Amnesty report on Nigerian military abuses need not be Nigeria’s shame
Yesterday Amnesty International released a report condemning Nigeria’s military for the deaths of over 7000 people in their custody, captured and detained over the past four years of fighting Boko Haram. Perhaps even more shocking to Nigerians than the report was newly installed President Muhammadu Buhari’s swift response via Twitter:
But does this series of tweets immediately after the report’s release signal a real shift in how a civilian government will handle relations with the military, or is it just good public relations?
Long history of abuse
Nigeria’s military has a long and checkered past with a history of human rights abuses that date back to the earliest years of our country’s history. Nigerian military atrocities committed during the country’s brutal civil war from 1966-1970 are well documented in numerous books, including Fredrick Forsyth’s The Biafra Story, one of the definitive works detailing deliberate, genocidal policies of starvation and civilian targeting. More recently, in the early years of the Obasanjo administration, human rights activists accused the military of possibly killing hundreds people in what is commonly called the “Odi Massacre” during a heightened period of the Niger Delta insurgency at the turn of the century.
While the military can explain away certain events like Odi and some of the incidents involved in the fight against Boko Haram as part of serious armed conflict, harder to justify but equally as important in creating the culture of impunity that allows for such acts is the military’s everyday blatant disregard for civilians and democratic due process. Numerous Nigerians can tell of less than positive interactions with military officials who tend to institute their own systems of rule, law and judgment that often involve the use of force. The incident in July of 2014 when Nigerian soldiers in Lagos burned public BRT busses after one of their colleagues was allegedly killed in a collision with his motorbike is one such example. Closer to home, my younger brother told me about an encounter in which he was slapped and punched at a checkpoint by an angry enlisted army officer for no apparent reason. Had it not been for the timely intervention of the soldier’s senior officer who quickly apologized and diffused the situation, there is no telling what might have happened. And still closer, about a month ago, I watched a uniformed military officer cause a massive traffic holdup in Lagos by driving against traffic in the wrong lane despite requests by the traffic authorities for him to stop.
This is not to say that Nigeria’s soldiers are all bad. I have spent quite a bit of time speaking with Nigerian peace keepers who served valiantly to bring stability to Liberia and Sierra Leone. I also have met many officers who take their commitment to protect and serve Nigerians seriously and who would risk their lives for our country and its people. This is important to realize because it means that it is not the individual soldiers that are problem but a culture of impunity that leads to the excesses and abuses described in the Amnesty report.
President Buhari’s response is a bold first step by the new Nigerian government in tackling the problem of human rights abuses in the Nigerian military, but there are many questions about whether a former Major General who deposed a civilian government and paid little attention to human rights during his time as military Head of State can actually call the armed forces to order. As the constitutionally appointed Commander in Chief of the Nigerian military, he certainly has all the authority to bring perpetrators of any abuse to justice, but it is important that Nigeria deals with such abuses internally rather than referring perpetrators to outside international bodies. Aside from the question of whether international judicial bodies are disproportionally targeting African countries for human rights violations prosecutions, perhaps more important is the need for an aggressive local solution that shows Nigerian citizens, both civilians and military, that there is zero tolerance for behavior that contravenes our constitutionally enshrined rights, and establishes that no individual or institution is above prosecution or reprimand, and also creates clear legal channels for the handling of human rights issues.
Tackling human rights abuses is not about public relations or trying to create favorable impressions. It’s about establishing proper oversight for institutions and individuals in positions of power. It’s about inculcating a new attitude of respect and accountability in a system that traditionally celebrates power and impunity. The Amnesty International report is a terrible stain on the Nigerian military’s reputation, but at the same time it presents the country, the military and its leadership with a real opportunity to address the systemic and moral challenges that plague what should be an esteemed institution.
Our soldiers are good people and absolutely vital to the integrity of our democracy. We should demand more of them even as we give thanks for the daily risks they take on our behalf.
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