By FELIX OGUEJIOFOR ABUGU
“Bandits now move from house to house, village to village, market to market with AK-47 openly, purchasing food stuffs and other items without any challenge from security agencies… Few weeks ago, over 76 persons were killed in a community in Sokoto in a day. I was there alongside the Governor to commiserate with the affected community…Unfortunately, you don’t hear these stories in the media because (they are happening) in the North. We have accepted the fact that North doesn’t have strong media to report the atrocities of these bandits…”—Sultan of Sokoto, Muhammadu Saad Abubakar
Now, let’s not pull punches: the Nigerian army under Tukur Yusuf Buratai has lost its lustre (it would be uncharitable to say ‘lost its soul’). It is an army without any swagger left in its gait, the kind of swagger that comes from standard professional training, possession of modern equipment and, therefore, self-assurance. It is an army currently in search of its raison d’être, a hobbling, demotivated behemoth, constantly deserted, in droves, by the more conscionable of its officers angry at how low the army under Buratai has come.
Until Buratai, the army was our pride. We regaled in its strength, power and influence, not only in the sub-region (especially in the sub-region) but also in the world at large. Not too long ago, the Nigerian army (read military) provided security cover for the whole of West Africa, operating under the auspices of the ground-breaking ECOWAS Monitoring Group (ECOMOG). Needless to say, we became the toast of the world: even the developed powers sought to learn from Nigeria how we managed to restore democracy and keep the peace in troubled Liberia and Sierra leone.
Not any longer. Today’s Nigerian army is, pardon the cliché, a shadow of its former self, an effeminate war machine degraded to the point where it now fears to engage militarily, interested only, it would appear, in flexing its muscles in civilian space. As one experienced defence correspondent put it recently, “today’s Nigerian army is an institution I do not know any longer.”
The appointment of General Tukur Buratai as the Chief of Army Staff by President Muhammadu Buhari in July 2015, was greeted with a sense of optimism. Although the army under Lt Gens. Azubuike Ihejirika (Rtd) and Tobiah Minimah (Rtd) had practically defeated Boko Haram, confining them to the Sambisa Forest and, by so doing, freeing the rest of Borno State from the insurgents, vile, lying propagandists waiting in the wings to grab power, were to sell to the nation the dummy that Ihejirika and Minimah (Ihejirika, especially) had, by killing the insurgents and degrading their military strength, committed human rights abuses, even crime against humanity, for which they deserved to be tried at the International Crime Court (ICC)!
Thus, the appointment of Buratai by Buhari, for whom the insurgents seemed to harbour (or to have haboured) so much respect (they once asked him to negotiate their amnesty with the Jonathan Administration!), raised the hope that a more ‘decent’ and effective way of fighting and defeating the insurgents was afoot. But, as it turned out, not only were the insurgents not defeated but they also became bolder, even more daring and effective, than the army. Pathetically, the army, which was supposed to contain the insurgents more ‘decently’, began to suffer more casualties in their hands than was hitherto thought possible.
The Nigerian army under Tukur Buratai served notice of its metamorphosis into an amoral killing machine with a huge appetite for soft blood, early enough. Less than six months in office as COAS, on Saturday December 12, 2015 to be precise, (Buratai was appointed Chief of Army Staff on July 13, 2015) Buratai sent his army, in what has been recorded as “the Zaria massacre”, to mow down unarmed Shia Muslims, all 348 of them and mostly members of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN), secretly burying 347 of the dead bodies in a mass grave thereafter, according to reports.
What was their offence? The Army claimed that it had responded to an attempt by the unarmed IMN members to “assassinate Buratai” and had to massacre all of 348 civilians in cold blood to nip that attack in the bud. But that claim has since been rejected by IMN and several human rights organizations which insist that the massacre occurred without any provocation and that all the protestors were unarmed. “The incident is considered among the notable human rights violations since the return to democracy in Nigeria,” wrote Wikipedia in its chronicle of that event. But, I would rather say “the incident is considered among the most notable human rights violations in Nigeria since the appointment of Tukur Buratai as Nigeria’s Chief of Army Staff (CAOS) in July 2015.”
From Zaria, Buratai moved to the South East where Amnesty International and several other independent human rights organizations’ records show that the brutal General’s trigger-happy, civilian-chasing soldiers have, in the past five years, massacred, with so much remorselessness, another set of hundreds of unarmed youths. Their offence? Daring to call themselves ‘Biafrans’ and protest against perceived injustice of the Nigerian state against their people and communities in South East Nigeria.
