By Philip Agbese
The Nigerian Army (NA) is facing one of its worse moments in the history of its existence in the country. It is confronted with the difficult and unenviable duty of quelling internal insurrections across the country. Those conversant with the core mandate of the army would agree that such domestic assignments are outside the gamut of its original responsibility of protecting the sovereign territorial boundaries of Nigeria.
And despite its milestones in the enthronement of internal security and peace to troubled communities, soldiers are being daily persecuted in public eye by a bunch of cabal, which has vowed never to see anything good in the NA. They endlessly search for the fortuitous missteps of soldiers to amplify the faults and where none exists, they invent their own fiery tales to trumpet.
In pursuit of this mindset, various publications have continued to be churned out against the Nigerian army, alleging unsubstantiated professional misconducts, human rights violations, nepotism and so forth. Both some traditional and social media platforms have become veritable platforms for these bile campaigns on Nigerian soldiers by veiled antagonists.
A recent publication by a news Magazine, captioned, “The Nigeria Army: New Era of Impunity,” is the latest of such publications. It crucified the NA for imaginary offences, craftily ensconced in the jaundiced arguments of the proclivity of soldiers to unprofessionalism; descent into the “dark days” of tribalism and partiality in the army.
But on the contrary, the NA of today is quite different from the Army of yesterday, which Nigerians came to identify as a burden on the nation. The army has been repositioned in a manner which clearly publicizes its dedication to ethics and professionalism.
From the outset, the Commander-In-Chief of the Nigerian Armed Forces, President Mohammedu Buhari and the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) Gen. Tukur Yusuf Buratai were equivocal about their agenda to reposition the Nigerian army back to its professional path. As the largest arm of the Nigerian military, concerns were raised over its deep and destructive involvement into partisan politics and other extraneous trappings which erode public confidence in soldiers and encumber their acceptance in the communities they are deployed to serve.
Just recently, at the 2016 Nigerian Army Day Celebration (NADCEL) 2016, Gen. Buratai again, reiterated his resolve to have a NA that would be the pride of all as “a professionally responsive Nigerian Army in the discharge of its constitutional roles.” The army has also been structured to keep an eagle eye in the observance of human rights and other related international principles on the matter in the discharge of its constitutional duties.
This is elaborately evident in Buratai’s establishment of the Army Human Right Desk at the Army Headquarters with a firm pledge to members of the public to investigate all reports of human rights abuses. Added to it, the Army Chief has revived the Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM) office, which midwife’s soldiers for improved services.
Maj.-Gen. Adamu Abubakar who represented the COAS, eloquently averred that “We are going back to regimentation and professionalization of Army. “ Therefore, an institution which has taken such internal steps for sanity, would not willingly abuse the same values it holds sacrosanct, as portrayed in the publication.
Furthermore, under Buratai the soldiers on special assignments are compelled to integrate themselves in the communities to clear the aura of intimidation associated with the army. This has rewarded hence members of communities’ now see soldiers as protectors, rather than aggressors. Soldiers also often offer free medical services to communities in the Niger Delta, much as the Northeast and indeed, everywhere they are deployed to serve.
These are the conscious efforts to improve military-civil relations, which has paid off in the strings of successes the Nigerian Army has recorded in the terror war, cattle rustling and banditry as well as militancy in the Niger Delta.
But in spite of these alluring accomplishments of soldiers, there appears to be concerted efforts to demonize, discredit and malign the integrity of soldiers and its leadership by unscrupulous individuals. And the dragnet seems to be wide, with some army officers within suspected to be part of this scheme.
Nigerians must first appreciate that it is not within professional jurisdiction of soldiers to get involved in suppressing crimes like militancy, kidnappings/abductions and cultism. It is the conventional duty of the Nigerian Police, the Civil Defence Corps and other such similar security agencies. The drafting of Nigerian soldiers to such internal security duties by the government is apt indication of the sophistry of the crimes, which have not only become violent, but have gone beyond the capacity and strength of designated and convention security outfits.
The said publication endorsed the excellent performance of Nigerian Army over Boko Haram Terrorists. But it left soldiers on the cliffhanger for promoting ethnicity, nepotism, partiality and abuse of the rule of law in their field operations and its handling of Service administrative procedures in dealing with perceived erring officers of the Army.
While the issues raised can be discussed on their merits, based on what anybody feels or how he has been wronged, the unnecessary infusion of the elements of ethnicity, nepotism, partiality and the likes, has questioned the genuineness of the issues by those claiming to have been wrongly treated by the army.
