Human Rights Milestones of Nigeria Army By Emmanuel Onwubiko

OPINION

On December 10th 2018, I breezed into the expansive headquarters of the Nigerian National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) on Yakubu Gowon way in the heart of the sprawling Maitama District in the Federal Capital Territory. That place is a like a home by the virtue of my fond association as a member of the then governing board that began and completed it whilst i served as a Federal Commissioner for five years during the President Olusegun Obasanjo’s era. So going to the commission is a sort of a pilgrimage.

My appearance however on this auspicious  occasion was to honour a personal invitation extended to me by one of the most phenomenal Nigerian lawyers that has once headed the over 25 year old National Human Rights Commission – Mr. Bukhari Bello.

The Kebbi born Bukhari Bello is a lawyer who recently left the service of the Federal Civil service as a top director in the Federal ministry of Finance.

During his stint as the Director General of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), yours faithfully truly saw in him a patriotic Nigerian who is deeply committed towards deepening the ideals of the universal declarations of Human Rights just as he exercised his official duties with resilience, diligence, professional competency and candour and left phenomenal marks in the sands of time. He it was who vigorously defended the independence of the National Human Rights Commission to a very dangerous extent that the then Justice minister Bayo Ojo (SAN) violated the statutory provisions setting up the commission by relieving him of his office barely a year into his second term of 5 years. Incidentally, the next government breached several provisions of the NHRC Act. Till date the Federal government still abuse the law setting up the commission by failing to constitute the governing body. Buhari Bello has however remained a prominent figure in the organized human rights in the Country.

So it was due to his many landmarks achievements whilst in office as the executive secretary of the National Human Rights Commission that the current manager of the institution decided to immortalize him and applaud him for those salient feats. So yours faithfully was at the venue for less than splitting seconds because I considered it a top priority to be there even when I had too many competing demands with an ongoing writing contract that I am battling to complete before the deadline of December ending.

It was exactly after I stepped out of the premises of the rights commission that it occurred to me that I had just received an alert of a breaking story in which the international criminal court in the Hague Netherlands reportedly confirmed that it has established certain elements of war crimes committed by both the armed boko haram terrorists and by Nigeria’s professional soldiers. The Chief of Army staff Lieutenant General Tukur Yusuf Buratai however strongly disagrees and believed that professional soldiers have died in the ongoing counter terror war in the North East of Nigeria so as to preserve the human rights of Nigerians.

In another breath, the ICC confirmed that it was making effort to ascertain what internal steps are been adopted by Nigerian state to investigate and treat those allegations. To this, the Army said it has done a lot to redress any of the reported cases of human rights violations.

I will return to the international criminal court’s story but let me also state that I am satisfied with the robust response the Nigerian Army has made regarding the mainstreaming of respect of human rights in internal military operations.

The chief of Army staff Lieutenant General Tukur Yusuf Buratai established the first ever nation-wide remedial and redress institution that tackles the issues of human rights violations committed by the military.

Yours faithfully has studied the Human Rights department of the Nigerian Army and can report authoritatively that salient landmarks and phenomenal milestones in the area of promotion and protection of fundamental human rights of Nigerians have been attained under the watch of the professional soldier and General – Tukur Yusuf Buratai.

I must admit that there remain so many challenges that ought to be drastically addressed before we can relax and sing praises to the Nigerian Army as a national institution that fundamentally respects human rights. But if we must be fair and objective, General Buratai deserves some loud accolades.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) thinks differently and says Nigerian security forces (NSF) have committed war crimes against humanity.

In a report sent to TheCable, the ICC said it has received “a total of 169 communications” from Nigeria and its assessment has shown that security forces in Nigeria have committed war crimes varying from murder, torture, and intentionally attacking the civilian population.

“Specifically, the Office found a reasonable basis to believe that the NSF committed the war crimes of murder pursuant to article 8(2)(c)(i); torture, cruel treatment pursuant to article 8(2)(c)(i); outrages upon personal dignity pursuant to article 8(2)(c)(ii); and intentionally directing attacks against the civilian population,” the ICC said.

Fatou Bensouda, the ICC prosecutor, in her annual report on preliminary examination activities (2018), also said the ICC found reasonable basis to believe that Boko Haram also committed war crimes against humanity.

“Furthermore, the Office found a reasonable basis to believe that Boko Haram committed the war crimes of murder pursuant to article 8(2)(c)(i); cruel treatment pursuant to article 8(2)(c)(i) and outrages upon personal dignity pursuant to article 8(2)(c)(ii)”.

