By Innocent Anaba

A civil society organisation, Access to Justice, AJ, has petitioned the Chief of Army Staff,  Lt Gen Farouk Yahaya, demanding an urgent investigation into the alleged attacks on a civilian community in Awo Mmamma of Imo State by soldiers.

AJ in the petition by it’s Convener, Mr.  Joseph Otteh and Project Director, Deji Ajare, said: “We write to draw your attention to viral videos as well as reports alleging that soldiers of the Nigerian Army attacked civilian communities in Awo Mmamma, in the Oru East Local Government Area of Imo State, burning down a hotel, business and residential houses owned and occupied by members of the Awo Mmamma community.

“Many indigenes of the town have reportedly fled the community following the attack. It is also alleged that the attacks were retaliatory for the killing of a soldier who was on duty in the area. The Imo State government has deprecated “reports of wanton destruction of property visited on the community by aggrieved soldiers.’

“While Access to Justice condemns the killing of military operatives, we must also call for accountability for the alleged conduct of Nigerian soldiers who engaged in destruction of houses of persons who possibly had nothing to do with the late soldier’s death.

“Attacks by soldiers against civilian populations particularly in the areas are expanding in scope and frequency. Between October and November 2021 alone, Access to Justice recalls the following other instances: On (or around) October 27, 2021, Soldiers of the Nigeria Army invaded Isingwu, a hamlet in Imama Village, Mgbowo in Awgu Local Government Area of Enugu State and burnt several houses alongside killing an undisclosed number of youths in the community.

“On (or around) October 20, 2021, soldiers also reportedly attacked members of the Ohaji Egbema Local Government Area Imo State following clashes between soldiers and youths of the community and this reportedly resulted in the razing of homes by the soldiers.

“On (or around) October 8, 2021, soldiers of the Nigerian Army allegedly killed “no fewer than 10 persons” during a clash with members of Umuokwu Izombe community in Oguta Local Government Area of Imo State. About 12 houses – including the palace of the traditional ruler of the community, Eze Pius Muforo – were allegedly burnt and another 15 others destroyed. These attacks were also deemed to be reprisal attacks following the killing of two soldiers by youths of the community, who themselves had reportedly lost one of their members to summary killing by soldiers.

“If true, the reported conduct of Nigerian Army soldiers in the recitals above is extremely deplorable, unprofessional and atrocious. They constitute grave abuses of the rights of the victims of the atrocities to life, dignity, and the integrity of their persons and property. Retaliatory acts of revenge of the nature described above are also crimes against humanity, and are outlawed by a number of legal instruments binding on Nigeria.

“The Nigerian Army has not seriously denied these allegations save for few facetious, self-serving dismissals and denials, often contrived before any fact-finding investigations are conducted. Dismissing the allegations off-handedly without undertaking a prompt, thorough and impartial investigation is a clear violation of the national and international legal obligations both the Army and Government have, to fully establish the truth of the allegations and hold perpetrators of the atrocities accountable for their actions.  Nigeria’s military forces, just like its counterparts around the world, do not have the right to act lawlessly, kill arbitrarily or plunder the homes and property of the people they are paid to protect.

“The general perception is that the Nigerian Army condones these atrocities, or is light in its response to them, and that is why they are intensifying and escalating. Please recall that the International Criminal Court is also undertaking investigations into alleged acts of impunity by Nigeria’s military forces, as well as those committed by non-State entities with a view to bringing to justice those who have, whether acting independently or under authority, committed serious human rights atrocities. In October 2021, the Nigerian Army warned troops to “desist from taking pictures or videos of operational engagement…”. This was, in our reckoning, after a video showing soldiers shooting sporadically at homes where people lived in a South-eastern State went viral.

“In the circumstances, Access to Justice demands the following: I. A thorough, prompt and impartial investigation of all the allegations of abuses committed by soldiers of the Nigerian Army in the cases and incidents referenced above. II. Immediate and enforced steps taken by the Nigerian Army to end the culture of retaliatory violence meted to members of communities where military operations are being undertaken. III. Where the investigations verify the allegations made against the soldiers, that the Army takes immediate actions to bring the perpetrators of the abuses to account and provide adequate compensation to the victims of the atrocities.

“Should the Nigerian Army fail to live up to its legal obligations and decline to undertake the investigations requested, Access to Justice will pursue all legal remedies available to it, including legal actions before local or regional courts or mechanisms. In addition Access to Justice will request the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court to extend the timeline of its investigations into crimes against humanity to cover the period of 2021.”

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