IMPUNITY was once more on display recently when unruly soldiers from the Nigerian Army Battalion, Ibodi, Ilesa, in Osun State, battered and extra-judicially killed a civilian. In a despairingly common scene, a car dealer, Adeyinka Adekunle, 37, became the latest victim of barbarous Nigerian soldiers. Reports said he and a friend, Solomon Ogundare, visited a pub where they were accosted by soldiers in mufti with whom they had a minor argument that degenerated to fisticuffs. The ensuing chain of events led to the vicious beating of the civilians, detention and Adekunle’s death. Nigerians should rise as one to declare emphatically that they have had enough.
Brutality by soldiers against civilians is rising. Unfortunately, the military establishment often ignores or treats human rights infractions committed by their personnel with levity. Truly, a few instances have attracted punishment but most cases of impunity go unpunished. This is unacceptable. Failure by the military and the political leadership to impose severe punishment on bullying soldiers, their officers and commanding officers has encouraged them to continue to brutalise civilians, break civil laws and cause mayhem.
The Ilesa terror is just one episode. There, reportedly acting under one Lieutenant Tobi Akindapo, the soldiers subsequently detained the two civilians at the barracks, where they allegedly demanded payment of N500,000 for their release. While their relatives tried to raise the money, Adekunle and Ogundare were tortured. Eyewitnesses said Adekunle vomited under torture, but was forced by the heartless soldiers to eat his vomit. He eventually gave up the ghost. He must not die in vain.
Last December, a widowed police officer, Mercy Ehima, accused soldiers attached to the Railway Checkpoint in Igbanke, Edo State, of killing her 24-year-old son, Christian. In May 2021, soldiers shot and killed a businessman, Noel Chigbu, for allegedly violating a checkpoint rule at the Amakohia flyover in Owerri, Imo State. It is shameful that 23 years into civilian rule, the Nigerian military has not shaken off the culture of highhandedness that characterised past military dictatorship, or internalised democratic norms and respect for human rights.
The blame rests primarily with the political leadership. Successive presidents, as commanders-in-chief, have failed to appreciate the overwhelming importance of the permanent subordination of the military to civilian authority. In a democracy, declares American Diplomacy, “Civilian control – that is control of the military by civilian officials elected by the people – is fundamental.” The United States constitution confers ultimate authority over the armed forces in the civilian leadership with control balanced between the executive and legislative branches. It is the responsibility of the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), to instil order in the Armed Forces. When soldiers run amok, flout civil laws and misbehave in public, the offending troops and their commanding officers ought to be sanctioned.
Urgently, the military should be gradually withdrawn from law enforcement duties in the 36 states with the federal police, state, regional and local security and vigilance forces filling the gap. The military’s over-exposure to civilians worsens the abuses.
The military should train its officers to respect civil authority and human rights. Reports and videos expose cadets disrupting traffic and subjecting civilians to corporal punishment. Soldiers assault civilians who they arbitrarily accuse of wearing military-style camouflage outfits or caps.
Military personnel have no right to detain civilians. Even where civilians are arrested during internal security operations, such suspects should be handed over to the Nigeria Police. The military has no authority to raid private homes, purportedly to arrest Internet fraudsters or to enforce dress codes. Soldiers should stop their widespread practices of inserting themselves in civilian disputes or hiring themselves out illegally as escorts for smugglers, lawless commercial drivers and land grabbers.
A judge of the Federal High Court, Abuja, Taiwo Taiwo, in the case of Grace Paul versus the Nigerian Army, ruled that the NA lacks the power to arrest and detain anyone not subjected to the Armed Forces Act or any other military law. The court warned the military not to usurp the powers of the police under the Police Act that empowers the police to detect and investigate crime.
Similarly, the Anti-Torture Act 2017 provides that “secret detention places, solitary confinement, incommunicado or other similar forms of detention where torture is carried out are prohibited.”
Amnesty International disclosed that between 2011 and 2020, at least 10,000 civilians died in military custody in Nigeria with the notorious Giwa Barracks in Maiduguri, Borno State, topping the list. The military, which ought to be the epitome of discipline, harbours some unruly soldiers; court judgements for compensation for victims of military brutality are hardly obeyed.
The military should redeem its image. The Armed Forces should expose and punish murderous personnel within its ranks. Issuing statements and promising justice are not enough. The institution must maintain professionalism and discipline like their counterparts in civilised climes.
Political authorities must exercise effective guidance and control. Unfortunately, Buhari has failed to provide proper leadership. His public defence of the Nigerian Army when it massacred at least 348 Shiites in Zaria, Kaduna State, in 2015, including women and children, reflects his shambolic regime. No one has been held accountable despite recommendations by the Justice Mohammed Garba-led panel that those responsible should be prosecuted. The Minister of Defence, Bashir Magashi, remains unpardonably aloof amid frequent atrocities by military personnel.
Victims of brutality should approach the courts for justice, while human rights groups must continue to sensitise the citizenry to their rights. Civil society groups should mobilise the citizenry to demand punishment for killer soldiers. Aside from the dismissal and prosecution of the culprits, their supervising and commanding officers should be punished with reprimands, loss of rank and where necessary, loss of their commission.
Adekunle’s murderers should be handed over to the police and prosecuted. Officers who enabled the killing and illegal detentions should be penalised flushed out. This will deter others and send the message that a democracy has zero tolerance for military-on-civilian violence.