By Zacharys Anger Gundu
Nigeria has degenerated into a contested consensus and even subjects hitherto thought to be settled are back as subjects of new narratives. This piece offers its own narrative of the national military in the context of the cycle of violence in and around Benue State in central Nigeria. Intervention assumes that all those working very hard for a progressive reconstitution of Nigeria are reading and synthesising the competing narratives towards that objective.
The military as an institution in the modern state exists to protect the state from external aggression. It rarely engages in internal security operations unless in some emergency where the situation is beyond the Police and others charged with the responsibility of ensuring internal law and order. In whatever circumstances, the military is also strictly under civil authority. That is why their Commander in Chief must be the political Head of the country and their allegiance must be to the constitution. The Nigerian military is, however, skewed because of two factors. They forcefully grabbed power from 1966-1979 and 1983-99, a total of about 30 years in which democracy was subverted in favour of ruthless military dictatorship. In the many years of military dictatorship, the constitution was suspended and laws were made by fiat. The military sadly lost the heritage of obedience to civil authority and became contemptuous of civil rule. There was an explanation for this. The politicians had disappointed and made it difficult for orderly change. The military came as ‘redeemers’ until it became clear that they were also no better than the politicians. If Nigeria is in a peculiar mess today, much of that mess must be laid on the doorstep of the Nigerian military.
Initially, we were all under the impression that the military was insulated from our many challenges in the country. Corruption, nepotism, tribalism and name it. We were wrong. Their hierarchical structure and strict order gave them a façade, which was quickly breached as they stepped into arbitrary governance. Even though, the country has stabilized since 1999, the military continues to carry itself as an outlaw institution totally oblivious and contemptuous of civil authority. When it suites them and there is material benefit, they can pass across as debt collectors. Politicians have rented them for illicit election services and they have in some instances broken into their armories for commercial purposes. They have also at times used their uniforms illegally on our roads and highways. In other instances, they have used guns and other weapons procured with our tax monies to massacre citizens in the most bizarre circumstances.
Take Odi for example, this small village in Kolokuma/Opokuma Local Government of Bayelsa State was attacked on November 20, 1999 by the Nigerian military. This attack was under the watch of President Olusegun Obasanjo as a response to the killing of 12 policemen and an ambush of military men by a militia group. The attack was described by the military as a ‘total offensive’. Human Rights Watch reported that casualty figures ‘of several hundred dead’ are entirely possible consideration the scale of military operation at Odi though the military had put the death toll at 43, including eight soldiers. The Odi massacre is key to the understanding of increased militancy in the Southsouth and a sad testimony to military impunity in the country. Politicians were also sadly implicated in Odi. The militia gang that was the root cause of the Odi massacre went by the name, ‘Asawana boys’. The boys were thugs loyal to Governor Diepreye Alamieyeseigha who had oiled and armed them for the 1999 elections. He abandoned them after the elections and they retreated from Yenagoa to Odi where they planned for their pound of flesh. The 12 policemen killed were passing through Odi and included a Deputy Commissioner of Police.
We did not seem to learn anything from Odi. In 2003, Zaki Biam happened. At least 200 unarmed civilians including children, women and the aged were executed in cold blood by the Nigerian military between 20th -24th October 2001 in Zaki Biam, Gbeji and Vaase. This was a revenge massacre following the killing of 19 soldiers in circumstances that are still not clear. What is clear and beyond doubt is that in at least Gbeji, one of these villages, soldiers from the 23rd Armored Brigade of the 3rd Armored Division called out the villagers for a meeting and in the open, separated men from children and women and executed the men in cold blood. Naturally, there was uproar, not because anyone supported the killing of the 19 soldiers – if indeed they were soldiers. No one supported the killings. The response of the soldiers was unprofessional and could not be justified in any way. But just like the road to Odi, the road to Zaki Biam was laced with negligence. The military were not held to account in both places. There was a Judicial Commission of Inquiry into the Zaki Biam massacre but the report of the Commission has not seen the light of the day. Though the military were later to apologize for their murderous impunity in Zaki Biam, because there were no consequences here and in Odi, Zaria happened.
The Nigerian military moved against Shiites in Zaria on December 12th, 2015. The military action targeted members of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria and by the time the military were through with their murderous action, at least 348 unarmed citizens were killed. Majority of these were secretly buried by the military in mass graves. The military claimed their action was a response to an assassination attempt against the then Army Chief, General Tukur Buratai. The Islamic Movement in Nigeria denies such attempt and many human rights groups argue that this massacre was unprovoked and directed at unarmed people. The massacre is considered as a ‘notable human rights violation since the return to democracy’ in Nigeria. Here again, a Judicial Commission of Inquiry was set up but the military was not held to account.
