TUESDAY WITH REUBEN ABATI
Many years ago, I was in Abuja to attend an international workshop on one of those human development issues that used to engage a lot of attention in those days: sustainable development goals, maternal mortality, maternal morbidity, adolescent sexuality, women’s political representation, the Beijing declaration, HIV/AIDS reporting… Those were hot topics in those days as Nigeria tried to grapple with the challenges of the return to civilian rule and seek the consolidation of democracy and its ethos. I don’t remember what the topic was on that particular trip, but Nigeria owes many of the international agencies which at the time helped to mobilise civil society beyond elections to realise that every country needed to focus on both human development and human rights issues and mainstream same into the current of prevailing thought. But after such conferences and workshops, often attended by persons from other African countries and visiting technical experts we usually found a way of unwinding by exploring the cultural delicacies that Abuja had on offer. Abuja was much safer, much cleaner, far more innocent and politically saner then than it is now. Night life in the city was also busy. Obasanjo was President.
So, this night in question, we ended up in one of those bubbling night clubs in Abuja. I don’t remember the name of the club anymore, but I know the location. The year was 1999. The month was either November or December. Glitzing lights, heavy-pounding music, generously made women and girls with heavenly features whose presence alone was an overdose of aphrodisiac, cigarette smoke wafting skywards, a mixture of scents: perfume and body sweat producing a peculiar smell you can only find in a night club, so much fun in the air, every one appearing to be happy even if the world outside by dawn would confront every dancing, smoking, drinking acolyte at the shrine of Bacchus, with sober realities. I didn’t mind.
Somehow, I got drafted to the VIP section. Most night clubs have a quiet corner, where the big boys relax, away from the din, in the company of all the best things on offer. I was dragged there by a guy who said he had recognized me, and he had been looking for me. He turned out to be a military officer, a Captain or something close to that. I detached myself from the group and joined him. He was in the company of other soldiers, also out in the evening to enjoy a break from the hard task of soldiering for Nigeria.
“Abati”, the guy called out as soon as we took our seats and a bottle of chilled Star Lager beer was presented before me.
“Well done, my brother. Nice meeting you”, I said, with my eyes and mouth focussed on the sweating bottle before me. As the bottle struggled to free itself from the imprisonment of a cruel refrigerator, my throat waited in anticipation.
“Abati. Why is it that you civilians can’t understand us, the Nigerian military? You don’t seem to get the point. I read this your article on the Odi massacre and you were blaming the Nigerian Army.”
My heart sank. After a long day discussing ideas at a workshop, I was certainly not in the mood for an evening of further talk about Nigeria, its many troubles, and human development. When the Captain saw me and he started talking about how such a big fan of my writings he was and he invited me to join him and his friends, I should have known that there was something else beyond free beer and specially barbecued fish. Indeed, I had written about the Odi massacre, yes, the killing and rape of defenceless persons by the Nigerian army, yes. I took a sip of the beer. That felt good but not what the man said next.
“Abati, do you know much a bullet costs?”. He answered his own question.
“A bullet is very expensive. When you go about writing that soldiers should not kill anybody and that extra-judicial killing is wrong, I just laugh. I even saw you on television talking about extra-judicial killings. Which extra-judicial killing? We had to do what we had to do in Odi. It is not a massacre. You see all these guys here, they are all soldiers. You may not know the value of a bullet. But every soldier knows that every bullet that is assigned to you must be accounted for. Once you send a soldier on assignment, he must match every single bullet with a dead body, otherwise, he is not a good soldier. Nigerians must know that you don’t ever confront a soldier. You confront a soldier, behave in any aggressive manner, you will take a bullet in your head.”
Not being a soldier, I could not argue. The only thing I knew about soldiering came from “The Art of War” by Sun Tzu, a couple of books on the British at the battle front, action movies, Winston Churchill’s essays on war, and those famous battle-front comics we all read as secondary school children. Even if I had any counterargument, it was wise under the circumstances to keep quiet. It was not the first time I would be meeting soldiers, and in previous conversations of this nature, I suspected that they always held their guns by their side. I didn’t want a bullet in my head.
“We are not policemen”, he continued. “Those ones are trained to waste bullets. They train them to maim or appeal to people. The Nigerian military is a serious arm of the security services. If you go to the war front and you miss targets and waste bullets, you can get killed. Our job as soldiers is to account for every bullet. Nigerians must decide whether they want the armed forces or not. If you call us out, we will kill.”
The beer was no longer tasting fine. But I recall this past encounter in great detail, in the light of the recent confrontation in Abuja between members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) and a combined team of the Nigeria Army and Nigeria Police. The Shi’ites as they are known were celebrating the annual ceremony in honour of the great grandson of the Prophet (SAW), Hussein. It is called the “Arbaeen”. They were also protesting the continued incarceration, since 2015, of the leader of the Shi’ites movement in Nigeria, Ibrahim el-Zakzaky and his wife, both of whom remain in custody in open defiance of court rulings. .
The Nigerian Army, purportedly acting on “orders from above” opened fire on the protesting Shi’ites. About 49 of them were killed. Undeterred, the Shi’ites reorganized and launched another protest. The killing of their men had radicalized them. On the second day of protest, they threw stones and set police vehicles ablaze. More than 400 of them were reportedly arrested by the police. The Shi’ites claim the number is as high as 1, 000 members of their sect. This has generated international concern. Amnesty International and others have since condemned what appears to be an organised assault on fundamental human rights.
