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The Nigerian Army and Shiites conundrum…

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Senator Iroegbu 

I penned the opinion piece below early 2016 at the heat of the Army-Shiites deadly clash. I decided to use an opinionated format in order to fully express my perspective on the issue. Lucky enough the article produced immediate impacts as the Chief of Army Staff (COAS), Lt-Gen. Tukur Buratai reached out to  me with a promise to revive and improve the Department of  Civil-Military Relations, Nigerian Army. True to his words, Buratai appointed the then Chief of Civil-Military Relations, Maj-Gen. Nicholas Ibe Rogers, who immediately swung to action. This was followed with the pioneering of the Human Rights Desk in the Nigerian Army, which was subsequently adapted and extended to the other military services.  For the first time, the leadership of Amnesty International were invited to the Army Headquarters to intimate them on the efforts to improve human rights records.

Unfortunately, there was no corresponding political willl on the part of the civil authorities to shield the military from unnecessary involvement in civil matters. Also, there seem to be erosion of the earlier gains made in the area of human rights and Civil-Military Relations.

Most points I marshalled out in that opinion piece  is still relevant almost three years after…

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Civil-military relations and changing face of conflicts in Nigeria

I have restrained myself from commenting on the recent deadly confrontation between the Nigerian Army and Sheik Ibrahim El-Zakzaky led Shiite Islamic Sect in Zaria, and as well as the incarcerated Nnamdi Kanu-led Indigenous People of Biafra agitators.

The clash, which has been trending for the last two weeks with its attendant international slant, brought to my doorstep a maze of moral, ethical and professional dialogue that must be resolved.While at this conundrum, I followed the axiom that says: “It is better to be silent and called a fool, than to speak and remove all doubts”.

But the silence in this instance, implied a temporary retreat to enable me make a more balanced and objective intervention that will be devoid of emotional outburst, and as well, resist the vanity of professional satisfaction that may inflict fatal injury to ones morality, conscience, and essence of humanity.

Nevertheless, I will still have to pen my “restrained” contribution in what I also tagged: “Civilisation of the Military and Militarisation of the Civilians”.

The need to op-ed this is because I am involved as a Nigerian and by the virtue of my profession as a journalist practising in this dear country of ours.

A journalist is beheld by the ethics of profession and conscience to uphold the truth at all times.

After all, the Nobel Peace Winner, Bishop Desmond Tutu said: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

It is also for this reason, I have decided to drop this piece using a more philosophical and analytical approach to explain the unpalatable reality we have found ourselves.

I was with the Chief of Army Staff, Lieutenant General Tukur Buratai’s convoy for three weeks but left two days before the tragic encounter with Shiite Islamic Sect in Zaria, Kaduna State. It was a journey that took me to Benue, Cross River, Borno, Yobe and then Jigawa States, which provided me with the ample opportunity to feel the pulse of the officers and soldiers who have to work under life-threatening conditions to sustain the nation’s internal security and territorial integrity. I have also had a closer view about the man Buratai, that apart from being a soldier’s soldier and Generals’ General, he exudes a humane and humble  personality, far from the Idi Amin-like posture some people may want to cast on him.

There is no doubt that having covered defence and security beat for some years now, I have come to appreciate the efforts and sacrifices of our security agencies.

Within this period, I have come to forge some level of “top-down” relationship with the military services and personnels that is required to excel in my job. It has also afforded me the opportunity to understand the psyche, work patterns, weaknesses and strengths, challenges and opportunities that goes with the profession.

Notwithstanding, I am a humanist to the core; and by orientation and natural instinct, hate oppression in any guise.

I love the discipline, security and orderliness that goes with the military profession as much as I cherish the freedom (of thoughts, association and movement) that is guaranteed within the civil populace. Having come from the civil background on the one hand, and as well as observed the regimented setting of the military profession on the other hand, I can conclude that the two are polar opposites that will usually spark at the points of rare convergence. By implication, these are two distinct worlds that are diametrically opposed to each other in ideology and perspective.

Consequently, this differing world view presents a potential flash point in the civil-military relations, like the present situation in Nigeria.

By its design and professional ethics, military training and service entails detachment from the civil populace. In an ideal situation the military service is a highly regimented and professional world that confines them from barracks, bases, and formations, etc, to the war zones or conflict areas and vice versa.  Its primary goal is to defend the nation’s territorial integrity and suppress internal insurrection, meaning its contacts are mostly against the enemies of the state, who they must fight and crush – if necessary.

However, the changing nature of conflicts occasioned by global terrorism, non-state actor led asymmetric warfare embedded within the civil populace has blurred these traditional lines.  With increasing threat of terrorism and inability of the police to deal with the attendant security challenges, the military has to be drafted into an unfamiliar territory of managing “civil unrest” with its inherent anomalies.

Consequently, drafting the armed forces to quell civil unrest-a job normally reserved for the police-is a recipe for disaster as shown in the cases of Zaki Biam, Odi, Onitsha and the Zaria killings.

Unfortunately, terrorism induced asymmetric conflicts and guerrilla warfare championed by Boko Haram terrorists and their likes, have turned parts of the country into unconventional war-zones. The prevailing reality, has created deadly confrontations with civilian population and civil groups, with its unavoidable casualties on both sides. This must however, be urgently tackled by both the military and civil authorities.

Accordingly, the Department of Civil-Military Relations and as well as National Orientation Agency (NOA) and other related bodies have their work well cut out. And to avoid the mounting casualties, the military need to reassess its rules of engagement without compromising its primary duties and combat readiness.  The challenge here is that the military is not the Civil Police, but the fluid nature of emerging conflicts, have forced them into playing a hitherto police duties. They must therefore learn how to respond with minimal force without abdicating their core responsibilities.