Today, Bonta happened. Following the ambush and killing of 11 soldiers and a Captain on the Konshisha/ Oju border, the military – again overtaken by the spirit of vengeance and impunity – moved in with helicopter gunships with which they destroyed whole villages and settlements through strafing runs. Not satisfied, they moved in ground troops against several villages and towns burning and destroying. Though the military denies killing innocent unarmed citizens, community members in Konshisha affected by this impunity claim many were killed in the process and many are still missing. The road to Bonta is a familiar road. It should give us opportunities to self reflect as to how and why the military is so unaccountable. The narrative of the military here is food for thought. They seem to have been involved in a communal clash between the Shangev Tiev community and the Oju community. It is not clear how they got involved because ordinarily, the military does not get involved in these types of low grade communal land clashes. The military claims they had stationed a post on the Oju side of the divide and had sent a captain and soldiers with logistics to the post on the Oju side. We are not clear who had authorized the setting up of the Oju post and its not clear how in a dispute of this nature, a military detachment was established on only one side of the divide.
Whatever, when the Captain was ambushed, military sources claim their attackers deceived them and disarmed them before they were killed. The Captain and soldiers were supposedly Special Forces –meaning they were specially trained and it is unthinkable how some rag tag militia would disarm them unless they were not so specially trained. The Captain and his soldiers also came from Katsina Ala – read Gbishe. This raises a critical question. Why would the military deploy its Special Forces from Gbishe to Konshisha and Oju to resolve a land dispute? The military also claims that in addition to the loss of their men in the ambush, they also lost heavy guns and ammunitions as well as 28 million naira in cash. The heavy guns and ammunitions were hidden under sacks of pure water. Hiding the heavy guns and ammunitions here raises a question or two. If the military were on a legitimate assignment, why were they hiding these guns and ammunitions? How do we explain the quantity of ammunitions involved and the size and quality of these heavy guns? Could these ‘soldiers’ have been peddling arms in a conflict zone? Why were these soldiers not in a vehicle branded in military colours? How do we explain the 28-million naira cash allegedly lost in the ambush? Is it a scheme to extort from the system or is this how the military operates now, moving large volumes of cash in countryside operations?
There are more questions on the road to Bonta. How might we explain the strafing runs using air power against innocent community members here? What did the community members do to deserve this murderous collective jungle justice? Who in the military hierarchy authorized this impunity and what logic can justify it? Who also ordered ground troops to move in against communities here? The geography of the destruction by the ground troops is also food for thought. The military claims that after the ambush and killings, they had to go after the ‘bandits’ who had disappeared into neighbouring villages and towns. This seems more like high nonsense. The ground troops destroyed villages and settlements on the Awajir- Tse Agberagba road. The destruction was linear and did not touch villages and settlements away from the road. If the bandits ‘disappeared’ into neigbouring villages, could they have been stupid enough to ‘disappear’ into villages on the Awajir- Tse Agberagba road? It makes more sense to have ‘disappeared’ into the hinterland and that the military did not see this angle but chose to attack and destroy settlements on this road means the attack was premeditated. Through out the delivery of justice world over, the code is to let 99 criminals off the hook than to injure one innocent person. Why was the military in a hurry here? Why would they not wait for a thorough investigation that will unravel the circumstances foregrounding this unfortunate incident?
There are other questions that are incidental to the road to Bonta. Are we dealing with actual bandits here? To what extent can we subsume the contest over land under banditry? We also know that the Nigerian military has suffered several other killings in different parts of the country without the type of reaction seen at Odi, Zaki Biam, Zaria and Bonta. In January of this year, Captain Felix A Kura of the 177 GDS BE Keffi was killed alongside with 12 other soldiers by bandits in Nasarawa State. They took their weapons and we did not see any reaction by the military here. Soldiers have been severally ambushed and killed in Katsina, Zamfara, Kaduna and other states in the North East, yet we have not seen this murderous rage.
Before we are misunderstood, we do not and will not support the killing of any one in uniform in extra judicial circumstances. But again, we do not and will not support retaliation by anyone in the military because their men have been killed. The road to Bonta stinks and only a Judicial Commission of Inquiry can clear the stink.
The author is a professor of Archeology at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria