Nigerian Army: The Burden of Investigating Allegations of Human Rights Violations


Guest Columnist: Olawale Fapohunda

“Dear Mr Fapohunda, I am sure I speak for hundreds of thousands of IDPs from the North East scattered all over Nigeria, in expressing our disappointment at your statement on NTA Good Morning Nigeria programme this morning, where you said that the Constitution of Nigeria recognises the Rights of Boko Haram terrorists. With due respect Sir, at the time of drafting the 1999 Constitution, there was no Boko Haram, it will therefore be incorrect to say that the Constitution recognises that these terrorists have rights.”

About the Special Board of Inquiry

This, was the first WhatsApp message I got on my cell phone on the Morning of 21 June, after reluctantly appearing on the NTA Good Morning Nigeria programme, to discuss the Report of the Special Board of Inquiry into allegations of Human Rights Violations against the Nigeria Army. I doubt very much if those in government watch these programmes. Nigeria would be a much better place, if they did.

By way of background information, the Chief of Army Staff had on 8th March, 2017 inaugurated a Special Board of Inquiry (The Board) to “undertake a comprehensive investigation into alleged serious violations and abuses of human rights and related crimes by the Nigerian Army (NA) during its operations in the North East and South East, and to establish the facts and circumstances of such alleged violations and of the crimes perpetrated with a view to avoiding impunity and ensuring accountability”. I was one of the two civilian members on the Board; the other person was Tony Ojukwu, the hardworking Director of the National Human Rights Commission and my friend for over a decade. It was Tony and I that drafted and lobbied for the amendment of the National Human Rights Commission Act, amidst much opposition and vituperation. We had also worked together to draft the National Action Plan for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights that was adopted by the Federal Government of Nigeria and deposited with the United Nations Human Rights Council. We also pulled off a coup by convincing the Nigerian Army to establish a first ever Nigeria Army Human Rights office.

Wave of Disapproval, Sceptics, Hostility and Nastiness

From the inauguration of the Board till the presentation of our report, we had to deal with a relentless wave of disapproval, scepticism, hostility and in some cases nastiness from all sides. The Board was inaugurated at a time when I was facilitating a United Nations Human Rights Training Workshop, for military officers in the North East. I got an ear full from many of the officers, who simply could not understand why they were being investigated. They told stories of many of their colleagues who were killed in action, and pointed to the hundreds of citizens whose communities were totally destroyed by Boko Haram. My response was always that, the difference between the Nigerian Army and Boko Haram, lies in the professionalism of the Nigerian Army and its stated commitment to adhering to rules of engagement, including respect for human rights and humanitarian law. At every opportunity, I told them that our ‘human rights sermon’ was not against repelling the attacks of Boko Haram and defending Nigeria’s territorial integrity, as long as rules of engagement were followed to the letter.

We faced sceptics from the diplomatic community and international human right groups, who saw us as an image laundering exercise. Our request for a meeting with one of them, was met with a multiple of letters of inquires, requesting for information on the most mundane things like our CVs, legal framework, TOR, thoughts on who will implement the report. Each time we provided this information, our effort was promptly rewarded with more letters requesting additional information. I was informed that during one of the meetings with some officials of the Embassy of a certain country, one of the diplomats in an undiplomatic tone, told the Chairman of the Board that our report will simply not be accepted, whatever the contents. I had to tell one senior diplomat off, when he told me that I should be aware that my application for a visa to his country, might be affected by the nature of the report. I told him to the hearing his colleagues, that I don’t need a visa to go to Okemesi-Ekiti (my hometown).

No Clue of Happenings in the North East

We faced hostility at different levels. There were those in the IDP camps, who simply could not understand why we should be investigating ‘these gallant’ soldiers that saved ‘our lives’. One told me pointedly that ‘ you people sit in Abuja and Lagos, without a clue of the happenings in the North East and our experience at the hands of Boko Haram’.

Nastiness also came from the self proclaimed Human Rights Civil Society Warriors. Many typically had either not read the summary of the report, or did not understand it. Some simply joined the bandwagon of condemning the entire report, never mind the fact that it was only a summary that was released by the Nigerian Army. One loud and uncouth fellow, traced my working history to my years in Civil Liberties Organisation, and found me ‘not fit for purpose’. His only claim to Civil Society fame is a ‘has been students union leader’ CV. Another one proudly announced to the world that he visited Maiduguri over a two- day period, probably for the first time since the insurgency, that he met some people who were victims of military brutality, and are willing to tell their stories. I have struggled with finding the right words to explain to him that, all those resident in Maiduguri are victims of the insurgency. For every story of military excesses, you will find tens who will justify the conduct of the military. This does not, of course, include the thousands of IDPs who are fanatically appreciative of the military.

‘The Reason I am Here’

In the North East, the military are the kings. A very sobering reality. How do you hold the military accountable in such a situation? It was therefore, not unexpected, that no one in authority had anything but commendation for the Nigerian Army.

The story of my North East experience, cannot be completed without reference to the detention facilities. In one detention centre, Tony and I had put on our human rights cap, and queried the military handlers on the need to ensure the prompt release of ‘these tens of ‘innocent’ children’. That was until I spoke with Hammed a 12-year-old detainee. I called him out of his cell and asked him his name, age and whether he had anything to tell me. He promptly told me his name and age, and added that ‘the reason I am here is that I only killed 5 military officers and 6 civilians’. I should also mention that, I had the ‘dishonour’ of meeting the ‘husband’ of one of the Chibok Girls. A boy who proudly gloated about time spent with her and his baby.

“Conspiracy” Between the Church and the Military

There is much debate on our findings in the South East. None has evoked so much passion, than our findings on the allegation that officers of the Nigerian Army and the Police, invaded St Edmunds Catholic Church, Nkpor, and Onitsha and shot at worshippers. One obviously angry text message I received, read, ‘Lawyer, are you not a Nigerian? This is Nigeria, it happened. The Church and the Military conspired and we have evidence to show you and your stupid Board members’. The Board disagreed, and the feedback has been predictably scathing. I have been called a ‘hater of Igbo people’ and someone concluded that ‘the opportunity to travel in military aircrafts and staying in the luxury of military accommodation, must have clouded my judgement’.

A High Level Presidential Commission of Inquiry

All in all, it was a worthwhile experience. The fact that we managed to disappoint all sides of the divide, is instructive. We never said our report was conclusive. We worked within a limited time frame. This was a military assignment that had to be executed with immediate effect, in the tradition of the military.

We recommended that the Federal Government should consider the desirability of setting up a high level Presidential Commission of Inquiry, to conduct a holistic investigation of all the allegations of rights violation against the military, with a view to enabling closure. There should be no time limitation.

My advice to all those aggrieved by our report, therefore, is rather than waste precious airtime hurling insults at us, especially given the reality of economic recession, attention should now shift to the Attorney- General of the Federation, urging him preferably in civil and respectful text messages, to use his good offices to facilitate the establishment of the proposed commission of inquiry.