Nigerians have a penchant to easily resort to the ethnic garb for protection, each time they are made to face the consequences of their transgressions or misdemeanors.
No Nigerian is in doubt about the menace of cultists across the country. They are not only daring in their exploits against victims, but extremely violent. Sometimes, cultists in action overpower the police, with the sophistry of their weapons and strike recklessly.
While not attempting to disparage, the South, cultism has become a blossoming trade in this part of the country, fed from the retinue of political thugs, usually armed to the teeth. Reports indicated that the violence that marred the 2015 governorship elections in Rivers state was amplified by a combination of cultists and political thugs of rival camps. This is the experience in many states of the region.
For instance, mid this year, at Oboburu in Ogba/Egbema/Ndoni LGA of Rivers State, members of the community lodged a report with soldiers at the 2 Brigade of the Nigerian Army in Port Harcourt of the camping of suspected cult members in their midst, who were harassing and intimidating indigenes.
When soldiers were deployed to the area, the cultists engaged the soldiers in a shootout lasting for several hours. Panicked community members had to flee for their lives. This scenario does not suggest that cultists are armed with bows and arrows and therefore, only reasonable force should be applied by soldiers.
Therefore, NA’s confrontation with suspected cultists is not and cannot be a storm in a tea cup, as some people may expect. It has the tendency to result into casualties on both sides. The publication under scrutiny, could not find justification for the overtly accidental alleged shooting of Izu Joseph, a footballer with the Ibadan-based Shooting Stars Sports Club,( 3SC), in Okarki, Bayelsa State and three others in what was apparently a cultists clash with soldiers of military Joint Task Force on the Niger Delta in the vicinity.
These are misfortunes normal with such engagements, but to give it an ethnic colouration, the report claimed a soldier on the squad ignored the deceased footballer’s identity upon sighting his identity card and exclaimed, “Danburuba,” an Hausa expression. This mindset runs through the publication and the report further insinuated that only officers from the North are posted to head the juicy commands in the South and even among the 38 officers sacked for alleged refusal to support APC in 2015 general elections, in the warped reasoning of authors of the report, 80 percent of them are from the South.
It is difficult to believe that everyone who speaks Hausa language fluently is a Northerner and which command of the Nigerian army are less juicy and meant for slaves in the profession is another funny angle to this vile propaganda. But it is unreasonable for Nigerians to begin to pick-bones with internal routine postings or deployments of officers or the rank and file of the NA citing regional affinity. It demonstrates an irritating emptiness and desperation to make a mountain out of a molehill.
The publication was steeped in anger about the impunity of NA for allegedly annexing 400-plots at the Maitama Extension and ignored all entreaties to relinquish the plots.
“The National Assembly, whose principal officers’ houses are being built in the district, other plot owners and the general public have condemned the illegal act and wondered if Nigeria is being run by the rule of the jungle or the rule of law.”
But the rule of law is not only meant to be observed by the government or its institutions. Individuals whose rights and liberties are trampled upon should be more encouraged to seek legal redress in law courts. What has stopped those who claimed their plots have been annexed from approaching the courts for litigation to reclaim them?
Each of the two chambers of the National Assembly has Standing Committees on the Army, but none has bothered to summon the army hierarchy to explain the “illegal” acquisition of plots?” And the FCT administration itself is not concerned?
Soldiers are humans prone to mistakes or even mischief in some instances, but since the law is no respecter of persons, the FCT and Nigerians whom the NA has infringed on their rights to own property should have approached the court and the failure to execute this action, says nothing more than blackmail of the NA.
Nevertheless, it is open secret that in the last two political dispensations in Nigeria, security agencies, not just the army drafted for election duty have been found to have compromised the electoral process. The FGN and military authorities have always been inundated with petitions from the public against senior military officers involved in the conduct of elections at various times.
But the matter came to the fore, during the Ekiti state governorship election, which enthroned, the incumbent Ayo Fayose as governor.
A junior officer, Captain Sagir Koli who was on the team of soldiers for the 2014 Ekiti state guber polls exposed the conspiracy of top army officers with politicians to rig the polls in favour of the winner. His discreetly recorded video tape showed his commanding officer, General Aliyu Momoh, a former Minister of State for Defence, Musiliu Obanikoro, a former Minister of Police Affairs, Jelili Adesiyan, Governor of Ekiti State, Ayo Fayose, and two chieftains of the Peoples Democratic Party, Senators Andy Uba and Iyiola Omisore caught in the act.
