The over five years that Tukur Buratai used as Nigeria’s army chief may have been characterised by some successes against Boko Haram, but it was also filled with massive extrajudicial killings of hundreds of Nigerians by soldiers under his watch.
Majority of the soldiers and officers involved in the extrajudicial killings were never prosecuted or punished for their crimes, an indication the atrocities were committed with the approval of the army leadership led by Mr Buratai. In fact, in one of the cases, the army murdered hundreds of unarmed civilians and said it did so because they had blocked a road being used by Mr Buratai and thus endangered his life.
Mr Buratai, a lieutenant general, was until last week the Chief of Army Staff, a position he held since his appointment by President Muhammadu Buhari in July 2015.
He resigned with immediate effect and also retired from the army, the presidency announced last week, in what was a major shake-up of the leadership of the Nigerian military.
Apart from Mr Buratai, the Chief of Naval Staff, Ibok Ete-Ibas; Chief of Air Staff, Sadique Abubakar, and the Chief of Defence Staff, Gabriel Olonishakin, all of who were appointed alongside Mr Buratai, by President Buhari, resigned their positions, according to presidential spokesperson, Femi Adesina.
Mr Adesina also said Mr Buhari accepted their resignation and appointed their replacements.
Their resignation came after months of outcry by Nigerians, including the National Assembly, demanding their sack due to the deteriorating security situation in the country. Mr Buhari, however, ignored the calls to kick them out.
Until he assumed duty as the 20th COAS in July 2015, Mr Buratai, who was commissioned into the infantry corps of the army in 1983, held sensitive military positions, locally and internationally.
The Borno-born officer served at different times as administrative officer at the State House, Abuja; Directing Staff at the Armed Forces Command and Staff College, Jaji; Commandant, Nigeria Army School of Infantry, Jaji; Director of Procurement, DHQ and Force Commander of the Multinational Joint Task Force (MJTNF), among others.
While being pulled out last Friday, the former army chief commended himself, saying he was leaving the army better than he met it.
He said the army under his watch achieved a great feat in the fight against insurgency.
“Today is a day of appreciation and not a day of stocktaking. But let me put it on record that I left Nigerian Army better than I met it,” he said.
“We have been experiencing pockets of threats here and there, but I can confidently say that no part of Nigeria is ceded to any terrorist group or criminals.”
He was, however, silent on the ills and controversies that trailed his 67 months in office, especially the extrajudicial killings and massacres of unarmed Nigerians by soldiers.
Three of such incidents stand out.
Under Mr Buratai’s watch, the army killed hundreds of members of the Shiite Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) in Zaria, Kaduna State in 2015.
About five months after Mr Buratai became army chief, soldiers in his convoy clashed with the Shiites, an Islamic sect in its base in Zaria, Kaduna State.
The raids took place after members of the sect barricaded a road, stopping Mr Buratai’s convoy and other road uses.
The army explained that it used force because the blockade was an attempt on Mr Buratai’s life, but the group denied attacking him.
After killing scores of the sect’s members on a Saturday afternoon, the army, witnesses said, returned to the Hussainiyyah base of the Shiites, as well as the resident of its leader, Ibrahim El-Zakzaky, in Gyellesu, also in Zaria.
Altercations that followed led to the death of more members of the group.
Mr El-Zakzaky survived gunshot wounds and was taken away by the military, alongside his wife.
Human Rights Watch said in its report that at least 300 members of the Shiite group were killed.
The IMN, on its part, said over a thousand of its members were killed by the soldiers in the three days between December 12 and 14, mainly at its headquarters.
A judicial panel of enquiry set up by the Kaduna State Government confirmed 349 deaths – including a soldier. The 348 Shiites were secretly buried in mass graves by soldiers and the Kaduna government.
Since then, the group’s leader, Mr El-Zakzaky, and his wife have been in custody and are being tried for their alleged roles in the death of the soldier.
No soldier is being tried for the massacre of the Shiites despite calls by Nigerians and international organisations.
On October 20, 2020, men of the Nigerian Army arrived at the Lekki Toll Gate in Lagos in three Toyota Hilux vans and almost immediately began shooting into a crowd of peaceful protesters who were mostly youth.
The youth were protesting against police brutality, particularly the activities of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS).
Witnesses at the scene said they saw at least 15 corpses on the ground, which were allegedly taken away by the army.
The army initially claimed its men were not at Lekki that night. However, it later admitted that soldiers were deployed on the request of the Lagos State Government.
