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Military Reprisals On Civilians Worsening Human Rights Abuse In Nigeria

Military retaliatory attacks on unarmed civilians aggravates an already tense situation in Nigeria and may lead to unending violence.

Soldiers of the Nigerian Army on Sunday, June 26, killed a yet-to-be ascertained number of civilians in the Nko community of Yakurr Local Government Area (LGA), Cross River State, South-south Nigeria.  

HumAngle reported that the soldiers were on a peacekeeping mission in response to a communal crisis between Nko and Onyadama, both in the Cross River Central Senatorial District, when one of their commanders was killed in Nko. 

In retaliation, the soldiers killed at least 10 residents when they opened fire on the community. They also razed many homes, leading to the displacement of hundreds of persons.

The development, according to human rights activists, is a gross violation of  International Humanitarian Law, to which Nigeria is a party. The Law says security forces must take all feasible precautions to minimise harm to civilians and, unless circumstances do not permit it, provide effective advance warnings of attacks.

Condemning the attack in Cross River, the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) said those killed and displaced in the reprisal attacks are not necessarily the perpetrators of the attack on soldiers. 

The Nko community incident was not the first. There are many instances of soldiers attacking civilians as revenge for the killing of their colleagues. The approach has, however, contributed to civilian casualties as the loss of innocent lives during military operations is fast becoming the norm. 

While the government speaks glowingly about their efforts to end violence, the latter and military authorities play down the killings of defenceless civilians. In some of the cases that triggered public outrage, authorities failed to publicly release the outcome of inquiries into incidents of civilian deaths.

On Nov. 20, 1999, soldiers carried out an attack on the Ijaw town of Odi in Bayelsa State, South-south region, during a conflict in the Niger Delta over indigenous rights to oil resources and environmental protection.

Before the massacre, 12 police officers were murdered by non-state actors. In retaliation, the military decided to invade the village, leaving many buildings burnt. Human Rights Watch asked the Federal Government to initiate criminal proceedings against soldiers responsible for the abuse. 

“It looks like the new civilian government in Nigeria is using the same methods as the old military governments,” said Peter Takirambudde, executive director of the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch.

On Oct. 10, 2001, Tiv militias ambushed 19 soldiers in Zaki-Biam, Benue State, North-central Nigeria. The murders were reportedly prompted by previous incidents in which armed men in military uniforms attacked several Tiv communities in the area.

In retaliation, soldiers carried out mass executions of hundreds of unarmed Tiv civilians between Oct. 20 and 24, 2001. Although the Nigerian Army denied it at the time, ex-Chief of Army Staff, Lt. General Luka Yusuf, in Nov. 2007, publicly offered an apology to the people and Late President Umaru Yar’Adua also visited Benue on behalf of the Federal Government.

Again, soldiers launched a vengeful mission after mobs, whom the authorities alleged were members of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), killed some soldiers in Nov. 2020.

While the military authorities claimed that troops stormed the community to arrest separatists who murdered some soldiers, they were silent on their brutal reprisal mission in fully-loaded military trucks. 

With a 24-hour curfew in force, soldiers took vengeance for several days in the first week of Nov. 2020, killing defenceless people. They also displaced many residents. 

Again, soldiers on a revenge mission invaded Konshisha, Benue State, in April 2021, after 12 soldiers were killed by ‘Banta boys’, a local militant group, for allegedly supporting and supplying arms to their rival group. The soldiers killed over 50 defenceless villagers. 

After terrorists killed a military officer at Awo Mmamma, Oru East LGA of Imo State, Southeast Nigeria, in Nov. 2021, the latter regrouped and burnt down many houses. The same thing happened in Abia State in the same region in January earlier this year. 

All these incidents, according to human rights advocates, have humanitarian consequences because the killing of defenceless citizens is against the Geneva Conventions of 1949. 

The Law provides for the safety of persons taking no active part in hostilities and it explains in that unarmed civilians are entitled, in all circumstances, to respect for their person, their honour, their family rights, their religious convictions and practices, and their manners and customs.

“They shall at all times be humanely treated, and shall be protected especially against all acts of violence… Women shall be especially protected against any attack on their honour, in particular against rape, enforced prostitution, or any form of indecent assault.”

Nigeria is a party to both the four Geneva Conventions of Aug. 12, 1949, and the two Additional Protocols of 1977. Having adopted the basic foundation of International Humanitarian Law, the country has failed to regulate the activities of its agents breaching citizens’ rights. 

“Preventing civilian casualties and damage to properties is an essential component of winning hearts and minds of the people. We need to stop the abuse of fundamental rights all in the name of reprisal,” said Ben Okezie, a lawyer and rights activist. 

For two days, HumAngle reached out to the defence headquarters for comments and reactions to the continuous breach of civilians’ rights through military reprisal, but its spokesperson, Jimmy Akpor, did not respond to our reporter’s calls and text messages.

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Adejumo Kabir

Kabir works at HumAngle as the Editor of Southern Operations. He is interested in community development reporting, human rights, social justice, and press freedom. He was a finalist in the student category of the African Fact-checking Award in 2018, a 2019 recipient of the Diamond Awards for Media Excellence, and a 2020 recipient of the Thomson Foundation Young Journalist Award. He was also nominated in the journalism category of The Future Awards Africa in 2020. He has been selected for various fellowships, including the 2020 Civic Media Lab Criminal Justice Reporting Fellowship and 2022 International Centre for Journalists (ICFJ) 'In The Name of Religion' Fellowship.

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