Why Nigerian Soldiers Go On Rampage
• Command Failure To Blame • Military In Rare Apology Over Unruly Conduct
THERE are stories like the unknown soldiers that attacked the Shrine of late Afrobeat maestro, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, following a scuffle between the musician’s boys and some soldiers; the October 2012 Maiduguri incident when troops killed 30 civilians, after a bomb blast injured two soldiers; the wild Area Boys who, last year, set on fire Lagos State’s BRT buses, after a soldier was knocked down; or the fishing out of soldier-killing militants, early this year, in the border between Taraba and Plateau States that claimed civilian lives.
One fact is obvious about the Nigerian military: they don’t welcome insult to any of their colleagues. They hold tenaciously the cult-like doctrine that injury to one is injury to all. Hence, following the alleged killing of a colleague by suspected cultists, last week, men said to belong to the Nigerian Army School of Military Engineering (NASME), Makurdi, Benue State, took to the streets to vent their displeasure. And they did so in a most soldierly fashion.
Eyewitnesses, according to The Guardian’s report, said the soldiers, numbering over 30, damaged buildings and vehicles, a development that sent fearful residents scampering indoors, even as traders hastily locked up their shops and fled. The angry lot went from street to street looting and harassing women and children, amid fears that some women were sexually assaulted.
“Police immediately went to the scene, and on getting there, met a group of people in military uniform. People were attacked and injured including policemen who were there. We noticed the soldiers had a problem with inhabitants of the area. The soldiers alleged that the civilians injured one of their personnel,” said Deputy Police Public Relations Officer (PPRO), ASP Matthew Oku.
“They harassed our women, stole our property and beat up young innocent people for no just reason. They were even moving into a commercial bank when youths mobilized and chased them away,” said Ibrahim Ndabagi, President of the North Bank Development Association.
The ensuing protest by the youths held travellers hostage for over five hours on the Makurdi/Lafia/Abuja expressway, in long queues of vehicles.
Speaker of the Benue State House of Assembly, Terkimbi Kyange, who ran into the protest, described the incident as unfortunate and unacceptable, saying the House would take up the matter and ensure justice is done. “How can soldiers, meant to protect life and property, carry out such a heinous act? Imagine the level of destruction done and they have forced people, especially women and children, to live in fear,” Kyange said.
But Benue State is no stranger to reprisals by Nigerian troops. “The military exacted a brutal revenge on the village of Vasse, where 19 soldiers had been abducted. When representatives of several Nigerian human rights organization under the umbrella of the Transition Monitoring Group (TMG) visited Vasse on October 31, they described it as a ghost town; it was completely deserted, and its entire population had fled into the bush. When Human Rights Watch visited in mid-December, there were still very few people there. Most of the town lay empty; many buildings had been destroyed. Soldiers were still posted nearby keeping watch,” says Human Rights Watch publication, Vol. 14, No. 2 (A) – April 2002.
Detailing cases of ‘extrajudicial executions and destruction by the military’ in the Benue towns of Kyado, Anyiin, Zaki-Biam, Tse-Adoor and Sankera, the report adds: “Several young men who had been present when the soldiers came to Vasse told Human Rights Watch: ‘On Monday, October 22, the soldiers killed 17 people here: 15 men and two women. They sent some boys to fetch us to hear what they had to say. The soldiers asked us: ‘Who killed the soldiers?’ We said we didn’t know.
They told us to make a line. People lined up. They made us take our shirts off and tied them over our eyes. Then the commander blew a whistle and the soldiers started shooting. They left some of the bodies on the road. Some people were carried away alive by the soldiers as they left. They also burned houses. A woman in her 20s was burnt inside her house. Another woman in her 30s, a mother of two, was carried away alive. We don’t know what happened to her.”
While Human Rights Watch “strongly” condemned “the abduction, killing and mutilation of the 19 soldiers” and urged that persons “responsible for those acts be brought to justice,” it, however, noted: “the brutality of that incident cannot justify the killings and destruction in the military reprisal that followed.”
And that is where the big problem lies: a numbing of rationality while dissipating disproportionate force in attempt at seeking redress, even when all individuals have right to express displeasure over offence.
While the military might have won applause in several national and international encounters, its inglorious records are, however, many. In the 80s, a staff of a Federal Government College in the North exchanged words with the wife of a military officer. Four soldiers, consequently, stormed the school and bundled the teacher away in the boot of their car to some place where he was beaten blue. A soldier argued with a policeman, in 2006 and no sooner, the former’s colleagues from Abalti Barracks stormed the Area C Police Command in Surulere, Lagos, razed part of the premises and freed detained suspects.