In a recent opinion article under the headline ‘Burutai’s butcheries’, a civil society organization (CSO), the Int’l society for Civil Liberties & Rule of Law (Intersociety) enumerated what it said were 15 instances of extra-judicial killing of unarmed Nigerian civilians by soldiers under the command of Tukur Buratai. And they include, among others, the CSO wrote: (1) the August 30, 2015 massacre of 40 defenseless citizens…during peaceful protests in Onitsha, Enugu, Yenagoa, Uyo, Port Harcourt and Asaba; (2) 2nd and 17th Dec 2015 massacre of 30 defenseless citizens of same faith in Onitsha; (3) 14th-15th Dec 2015 massacre of 800-1000 unarmed Shiite Muslims during their religious processions in Zaria (Government later admitted massacring 348); (4) 18th and 29th Jan, 2016 massacre of 20 defenseless citizens of Judeo-Christian faith during peaceful protests in Aba; (5) 9th Feb 2016 massacre of 30 unarmed protesters in Aba; and (6) 29th and 30th May 2016 massacre of 140 defenseless citizens of Judeo-Christian faith during global Igbo Heroes Day in Onitsha, Nkpor and Asaba.
The bestial, murderous instincts that drove those killings should bother us to no end. But, what should bother us even more is that in all of the above cases, troops of a supposedly professionally-trained national army simply disavowed their professional training, ethics and oath of office and routinely and remorselessly killed, in cold blood, unarmed fellow citizens who constituted no security threat to either the soldiers personally or to Nigerians collectively. What professional soldiering philosophy is the Nigerian army under Tukur Buratai and President Muhammadu Buhari following?
In peacetime Nigeria, the Nigerian army has been deployed in 33 of the 36 States of the federation doing routine traffic checks that are statutorily the job of the police and FRSC. In the South East States, in particular, the army has practically taken over the duty of the police. Soldiers are to be seen checking the validity of drivers’ licenses, over-speeding, overloading and all those routine traffic things that are ordinarily handled by the police and or road marshals. In peacetime Nigeria, even more so in non-conflict areas, soldiers would mount road blocks, complete with sandbags, tents et al, harassing, intimidating and extorting members of the public. When did such mundane undertakings become the duty of soldiers professionally trained to maintain the territorial integrity of Nigeria by warding off any external aggression against us? I mean, has it ever occurred to us that some of those bestial killings of hapless civilians have occurred simply because one or two recalcitrant members of the public refused to part with their money to free themselves from extortionist, trigger-happy soldiers who appear weaned on soft civilian blood?
What has Tukur Buratai turned the once proud Nigerian men and women in uniform into? What has become of the army of Joshua Dogonyaro and Rufus Kupolati, the ECOMOG heroes that achieved victories on the battle field and won honours for the country from the rest of the world? While Boko Haram, a violent, self-advertised enemy of the state is busy taking territories and innocent lives in Northern Nigeria, including and especially Buratai’s part of town, the stone-faced General is busy organizing soldiers, mostly down South, to protect ballot boxes, or rig election for favoured candidates, and get paid for the job. What kind of General is that?
Indeed, what General, no matter the political pressure, would so foolishly send his soldiers to attack unarmed protesters in the full glare of international television, and, by so doing, bring upon his country such international opprobrium as Buratai’s soldiers’ 20/10/2020 attack on #EndSARS protesters at Lekki Tollgate, Lagos, has done? Isn’t Buratai ever tired of attacking soft targets and shedding innocent blood? Worse still is the dithering that the army has brought to bear on its defence of the cowardly, shameful attack on #EndSARS protesters.
At first, the army swore its soldiers never went to the Lekki Tollgate on the October 20 night when men in army uniform were captured on camera shooting at protesters–the men in army uniform, the army hinted, were fake soldiers! Later the army admitted it had only sent soldiers to the tollgate at the invitation of Lagos State government but that they did not shoot anybody. Ok, fine, but was that the end of the story? Not really, because later again, the army admitted that soldiers had actually shot at the protesters but that they fired blank bullets. This was contrary to testimonies by eyewitnesses who insisted that the soldiers fired live ammunition and that several protesters were killed in the process (some of the eyewitnesses sustained serious gunshot injuries). When CNN proved that some of the unspent bullets from the soldiers’ rifles were live ammunition made in Serbia, Southeastern Europe, the FG threatened the network with sanctions. How obtuse!
Calls for Buratai and other service chiefs to be sacked because they have not lived up to demands of their offices, have remained inexplicably unheeded by President Buhari. And it makes one wonder why the President would rather honour his friendship with Buratai and Co than take necessary steps to meet the security needs of the country by firing his service chiefs for incompetence. It is a sad commentary on the patriotic credentials of some Nigerian leaders that despite their protestations to the contrary, they are, in reality, unpatriotic. Or how else may we explain that Buhari is patriotic but that he loves Buratai more?
It is instructive that while the Sultan, for instance, may be dying in silence over the failure or seeming inability of the security agencies to tackle insecurity in the North, he would find it impolitic to call for a change of guards at the selfsame agencies. As it goes, if you are a member of the great northern political and religious establishment, it becomes political hara-kiri to question the incompetence of another member. And yet, like it or not, that may well be the only option (perhaps the viable one) that has so far not been tried in our seemingly endless battle against insecurity in the country, typified by the Boko Haram insurgency and banditry in the North and kidnapping and armed robbery in other parts of the country. So, again, let Buratai and Co. go! President Buhari owes the nation a decision to that effect!