By Obi Nwakanma
Sagir Musa, a Lieutenant-Colonel, and spokesman for the Nigerian Army, came on air last Monday to threaten young Nigerians protesting on the streets on behalf of the Army Chief, Lt. General Tukur Yusuf Buratai.
In a public press statement read after the Chief of Army’s Conference with Principal Staff Officers, GOCs and Field Commanders of the Nigerian Army, Sagir Musa drew the attention of the military brass to “events of the past few days” – meaning the widespread protests – which, he said, is masterminded by “some unscrupulous and undesirable individuals and groups who are determined to destabilize Nigeria by all means.” To put cream atop his hogwash, the Chief of Army Staff, through his publicist, continued to deny the Army’s involvement in the Lekki shooting of civilians during the protests, and unambiguously issued orders to his men to forcefully, meaning with brutality, suppress any further protests.
Sagir Musa’s statement, on behalf of the Chief of the Army, and his deportment, is everything that is wrong with Nigeria’s security architecture and law enforcement protocols. Let us first go to its constitutional implications: and let us presume that military intelligence has somehow “sniffed out” a credible threat to Nigeria’s national security, and has discovered an active cell about to launch some attack on it, destabilize, and occupy it.
Is it within the province of the office of the Chief of Army to declare this? Heck no! If such a credible threat has been discovered by the Nigerian intelligence services, it is the duty of the services to inform the National Security Council normally chaired by the President’s National Security Adviser, who, with clearance from the President, and after discussions with the Joint National Security Committees of the National Assembly who normally provide oversight, inform Nigerians, showing as much details as is possible within the bounds allowable by national security operations and its classifications. It is called transparency.
It is not the job of the Chief of Army Staff to announce, and at his own whim, his discovery of “unscrupulous and undesirable people” at home and abroad attempting to destabilize Nigeria. In any case, the only known credible threat are the Boko Harm insurgents who have made it clear that their intention is to overthrow the constitutional government of Nigeria and destroy its democracy and impose an Islamic rule based on Sharia.
The Nigerian Army has been deployed to that front and, under Buratai, not much has been achieved to contain that insurgency. You will not hear it from my mouth that Boko Haram has been whooping his behind.
But it would seem that it is in that front that Buratai must flex his muscles appropriately, not with unarmed, protesting Nigerians who constitute very little military threat. Secondly, Buratai is not the Head of the Nigerian Armed Forces. He is the Chief of Army Staff – one branch of the triune forces that make up the Nigerian Armed Forces under the General Command of a Chief of Defense Staff. Not even he has the authority to issue the orders to suppress possible protesters.
The second problem here is the language of the press statement. It is a throwback to the era of military rule – those dark days that gave rise to the distortion of civil governance and civil conduct in the affairs of Nigeria. It was the army that introduced violence and brutality to Nigeria. It was the army that introduced looting and disrespect for the citizens of Nigeria. At the end of the Nigerian civil war, the Nigerian Army was not properly debriefed, resettled and civilized.
The virus that crept into the police system was the result of the militarization of the Nigeria Police which, under Louis Edet, was slowly building a civilized force of competent officers and constables until the civil war destroyed it, and its finest officers, mostly Igbo, who had institutional memory of a new, post-colonial, civil police system. They were wiped out of the post-war police system by attrition, and thus collapsed any possibility of a civil police. Nigerians must tell themselves the truth in order to avoid the mistakes of their tragic past. Buratai must be advised that Nigeria is practicing a democratic government today based on the Constitution. Nigeria is no longer a military state and is not under any emergency. His oath of allegiance is not to the President.
His loyalty is not to the President. His loyalty and allegiance as a sworn officer of the Nigerian Armed Forces is to the Constitution of the Federal Republic. That Constitution assigns a place to the Nigerian Armed Forces of which the army is just one branch. Its duty is confined to a defence of the republic from external attack and not an attack on the citizens of Nigeria for protesting. In those moments when there is domestic insurrection, the Nigerian Army is called upon by the President, but following a mandate of the National Assembly, to operate domestically.
Not even the President has the power under the Constitution to simply summon the Armed Forces to operate domestically. The army should not just leave its barracks without the effective orders of the President to help quell an insurrection. And the President cannot issue such an order without the leave of an Act of the National Assembly permitting, and setting the terms for the Army to conduct internal security operations.
That is the law. And what happened in Nigeria these past weeks was not insurrection. It was a citizens’ protest movement. Buratai says there is a plot to destabilize Nigeria by “unscrupulous” people. Well, I have news for Buratai and his like: the purpose of a civil protest is not to make an occupant of power sleep very well. It is actually to “destabilize” him or her.
When protesters go out to protest, they use methods aimed at two things: Forcing political leadership to CHANGE or, failing in that, force them to RESIGN if they cannot change. It is a democratic right. It is not treason. It is an act of the referendum in its most spontaneous form. It does not warrant an order to soldiers to shoot and kill protesters. Now, there is the other part which Buratai and the Armed Forces often tend to ignore: The job of the army is not to maintain public safety and public order.
That is the job of a well-equipped and properly oriented police. So, the question which Sagir Musa’s briefing to the press on Monday ignored is, who ordered the Nigerian Army battalion to the streets to shoot at Nigerians at the Lekki toll gate? I asked this question last week in the ‘Orbit.’
I am asking this again today in this same column, given the background of discordant claims now going on between the army and the Lagos governor. Military authorities first claimed the army was not there. Then it changed course and began to accept that the army was on the scene but did not shoot. Then Sagir Musa has said the army was at Lekki, but did not kill. Others are saying, the order was given to the army by the Lagos governor. The problem is the Lagos governor has no such powers under the Nigerian Constitution. And the trouble may be that somebody is trying to haul him (governor) under the bus.
The army can only be authorized to go out on the streets by the order of a President, never a governor of state. And if neither the President nor the governor authorized the army, who did? Howbeit, many Nigerians are dead; killed at that spot by an Armed Force that is supposed to protect them. The government, and the army specifically are trying strenuously to cover up a most deadly and unlawful use of force against an unarmed civilian population perfectly conducting their civic obligation of protesting peacefully in a democracy.
So far, only the army, of any other branches of the Armed Forces stands accused. Now, Buratai, through Sagir Musa, invokes the Geneva protocol on the duty of the army, and assured his men not to be afraid of any threat to take this issue to the International Criminal Court. He should go read that Geneva protocol again, and he should pay particular attention on what it says about the protection of an unarmed civilian population in a situation of conflict. One of the things the Nigerian Army fails to realize is that there is a digital footprint of this incident which is captured by powerful eyes in the sky in its granular detail, and it is in the cloud. And the trouble is that a technologically challenged and doctrinally backward army is dealing with a very tech savvy generation that can access this data from any part of the world. Did President Buhari authorize the military to shoot at innocent protesters in Lagos? Only the President can issue such an order to the military. And if he did, he must acknowledge the responsibility of instigating the violence that erupted on the streets of Nigeria. Why? Because, until the Lekki shooting, the protests were civil, and relatively peaceful, even if sustained.
The anger that followed the shooting at Lekki unleashed the outrage that has seen streets broken, homes vandalized, warehouses looted, and police barracks sacked. And trucking out the army to threaten and intimidate Nigerians is not likely to work. Government must begin to take more well-thought actions, and make less abrasive statements in order to step down the anger on the street. Otherwise the peace it will procure will be the peace of the graveyard.