One Rear Admiral Harry Arogundade in 2008 looked on as his military guards assaulted a lady and stripped her naked for ‘failing to make way’ for his convoy. A motorcyclist who hit the car of a naval officer in 2005 in Lagos received a bullet in the head, despite pleas for mercy. Protesting the death of their colleague in 2011, soldiers of 242 Recce Battalion, Iberepo, in Badagry, Lagos State, descended on a police station, killing six policemen, the Divisional Police Officer, and his Divisional Crime Officer, who incidentally were on their way to the army barracks to make peace with the Commander of the Brigade. This is not to mention cases never spotlighted by the media.
Second to the big problem is the culture of denial, silence or distortion of brazen facts by military authorities. Whenever ‘the boys’ unleash mayhem on society, the shameful deed either never took place or was the handiwork of miscreants. Sadly, many of the accounts of events by headquarters have often been grossly divergent from those given by locals or victims.
“Initially, soldiers…harassed residents, whipping them. But later they went on a shooting spree and started setting homes and shops on fire,” a Maiduguri resident told AFP, after an explosion injured two soldiers in October 2012. Another said soldiers shot everyone in sight. Speaking to the BBC, however, a spokesman for the military said the soldiers had not shot at any civilian.
It might require another soldier to explore what goes through the minds of military officers, when once they feel insulted by ‘bloody civilians’. Having once been in the service and now retired, The Guardian sought the view of Major-General Ishola Williams.
He said: “As human beings and members of a group, if something happens to one member, the others react because of what, in the military, we call esprit de corps. The second is that soldiers believe that anything can happen to anyone of them and they expect their colleagues to react the way they react. Thirdly, they try to show that they are going to deal with anyone that tries such in a way that they would never attempt it again.
“So, it is a kind of warning. One can say, though, that sort of warning was done with excessive force. And in that situation, it is command’s responsibility. The commander is supposed to be on top of the situation and make sure he controls the anger, because you expect them to be angry, especially if the particular soldier that was hurt or killed was defenseless.
“When a soldier is killed or injured, the others will be angry, especially if the soldier had been trying to maintain law and order. They will say: ‘We were trying to help you maintain law and order and then you killed one or some of us’. That will not be acceptable to them. They will be very angry. And the reaction might be excessive.
“But sometimes, we demand too much from our people in the armed forces. This is not only in Nigeria but also all over the world. We believe that they are extraordinary human beings and therefore when such things happen to them…if a civilian reacts that way, it is a different story. If a soldier does, it’s a different story. I understand that because they believe that the soldier should be more disciplined, and must be able to control himself.
“However, we are making a big mistake in Nigeria. And I don’t know why the authorities cannot learn. Remove soldiers from doing police duties! Police are responsible for maintaining law and order. And when things get out of hand, the mobile police are called in. But here in Nigeria, soldiers are running after armed robbers, running after terrorists. There is confusion between the mandates of all the forces. You even find the Civil Defense too quarrelling with the police. What is wrong with us? Why don’t we have a framework that separates these functions, and let those who are responsible for carrying out designated functions carry them out?
“So, when you have such a situation, and the failure of command, that is when you see soldiers react like that. That is why, under the new order, commanders are taken before the International Criminal Court for failing in their responsibility to prevent such things. But it is the responsibility of the political authority to make sure the police do their job and the military do theirs. Simple!”
But in a rare gesture, the Commandant of the Nigeria Army School of Military Engineering, Makurdi, Major-General Bamidele Ogunkale, on Tuesday, apologised to Governor Samuel Ortom over the conduct of the soldiers, when he paid a visit to the latter at Peoples House, Makurdi.
Ogunkale said he had instituted a commission of inquiry to investigate circumstances that led to the incident, stressing the perpetrators shall be brought to book.
He maintained that the army would collaborate with other security agencies to checkmate cult and other criminal activities in the North Bank area.
Responding, Ortom expressed satisfaction with the Commandant’s peace-building effort and called for the sustenance of peaceful relations between communities and military formations in the state.
Meanwhile, residents of Makurdi, affected by the soldiers’ rampage, have begun to pick up the pieces of their lives, hoping, of course, that those who say history always repeats itself are proved liars.