The military must abide by the rules of engagement

In yet another damning report titled, “Nigeria: ‘Bullets Were Raining Everywhere,’ Deadly Repression of Pro-Biafra Activists” Amnesty International (AI) last week alleged that the Nigerian troops killed no fewer than 150 members of Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) and MASSOB between August and now. “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”, said the report.

While the military authorities have responded with counter-allegations against the pro-Biafra groups without disputing the weighty claims in the AI report, we believe there is need to investigate the excessive use of force that is fast becoming a daily fare by the military. We also hope that the political authority in the country would take practical steps to remind the leadership of the military of their obligations to citizens, especially in a democracy. That IPOB/MASSOB and other groups peddle violence, as contained in the statement by the military, cannot be an excuse for the tragedy reported by AI.

It is particularly noteworthy that this is not the first time that AI would be accusing the Nigerian army of widespread abuses. However, the graphic video being currently circulated makes the accusation much more compelling and rather unhelpful for the image of our country. Thanks to social media, such images usually spread like wildfire and can only worsen the relationship between the military and the civil populace, especially under the current fragile political environment.

Therefore, dismissing the report and accusing AI of pandering to the predilections of pro-Biafra groups would not help in resolving the crisis of confidence that is fast eroding the credibility of our armed forces in the eyes of the ordinary Nigerians. Even when the military deserves our sympathy and support for the sacrifices they make on behalf of the nation at a most difficult period in our history, nothing can justify the summary execution of citizens who are merely exercising their right to protest.

We indeed sympathise with the military. From kidnapping to oil pipelines vandalism to armed robbery, Nigeria is today challenged on several fronts. And as crimes become prevalent, several military personnel are now being deployed to the states to aid the police in securing the peace. However, because of their operative rules and with insufficient training for their new roles, it is no surprise that there have been cases where the military evidently overstepped their bounds and engaged in activities that highlight conflicts between them and the civil populace.

However, no matter the provocation, the rules guiding the use of firearm by the military forbid deploying excessive force, especially against civilian citizens. Even a plea of self-defence neither avails nor exculpates the military from the murder of defenceless civilians. Under customary international law, anticipatory self-defence is lawful if the necessity is immediate, overwhelming and when there is no other choice. But much more importantly, the self-defence so applied must be proportional to the aggression being confronted.

The argument of the military that it intervened in the last Onitsha pro-Biafra agitation out of necessity to “prevent re-enforcement of the pro-Biafran members apparently surging ahead from the far side of the strategic Niger Bridge at Onitsha” is, to put it mildly, spurious. And even if such imperative necessity existed, indiscriminate shooting at peaceful protesters cannot be a way of resolving civil conflicts, especially in a democracy. It is unacceptable and that message must be made clear to the military by the highest political authority in the country.