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Flashback: Nigeria’s Former Army Chief’s ‘Fall From Grace’

Since the termination of his role as Nigeria’s Chief of Army Staff on Tuesday, Nigerians have called for the prosecution of Lt. Gen. Tukur Buratai over the extrajudicial killing of civilians at various times by soldiers under his watch.

“Buratai has a lot of questions to answer about his role in the massacre of Shiites in Zaria, the extrajudicial killing of IPOB members in Operation Crocodile Tears and the Lekki Massacre. The International Criminal Court will be a good place to retire,” wrote Kelvin Odanz, a social commentator.

But the Lieutenant General’s reputation was not always this ugly. Back in July 2015 when he was appointed by President Muhammadu Buhari, expectations were high about his capacity to deliver on the government’s promise to end insecurity.

Shortly after Buratai’s appointment, SBM Intelligence, a geopolitical research consultancy, observed that him being from Borno State, the epicentre of the Boko Haram insurgency, meant he had the local knowledge to end the problem.

“Major General Buratai was the commander of MNJTF and is a counter-terrorism expert and a very disciplined officer,” the organisation wrote. “We expect Buratai to bring his command experience to bear on the army and the overall strategy and doctrine of the army.”

Other security analysts and commentators similarly expressed confidence in the former army chief’s competence.

“There is no doubt Major General Buratai will get the job done. He is a CT-COIN (counterterrorism and counterinsurgency) expert. Next hundred days crucial for his programme,” remarked Nnamdi Chife, consulting analyst at a security intelligence firm, on July 14, 2015.

He wrote in a separate tweet: “No regrets about Buratai. I fully endorse him.”

Around the same period, Buratai was described as “eminently qualified,” “offensive-minded,” and someone who would “bring back the pride of the Nigerian Army”. Many even said his name was an indication that he would be “brutal” against the Boko Haram terrorists.

Indeed, weeks into his assumption of office, emotions were still running high about the country’s security prospects. Two weeks into office, Buratai conducted a “massive shake-up” by appointing new General Officers Commanding, principal staff officers at the Army Headquarters, Corps Commanders, Special Task Forces Commanders, Commander of the Multinational Joint Task Force, Brigade Commanders, alongside other key positions.

The following month, he embarked on a tour of the troubled regions in Borno State, narrowly escaping after suspected insurgents ambushed his convoy. He visited troops at the frontline and led officers in training exercises.

“Buratai is a true leader. Just look at how he inspires our soldiers,” commented rights advocate Chinedu Ekeke on Aug. 23, 2015.

A lot has, however, changed since the former Army Chief’s early days in office. Asides an allegation of corruption, which he later debunked, he has spearheaded several incidents of human rights violations and extrajudicial killing in various parts of the country.

Notable among these include the infamous massacre of members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) in Dec. 2015. According to the report of a judicial inquiry set in motion by the Kaduna State government, at least 347 civiluans people were killed in the tragic event and buried in a mass grave after “the Nigerian Army used excessive force”. No one has been held accountable yet.

In 2016, the Army set up an office at its headquarters to train personnel on the need to respect human rights and receive complaints about abuses. But violations have since continued in varying scales.

Agnes Callamard, United Nations Special Rapporteur for Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, noted in Sept. 2019 that there was an “excessive use of lethal force in violation of applicable international standards” by the military observable nationwide.

Last October, the Nigerian Army was responsible for the killing of at least 20 people protesting against police brutality at the Lekki tollgate area in Lagos State, and possibly tens of civilians at Oyigbo, Rivers State. It is because of these events and many others that some Nigerians are now calling for Buratai’s head.

The rate of insecurity in the country has remained worrisome too with more kidnapping and armed invasions taking place in the northwest and Boko Haram insurgents making bolder attacks. Between 2015 and 2020, Nigeria has consistently been ranked the third most terrorised country in the world.

According to data from the Nigeria Security Tracker, in 2020 alone, over 2,700 civilians were killed as a result of insecurity and nearly 2,900 others were kidnapped. The first two weeks of 2021, 109 civilians were killed and 133 kidnapped — the second-highest within that period in the last five years.

President Buhari had on Tuesday finally replaced Nigeria’s service chiefs after over five years and repeated calls for their removal from various quarters, including the National Assembly.

Succeeding Buratai is Major-General Ibrahim Attahiru, former theatre commander of the counterinsurgency operation, Lafiya Dole. Though he has been described by some news platforms as someone who was disgraced out of office by Buratai for incompetence in the war against Boko Haram, the Nigerian Army did not state officially why he was replaced back in 2017.

Like Buratai, some of the new service chiefs, especially Chief of Defence Staff Major General Lucky Eluonye Onyenuchea Irabor, are receiving big compliments immediately following their appointments. Hopes are high, but only time will tell if the president has made the right decision. Or if having the right set of hands in those positions is itself enough to turn things around.

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'Kunle Adebajo

Head of Investigations at HumAngle. ‘Kunle covers conflict alongside its many intricacies and fallouts. He also writes about disinformation, the environment, and human rights. He's won a couple of journalism awards, including the 2021 Wole Soyinka Award for Investigative Journalism, the 2022 African Fact-checking Award, and the 2023 Michael Elliott Award for Excellence in African Storytelling.

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