However, the Nigerian Army’s response has been stereotypical. First, we were told the Shi’ites had to be killed because they threw stones at soldiers and the military had to act in self-defence. It is curious that in response to alleged stone-throwing, our soldiers responded with live ammunition! The additional defence is that even the United States acts in the same manner – a subtle response to the killing of Mexicans throwing stones across the border in the Southern parts of the United States. US Border guards this year alone have killed about 93 Mexicans, but the difference is that the case of 16-year old Jose Antonio Rodriguez is back in court and it may trigger a re-assessment of the rights of persons killed across the border, and the rights of the families of such persons to seek justice and be heard.
The New York Times picked up the comparison attempted by the Nigerian army and did a story out of it. This was important enough to force President Donald Trump to quickly auto-correct and say that those who throw stones should be arrested. This is understandable, in the face of a mid-term election that starts today in the United States. President Trump certainly cannot afford a human rights scandal about him being a source of inspiration for reckless conduct in a country he once dismissed as “a shithole country” and its President as “lifeless”.
The Nigerian military quickly deleted the comparison with America. But further asked why it should use live ammunitions against protesters, the Nigerian military speaking through Brigadier-General Joseph Agim, took us back to that night in 1999. He told his interviewer, “we don’t have rubber bullets when we are sent on assignments. So, if any person that is not happy with the government wants to take on the military, then they should be ready for the consequence(s)… Nobody can take on the military and they will not have casualties.” On the back of this statement by the army, a female Public Relations Officer of the Nigeria Police has also posted a famous message on Instagram to wit: “If you throw STONE, expect a bullet! Squad on mission! #Bosslady #protectiveservice. If you feel like joining the squad, say Hi.”
What other evidence do we need, then of the disorientation of the Nigerian state and the cruelty of its officers? The army says it is licensed to kill. The police insist they too will kill, if any citizen does as much as throw a stone. We must seek recourse to the Constitution.
The primary job of the military is properly spelled out under Section 217 (2) of the Nigerian Constitution: “(a) defending Nigeria from territorial aggression; (b) maintaining its territorial integrity and securing its borders from violation on borders from violation on land, sea, or air”. Section 217 (2) (c) further says the Armed Forces of Nigeria can be called in to supress insurrection and “act in aid of civil authorities to restore order when called upon to do so by the president, but subject to such conditions as may be prescribed by an Act of the National Assembly ..” Section 218 provides a caveat by stating expressly that “the powers of the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of the Federation shall include power to determine the operational use of the armed forces of the Federation”. Was the National Assembly involved in the recent declaration of war against the Shi’ites by the Nigeria Army? Is or was Nigeria facing the threat of war from the Shi’ites? Could the “orders from above” have come from the highest levels?
Was it right to invoke Section 217 (2) (c )? I will argue that whereas Nigeria is meant to be under a democratic dispensation, the presence of the military, pointing to a covert re-miliitarization has been pervasive. Whereas Nigerians fought for civilian rule, the soldiers have remained in their face: in politics, at police checkpoints, virtually everywhere, even on election days. They don’t help to keep the peace internally. They shoot to kill. The police whose responsibility it is to protect lives and property in Nigeria are helpless: they are under-staffed, under-equipped, and demoralized. It is a tragedy that they are now beginning to sound like soldiers.
The position of the law is that Nigerians have the right under Section 40 of the !999 Constitution to assemble and associate freely and peacefully. They don’t even need a police permit to do so as proclaimed in All Nigeria People’s Party vs. Inspector General of Police (2008), 12 WRN 65.Nonetheless, the Nigerian government continues to defy this law, “orders are continually issued from above” to frustrate not just Section 40 of the Constitution, but also Section 33 on right to life, Section 38 on right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, Section 39 dealing with the right to freedom of expression and the press, Section 42 on the right to freedom from discrimination, and Section 44 on the right to dignity of the human person.
The rights of members of the Shi’ite movement in Nigeria have been violated on all of these counts. The vengeful use of live ammunitions against them is condemnable and barbaric. This was how Boko Haram began. Shi’ites crave martyrdom. It is a fundamental precept of their faith. Live bullets can only strengthen their resolve. The sustained attack on them in Nigeria has obvious implications: Nigeria must not on any account become a playfield for the global, sectarian war between Sunnis and Shi’ites or a theatre of live bullets against every little protest by ordinary citizens.
All things considered, Nigeria is in a sad place. The citizens of a country that has no rubber bullets are endangered. It is a country under the weight of self-imposed terror, misrule and poor governance, indeed, a country against its people. In the last three years, Nigerians have been targets of live bullets in every aspect of their lives. Each time they complain, they get shot in the head. Poverty is widespread. Salaries are not being paid. Foreign investors are fleeing. Local investors are groaning. Workers are going on strike. The great art of living is dying. When the people groan, they are reminded that this government has no rubber bullets! A country where a bullet is valued more than human lives is sick.
I panic. The Nigerian Army and the Nigerian Police are scheduled to provide security during the 2019 general elections in Nigeria. Will this translate into more casualties in 2019? The international community should advise the incumbent Nigerian government not to give “orders from above” for indiscriminate killings and the use of live bullets during the 2019 Nigeria elections. On that may well rest the future stability of Nigeria.