All eyes on panel reviewing military compliance with human rights provisions

Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami

Accusations of violation human rights against Nigeria military have refused to abate. It is made worse by the bid to get rid of insurgents in the North East and maintain peace across the country.

Following persistent allegations of human rights violation against the military by international organisations, individuals as well as civil society groups, the then acting President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo (SAN) inaugurated a nine-man panel to review their compliance with human rights obligations and the rule of law.  

The committee was expected to review extant rules of engagement applicable to the Armed Forces and the extent of compliance thereto.   It was also mandated to investigate alleged acts of violation of international humanitarian and human rights law under the 1999 Constitution (as amended), Geneva Conventions Act, African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights (Ratification and Enforcements) Act and other relevant laws by the Armed Forces in local conflicts and insurgencies.   

The committee was equally asked to investigate matters of conduct and discipline in the Armed Forces in local conflicts and insurgencies; recommend means of preventing violations of international humanitarian and human rights law in conflict situations; and to make further recommendations in line with these terms of reference as may be deemed necessary.  

The panel, headed by Justice Biobele Georgewill, has Major General Patrick Akem, Mr Wale Fapohunda, Mrs Hauwa Ibrahim, Mr Jibrin Ibrahim, Mr Abba Ambudashi Ibrahim, Mrs Ifeoma Nwakama as members, while Dr. Fatima Alkali was to serve as counsel to the Panel.     

The secretary of the panel was from the Office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation. Osinbajo, at the inauguration of the committee had expressed the need for the military to uphold sanctity of human lives even in the discharge of its duties.He said: “Indeed conventional human rights norms and conventional human rights observers are challenged by various nuances of asymmetric warfare.   

“Nonetheless, there are series of allegations leveled against security forces by some local and international commentators. The allegations are capable of undermining the good works and efforts of the men and women of the armed forces who have largely conducted themselves in a disciplined and professional manner.

“For our government, respect for the lives of Nigerian citizens is not just a constitutional but also moral duty. This is why it is incumbent upon us even as we maintain security especially in conflict situations, to interrogate alleged crimes and human rights abuses by all sides of this conflicts and insurgencies.  

“Today’s occasion is a continuation of the efforts of this administration geared towards attaining its goal.”Recall that Amnesty International (AI) had indicted the military in its report for extra-judicial killings and human rights violations.The allegations had ranged from extra-judicial executions, arbitrary arrests, detention without trial, torture and enforced disappearance of persons.   

Although the military had sharply reacted to the report, describing it as false, it nevertheless set up its Special Board of Inquiry in line with the provision of Section 172(1) of the Armed Forces Act CAP A20 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004.  

The Chief of Army Staff, Lieutenant General Tukur Buratai, expressed concern that in spite of the success recorded by troops in the ongoing counter-terrorism operations in the North East, some individuals and organisations had raised weighty allegations against them.   

“These allegations are not good for civil-military relations and are capable of demoralising Nigerian army personnel in the performance of their constitutional roles”, he had said. But as expected, the panel, which membership comprised serving and retired officers, absolved the military of the allegations leveled against them.   

However, before the recent panel was constituted, Transparency International had accused Nigerian government of apathy towards setting up independent and impartial investigations into crimes of human rights abuse allegedly committed by the military.  

Some of the alleged crimes include the February 9, 2016, shooting of about 200 members of members of Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), who had gathered for a prayer meeting at the National High School, Aba, Abia State Capital.    

In fact, video footage of the incident was said to have showed soldiers shooting at peaceful and unarmed IPOB members at the end of which not less than 17 people were killed and scores injured.  

Also, not fewer than 60 people were also allegedly killed in a separate joint operation carried out by the Army, Police, Department of State Security Service (DSS) and the Navy, against Pro-Biafra campaigners, who gathered to celebrate Biafra Remembrance Day in Onitsha.   

There was also allegation of ‘enforced disappearances’ of one Chijioke Mba and Sunday Chucks Obasi, whose whereabouts remained unknown since they were abducted over a year ago and Amnesty International had expressed regrets that till the end of last year, investigation was yet to be initiated into these killings.   

Worried about the pace of extra-judicial killings across the country, many began to wonder if there was a clearly defined line of duty in the military’s mandate to maintain law and order in the society. Speaking to The Guardian, the former president of the West African Bar Association (WABA) and human rights campaigner, Mr. Femi Falana (SAN) said he has already sent a memorandum to the panel detailing his allegations of violation of human rights by soldiers.

According to him, there are over 3000 suspects held in Giwa barracks, Maiduguri on terrorism allegations, for the past two years without being charged to court.He regretted that citizens would be incarcerated perpetually without being tried in competent courts of jurisdiction.

In fact, the Executive Director of a human rights group – Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE-Nigeria), Mr. Sylvester Uhaa, believed that as complicated as the matter appeared, human rights law remains unambiguous and must be respected at all times.   

