressors with commensurate force. The ammunition used against the Shiites as shown by The Times are war-grade stuff, blowing away some protesters’ legs. There is no way to spin soldiers kicking and crudely beating up unarmed civilians in the streets. This was a disproportionate and barbaric exercise.
Nigeria’s Military needs enthusiastic partners to win the war against Boko Haram. But it won’t get far by sulking and spilling milk after being told to look in the mirror and see the bleeding sores it’s inflicting on itself. Femi Falana has kind of put it well: Stop harassing your helpers. And just as importantly, for goodness sake, let the barbarism stop.
Amnesty and co will continue their work. The Army should do theirs with less talk. There can’t be many full blooded soldiers eager to work for bosses who sulk, neither will Nigerians afford sympathy for their welfare when their human rights record, at the moment, sucks.
Opinions: Part formed, Part undergoing reform