A few weeks ago, amnesty international presented a damning report on human rights violations by the Nigerian army in their prosecution of the conflict against Boko Haram to Muhammadu Buhari and called for swift prosecution of the army high command. The report catalogued numerous incidents of human rights violations, including videos and witness statements. Evidence included extra-judicial executions of suspects, razing down of whole communities, deaths or disappearance of prisoners amongst others. It would not be the first time such a damning report is being issued neither would it be the last. Practically on an annual basis, various human rights organisations issue well documented reports of gruesome human rights violations by the Nigerian Army. The United States had severally indicted the Nigerian army and had gone further to decline sales of weapons to them on account of its shameful record of human rights violations and other such crimes against humanity.
None of what amnesty international released in their report is surprising or new. Videos abound in YouTube showing Nigerian army personnel beheading Boko Haram suspects and dumping them in mass graves. Footages of summary executions of Boko Haram suspects including children as young as 7 years by the Nigerian army and Police are also readily available on YouTube. In some of those videos, the name tags of the commanding officers are clearly visible yet no disciplinary action has ever been taken against any of the officers and their men. In 2013, the Baga massacre carried out by the Nigerian army was in the news for its scorched earth brutality. Not only were more than 200 civilians killed in an extra-judicial manner, the whole community was razed to the ground leaving the village in smouldering ruins. Other notable massacres in the course of this democratic dispensation include Odi, Bayelsa state in 1999 where the Nigerian army extra-judicially killed hundreds of civilians and burnt down every building in the community and Zaki Biam in 2001 where hundreds were likewise killed and several communities razed to the ground by the Nigerian army.
The Baga, Odi, Zaki-Biam massacres and other shocking human rights violations that has occurred in recent times has only demonstrated that even under a democratic dispensation, the Nigerian army remains fundamentally unchanged in its approach to dealing with conflicts and civil disturbances. Yet the reasons are not farfetched. The Nigerian army has a long history and culture of institutionalised human rights violations which began in the 60’s during the administration of Yakubu Gowon. Not surprisingly, the culture of human rights violations has overtime become rooted and ingrained as a veritable modus operandi of the Nigerian army. The history of crimes against humanity committed by the Nigerian army dates back to 1966 when for the first time in Nigeria and Africa, a national army whose primary constitutional mandate is to protect the lives and property of innocent civilians went into town and carried out a massacre of thousands of Eastern civilians and the mass rape of women in an unprecedented pogrom that all but pioneered subsequent human rights violations and genocide in Africa. Notable officers and men of the Nigerian army were implicated in the pogrom that made the news globally, while Yakubu Gowon the head of state invested with the fundamental responsibility to protect the lives and property of innocent civilians under all circumstances did nothing. This brazen violation of human rights by an army constitutionally empowered to protect lives and property while a serving head of state did nothing provided the circumstances that led to the secession of Biafra and the consequent Biafra-Nigeria war.
Rather than punish the officers and men of the Nigerian army implicated in the heinous mass killing and rape of civilians, Yakubu Gowon promoted them and consequently institutionalised the culture of human rights violations by the Nigerian army that has since become a prevalent measure of their modus operandi. The same officers and their men went on to commit even more human rights violations in the course of the Nigeria-Biafra war again with no consequences from Yakubu Gowon. Most of the implicated officers went on to become the ruling elite with some even emerging heads of state having made their careers from wanton human rights violations. Thus since the Yakubu Gowon era, human rights violations have remained unpunished and ironically was even an avenue through which officers advanced their careers. The implication of Yakubu Gowon’s irresponsible refusal to punish erring officers is that the Nigerian army evolved as an institution were human rights violations are considered a necessary rewarding approach to crisis management rather than a crime.
This approach has now spread to virtually all law enforcement agencies including the Nigerian Police force that is routinely implicated in summary executions of Nigerians for as little as a refusal to give them 20 naira in their ubiquitous roadblocks. While amnesty has submitted its report and made all the right noises, it’s very unlikely anything will be done because not only is Muhammadu Buhari and most of the elites implicated one way or the other in Nigeria’s historical culture of human rights violations, it’s part of the status quo that stubbornly subsists at least for now. When the time eventually comes for a reckoning; to hold accountable those guilty of human rights violations, it will have to begin from Yakubu Gowon and his infamous officers from whence it all started.
Lawrence Chinedu Nwobu