IT wasn’t a tango in the literal sense of salsa or rhumba. No! If it were, Nigerians would not have been as shocked as they are right now. It was not friendly fire, either. Neither was it a mistake. This is cold-blooded murder. Simple! And the question is: Why? Many before now had come to the conclusion that nothing really shocks Nigerians anymore. We have seen it all – man as his bestial worst. What could be crueller than cutting open the stomach of a pregnant woman to ensure that not even the foetus survives? Or come to think of it, what could be more brutish than strapping bombs around the waist of a 10-year-old girl and detonating same with some remote mechanism from a distance? Despite all these, there was something about the deadly encounter between officers of the Nigerian army and police in Taraba State last week that many are yet to wrap their heads around.
As I wrote last week, Nigeria has become a country of one day, many troubles. Last week, the story that dominated headlines was the aborted #RevolutionNow protest and the preemptive arrest of the public face of that gambit, Mr Omoyele Sowore, by officers of the Department of State Services (DSS). Sowore is still a guest of the DSS; the secret police have gone to court to get permission to hold him for 45 days. Since then, a lot has happened: The government finally obeyed court order by letting Ibrahim El-Zakzaky, leader of the now proscribed Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN), and his wife, Zeenat, go for medical treatment in India.
Almost five years after the 2015 elections, and in the heat of a puzzle before the Appeal Court sitting as the Presidential Election Petitions Tribunal, as to whether the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) had a central server in 2019, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) suddenly remembered that the man who pioneered the information technology revolution during his time as INEC chairman, Prof. Maurice Iwu, was a PDP agent through whom N1.2 billion slush funds were laundered. Iwu has been charged to court with the judge giving impossible bail conditions on the eve of a long weekend that included public holidays. He is still in EFCC custody. Just like Iwu, the lawyer and son-in-law of the PDP presidential candidate in the 2019 elections, Atiku Abubakar, were arrested for money laundering. Not a few are beginning to read meanings into these arrests. Have they anything to do with the case at the tribunal? Will they serve the ends of justice or intended to harass, intimidate and blunt the sharp edges of the sword of justice? Time will tell! All of a sudden, the Sowore story is no longer the big, succulent pie to editors. Nigerians have moved on particularly when out of the blues, another crisis blew open.
On August 7, the police accused officers of a sister security agency, the army, of brutally killing three police operatives and one civilian on a security assignment in Taraba State. The details are as grisly as the story is unbelievable. The allegation is unprecedented.
A statement by the Force Public Relations Officer, Frank Mba, gave the details. “Police operatives led by ASP Felix Adolije of the Intelligence Response Team (IRT) came under sudden attack and serious shooting by soldiers of the Nigerian Army, along Ibi–Jalingo Road, Taraba State.” The gory and incredulous details said the police operatives, having successfully accomplished their mission in Taraba of arresting the suspected kidnap kingpin, Hamisu Bala Wadume, were on their way to the command headquarters in Jalingo, when soldiers of the 93 Battalion, Takum, rained their bullets on them.
“Three policemen (comprising one Inspector and two sergeants) and one civilian died as a result of gunshot injuries sustained in the attack while others sustained serious gunshot wounds,” police lamented.
As if that was not bizarre enough, the soldiers, thereafter, released the handcuffed suspect, an alleged notorious kingpin, on the police wanted list for his alleged complicity in several high-profile kidnap cases. An enraged Inspector General of Police (IGP) Mohammed Adamu, ordered full-fledged investigations.
With its back on the wall, the army while acknowledging the tragedy, pushed back. In a statement by Colonel Sagir Musa, Acting Director Army Public Relations, the army blamed the “unprofessionalism” of the slain policemen for the tragedy having, allegedly, not adhered to established protocols of liaising with the state police command when they arrived Taraba, thereby creating room for suspicion. The troops that killed the policemen were responding to a distress call to rescue a kidnapped victim, the army claimed. If the soldiers were to be believed, in a sudden twist of fate, the police officers sent from Abuja became suspected kidnap kingpins while the already arrested suspect became a victim.
According to the army, the suspected kidnappers (policemen) flagrantly refused to stop when they were halted by troops at three consecutive checkpoints, thus leading to a hot chase and a shootout. “In the resultant firefight,” the army further claimed, “Four suspects were shot and died on the spot while four others sustained various degrees of gunshot wounds and two others reportedly missing. It was only after this avoidable outcome that one of the wounded suspects disclosed the fact that they were indeed policemen dispatched from Nigerian Police, Force Headquarters, Abuja, for a covert assignment.” President Muhammad Buhari, Commander-in-Chief of Nigerian Armed Forces, waded into the matter by convening a topnotch security meeting and setting up a committee on the troubling saga. It is instructive that IGP Abubakar not only stayed away from that meeting but the police publicly joined issues with the army same day, pointedly accusing the force of lying. Calling the statement by the army insensitive, disrespectful and unpatriotic, the police put a damper on all the alibis by raising fundamental posers and challenging the army to tell Nigerians, if they are sure of their claims, the identity of the whistleblower(s) who squeaked on their officers in Taraba.
But most importantly, the police in the statement tagged “Setting the record straight,” asked the Nigerian army to explain the whereabouts of the kidnap suspect.
Mindful of “the best tradition of esprit de corps, inter-agency harmony and national interest,” but accusing, nevertheless, the Nigerian army of “seeking to justify the unprovoked and unwarranted murder of three police officers and one civilian, and serious injury to other operatives, who were on legitimate criminal investigation activities to Taraba State,” the police asked: “Where is Alhaji Hamisu Bala Wadume? How and why was … Wadume released by the soldiers? How could a kidnap suspect properly restrain with handcuffs by the police escape from the hands of his military rescuers? If Alhaji Hamisu Bala Wadume is a victim of kidnap as claimed, and properly rescued by soldiers, why was he not taken to the army base for documentation purposes and debriefing in line with the standard operating procedure in the Nigerian Army?” The statement went further to state that, “The presence of the IRT personnel was well known to the Taraba Police Command as the operatives officially and properly documented not only at the State Command Headquarters but also at the Wukari Area Command and the Ibi Divisional Headquarters.
“As a matter of fact, some of the detectives from the Taraba State Command’s Criminal Investigation Department (CID) were part of the operation,” police said. A video recording of the crime which has since gone viral seems to corroborate police’s claim that the soldiers shot and killed, execution-style, their operatives at close range even after they had identified themselves.
Army’s response this time was subdued. Accusing the police of incitement, the military high command cautioned their officers and men to be wary of any encounter with them. This is a huge embarrassment to the country. There is no way the army will come out of this mess smelling rose.
By stoutly defending the circumstances that led to the gruesome killings which turned out to be a false alibi, the military high command wittingly or unwittingly took ownership of the mess. Turning around to accuse the police of incitement is disingenuous.
Beyond all these, the Taraba massacre puts a damning spotlight on insecurity in the country and the role of the military. Many strongly hold the opinion that the only reason the war against insurgency has become unwinnable is that the drive has become a multi-billion naira industry for security officers.
Some time ago, General Theophilus Danjuma, former Chief of Army Staff and Defence Minister, who incidentally hails from Taraba State, accused Nigerian soldiers of colluding with terrorists to kill his people. This Taraba massacre can only accentuate such scary conspiracy theory. If Nigerian troops will gruesomely murder police officers as alleged in order to set free an arrested kidnap kingpin, then we are doomed. To avoid all doubts, Nigerians deserve to know what actually happened along the Ibi-Jalingo Road on Tuesday, August 6.