The Presidential Panel of Investigation set up to review compliance of the military on rules of engagement has commenced hearing in Port Harcourt.
Justice Biobele Georgewill, Chairman of the panel, on Monday said the panel would listen to stakeholders from the south-south region over alleged human rights violations by the Army, Air Force, and Navy.
He said the panel would take receipt of memorandum from state governments, traditional rulers, community leaders, non-governmental organisations, civil society organisations, human right groups and other stakeholders.
“It is gratifying to inform that the panel has been receiving memoranda from across the country as we intend to hold public hearings in each of the six geopolitical zones.
“We have concluded our sitting in Maiduguri (Adamawa) for the North-east zone, and now, we are in Port Harcourt for the South-south zone from September 25 to September 28.
“The public sitting will attend to all memoranda submitted to the panel from all the south-south states and thereafter, move to other remaining zones of the country. “This arrangement will provide the opportunity for all those who submitted a memorandum to make presentations before the panel sittings at each of the zones,” he said.
Georgewill, according to the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN), said the hearing was a unique opportunity for individuals, groups, and organisations to present verifiable evidence of alleged human rights abuses by the armed forces.
He said the panel would accept and attend to new memorandum at the venue of the sittings, saying the move was for the overall interest of justice and fairness.
According to him, the penal inaugurated on Aug. 11 by Vice President Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, was mandated to investigate alleged crimes against humanity by the military in tackling local armed conflicts. “The panel is mandated to review extant rules of engagement applicable to the armed forces of Nigeria and the extent of compliance thereto.
“To investigate alleged acts of violations of international humanitarian and human rights laws; and to investigate matters of conduct and discipline in the armed forces in local conflicts and insurgencies.
“To 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,” he said.
Maj.-Gen. Enobong Udoh, the General Officer Commanding (GOC) 6 Division, Nigerian Army, Port Harcourt, commended the federal government and expressed confidence over the conduct of the exercise. He said claims by Amnesty International (AI) that the army carried out human rights abuses in North-east was unfounded and a calculated attempt to tarnish the image of the army.
“The Amnesty International with aid of Social Media wrongly presently the Nigerian Army as the enemy of the Nigerian state which is quite spurious.
“The Nigerian army will continue to protect the territorial integrity of the country and will do so by conducting itself professionally with absolute submission to the rule of law,” he said.
In his submission, Prof. Yemi Akinseye-George, lead counsel of the army, said that Amnesty International report was littered with contradictions and falsehood.
He said the absence of AI at the sitting was regrettable and clear indication that the organisation was bent on creating mistrust among citizens towards the military.
“AI was biased in its report as they were not on the ground to access the situation but only relied on telephone calls and selected interviews without hearing from the military, he argued.
Chairman of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) in Rivers, Mr Omubo Frank-Briggs, urged the military not to see the exercise as an attempt to witch-hunt them.
“Nigerians should come out en-masse and tell their stories so that those who are innocent are freed while others found wanting are sanctioned.
“The Federal Government should expand the scope of the panel to investigate other alleged human right abuses by the Police and other law enforcement, especially in Rivers state,” he said.
The other organisations present at the sitting are Save Humanity Advocacy; Human Rights Commission; the Air Force and Navy, among others. Amnesty International recently released a damning report accusing the Nigerian armed forces of carrying out human right abuses in its operations in North-east and other regions.