Amnesty International and the Nigerian military
AMNESTY International, the world’s foremost human rights campaigner, must be surprised at the energetic reaction of the Nigerian people and organisations to its report of June 3, 2015 on the conduct of the Nigerian armed forces in the fight against Boko Haram terrorists.
In the report, Amnesty charged Nigerian soldiers and their commanders with gross human rights violations, including execution of some 7,000 innocent people for not producing Boko Haram members who killed their comrades in arms in their villages and towns.
Even the Nigerian human rights community, reputed over the decades for criticisms of the Nigerian state, is in the forefront of the denunciation of the Amnesty report which also calls for the arrest and prosecution of soldiers, middle and senior military commanders, including the immediate past Chief of Defence Staff, Admiral Ola Sa’ad Ibrahim, and the erstwhile Chief of Army Staff, Lt. Gen. Azubuike Ihejirika, and their successors.
Meanwhile, Nigeria’s new President Muhammadu Buhari has pledged to look into the allegations and treat them with the seriousness they deserve. Nigerians, irrespective of their primordial differences and political leanings, are united in the criticism against the Amnesty report. This is one of the rare instances in our recent national history where national consensus has been reached so easily.
The reason is simple: Boko Haram is a national embarrassment of profound proportion. All of us are casualties, to use the language of J.P. Clark, the outstanding Nigerian poet, playwright and essayist.
In other words, those who used to think that the insurgency was a North-Eastern affair were in grave error. One of the first officers to be felled in the war against Boko Haram was a young gallant Captain from Ozubulu in Anambra State in the South-East geopolitical zone.
The highest ranking officer to be gunned in the battle against Boko Haram was a brilliant Lt. Col. from Uke in Idemmili North Local Council, also of Anambra State, a veteran of the Liberian and Sierra Leone civil wars who had just returned from China where he underwent an advanced course in guerrilla warfare.
Various Igbo communities with their sons and daughters in the North lost quite a number of them when Boko Haram terrorists on a number of occasion opened fire on them in places like Niger State and Adamawa State.
The most senior officer being tried right now for cowardice in the war against the terrorists is Brigadier General Ransome-Kuti, from Abeokuta in Ogun State. To state the obvious once again, we all are in various ways casualties of the Boko Haram menace.
Nigeria may be far from being a united political entity, but the war against the insurgents is bringing the people together; a common purpose is forged. Bertrand Russel, one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th Century, has called our attention to how crises tend to unite people.
In his BBC’s prestigious Reith Lectures, Russel argued that passengers on a bus might not be talking to each other because they are strangers, but they would definitely come together to fight an enemy if any of them is attacked by an external force.
Nigerians have been denouncing the Amnesty report like one man because, among other things, the report would seem to provide a tremendous propaganda weapon to the terrorists.
The report is ominously silent on the unspeakable atrocities committed by the dangerous sect daily against defenceless members of society, a development which brings to mind the ongoing savagery in the Middle East by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which interestingly attracts strong condemnation from all and sundry around the world.
The new Amnesty report which demands the prosecution of top military officers for war crimes is reminiscent of the report by the same human rights organisation in 2009 which strongly condemned the Nigerian police for killing the founder and leader of the extremely dangerous Boko Haram sect, Mohammed Yusuf, and demanded severe punishment for the security men but said nothing about the scores of policemen butchered like animals in an unprecedented orgy of violence which rocked Maiduguri, the Borno State capital, for days. Consequently, Nigerians often wonder if Amnesty International is on the side of terrorists.
True, the Nigerian military is fighting the terrorists from a disadvantaged position. Our soldiers are trained to fight in conventional war where the enemy has a known territory, wears a uniform and to some extent, obeys rules of engagement. Boko Haram is composed of sheer terrorists, and the brainwashed membership engages in guerrilla warfare.
While the military takes its time in firing against the enemy so as to minimise collateral damage as much as possible, terrorists do not give a hoot if innocent persons are felled by their bullets. Like armed robbers under siege by security men, Boko Haram members just spray bullets on all and sundry, delighting in collateral damage. As far as they are concerned, women and children are targets, a fair game.
They routinely disguise as pious Muslim women and frequently strap improvised explosive devices (IEDs) on callow eight-year children, turning them into cannon fodder. Soldiers who fight in such circumstances anywhere in the world are bound to be edgy.
They could tamper with human rights easily. The truth is that even in the best of conventional wars, there are always gross human rights abuses.
As any American soldier who has been on a duty of Iraq since 2003 can tell you in confidence, the reported human rights violations by American soldiers which Washington reported are only a tip of the iceberg, the least of such awful abuses which occurred on a grand scale.
The concept of espirit de corps compels commanders not to escalate the reports to higher authorities. War is no tea party anywhere.
Thousands of innocent lives are at stake every minute. In most cases, the political authorities turn a blind eye to such reports because they do not want to demoralise the young men and women in the firing line. Both President Richard Nixon and his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, were aware of the terrible things which American fighters were doing in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s against the locals.
Still, the Amnesty International’s allegations of improper conduct against the Nigerian military should not be dismissed with a cavalier wave of the hand.
All soldiers, including those fighting in wars, must abide by the Geneva Convention, the rule of law and due process. The lives and dignity of fighting soldiers are as important as those of civilians.
What riles most Nigerians about the recent Amnesty report is that the human rights body seems to be on a mission to demoralise and demonise the Nigerian military which has over the decades given a wonderful account of itself in various countries of the world.
Our past and serving top commanders appear to have been marked down for ruination, having been accused of complicity in atrocities even when all evidence suggests they have been absolutely ignorant of the alleged human rights violations.
The Amnesty report seems to have provided Boko Haram a propaganda stunt which former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously called the oxygen of life for terrorists the world over. Nigerians deserve better. •Mustapha, a retired naval officer, contributed this piece from Port Harcourt.