This was the disposition of soldiers in Ekiti, Osun, Edo states and in many other locations across the country where they were deployed to secure a free ballot. Edo state governor Adams Oshiomhole had lamented the illegal use of soldiers by those who wield power. He petitioned the Commander of the 4 Brigade Headquarters of the Nigerian Army in Benin City, Brig-Gen. Olajide Laleye, alleging the illegal deployment of three trucks of soldiers to the Owan Federal Constituency and other parts of Edo North Senatorial District by Lt. Col Abiodun Uwadia (rtd), the then Special Adviser to President Goodluck Jonathan, during the 2015 National Assembly and Presidential elections in Edo state, who ordered them to shoot at sight any APC member who resisted his instructions.
It was based on the pressure mounted by these complaints that the NA under Buratai set up a Board of inquiry, chaired by Major-General Adeniyi Oyebade, to review the conduct of its officer deployed for election duty.
And like the publication itself admitted, the board of inquiry found the dismissed army officers culpable of offences ranging from corruption, partisanship and disciplinary ground. Army Spokesperson, Col. Sani Usman also explained that the sacked officers were found wanting on arms procurement fraud and professional misconduct.
Over 100 army officers appeared before the panel and 42 of them were sent to the Army council for a final verdict based on recommendations of the panel, as the report also admitted. The four names dropped were from various parts of the South, yet the Army council had the liberty to slam a blanket punishment on all the 42 officers recommended to it , assuming the intention was to haunt Southern officers.
Interestingly, those attacking the NA for the sack of the 38 officers for the offences they have been found culpable should not forget that they were either partisan or corrupt by engaging in fishy deals in the defence contract scandals. The argument that the sacked soldiers have been punished for not supporting the APC win elections in 2015 is immaterial.
That they supported PDP means they were partisan in outright abuse of their professional integrity and deserves to be punished. The bottom-line remains that the officers were partisan, against their code of conduct and whether it was PDP, APC or SDP they backed does not obviate the guilt.
The assertion that officers who were accused of partisanship were only those who served in states like Rivers, Bayelsa, Akwa Ibom, Delta, where the APC lost during the 2015 presidential elections is ghoulish. Every Nigerian knows, elections in the aforementioned states were like a theatre of war and soldiers who were supposed to be neutral arbiters, played partial roles as confirmed by the army panel.
President Buhari as a candidate of his party never asked or even implied by body language that he wanted power desperately, so soldiers should assist rig elections for him. The said officers could not be said to be punished based on such spurious assumptions.
According to the publication “ A panel does not have the power to make recommendations’; rather it should only return a verdict of guilty or not guilty of the offence.” In the Army, discipline of personnel is not subject to the adjudication by regular courts, but by military panels or special courts, which was done in this instance and headed by Gen. Gen. Oyebode, which the report described as “proper and competent panel of inquiry”.
The accused officers appeared and were cross-examined, before the recommendations made. What other fair hearing is being advocated and why would some of the sacked officers claim they do not know the disciplinary grounds they were retired from service when they appeared before the panel?
Nonetheless, why would the magazine want a response from the Nigerian Army headquarters over the issue, when they stated explicitly, that the authorities have filed documents in court in defence of the actions they have taken in respect of the penalized officers?
The retirement of Brig.Gen. Olajide Olaleye is most appropriate, at least in public morality. Why would he declare the NA was not in possession of Buhari’s certificates, but reversed himself after the declaration of Buhari as President –elect. Why would such unprincipled officers be allowed to keep polluting the army? Officers with such inclination can mortgage their country to an enemy.
The publication says 30 out of the 38 officers have petitioned President Buhari for a review of their cases, which it admitted the Chief of Staff, Abba Kyari has been directed to work on it . But the veiled attackers’ are not patient enough to wait for the outcome of the president’s reaction, but have chosen to go to town with the news that President Buhari is victimizing soldiers who never worked for his success at the polls in 2015.
And betraying the motive of the sponsors of this vile propaganda against the army, in spite of knowledge of the action of the 30 officers to annul their dismissal or retirement which is still pending before Buhari, the president is still maliciously queried by the same magazine for directing the reinstatement of Gen. Ahmed Mohammed, compulsorily retired by former President Goodluck Jonathan for “dereliction of responsibility in the war against Boko Haram.”
What has happened to the 38 officers is just caution to other army officers who may nurse such thoughts. It is part of the cleansing of the system, which President Buhari has vowed to accomplish to make Nigeria a better nation.
Agbese is a United Kingdom based human rights activist and writes from Middlesex University, London.