I stumbled on a Facebook post by Mallam Nasir El-Rufai of an article by the BBC titled Nigerian ‘youths executed’ in Boko Haram stronghold published on November 2, 2012. I looked for the article on the BBC website and read it with a growing sense of sadness and anger. This article simply says what a lot of us know to be true – that in the name of combatting Boko Haram, the Nigerian military has been wantonly killing Nigerians in the Northern part of the country without anybody asking questions. It was alleged that the military regularly go around Maiduguri on house-to-house searches, rounding up men by some criteria only they know, and taking them to an open field where they might either be freed or executed. An imam is said to have lost four of his sons this way.
The article also quotes the Minister of Finance, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala saying ‘the government would never condone human rights abuses, but it should be remembered that the army was trying to ‘curb’ terrorism.
‘I think you need to look at the circumstances. When the UK was battling terrorism… the US, they had Guantanamo Bay…. All countries, when the security of their citizens is at stake, they try to use all the tools at their disposal,’ she said.
Thereafter, I went back to the Facebook post to read comments made by others who had read the post. To say I was disappointed does not quite explain my feelings when I realized the kinds of position different people took on the issue. Most of it left me feeling almost hopeless for my country. From the names of the people who commented and the tenor of their comments, you could immediately infer with some accuracy what part of the country they come from, and maybe less accurately, what their religious beliefs are.
Some of the first few comments I saw rained abuses on El-Rufai for posting the article. That was a bit befuddling, because I really did not see what he had done wrong by posting an interesting article for others to read. He is not even the author of the article and did not offer an opinion about it.
Some of the comments supported the activities of the military. Others were against them. Some attempted to justify these extra-judicial killings as necessary. Others accused the military of trying to exterminate Muslims. Some called all Muslims terrorists. Others called down the justice of God/Allah on evil doers – terrorists or military. Finally, some insulted others who had opinions contrary to theirs. The conspicuous lack of opinions that actually dealt with the most important issue – extra-judicial killings – raised by the article was sickening.
I do not need a BBC article to tell me what the Nigerian police and military are all about. I was born and bred in Port Harcourt and have lived a huge chunk of my life in that city. In this time, I have witnessed the mindless and brutal nature of the police and military.
For as long as I can remember, police stations in Port Harcourt have been executing suspected armed robbers and some people caught with weapons without recourse to any judicial process. It is public knowledge. You hear statements like ‘Police kill thief for Mile 1 Police Station this morning. If you pass there, you go see people gather dey look.’ Sometimes, the police would say they were killed in a firefight. We know these to be lies, as there have been stories of people going to visit relatives of arrested people, going to the police station only to find their relatives have disappeared and the police seeming confused as to what happened. They had been executed and buried in shallow graves at the Port Harcourt Cemetery.
Between 1992 and 1994 there were tensions between the Okrika and Ogoni people of Rives State, who are neighbours. This led to violent clashes both in their villages and in Port Harcourt, where they both groups had significant populations in the many waterfront communities. They fought and killed and destroyed. The state government declared a dusk-to-dawn curfew and the military were deployed. Living not very far away from the entrance to one of the waterfronts I witnessed first-hand what the Nigerian military idea of keeping the peace was. Young men were beaten within an inch of their lives for any perceived infractions. People were asked to crawl on periwinkle shells. People were hung upside down from their limbs. All of these in full public view. However, these were the lucky ones. The unlucky ones were shot. The army was judge, jury and executioner. One would have thought that the idea of sending in the military was to quell the fighting and stop the killing. On the contrary, they quelled the fighting but continued the killing!
In January 1994, because of unrest in Ogoniland due to Shell and its activities, the government formed the Rivers State Internal Security Task Force from army, navy, air force, mobile police and state security personnel, led by Major Paul Okuntimo, to forcibly bring peace. This Task Force was legendary in its fiendish brutality. There was a massacre; there was rape and pillaging; there was blood. This was war by Nigeria against Nigerians. There was a Nigerian media blackout and the gory details of what happened in Ogoniland would only become known to the wider public during the Oputa Panel. I remember listening to the chilling testimony of a masked woman who had been battered and raped by soldiers.