Contrary to multiple evidence presented in different investigations by journalists including PREMIUM TIMES, as well as evidence presented before a Lagos judicial panel of enquiry, the army insists that its personnel did not open fire on the protesters, let alone kill any.
Shortly after the incident at Lekki tollgate, soldiers from the Army’s 6th Division in Port Harcourt went to Oyigbo, a community in Rivers State, mostly populated by the Igbo, and started shooting indiscriminately at unarmed civilians.
The soldiers were on a reprisal mission after members of the proscribed Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), an Igbo separatist group, killed some of their colleagues.
PREMIUM TIMES reported how the soldiers went in fully-loaded military trucks, took strategic positions and started shooting indiscriminately at innocent civilians.
The Oyigbo incident is comparable, in its execution, to the massacres in Odi, Bayelsa State (1999) and Zaki Biam, Benue State (2001), under former President Olusegun Obasanjo.
The official narrative provided by authorities was that the troops were deployed to the town to fish out separatists who murdered soldiers and police officers. Authorities also said the soldiers were there to recover stolen arms.
But contrary to the official account, the soldiers took vengeance on defenceless people with a 24-hour curfew in force.
The soldiers fired bullets day and night around Oyigbo, indiscriminately targeting unarmed civilians, several of whom were either killed or injured.
This made many of the residents to flee to Port Harcourt, the state capital, and neighbouring states like Imo and Abia.
Demand for probe
Disturbed by the extrajudicial killings during Mr Buratai’s tenure, some groups have been calling for the probe of former army chief.
Nigeria’s main opposition party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), on Wednesday, asked the International Criminal Court, INTERPOL and other world bodies to institute investigations into Mr Buratai’s tenure as army chief.
The PDP, in a statement by its spokesperson, Kola Ologbondiyan, alleged that Mr Buratai and the other former military chiefs committed crimes against humanity.
Apart from noting their failure to defend the country against insurgents, the party called for an investigation into the extrajudicial killings of civilians reported under the leadership of the former four service chiefs.
“The PDP urges the ICC to probe the cases of extra-judicial execution of innocent Nigerians, massacre of peaceful protesters, illegal arrests and arbitrary detention of citizens in dehumanizing cells, torture and rape allegedly committed by the military under the outgoing commanders, as detailed in the reports of credible international bodies including the United States Department of State, Amnesty International (AI) and Transparency International (TI),” the statement said
The PDP urged the International Criminal Court (ICC) Chief Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, to “issue an official warrant in line with the court’s earlier declaration that it has enough evidence to open a full probe on alleged crimes against humanity under the outgoing commanders.”
The PDP also called on the ICC to launch a full investigation into mass shootings, civilian tortures and village invasions allegedly linked to men in uniform across the country and hold the outgoing service chiefs responsible for their failure to act upon them.
Also, the Concerned Nigerians Group said it had instituted a case against the former COAS at the ICC over what it described as human rights violations and crimes against humanity by the army during his tenure.
In a letter last Thursday by its Convener, Deji Adeyanju, the group asked the ICC to investigate, arrest and prosecute Mr Buratai to serve as a deterrent to others who have made it a point of duty to indiscriminately abuse citizens’ human rights in the country.
The letter addressed to Ms Bensouda, the court’s chief prosecutor, urged the ICC and lovers of democracy and human rights in the world to immediately investigate, arrest and prosecute Mr Buratai.
“It will be recalled that sometimes in 2015, Lieutenant General Buratai (Rtd) ordered members of the Nigerian Army to kill over 300 defenceless Nigerian Shiite Muslims on the unjustifiable grounds that they ‘touched a general’s chest,” the group said.
“That event has been appropriately tagged the Zaria massacre and it has further worsened the insecurity situation in Nigeria. Shortly thereafter, Lieutenant General Buratai (Rtd) ordered the Nigerian soldiers to kill hundreds of Nigerian citizens of South Eastern extraction, in the guise of searching for members of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB).
“It is particularly noteworthy to mention that as at the time Lieutenant General Buratai (Rtd) ordered the massacre of IPOB members, the group had not been proscribed by the Nigeria Government. Additionally, we have been able to gather from different independent sources that Lieutenant General Buratai (Rtd) personally ordered the killing of the innocent protesters at Lekki toll gate, Lagos, on October 20, 2020.
“It is on the basis of the foregoing, among other human rights abuses, that we call on the International Criminal Court and friends of Nigeria to urgently investigate, arrest and prosecute Lieutenant General Buratai (Rtd), to serve as a deterrent to members of the Nigerian Armed Forces and their civilian collaborators who have made it a point of duty to indiscriminately abuse citizens’ human rights.”
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