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We, the bloodied civilians

By Owei Lakemfa

THE civil populace gave the military a black eye on January 27, 2010. On that day, Justice Opeyemi Oke  ordered the Nigeria Navy and one of its star generals,a Rear Admiral  to pay two victims: Miss Uzoma Okere and Mr Abdullahi Abdulazeez N100  million.

The victory is not  the damages awarded. Rather, it is the soothing balm on the populace which has since 1966 been battered by a neo-colonial military with no respect for the civil populace and scant regard for human life.

In fact, the armed forces which is paid to protect the country and its citizenry  has been so contemptuous of the  populace that apart from dictating to it for 29  years, refers disdainfully to the Nigerian populace as “Bloody Civilians”. So when Justice Oke in her ruling said “the ratings have shown that they have no respect for human beings and no fear of God”,  she was not only stating the obvious but also summarising the behavioural  pattern of the military.

When I was a kid, the belief amongst the populace was that while soldiers were untamed, the Navy and Air Force were more civil. But over the years, both quickly overtook the Army in their brutality towards the civil populace. That is why the Judge’s admonition that “being in  military uniform doesn’t give power to officers to maltreat civilians whenever there is a disagreement” is one to be taken seriously. For a start the armed forces must purge themselves of the mentality that they are superior to other citizens, are above the law, would not queue, pay fares in public transport or obey traffic rules.

Over the years, there have been so called “Army-Civilian” clashes such as in Ugep where they were seized, their barracks burnt down and casualties recorded. Prominent Nigerians like Chiefs Gani Fawehinmi and Moshood Kashimawo Abiola have not been spared from military brutality. So the Uzoma Okere incident was God-sent; the brutal assault was filmed  live, shown on television and photographs published in the newspapers in scenic sequence. They showed  four armed Naval men beating a lady on the street, stripping her half-naked, dragging her away. Later she was handcuffed and taken into the house of the gallant Rear Admiral who told her she was lucky.

Although the incident had been captured live and widely publicised in the mass media, the Navy and the culprits, Harry Arogundade, C I Jeremiah, S A Bullen, S A Kariga and Francis Okolagu rather than be remorseful and apologise, arrogantly said the victims were the aggressors.

The Nigeria Navy Director of Information, Commodore David Naibada said it was actually the lady that attacked the armed Naval ratings. Months later, they still repeated the same falsehood in court. The Rear Admiral’s  lies in court were even more confounding: He claimed that he was in fact unaware of the incident as he was busy in his car reading a newspaper. What an officer! How can we waste our money paying such a man salaries?

Justice Oke rightly described the lies of the Navy and its men as  thoughtless and childish. She said: “It is obvious that the averment  of the defendants were cooked up lies  to the extent that they were overcooked and got burnt “.

The judgement is also a victory for social justice. Some years ago, it would have been almost impossible to hold the military accountable for such crimes; it did things with impunity. Even today, with the facts of the crime so glaring and irrefutable, it thinks that in line with the esprit de corps dogma, the culprits should be shielded. I am told that the Rear Admiral  rather than being dismissed from service has now been moved   to  Abuja  and   given   higher responsibilities.

The hope is that with the conclusion of this case, rather than waste more public funds and the time of our courts appealing, the Navy or the supervising Ministry of Defence would apologise to the victims and the Nigerian populace and dismiss the Rear Admiral  and his fellow travellers.

The Rear Admiral and his boys had battered the victims because they believed that as usual, military personnel would not  be held accountable for their misdeeds. Indeed, the military which has on a number of occasions, since 1966, sacked elected governments and parliaments, dismissed public servants contrary to the rules, banned political parties, labour and student unions and killed with impunity, had come to see us  as a conquered people.

This sense of conquest and belief in impunity persist until this day because no former or serving military officer has been made to account for the many years they looted the country’s treasury. Rather, these veterans  and beneficiaries of coup plotting are celebrated as “elder statesmen” and their wives as “former first ladies”. Many of them have diverted our stolen funds into politics sponsoring and imposing candidates, and in many instances occupying elected offices.

Such officers  abound in the military and  this single case is not enough to deter them. Therefore,  the civil society needs the political will to bring them to justice. It is a pity that the many cultured and fine gentlemen and women in the armed forces,  some of whom I have met, are being painted in the  tar  so  liberally applied by such officers  amongst them, but they have the duty to purge the armed forces of  miscreants.


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