The ICC added that Boko Haram was “intentionally directing attacks against the civilian population or against individual civilians pursuant to article 8(2)(e)(i); intentionally directing attacks against buildings dedicated to education and to places of worship and similar institutions pursuant to article 8(2)(e)(iv); pillaging a town or place pursuant to article 8(2)(e)(v); rape, sexual slavery and sexual violence pursuant to article 8(2)(e)(vi)”.

The office of the prosecutor added that the ICC met with Abubakar Malami, Nigeria’s minister of justice and attorney general of the federation (AGF), to further investigate eight potential cases of war crimes against humanity.

ICC says several “files pertaining to alleged violations by members of the army were submitted to the Office (of the prosecutor). These files relate to a limited extent to the two potential cases identified by the Office”.

“Of the 27 files provided to the Office, 24 either lacked information to determine their relevance for the admissibility assessment or did not appear relevant.

The ICC complained that “other information specifically requested by the Office which was assessed to be potentially relevant to the admissibility assessment has yet to be provided by the Nigerian authorities”.

The criminal court added since 2017, the Nigerian authorities appear to have “taken concrete steps toward fulfilling their primary responsibility to investigate and prosecute ICC crimes”.

“While there seems to be a tangible prospect of further proceedings against members of Boko Haram, including high-level commanders, at this stage the same cannot be said of the NSF, in particular since the Nigerian authorities tend to deny any allegation against the latter.

“While acknowledging the cooperation of the Nigerian authorities in the course of the preliminary examination, the Office will require, for the purpose of expediting its complementarity assessment, further information and evidence
demonstrating that relevant national proceedings are being or intended to be conducted without delay”.

The ICC made these findings about the same time that a team of researchers from Human rights Writers Association of Nigeria (HURIWA) made the following findings based on scientifically tested and proven interview process with the military General incharge of the civil and military relations department which houses the Nigerian Army’s Human rights desk. Below are our findings in a question and answer format. Happy reading.

QUESTION 1. What is the essence of establishing the Human Rights Desk of the Nigerian Army?

ANSWER: To discuss the essence of the Human Rights Desk of the Nigerian Army, there is need to first give a little background of the desk. The Nigerian Army Human Right Desk was established under the Army Headquarters Department of Civil Military Affairs on the 17 of February 2016 by the Chief of Army Staff Lieutenant General Tukur Yusuf Buratai in response to alleged human rights violations by troops of the Nigerian Army both in Counter Terrorism/Counter Insurgency and Internal Security Operations in the country. These allegations range from extra-judicial killings, torture, unlawful arrest and detention etc. The main essence of establishing the Nigerian Army Human Rights Desk is to receive and facilitate investigations of human rights abuses against military personnel. The Desk is also required to speedily treat allegations of human rights abuses against troops and to recommend the appropriate action(s) to be taken. In addition to that, the desk is also saddled with the responsibility of facilitating greater Civil-Military Cooperation and collaboration with various stakeholders. The mission of the Human Rights Desk is to project a professionally responsive Nigerian Army through human rights collaboration with the civil populace. In essence, the desk is out to curb human rights violations and to arrive at an amicable settlement.

QUESTION 2. What impact has the office made so far and how many petitions have you handled?

ANSWER: The Human Rights Desk made a lot of positive impact since its inception in 2016 and has so far has treated over 230 complaints. The Desk as a matter of routine engages in sensitization of troops in all Nigerian Army formations and schools on human rights and humanitarian laws and the need to observe them during operations. These have drastically reduced the cases of human rights complaints recorded at the Desk. Among the over 230 petitions we have recorded, over 80 percent has been treated, about 10% was unsubstantiated and the remaining 10 percent is still under investigation. We also render progress report to the appropriate superior authority accordingly. The efforts put in place in addition to our collaboration with stakeholders such as the National Human Rights Commission, Nigerian Bar Association, etc, have led to tremendous commendations and feedback especially from numerous complainants and those affected who have also thanked the Chief of Army Staff for establishing the Human Rights Desk. It is noteworthy that our activities receive wide coverage. For instance, Army Headquarters Department of Civil-Military Affairs host a weekly programme on Army Forces Radio Service FM 107.7 called civil-military Hours every Wednesday
from 1030 – 1130 am where the audience is enlightened on the activities of the Nigerian Army especially as it affects the civil populace. Issues bordering on human rights are usually discussed during the programme. The programme also includes a phone-in calls where listeners air their views and seek answers to some pertinent questions. In addition to that, various phone and emergency line numbers through which the Desk can be reached for reporting cases of violations of human rights are usually given out to the general public during the radio programme.

