Our generals must know when to halt or pull back, by Owei Lakemfa

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The country rose in one voice to condemn the March 14, 2024 killing of 17 military officers and men in Okuama community who were said to be on a peace mission. It did so without having the facts or asking pertinent questions. The point that soldiers, who signed up to serve the country, were killed, was enough to send the nation into mourning and to unify us.

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Today, 46 days after, we are no wiser as to the facts of the case. Who sent them on the mission? What were the objectives? What really happened? Unfortunately, we may never learn from this case because our Generals decided it is a purely military affair that excludes the police which has the wherewithal to conduct a forensic investigation. Rather than enhance an investigation, the military levelled the town. Even after severally contaminating the crime scene, the Generals for six days, barred the Governor who, constitutionally, is also the chief security officer of the state, from accessing the area. The excuse was that the military was engaged in military operations in the area. If it has taken over six weeks for the Generals to conduct such operations in an undefended community and, against a civilian population that had fled, how many years would it have taken them to move into Niger Republic had the Presidency not changed its mind about the invasion of that country?

The Generals took over the arrest and investigation of Nigerian citizens without respecting their constitutional rights to fair hearing. The arrests in Okuama is like going to hell. The detained traditional ruler, Clement Ikolo said upon his release: “It is like somebody coming from the dead. That is what it is like.”

If this is the experience of a privileged elite with international connections, you can imagine what nameless locals with no connections are undergoing in the hands of a clearly angry military.

Where crimes are committed, especially by civilians, it is the duty of the police to arrest and investigate and, not the military. This is more so in the Okuama case in which the military is not only an interested party but has also carried out reactive actions that need to be investigated. We must be a country of laws and constitutionality, not one in which individuals and groups, no matter how aggrieved, will take laws into their hands.

Where in the world, would an army set up a military panel to investigate civilians, deprive them of legal advice and exclude constitutional authorities including government? This can neither be civil rule nor a democracy.

In discussing the Okuama killings, there have been some arguments that the military’s reaction is justified because restraining them can lead to demoralisation. I disagree. What is required is the proper orientation of the military; the ends of justice are not served by being lawless, but being law-abiding and ensuring that justice is served.

There are also arguments that the military Rules Of Engagement, ROE, cannot hold in combat situations. This precisely is why the rules were made in the first place. Adherence to them is what distinguishes the military as a profession from other armed groups.

The ROE governing internal military operations includes justification; there is no justification for revenge killings. Secondly, it prescribes the use of minimum force; burning down communities and assuming that all non-military persons in the area are enemy combatants, amount to the use of maximum force.

The ROE prescribes the maintenance of public confidence. I submit that the public may not have confidence in a military that historically sees citizens as “bloody civilians” and fights blindly like Ogun, the god of iron, which does not distinguish between enemies and friends.

When I was a boy growing up in Obalende, Lagos, the sentries at Dodan Barracks, especially when it was dark, were expected to call out to the person approaching the gate: “Halt! Who goes there? Enemy or friend?” After which the person identified himself and stated his mission. But how do you respond when the sentry shouts: “Halt! Who goes there? Enemy or foe?”

Prevention is another injunction in the ROE. If there were adequate consultations between the communities and the military before the deployment of the soldiers, could this tragedy have been prevented? Only a proper investigation can reveal this. But, are steps being taken to prevent a repeat?

The ROE also prescribes legal obligation. As I said earlier, in the Okuama case, legal obligation and evidence have taken serious missile hits. Finally, the ROE talks about safe guarding loyal citizens. In this case, the loyal citizens are in the grave, under arrest or are in flight.

As can be seen, no section of the ROE justifies reprisal attacks by the military against civilians who in any case, might be innocent.

Today, the military, even after levelling Okuama, continues its “operation” in the community. It does not appear in a hurry to leave, and who knows, the community might actually be erased if it is turned into a military camp.

The Delta State government, apparently left with no alternative, has decided to move the people from the forests they are taking refuge, to an Internally Displaced Persons, IDPs, camp in Asaba, the state capital.

Meanwhile, the military, perhaps based on new information or disinformation, has extended its invasion to neigbouring Bayelsa State where it reportedly sacked the Igbomoturu community, killing 20 youths. Obviously pained, Bayelsa State Governor Douye Diri said: “My advice to the military and security agencies is to be very professional in their investigations so that innocent Bayelsans; innocent Ijaws…” would not be killed.

Sadly, we are not learning from our recent history. The on-going invasion of Okuama and Igbomoturu are not too dissimilar to the November 20, 1999 military invasion of Odi in Bayelsa State. Fifteen days before, a criminal gang had killed 12 policemen near Odi. In reprisal attacks, the military levelled the town killing over 900 civilians. President Goodluck Jonathan was to lament on November 18, 2010 that “only innocent people, including women, children and the very weak that could not run, were killed in Odi”.

Justice Lambi Akanbi of the Federal High Court in awarding a N37.6 billion compensation to the victims, had in his February, 2013 judgement, declared: “The people are entitled to fundamental rights to life, dignity and fair play; the destruction of Odi was not as a result of gun battle but clear bombardment, the destruction was malicious.”

Our Generals should stop the re-enactment of the Kaima, Odi and Zaki Biam massacres by halting their attacks on Okuama and Igbomoturu, pulling out the troops and allowing the normal course of justice to prevail. Otherwise, these would tantamount to war crimes.


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