In November 1999, some military personnel were murdered in Odi, Bayelsa State. The reaction of the Nigerian government was to send in the military. Their mission, as far as I understand it, was to obliterate Odi from the surface of the earth. Tanks and APCs moved in. Mortars and howitzers were used against the people of Odi – Nigerian citizens, by the Nigerian military. At the end of the day, about 2500 people lay dead and an unknown number of women raped and beaten. Those who managed to escape hid in fear in the swamps. As always, there was a complete Nigerian media blackout of these events. I remember listening to Voice of America interviews on radio as terrified women were interviewed by foreign journalists, and tuning to Nigerian radio stations to hear nothing related to these atrocious events.
I could go on and on, recounting incidents of this kind that have shown the Nigerian police and military to be barbaric in their methods, but I would not. Surely, you get the picture by now.
For a government minister to cite Guantanamo as an example of a necessary counter-terrorism measure, similar to what the military is doing in Northern Nigeria today is sophistry at its darkest. For years, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) wreaked havoc on the UK and Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) did the same in Spain and France. We never saw the tactics used in Odi or those being used in Maiduguri, Potiskum and other Northern towns today. However, silly and sometimes dangerous talk has come to be expected from Nigerian government officials, so it is no surprise.
The surprise is when educated young people decide to immerse themselves in tribalism and religious intolerance in the face of this definitely non-tribal and non-religious issue. People seem totally blind to the illegal nature of these happenings. These are the same people who hollered in outrage a few weeks ago when four young men were murdered in Aluu by a bloodthirsty mob. These people all became legal experts, telling us how illegal vigilante justice is and calling for justice. Are the lives of those four young men more important than those of the men that are dying at the hands of the Nigerian military in Northern Nigeria? Why do we have just a few isolated voices from the North talking about what is happening there? The last question is for Southerners! Is it because deep down inside we blame the North and Muslims in general for our terrorism problems?
Our recent history shows us that both North and South have suffered from the heavy-handedness of the Nigerian police and military at different times, and because of our tacit acceptance of this, it has continued. If it does not affect us directly or if it is not something like Aluu, where we can jump on the bandwagon and sound all righteous, then we do not care. So yesterday it was Ogoniland and Odi and today it is Potiskum and Maiduguri and others. Where would it be tomorrow? Your city? Your town? Your neighbourhood? Maybe your house?
A few years ago, some young men (undergraduates like the Aluu four) were killed by the Police in Port Harcourt and labeled cultists and gang members, as is wont to happen. However, one of these young men was the son (the only child) of a prominent doctor. The doctor made a huge stink and it became news. I am not quite sure how that case ended. It should be known, as I have mentioned earlier, that such killings have had the unquestioning acceptance of the public for years. However, it only became an issue because it affected such a prominent individual. No matter the outcome, the doctor would never get his son back. It is finality of this nature that the actions of the police and military bring with their actions.
It is never too late to take decisive action and I think it is time we all shed our togas of tribal and religious sentiments that cloud our reasoning and with one voice begin to say ‘enough is enough’. Time has come to stop trading insults with each other and unite. We need to start making that big push to stop our government and security agencies from visiting barbaric and illegal punishments on innocent Nigerians. If we do not do this, then as sure as there is a sun in the sky, police and military brutality is coming our way. Just as Potiskum could not have imagined today’s situation when Odi was happening, so can you not imagine what will come your way.
Mike Ekunno, in his article in The Guardian of November 1, 2012 titled Injustice: The Rich Also Cry, said ‘Let us not ask for whom the funeral bell tolls; it tolls for us, Nigeria’s living dead.’ That says it all.
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