By Sini David Tizhe
Although auxiliary to their fundamental responsibility of defending the territorial integrity of the nation, the armed forces have always been involved in internal security operations to prevent breach of peace and restore law and order. The deployment of military personnel has become imperative in the face ofinsurgency, economic militancy and communal clashes.
However, each time the military is called upon to take up such additional responsibilities, there are concerns in some quarters that they enjoy an excessively full privilege to use brute force on both the antagonists and innocent citizens without being called to order by the government or restrained by the military high command. In almost any military operation –whether it is the United States evasion of Iraq, the Russia’s activities in Syria or the Nigeria army’s counter insurgency operations in Sambisa Forest – there are voices complaining about disrespect for human rights and international humanitarian law norms. Local and international rights groups often cite and release what, to them, are compelling evidence proving that military personnel violate rules of engagement in the course of their peace-giving and peace-keeping operations.
In 2012, human rights watchdog, Amnesty International, released a report titled, “Nigeria: Trapped in the Circle of Violence,” wherein it stated that, “the situation of violence and insecurity for Nigerians intensified, with at least 1,000 people killed in attacks by Islamist armed group Boko Haram in central and northern Nigeria. ” The report was highly scathing of the conduct of the security forces accusing them of a number of violations.Similar reports were released by other organisations.
Indeed, events in countries such as Syria, Iraq, Yemen and South Sudan show that globalisation has increased the demand for international action in internal conflicts. In the case of Nigeria, where Boko Haram terrorist activities have claimed over 6000 lives in the complex terrain of the northeast, the involvement of the Nigerian Air Force became inevitable in order to accelerate the restoration of lasting peace to the area.
It was against this backdrop that the Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshal Sadique Abubakar, upon his appointment by President Muhammadu Buhari in 2015, promised to uphold the rights of civilians by ensuring that his men respect internationally sanctioned rules of engagement. This, he said, was important to retain the trust of the Nigerian people.
“There are three principles of our ethics: re-assuring the populace that we are its servants, not its masters; gaining the trust of the people by demonstrating our capability, competence, readiness and reliability; and establishing a communication strategy which keeps the people informed about both deliberate and measured exercise of violence in the interest of the nation,” Air Marshal Abubakar said, adding that “These ethical standards have always guided my personnel in carrying out our operations.”
There is no gainsaying that just as the visibility and effectiveness of air operations have improved tremendously since 2015, the perception of the Nigerian Air Force as partners in peace has also improved since Abubakar became the Chief of Air Staff. Positive results after airstrike interventions were intensified in the northeast have been prompt and sustained.
There have been gains acknowledged by the larger percentage of the Nigerian people, irrespective of socio-political divides. The Air Force understands now more than ever before that protecting the rights of ordinary people in the affected areas of operation is what often leads to the heavy scrutiny all internal security operations are exposed to. Thus, it has conducted itself with utmost care and respect for civilian populations. For instance, recently, when the threat on Arepo, a suburb of the commercial city of Lagos where militants raided recently, was becoming unbearable, the Air Force responded by carrying out airstrikes. It proved effective, as the threat of making such a commercial nerve insecure was neutralized, and, without any violation of the rights of innocent residents of the community.
The air chief further affirmed his respect for human rights when he stated,during a roundtable conveyed in August to share ideas with senior journalists, that although the Air Force was going to commence operations in the Niger Delta. “We are not going to bomb the Niger Delta, we are going to protect the people and oil and gas infrastructure.”
Military personnel deployed to counter insurgencies are duty-bound to understand that there are basic international humanitarian principles expected to be respected. Flouting such norms could lead to the designation of the situation as an armed conflict, which could trigger a full-fledged war crime. While comprehensive coverage of both human rights and international humanitarian law norms during military intervention should be guaranteed, the greater duty of securing the lives of innocent civilians is paramount.
Admittedly, human right principles can only be fully guaranteed at times of peace. However, the Nigerian Air Force, under the leadership of the Chief of Air Staff, has severally demonstrated its understanding that the rule of law must guide the actions of the security forces.
Tizhe writes from Michika,