Noting that he had no personal experience of rights violation by the military, there have been dimensions of human rights violation based on the report made public by the Amnesty International and other bodies.“I don’t have any evidence of that yet because my organisation has not done anything in that area, although I was part of the United Nations mission in 2015 to places of detention together with national committee on prohibition of torture.   

“We were in Maiduguri but we were not given access to military detention centres. So, we were not privileged to have access to information we could have had to be able to speak very credibly on the degree of human rights abuse allegedly perpetuated by the military.”While commending the Prof. Osinbajo for the committee, Uhaa held that there must be some level of civility in military operations to avoid arbitrariness.   

He said: “But the fact remains that in any war, human rights must be respected. So, I would commend the establishment of the committee by the Vice President, to look into the rules of engagement.   

“Going forward, it is very important that the military respects the rule of engagement and respect human rights even in the execution of war against Boko Haram. You cannot fight arbitrarily because you are in a war. The reason is that in the course of fighting a war, there are people who are not participants in the war.  

“Even those participating in the war have to be dealt with according to the rule. If you arrest people in the course of the war, you don’t kill them. You take them through the court in order to face the punishment that is proscribed by law. Doing otherwise would amount to violation of human rights.”  

In spite of the asymmetric war style of the Boko Haram, Uhaa insisted that the military would still be held accountable for any incident of extra-judicial killings. “If the agent of government come and kill them no matter what the circumstances are, they are guilty of human rights abuse.   

“International laws are very clear. If the people fighting against the military at that very moment are not in combatant position, you don’t kill them. If they pose eminent threat, what you are supposed to do as an agent of government is to arrest them.  

“However, considering the style and complicated nature of the insurgency war, one should not be very quick in blaming the military in totality unless there are specific circumstances to establish a case of violation of human rights against them.”   

Uhaa however emphasised that irrespective of who is involved, in the course of war, human rights must be respected, including the rights of combatants. “I am talking on the issue of Biafran agitators. 

Allegation was that some people were not even at the scene but the military went as far as killing some of them and arresting others. “If that was true, it is wrong. The issue is that in every war, human rights must be respected. That is the guiding rule,” he stated.  

Also speaking on the military and the rule of engagement, a practicing lawyer, Ifeanyi Ejiofor, stated that the allegation of rights violation against the military has been raised several times by Nnamdi Kanu’s lawyers.  According to him, five suits have been filed against the military, ‘challenging their flagrant breach of people’s fundamental rights’.                          

Ejiofor added that the Amnesty International report against the military on the massacre of innocent agitators was in the public domain and cannot be disputed.He noted that his team would be willing to come forward in defense of the report and the activities of the military against the civilian agitators.  

“Evidences are many. We have the video evidences of how innocent citizens were slaughtered, people who were not armed in the legitimate exercise of their rights as provided by the constitution.   

“What the military did in a smart move, probably to divert public’s attention was to set up their independent investigation committee, wherein they came up with Kangaroo report that exonerated them.  

“And the report was attacked by both local and international bodies, including Amnesty International that it cannot stand the test of time because they know it was manufactured by the military to save their faces.  

“In response to people’s outcry that those indicted by Amnesty International must face the law, they quickly set up this committee, which I call an after thought, by the Vice President, probably to overhaul and review what has been said about the military’s gross violation of human rights.   

“As I speak to you, I have filed several suits against them in court, where we are claiming number of damages because we have evidence to show the number of IPOB members that were killed, some of them were buried alive.  

“So, it is time government look into their activities and checkmate them because they live above the law, and we are operating in a constitutional democracy and not under military regime,” Ejiofor said.

While expecting that interested members of the public would be given the privilege of presenting report, Ejiofor condemned the composition of the committee, stressing that it undermined the interest of the victims.   

“I am expecting that the Vice President should invite people to come and make presentations, but I am also not comfortable with the composition of that committee. These are people who are not affected by the military onslaught. I will not be surprised that at the end of the exercise, they will come up with a report that would be favourable to the government.“So, the committee itself should be reviewed. They should get people that represent IPOB and people who represent victims of Boko Haram onslaught.   

“You cannot bring people who have no attachment, who are not directly affected by the activities of the military as members of the committee. You have to bring people who were affected. I am totally against the composition and I am urging the government to disband it and constitute a fresh committee that will take into account, the stakeholders’ interest.  

On the flout of court orders by the military, Ejiofor said he had stated that he was not sure Nigeria was operating a constitutional democracy. “If you cannot obey orders made in court, you are merely encouraging lawlessness. No matter how stupid the order appears, it must be obeyed until the appellate court sets it aside.  

“But in the case of the military, they will turn their heads the other way and disobey the order of court. Even if court says, ‘don’t arrest’, they will go ahead to arrest.   

“Until we begin to respect the orders of the court, we cannot say we are practicing constitutional democracy, and I would want the Vice President, who is a lawyer to look into the issue,”Ejiofor stated.  

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