Efforts to comprehensively deal with violent crimes must be intensified, writes Bolaji Adebiyi

President Bola Tinubu was the chief mourner on Wednesday as the 17 military personnel, four of them officers, gruesomely murdered on March 14, 2024, in Okuama in Delta State, were interred at the Military Cemetery, situated near the gate of Abuja, the nation’s capital city.

At the solemn occasion, the president paid glowing tribute to the gallantry of the military and the dead personnel, assuring them and the bereaved families that their sacrifices would not be in vain. “Within our continent, our sub-region and across the world, the Nigerian Military has remained a force for good, embodying a great example and keeping our democracy safe,” he said with a tone that betrayed a sad mind, pointing out that, “We now must protect the families of our departed heroes.”

Tinubu immediately walked the talk, announcing a series of incentives, including national honours for the fallen soldiers, scholarships up to the university level for their children, houses in any part of the country for the families, and payment of their gratuities within 90 days. But for the solemnity of the event, applause would have rung out for the president, who also assured a grieving nation that, “Those who committed this heinous crime will not go unpunished. We will find them and our departed heroes will get justice.”

The president has deservedly received accolades for concretely identifying with the fallen soldiers and their families. He is, perhaps, the first Commander-in-Chief since the advent of the Fourth Republic to do so. However, there has been whispering about why he showed so much concern for this set of fallen heroes, after all, hundreds of officers and men have been killed in the raging battles against insurgency and banditry during his short period in the saddle. Could it be because of the circumstances of the death of these soldiers as Taoreed Lagbaja, a Lieutenant-General and Chief of Army Staff, put it, that it was disheartening to see the same people the soldiers were paid to protect turned against them and murdered them savagely?

Whatever it was, it was significant that the president symbolically showed the nation’s concern, and gave assurances that the sacrifices of the military had neither been taken for granted nor were in vain. More important is the guarantee that the perpetrators of the evil will not only be brought to justice but also that they and their co-travellers will not be allowed to limit the desire of Nigerians for a safe and secure nation, where they can achieve their aspirations. “We owe it to the fallen heroes to build a nation where everybody can strive to become what he/she wants to become,” were the soothing words of Christopher Musa, a four-star general and chief of defence staff, that gave hope that the authorities understand their brief.

Expectedly, not a few social commentators have queried the rising violent crimes across the country despite assurances by the security agencies that they were on top of the situation. Attacks on security personnel, the instruments with which the state administers security, have become worrisome. If the security agencies cannot protect themselves, how can they be trusted to secure the citizenry? It is, perhaps, against this background that the agencies, especially the military, had always been very punitive in their response to any attack on their personnel. The reprisals in Odi, Bayelsa State in 1999, and Zaki Biam, Benue State in 2001 were examples of the military’s resistance to deter attacks on its officers. Mercifully, as Lagbaja pointed out, a lot of restraint had been deployed, in the instant case, in the operation to retrieve both the dismembered bodies of the soldiers and the weapons that their attackers confiscated.

The Okuama incident has brought to the front burner the resurgence of the proliferation of light arms in the Niger Delta and its harmful impact on not just communal relations but also on the security of the oil and gas installations in the region that is the major artery of the nation’s economy. The overwhelming of officers and men of the Nigerian Army by non-state actors points to an urgent need to review the strategy for the security of the region.

Overwhelmed by the superior firepower of the emerging militants and criminal elements in the region, the President Olusegun Obasanjo administration in 1999 brought the police under the command of the military in what was called a Joint Task Force, comprising the Army, the Navy and the Police to secure the region. The major challenge at the time was the wholesale saboutage of oil and gas installations, which posed a clear danger to the economy as the production levels dipped.

The relative failure of that strategy became obvious by 2007 when President Umaru Yar’Adua came into office, inheriting a militant insurgency that brought oil production to as low as 400,000 barrels per day. Confronted with the implication of a full-blown war in the heart of the nation’s economy, Yar’Adua opted for a difficult negotiation that resulted in an offer of amnesty in return for the massive arms in the hands of the militant groups.

The amnesty may not have retrieved all the arms in circulation, but it also gave reprieve to the President Goodluck Jonathan and President Muhammadu Buhari administrations with oil production oscillating between 1,800 and 2,200 million barrels per day. However, as the militancy went down, a new phenomenon called oil theft emerged, forcing down production once again. Its harmful impact on the economy is well-known. The more danger, however, is its weaponization of communal disputes as criminal elements enriched by the massive theft of oil have access to more than enough resources to fund private armies to protect their sphere of influence in the region.

Okuama is an apparent reflection of this reality, which demonstrates the comprehensive failure of the security strategy called JTF. Otherwise, how come the resurgence of light arms with which non-state actors not only undermine the national economy and harass oil-bearing communities, but also effectively engage the military to embarrassing outcomes, 25 years after it was instituted?  

Surely, Okuama is not a stand-alone event. It’s a reflection of the failure of the nation’s internal security strategy, which it has stubbornly hugged and appears to be reluctant to qualitatively review and change.

It is, however, worth noting that the Tinubu administration has been receptive to the idea of a comprehensive review of the nation’s internal security architecture, including constitution reforms that would decentralise the policing system. A thoughtful path to take at these times.

Adebiyi is the media assistant to the Minister of Budget and Economic Planning, Senator Abubakar Bagudu

Related Articles