By Dr. Ugoji Egbujo
Our soldiers are stretched. And when stretched minds snap rebukes are measured, condemnations muffled . They are giving it their all, fighting demons with gloves. The depravity of the other side makes any rule following seem a handicap. We knew something was amiss but we didn’t know that the billions of dollars meant for the war were this footloose. Against the asymmetry and barbarism of boko haram for whom killing and maiming is a compulsive obsession , the waywardness of the ‘boko haram dollars’ was egregious evil.
Thousands of lives, many brave soldiers, all those school children. We no longer mourn. Soldiers’ wives once barricaded barracks to get across to us but the politics of that time proved a formidable wedge. Our soldiers have done gallantly. And the complexity of their circumstances must invite considerable sympathy . And it is this understanding compelled by a huge debt of gratitude that restrained many who would have screamed when the goriness of the encounter between the army and that Shia sect hit the public.
Many recovered from disbelief and lapsed into prevarications. Soon even those who found outrage joined others to wait for the commission of inquiry. Commission of inquiry in Nigeria? Well ‘change’ has come, so we will wait. It is noteworthy that the Army also rushed to the National Human rights Commission with a petition, it can ill afford to hurt its relations with the West. The army could have done without this distraction.
The Shia sect stood no chance. They were left groaning, writhing and mourning. Were they a message to trouble makers? Muted national shock fetched them only trickles of sympathy. Other voices rose quickly to condemn their perennial nastiness. An endangered minority with a horrible reputation. Many think it was time their bluff was called. The list of the atrocities ascribed to them by their neighbours are endless. The number of Shiites killed and severely injured is still disputed but there is a consensus that more died than needed to shock consciences. What a needless waste of young lives.
It’s difficult to know if the Army is capable of sober self reflection. Their defence of their role in that tragedy has remained robust and perhaps defiant. The death toll means any blame will come with a heavy burden. They insist they acted more than responsibly. Sometimes you wonder if they believe they shot armed robbers or terrorists. Is it then possible that somewhere, away from bloody civilians, and beneath all the machismo, and rationalizations, they can manage and find some regret? We must worry about the sort of precedents we set.
When the president who didn’t address the nation after that incident suggested in a media chat that the army was provoked, he invited a thorough scrutiny of the actions of the army and his own response. The army had initially talked about a premeditated attack, an attempt to assassinate the army chief. That could have sounded preposterous but anything can happen in the boko haram infested north now. And since the bomb weary public has developed a phobia for any group tagged ‘Islamic sect’ , the army had the early benefit of the doubt. Many believe lawless sects must not be given room to bloom. But when the numbers of people killed tumbled in and deafened even those hard of hearing, eye brows of suspicion were raised and the army got the message that the credibility of its version of events was in dire need of an overhaul.
The army then released a video clip. The rascality of the sect was in prominent display. However, nothing in it suggested a premeditated attack on the army chief. If it had anything to show that the youths attacked the military then the army considered it too offensive for public viewing as considerable editing rendered that video a weak evidence of any real violence. But the video confirmed other things: The youths unlawfully blocked the way ; the generals handled the intransigence of the youths with calm and maturity; the youths refused the entreaties of the generals to yield; both sides had enough time to reflect on the consequences of an escalation or an aggravation of the situation. And it is this last factor that places a heavy moral burden on the chief of army staff. He could have walked away! The sect took the law into their hands but this tragedy was needless.
Based on the video evidence it is surprising the army chief did not retreat. He may have information the public is not privy to, so we wait for the commission of inquiry. It is difficult to understand how the army could not see that the situation could degenerate and how they imagined that if it did they would bulldoze through a column of poor, recalcitrant Nigerian youths without deadly consequences. It is difficult to understand how anyone can plead self defence in such a circumstance, no one appeared circled. It is true such situations can degenerate very quickly but that was easy to envisage. Even in battle situations the extent of collateral damage and degree of impact on civilians is a critical factor in determining the feasibility and propriety of a military action.
The argument that the youths played with the tail of a tiger is utter nonsense, and should be discouraged. If the military is a tiger it’s tigeritude should menace our enemies and comfort us. The military is funded by tax payers to defend Nigerians. The preservation of the lives of Nigerians must be the primary duty of every soldier. The caliber of soldiers we had on ground should have guaranteed a smarter handling of a tense situation. How can ego account for this avoidable tragedy? We have seen angry soldiers, lose their minds, troop out of their barracks and burn down a Police Area command in Surulere. They said fingers were poked in their eyes . And many thought if a general had been in the vicinity the Surulere fiasco would have been averted. Because Generals are not given to rashness.
The argument that if the army had yielded ground and retreated the prestige and solidarity of the military would have been damaged is preposterous. So what point was proved with the loss of so many lives? Such an argument is founded on an atavistic military egotism which is in no way compatible with military being subservient to the people. The military exists primarily to enhance the dignity of the average Nigerian. But there is another perspective to that argument.
Many feel that a retreat by the army would have emboldened the sect members who have become laws unto themselves. If they have chronically trampled on other residents with impunity and disregarded the existence of local authorities and if they had succeeded in browbeating the chief of army staff then ordinary local residents would have become thoroughly imperiled. So in that sense the cutting to size of the daringness of the sect was emancipation for the other residents. If that is the mischief then the use of a sledge hammer didn’t help. It served to exonerate them from so much because all the focus now is on the propriety and proportionality of the military’s response.
And that is why President Buhari’s allusion to children tapping the chests of generals in reference to the degree of provocation that may have precipitated that horrendous incident is now impertinent. President Buhari’s military allegiance notwithstanding, he must be concerned about the lives maimed and wasted. Many of those children must have voted for him and they will expect him to be neutral.
The military is a national institution and those who serve there are not martians, they are our brothers and sisters. We must respect our military not because they are lords or tigers but because they put down their lives that we may live in peace. Soldiers must treat civilians not with disdain and impatience but with care and respect. Was there anything extraordinary in youths refusing to yield grounds for army generals to pass? If there was, then it must lie in the composition of this particular group of youths.
I cannot imagine that if a group of 2000 Ahmadu Bello University students blocked the way around Zaria for any reason that they would yield to the army. And if it happens that they do not yield and got confrontational will the army bulldoze them? Or would Buhari refer to such an intransigence as playing with the tail of a scorpion? We need to re-orientate the military, and certain assumptions must be dismantled.
If unyielding university students are mowed down it will be an unspeakable tragedy, and we won’t wait for any commission of enquiry to say so. So how is this tragedy different? Those killed are Nigerian youths. Minorities should be protected. Their transgressions should be met with lawful corrective measures. If some low ranking soldiers were sent to restore order and dislodge some youths and the exercise turned ugly and a few persons died,
it could be excusable. If the treatment meted out to that sect that day was due to an accumulation of real or perceived sins they committed in the past then we will lack firm moral and legal arguments to refute allegations of vindictiveness and malice, to justify such a high handed approach. We could have been more methodical. The fact of the sect being a known group, unruly they may be, evidenced by the phone call placed by one of the generals to their leader to rein in the youths , should have informed that they be handled by regular police crowd dispersal process.
We owe our military so much , but the military has a public moral burden to justify the necessity and severity of those actions. Anyone who presents like boko haram will attract urgent severe attention for obvious reasons but the rank and file must not come away with the impression that the military cannot retreat for moral reasons; that a standoff with youths hurling provocations must end in a calamity.