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Opinions of Tuesday, 2 February 2021

Columnist: Duruibe Stanley

Orlu clash: Whither military rules of engagement?

Brother! Brother! Soldiers are shooting randomly at Orlu! There are two dead bodies littered close to our house…!”

The foregoing statement was the excerpt from the frightening distress call I got from my little cousin on Monday, January 25, 2021, which sent shivers down my spine. On that fateful Monday at Orlu in Imo State, the Nigerian Army – which had remained mute and inactive on the terrorist activities of Fulani herders in the South-West, North-Central and South-Eastern regions of the country – clamped down on members of the Eastern Security Network formed by the outlawed Indigenous People of Biafra to guard forests and bushes in Igbo land against the criminal and terrorist activities of the herders. The clash between the Army and ESN – a group of legionnaires known to be operating inside the bush – soon degenerated into destruction of lives and property in the area. Expectedly, during most face-offs between the military and militias or bandits, the military, in their natural behavioural tendency, are known to often go berserk at the slightest provocation frequently leaving several civilian casualties at the end.

Taking a few strolls down the memory lane, one would recall the various reports of crass violation of human rights by the military over the years when deployed to restore peace and order in conflict areas or quell civil disorder. Painful memories of the Lekki tollgate massacre during the #EndSARS protests and Obigbo killings in Rivers State lately are still very much in our minds. Still more, according to Amnesty International, the Nigerian military have been alleged to carry out assassinations, mass murders, extrajudicial executions, tortures and arbitrary arrests of innocent citizens. These rights violations usually happen within the framework of the Nigerian government’s operations and are usually targeted at dissenting voices, political and religious organisations and selected ethnic nationalities.

From December 12 to 14, 2015, the Nigerian Army allegedly massacred 347 members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria, in Kaduna State and buried their bodies in makeshift graves. In March 2020, it was reported that some soldiers took advantage of food scarcity at the Internally Displaced Persons’ camps in Borno State and raped women at female-designated satellite camps in exchange for giving them food. In addition, on April 4, 2020, three soldiers of the Nigerian Army were arrested in Lagos State for threatening to rape women. This compendium of human rights violations can go on and on.

In a previous article entitled, “God save the Nigerian military”, published on August 9, 2020, in a national newspaper, I stressed the need for our military personnel to perceive their civilian counterparts as the weaker vessels and thus treat them with love at all times. My dad, a retired professional soldier and one of the pioneer officers of the Nigerian military and later on the Biafran Army, once told me an amazing story. He recalled that during the 1964-1965 election crises in Nigeria, a detachment from his regiment was deployed to quell a protest being carried out by some unarmed civilians. Amid the confrontation, the situation degenerated to a point that the soldiers began shooting at the unarmed civilians. At that point, my dad said he slung his rifle over his shoulder, turned to his regiment commandant and said, “I was not trained as a soldier to shoot and kill unarmed civilians”. As a result of turning down orders from his superior officer, my dad said he was tried by a court-martial and what happened thereafter is another story for another day.

The time has come when our brothers and sisters in the Nigerian military, and of course the armed forces, should get off their high horse and nurture the mindset and philosophy that they are not trained to maim, harass and shoot at their unarmed civilian counterparts whom they were commissioned to defend jealously. As every trained soldier should be aware, my dad said defending the helpless civilian population during conflicts is one of the cradles of rules of engagement laid down to them by their British military instructors in the early days of military evolution in Nigeria.

It should be noted that the South-East is still recuperating from the wounds inflicted by the civil war. Thus, the people, especially the youths, just like the proverbial wounded lion, should be handled with care especially during this precarious era when the entire country is already deeply fractured. Nigeria cannot afford another civil war.

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