By: Emmanuel Onwubiko
Retired Lt. Gen. Tukur Buratai walked into the eye of the storm, becoming the nation’s chief of army staff, nearly six years ago. Much was expected of him, not just because he was at the peak of his career, but because he was also from Borno State, the hotbed of Boko Haram insurgency. He was appointed into the challenge and was expected to leverage on his experiences, a supposed understanding of the cultural underpinnings fueling the insurgents, to galvanize his men, towards routing the nihilists, that have unsettled the nation nearly five years prior. Buratai came, therefore, and performed, but did he conquer? How do we contextualize his much-touted human rights record, now becoming an issue from where his legacy is being assessed in some circles? It is important to evaluate these issues beyond the hue and cry, dominating conversations, as he settles into retirement, or rather into the diplomatic space.
Boko Haram atrocities have been a witness to wanton killings and maiming. Their modus operandi obviously transcends police machinery, and inviting the military, considering their special, warfare trainings. Military involvements, of course, enjoyed legal backing, if with the Nigeria’s Constitution, and the Armed Forces Act, which empowers the President as the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces to appropriately deploy, or to determine its operational use. Specifically, Section 8(1), of the 1999 constitution (as amended) provides that, the President shall determine the operational use of the Armed Forces, but may, under general or special directives, delegate his responsibility for the day-to-day operational use, while Section 8(3) of the same Act stretched that the operational use of the armed forces includes its use to maintain and secure public safety and public order.
While we have not been under external aggression, for which the military are partly primed for, internal insurrection has turned a bane, and needing their natural intervention. The intervention became compulsory faced with the weaknesses of other internally focused security agencies, including the police, the civil defence, customs and excise, and the immigration service amongst others. In the military performance of this interventionist or natural role of defending the territory integrity of the country, and specifically in taming internal insurrection, as exemplified by Boko Haram fighters, it soon encountered issues around Human Rights abuses, leading to right or wrong outcries, that have become threats to the legacies of service personalities, especially Lt. Gen. Buratai.
Local and international human rights campaigners–Civil Society Groups and Non-Governmental Organizations, like the Amnesty International, Transparency International and Human Rights Watch, have, among others, understandably been at the forefront of these outcries. One organisation that constantly kept the Nigerian Army on its toes was the Amnesty International; an international rights watchdog which constantly released negative reports on the Army’s handling of human rights issues. Their allegations border mainly on extra-judicial killings, torture, extortion, arbitrary arrests, and detention and sexual philandering or exploitation. Others are poor detention facility and pitiable medical access and supplies to suspects in military detention centers.
These claims reportedly portrayed the Nigerian Army in a bad light, created rancor and distrust between the army and the civil populace, dampened the morale of troops in the operational arenas, and almost distracted the military leadership, aside from maligning the image and reputation of the Nigerian Army. In what appeared to be a response, Buratai started and institutionalized measures intended to eliminate rights abuses by the personnel of the Nigerian Army.
The first was an understanding of Civil-Military Relations/Cooperation, particularly in a period of multiple and dynamic security challenges such as terrorism, farmers–herdsmen clashes and violent secessionist agitation among others. He empowered the Department of Civil–Military Affairs (DCMA) to function effectively, especially in the campaign for the protection and respect for human rights. He strengthened the DCMA, and organised sensitization workshops, and campaigns on protection of human rights for members of the NA. The human rights sensitization workshops harped on operational civil–military interactions, humanitarian principles, perception, actions, guidelines, security and coordination and humanitarian access.
Aside from this, corporate social responsibility projects like construction of boreholes, feeder roads, renovation of medical centres and schools among others across selected communities in Nigeria where done, particularly during operations and exercises. This endeared the troops to the locals and ushered togetherness and mutual respect. The Army also partnered with some human rights organizations such as the United Nations (UN) Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs to develop capacity to enhance professionalism and responsiveness, in promoting humanitarian principles and in conducts during operations.
We will recall it that while declaring human rights workshop open in 8 Task Force Division, he said “the Nigerian Army has embarked on the sensitization workshop so that our troops can become knowledgeable in the Laws of Armed Conflicts and therefore avoid those unprofessional conducts that could destroy their career and tarnish the good image of the Nigerian Army”
Equally laudable initiative by the Buratai’s leadership in its consistent efforts to checkmate right abuses was the establishment of Human Rights Desk at the Army Headquarters and in all the formation headquarters across the nation. The functions of the human rights desk, which include receiving documents, investigating complaints from individuals, organizations and institutions on rights violations involving Nigerian Army personnel, made findings to the COAS on human rights complaints in the country while producing annual reports and reviews. The desk additionally updated existing training manuals, liaising and facilitating interaction with human rights organizations, strategize and strengthen capacity of the Nigerian Army in promoting human rights.
Beyond this, upon assumption of office, Buratai and his Principal Officers monitored issues on allegation of human rights abuses against troops deployed for operations across the country in line with the President and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces’ mandate in the fight against terrorism. Again, through the establishment of Human Rights Desk Offices in the Army headquarters and across the Nigerian army divisions, the Army could address petitions and other different claims against it. This move, borne out of the increasing interest of the local and international human rights bodies on what Nigerian Army is doing in the North-East and other parts of the country, to many human right analysts, marked a departure from the old order when the Military was on the defensive whenever allegations of human rights violations were leveled against it.
Incidentally, while commissioning the human rights office at the Headquarters of 7 Division Nigerian Army in Maiduguri, Buratai noted that the establishment of the desk office was borne out of the increasing interest of local and international rights bodies on what the army is doing in the North-East and other parts of Nigeria. His words: “The Nigerian Army is trying to open up the system and close the gap with the civil populace, human rights bodies and Civil Society Organizations; the nature of inquiries, commentaries, and claims from these institutions requires a professional and specialized response by the Nigerian Army. What we are witnessing today has been facilitated by the Nigerian Bar Association and National Human Rights Commission”, he added.
The Military–Media–Public Awareness Programme noted at an event, with CLEEN foundation at Jabi Motor Park, Abuja, that “the army is passionate about the rights of civilians and had measures in place to ensure that rights of civilians are protected. These measures included the opening of Free Toll Line 193, designated Toll-Free Call Centre and Public Complaints Rapid Response Unit. The offices and the toll line 193 are opened to members of the public whose rights have been infringed upon; they can always walk in to the office and lodge their complaints. So, the Army is doing its best to ensure that they respect the rights of the civilians. We assure them that once they come to us they protected their rights and we do our best to serve them better”.
There were many more efforts under Buratai to protect human rights, especially on the abuse of detainees because of the poor state of the detention facility in Giwa Barracks Maiduguri, in the areas of poor sanitary condition/ventilation, overcrowding and irregular water supply. He remarkably commissioned 400 capacity Joint Investigation Centre and Detention Cells for Boko Haram suspects in Maiduguri, in 2018.