By Constance OKECHUKWU
IN African culture, elders are the custodians of truth. They are the moral guide to the society and they do all in their wisdom to engender peace and preserve the interests of the larger society. Unfortunately, the various elders’ groups in Nigeria–in the East, West, South-South, Middle Belt or North -are different; they observe this rule in the breach. The most typical of them is the Northern Elders’ Forum (NEF) which has been in the news in recent times, for its strident pursuit of sectional and parochial interests to the detriment of the well-being of the larger Nigerian nation.
The elders, at the end of its meeting in Kaduna last month, alleged that the immediate past Chief of Army Staff, Lt. General Azubuike Ihejirika and some other top military officers were involved in extra-judicial killings and strangulation of civilians by soldiers in Bama and Giwa Barracks in Borno State, using an underground detention centre.
The Forum’s threat to drag the former Army chief to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, is not only seen as a campaign to fan the embers of ethnic discord –with its potentialities in Nigeria-it is also a campaign to diminish Nigeria before the international community. More grievous is that it is a malicious attempt to portray President Goodluck Jonathan as a violator of human rights.
At a different forum, the group and the Northern Traditional Rulers Council (NTRC) accused the President of masterminding the mass redeployment of heavy military weapons from the North to the South. As if the issue is not worrisome enough, their meeting chaired by no less a personality than the Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Sa’ad Abubakar III, in Kaduna, alleged that the reason for the arms relocation was to aid the plan to rig the 2015 elections. Weighty accusations, I dare say. However, they are allegations that are as curious as they are baseless.
While the spokesman for the first group, Professor Ango Abdullahi, did not mention the six other persons he alleged were involved in the Borno human rights violations, the Sultan’s group did not in any way substantiate its allegation on arms relocation. The questions that arise are many, but only two will suffice here: Why did they hide the allegations in their large babanrigas, until shortly after Ihejirika was removed as Army Chief? And where were they when Odi, Katsina-Ala and Zaki Biam faced worse action, or are Katsina-Ala and Zaki Biam no longer part of their North?
While several groups have denounced the Northern Elders Forum (NEF), for openly discouraging the military’s efforts in containing terror — for that’s what its posture amounts to-prominent Igbo leaders say it is an attempt to tarnish the image and sterling performance of General Ihejirika as the nation’s army chief. My worry is that the attack on the former army chief is ill-conceived, coming at a time that the military, and indeed the nation, was counting the losses in human and material terms of the war on Boko Haram.
According to Ihejirika himself, in the entire command chain of the Army, directives are issued from higher commands down to the issuance of operational orders, but at every level of adherence, the rule of engagement is emphasised with special emphasis on the preservation of human rights. Therefore, to accuse the army, such a highly organised institution that does not condone indiscipline, of human rights abuses within the Nigerian territory, is to be uncharitable, considering the challenges they have had to face and the risks they have borne in the Boko Haram ‘war’. Besides, to single out Ihejirika for accusation, smacks of hidden agenda, and fuels the belief by Ohaneze Youths, that it was an attempt to blemish the records of their kinsman who broke all records to rise to the top position of the Nigerian Army.
We have always known the Northern Elders Forum (NEF) as the modern version of the old Kaduna Mafia, but when did they transform to military tacticians? Their tale on relocation of military hardware must therefore be seen as unnecessary scare-mongering. To allege too that it was part of a grand design to rig the 2015 elections is utter claptrap coming from hawkish politicians out to score some cheap points. NEF must appreciate the impact of the ongoing reforms in our electoral system, for which President Jonathan has received acclaim and commendation from local and international organisations. Such glib allegations are senseless in a country that has increasingly widened the democratic space and moved away from shambolic elections.
We must get something clear here. The NEF stand on Ihejirika, has revealed the other side of the Northern Elders who have all paid lip service to the war on terror which Boko Haram presently symbolises. Here, we have politicians who mask under some amorphous groupings to further their regional agenda, regardless of the cost to our nation’s development.
While it is still within their democratic rights to oppose President Jonathan and oppose his administration’s policies, we must insist that they pursue their regional political agenda within the limits of decency. What everybody must frown at is their insistence over time, in stoking the fire of sectional interests, and denigrating of the institution of the presidency. The question must indeed be asked: where truly lies their sympathy?
Like Senator Uche Chukwumerije said while adding his voice in condemnation of the elders’ indiscretion, their statement has revealed the depth of resentment of the campaign against Boko Haram. Chukwumerije, who said the threat was capable of unleashing ill-will on the federation, further described it as highly provocative to the sensibilities of all, who desire the unity and stability of Nigeria. While he described the NEF as biased, he believes they had opened doors into the world court for not only the Ndigbo, but also the people of Odi, Zaki-Biam and Katsina Ala, saying they would all dust their files and head for The Hague. I cannot agree any less.
*Mr. Okechukwu, a commentator on national issues, wrote from Abuja.