In the same vein, the civil populace need to and must be educated on how not to confront the military or simply provoke them into self defence that could easily switch to the deadly offensive mode. Even though,  the Nigerian military is and has been lauded as one of the most efficient and highly disciplined in the world, but in this dire situation, some elements and trigger happy personnels amongst them might use the opportunity to simply “teach bloody civilians a lesson” they will never forget.

To this end, members of the public must be fully mobilised and sensitized on the difference between the military and civil police without necessarily losing their freedom and rights as enshrined in the constitution.

This now brings me to the tragic Zaria incidence of December 12, 2015, where the civil-military relations simply went sour. Like I stated earlier, I was with the Buratai’s convoy before leaving for Abuja from Jigawa two days earlier. Having been embedded with the Army for over a week covering and monitoring the ongoing counter-terrorism activities in parts of Borno state, I can say that the alert level and combat readiness of the officers and soldiers, were at its maximum.

While in Borno state, we visited some of the hot zones in Gajigani, and Konduga amongst others, where the troops work under hostile environment and harsh weather conditions.

I must state that the frequent visit of Buratai to the war zones, battle front and various army units/formations, is no mean feat. It is not for the lilly-livered nor is it for show and entertainment purposes because it places not only his life but those around him in danger.

I could recall how scary it was, while driving from Borno through the lonely and dangerous routes to Damaturu, Yobe state where we also passed a night. Even though I was with heavily armed, combat ready and highly alert army convoy, I still felt vulnerable that any ambush could prove deadly. Not only was I worried but yet determined for the duty call, my family is even more worried and you can imagine the families left behind by these committed officers who are not in any way immune to bullets.  It was therefore, in that state of combat readiness and war mood that we left to Jigawa and later to attend the Passing Out Parade of 73 Regular Recruits Intake of Depot Nigerian Army, Zaria in kaduna state.

Unfortunately, it was also in this mood that the Shiite leaders “ignorantly” encouraged their members (based on what I saw on the video and the statement by the Director of Army Public Relations (DAPR), Col. Sani Usman) to confront the fully armed, agitated, highly alert and battle ready COAS convoy. It is even to the credit of the military (and dangerously so) that they were patient for over 30 minutes, while negotiating the right of passage with the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (Shiites) whose followers practically placed Buratai and his men under siege. No matter how you might view it, that singular act of laying siege on the COAS for almost an hour is a dangerous provocation. He is the symbol of the army, the number one man and any threat to him is not just a threat to the Nigerian army but symbolically to the national security.

Also, experience has shown that he could be ambushed and shot within the period the siege lasted.  It could also be recalled that Buratai had earlier survived an ambush, when his convoy was attacked in Borno state. Therefore, the natural instinct was to break the Shiite siege even with minimal collateral damages.

But don’t get me wrong here. I am not and won’t support extra-judicial killings or (gross) human rights violation as it saddens me whenever a life is lost and in this instance the shiite members. Even though, I have tried to understand why the military acted the way they did in the first instance but one could not help but wonder what must have necessitated the deadly carnage that followed, leading to the destruction of lives and properties of the Shiites. I heard from some sources that there was intelligence report alleging that the shiites were in possession of stockpile of arms and possibly planning an attack against security and state institutions, prompting the pre-emptive strike.

However, I still feel the second wave of the military retaliation was an unwarranted overkill and unlike the first, which was to break the siege. At worst, that operation required police action first and then the military could be involved only in a situation the police were successfully challenged or repelled by a superior fire power.

Anyway, the Army authorities have elected not to speak further on the issue until the judicial inquiry to address the incident conclude their work.

Similarly, the military have been reportedly involved in two separate confrontations with the IPOB members in the commercial city of Onitsha, Anambra State, leading to the death of some of them. The Deputy Director of Army Public Relations (DDAPR), 82 Division, Nigerian Army, Enugu, Colonel Hamza Sambo, who confirmed these deaths, said that the military acted in self defence, killing three IPOB members on the process.

However, the questions are: why draft and drag the military into a purely police issue? Aren’t we increasingly involving the army into a civil unrest that they are not trained and equipped to handle thereby creating such ugly scenario? Were the Shiite and IPOB members armed or found to have attacked any state institution in a calculated or impulsive manner? Did they ever overpower the Police to require the involvement of the military? Are the military permitted and required to use live bullets against own citizens who have not deliberately carried arms against the state?

These are questions begging for an answer as we try to resolve the volatile situation.

The fact is that most members of the public, are ignorant (and rightly so) of the military rules of engagement, and as well as unable to understand the retributory actions/consequences of confronting the Police, trained to control civil unrest and those of the military whose primary duty is to “take down the enemy”.  The ease with which we draft the military to confront unarmed groups of Nigerians engaged in civil disobedience, is to such extent,  a deadly combination that must be nipped. The flagrant use of the military to quell civil unrest must be addressed, with its rules of engagement for that purpose revisited. This is needed to avert the impending catastrophe, which might arise, as more citizens are increasingly demanding for their rights, being emboldened by the freedom that  democracy offers them to air their dissatisfaction about the state of the nation.

In a nutshell, the military institution, which is the symbol of our national strength, security and unity, must be preserved as a responsible force. It must be seen as the protector of the citizenry and not the other way round. Therefore, with the changing face of conflicts bridging that traditional fault-lines of civil-military dichotomy, there must be efforts to create the needed understanding and rapproachment.

In the same vein, the citizenry must be sensitized to respect our military institution and as well as appreciate the role they play for our collective security and preservation of the nation’s territorial integrity.  After all, there is no nation without the people and the people cannot be secured without their Armed Forces.

Iroegbu is an Abuja-based journalist covering Defence and Security issues. senator.iroegbu@yahoo.co.uk. +2348035506268.


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