Except in extremely isolated cases — for example, as an act of self-defense — it is morally indefensible for individuals to engage in extra-judicial killing. When a government makes it its business to slaughter unarmed citizens that government reveals itself as criminally thuggish and the state in whose behalf that government kills loses its moral legitimacy.
That, I am afraid, is the burden that President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration has placed on itself.
Last week, Amnesty International (AI), a human rights group, released a chilling report on the Buhari administration’s excessively brutal response to members of the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB) who have been agitating for the rebirth of Biafra. The AI report is a thorough job, based on interviews of 193 people (most of them eyewitnesses), analysis of 87 videos and 122 photographs “showing IPOB assemblies, members of the security forces in the process of committing violations and victims of these violations.” Much of the 60-page report is devoted to offering painstaking accounts of how Nigeria’s security agencies, including the military, killed, maimed, and tortured pro-Biafra agitators.
For those who can’t stomach much gore and horror, I would recommend AI’s executive summary, which highlights the sad, sobering facts. That summary begins, “Since August 2015, the security forces have killed at least 150 members and supporters of the pro-Biafran organisation IPOB (Indigenous Peoples of Biafra) and injured hundreds during non-violent meetings, marches and other gatherings. Hundreds were also arbitrarily arrested.”
According to Amnesty International, “Video footage and eyewitness testimony consistently show that the military, which has been deployed instead of police to control pro-Biafran events, has dispersed peaceful gatherings by firing live ammunition with little or no warning. This report documents extra-judicial executions and the use of excessive force by military, police and other security agencies. It also shows a worrying pattern of arbitrary arrests and detentions, including soldiers arresting wounded victims in hospital, and of torture and other ill-treatment of detainees.”
As the head of the Nigerian state, President Buhari bears ultimate responsibility for the carnage committed by Nigeria’s security agents. He is not the first Nigerian ruler to oversee mindless mass killing. Under former President Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigerian troops went on a homicidal rampage in Odi, Bayelsa State, and Zaki Biam, in Benue State. The late President Umaru Yar’Adua was in control when Nigerian soldiers swept through Maiduguri and other cities in Borno State, killing hordes of men on mere suspicion that they belonged to the Islamist group, Boko Haram.
President Buhari has earned a place in the bloodlust. Under his watch, troops slashed and burned their way through a Shiite neighbourhood near Zaria, Kaduna State. His inflexible stance on the vexed issue of Biafra, marked by a dismissive tone, has helped to create a violent climate. Perhaps encouraged by the President’s hectoring style, heavily armed soldiers and other security personnel have gleefully mowed down agitators who dared hoist up IPOB banners.
The President it was who, in a televised interview, defended the illegal detention of IPOB leader, Nnamdi Kanu, despite two court orders granting him bail. Amnesty International’s report cited instances when Mr. Buhari used intemperate language to voice his opposition to Biafra. “For example, in May 2016 he said: ‘We will not let that [division of Nigeria] happen. For Nigeria to divide now, it is better for all of us to jump into the sea and get drowned.’ Similarly, in September 2016, he said: ‘Tell your colleagues who want Biafra to forget about it.’”
In late September, AI investigators wrote to Nigerian authorities, including the security agencies, to share their findings. The human rights group received responses only from Nigeria’s Attorney-General and Minister of Justice as well as Inspector-General of Police. But, according to Amnesty International, “neither answered the questions raised in the [AI’s] letter.”
Even so, once AI prepared its final report, the Nigerian Army trotted out an effete reaction. The military response was a rather familiar mélange of clichéd assertions bereft of evidence. Signed by military spokesman, Colonel Sani Kukasheka Usman, the statement claimed that AI’s report was “an outright attempt to tarnish the reputation of the security forces in general and the Nigerian Army in particular, for whatever inexplicable parochial reasons. For the umpteenth time, the Nigerian Army has informed the public about the heinous intent of this non-governmental organisation, which is never relenting in dabbling into our national security in manners that obliterate objectivity, fairness and simple logic.”
Colonel Usman went on: “The evidence of MASSOB/IPOB violent secessionist agitations is widely known across the national and international domains. Their modus operandi has continued to relish violence that threatens national security. Indeed, between August 2015 and August 2016, the groups’ violent protests have manifested unimaginable atrocities to unhinge the reign of peace, security and stability in several parts of the South East Nigeria.
“A number of persons from the settler communities that hailed from other parts of the country were selected for attack, killed and burnt. Such reign of hate, terror and ethnoreligious controversies that portend grave consequences for national security have been averted severally through the responsiveness of the Nigerian Army and members of the security agencies.
“These security agencies are always targeted for attack by the MASSOB/IPOB instruments of barbarism and cruelty. For instance, in the protests of 30 – 31 May 2016, more than five personnel of the Nigeria Police were killed, while several soldiers were wounded, Nigeria Police vehicles were burnt down, same as several others of the Nigerian Army that were vandalised.”
Reading through AI’s report, one had the impression that the investigative process was rigorous and painstaking. By contrast, the military’s notion of a refutation struck one as shamefully infantile.
What exactly does “reign of hate, terror and ethnoreligious controversies” mean? Far from exonerating the military, Colonel Usman’s stilted and strained language had the ring of unwitting admission of the Army’s complicity in the massacre of innocent protesters. According to Colonel Usman, the agitations for Biafra “portend grave consequences for national security [that] have been averted severally [sic] through the responsiveness of the Nigerian Army and members of the security agencies.”
That response begs the central question: How exactly have Nigerian troops “averted” the “grave consequences” posed to “national security” by men and women who peacefully demand secession? Was it by shooting 150 of the protesters? Or by invading hospitals to seize injured agitators and haul them into detention?
It is up to the military to decode their own language here. The Nigerian Army ought to explain the nature of what its spokesman described as “the responsiveness of the Nigerian Army and members of the security agencies.”
It is immaterial whether one supports or opposes the agitation for Biafra. The Nigerian state’s deployment of excessive force against placard-carrying agitators is a crime, and wholly unwarranted. In the end, that militaristic approach is counter-intuitive and counter-productive. You don’t achieve a nation by militarising a space. A government that shoots disaffected agitators aspires to create a republic of the graveyard. And such a republic — a space inhabited by corpses — is self-contradictory and hollow.
One would demand that President Buhari investigate the gruesome murder of unarmed Biafra agitators as well as other such grave violations, but that’s will-o-the wisp. Amnesty International called it right: “Hardly any allegations of crimes under international law and human rights violations by the Nigerian security forces, and in particular the military, are investigated. If an investigation is carried out, there is no follow-up. Because no one has been seen to be held to account for serious human rights violations, an already pervasive culture of impunity within the military has been further strengthened.”