QUESTION 3. Does the HRD office face any challenge in convincing Nigerians especially the civilians that it has integrity and credibility to handle their petitions?

ANSWER: It is necessary to state that we do not have any challenge in convincing civilians about our activities. This is due to the way we handle the numerous petitions we receive from them. It would interest you to know that apart from the emails sent to our office and the phone calls we receive, we also get civilians coming to our office directly at No 5 Lekki Close Garki II to report violations against them. It is also pertinent to state for the record that officers and soldiers of the NA HRD always dress in civilian attire in order to create a conducive and civilian friendly environment so that the issue of intimidation does not arise. We have handled and treated petitions successfully. So it is more like a referral and this is because of the confidence reposed on us while carrying out our tasks.

QUESTION 4. Does this office handle cases of domestic violence within your ranks?

ANSWER: The answer to that question will be in the affirmative. There are barely cases of domestic violence within our ranks but the complaints we usually receive are cases of abandonment and neglect of spouses and children as well as refusal to pay spousal support. In line with Section 211 of the Armed Forces Act, a brief has been written to the Chief of Army Staff for the approval of deductions from the erring personnel’s salary so as to cater for abandoned spouses/children. I am happy to announce that this request has been approved by the Chief of Army Staff. Currently, we have less cases of the occurrence of human rights abuses. This could be attributed to the occasional visits, seminars and workshops conducted by the Desk in various NA formations and units across the country to educate own troops on the importance of adherence to Rule of Law and the rules of engagement during operations. This is important because military personnel are subject to the doctrine of compact (meaning that in accordance with sections 114 of the Armed Forces Act, Military personnel are subjected to both civil and military laws and the need to maintain a happy home front cannot be over emphasized.

QUESTION 5. Does the NA HRD office plan to set up sexual violations offenders register?

ANSWER:  I want to say that we already have in existence a sexual violation offenders’ register. Based on this, I can categorically tell you that from the breakdown of alleged human rights violations and the percentage of crimes from inception, sexual harassment and other related matters were 6 percent. This is because we often have few cases of sexual harassment. To be honest with you, since I took over the Human Rights Desk Office in August 2018, we have not had cases of sexual harassment and other related matters, so the 6 percent was recorded and treated before I took over the office. The cases that have high percentage are assault (17 per cent), extortion, trespass on property and unlawful arrest (12 per cent). The sexual violations offenders register enable us to monitor the names in order to checkmate or ascertain it a name appears more than once and to treat accordingly.

QUESTION 7.  Do you handle cases of human trafficking if they do occur within the barracks?

ANSWER:  It is important to highlight the nature of the cases that we often receive. Apart from those highlighted above, other cases include murder, impersonation, financial crime, unlawful arrest and enforced disappearance. Others are unpaid salary/allowance or gratuity and pension, unlawful seizure, breach of contract, unlawful dismissal, torture and extra judicial killing. However, we have never had cases of human trafficking and I doubt if such occurs in the barracks. The military is a highly organized body which is based on discipline and regimentation. It would be difficult for human trafficking to take place and I doubt if such occurs in the barracks.

QUESTION 8. What are the aspirations and projections of the NA HRD in the next five years?

ANSWER:   Our aspirations and projections in the next years and beyond are numerous, I would mention but a few. We aspire to be bigger and better by continually improving or enhancing our performance. We also want to ensure that cases are reduced to barest minimum. We also hope to expand our mandate which is to protect human rights by ensuring its spread worldwide. To that end, we intend to equip the Desk with modern reference materials and to upgrade capacity and competences of the staff of the Desk in terms of training and re-training especially in area of conciliations, mediation and conflict prevention among others.

QUESTION 9. Finally, how many partnership agreements have you entered with stakeholders in the human rights organized community?

ANSWER:  We have entered into a lot of partnership in form of collaborations and cooperation with various non-governmental organizations, international organizations, civil society organizations and a host of others and these are unwritten. For instance, we deal closely with the National Human Rights Commission, CLEEN Foundation, the Nigerian Bar Association and a host of other stakeholders. We collaborate with these agencies and organizations to ensure effective tackling of human rights violations and abuses. We intend to further expand the scope of our partnership and collaboration with other related agencies and association such as the International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA), the Legal Aid Council and the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF).

With over two decades behind me as a professional journalist at the highest level and a manager of a civil society platform for twelve years now i can rate the Nigerian Army above 70% performance in the area of respect for human rights.

*Emmanuel Onwubiko is head of Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria (HURIWA) and blogs @ www.emmanuelonwubiko.com; www.thenigerianinsidernews.com; www.huriwa.blogspot.com.

 

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