AnalysesHuman Rights

Slain Soldiers: ‘As Army Intensifies Manhunt, Troops Must Respect Human Rights’

While Nigerian President Bola Tinubu has given the military full authority to bring killers of soldiers in Delta State to justice, citizens want them to strictly adhere to human rights laws during the operation. 

Following the brutal killings of personnel of the Nigerian Army on a peace mission to two warring communities in Delta State in the South-south, President Bola Tinubu, on Sunday, gave the military “full authority” to bring killers of the soldiers to justice. 

Okuama and Okoloba communities have been in dispute over the ownership of a controversial land lying on their border since January, and the crisis between them has led to the killing of many people, including children. 

When another fight broke out on Thursday,  March 14, the Nigerian Army deployed soldiers for a peacekeeping mission to the communities. The soldiers were, however, gruesomely murdered, leading to public outrage.

“It’s a very sad time for our kingdom, Delta State and for Nigeria generally. The military men should be held in high esteem [because] they are there to protect us from people who commit heinous crimes. It’s sad that these people [soldiers] are killed in the process. It’s disheartening and I totally condemn it,” said Clement Ikolo, Okuama monarch, on TV.

HumAngle confirmed that communities in Ughelli South and Bomadi local government areas have been taken over by troops of the 6 Division, Nigerian Army, Port Harcourt, who also oversee the 63 brigade in Asaba. While there have been videos of houses being razed on Sunday morning, it is not clear yet if it was soldiers on a revenge mission who razed houses, but many residents have abandoned their homes, a source monitoring the development from Asaba told HumAngle.  Some displaced persons are currently hiding in the bush. 

‘Bring culprits to justice’

In his condolences to the families of the fallen soldiers, Tinubu said the cowardly offenders responsible for the heinous crime will not go unpunished.

“…we must constantly remember and honour all those who have paid the ultimate price to keep our nation safe, strong, and united. The officers and men who died in Okuama community have joined the pantheon of great men and women who gave their all, with honour, in the service of our fatherland.

“Members of our armed forces are at the heart and core of our nationhood. Any attack on them is a direct attack on our nation. We will not accept this wicked act. The Defence Headquarters and Chief of Defence Staff have been granted full authority to bring to justice anybody found to have been responsible for this unconscionable crime against the Nigerian people,” the president said. 

Also, the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Nigerian Army, Abdulaziz Yar’Adua, in a statement signed on behalf of the Senate, said it is crucial that justice is served and those behind the criminal act are brought to account for their actions.

Fear of retaliation 

As soldiers took over Okoloba and Okuama communities in search of the culprits, many Nigerians on social media have expressed concern over possible retaliation following a series of such events in the past. For instance, HumAngle, in 2022, reported how soldiers on a peacekeeping assignment became murderous in the Cross River community after they were attacked during their operations. The incident left many killed and injured. 

In 2021, the Nigerian Army killed over 50 villagers in Benue after 11 soldiers and a commander were slaughtered by local militants in Bonta, a town in the Konshisha area of Benue State.  Also, there was “Operation No Living Thing” in 2001, when the military carried out a mass execution of hundreds of unarmed Tiv civilians following the killing of 19 soldiers. Two years earlier, there was the Odi massacre in 1999 where the military killed 900 individuals over the murder of 12 Nigerian police officers in Odi. 

Already, a former Chief of Army Staff, Lt Gen Tukur Buratai (retd), whose leadership carried out a bloody attack on members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) in 2015, has described the Delta incident as “monstrous and barbaric.”

“The culprits must be severely dealt with to serve as a deterrent to all. Soldiers should be respected and honoured at all times for the obvious sacrifices they make to keep the country safe.”

‘Respect human rights’

While Femi Falana, a human rights lawyer and Senior Advocate of Nigeria, condemned the killing of the military personnel in Delta, he faulted the alleged burning of the village by the military in what can be described as a reprisal.

“Having regard to the destruction of Odi and Zaki Biam over the killing of soldiers, the authorities ought to have taken adequate measures to prevent the alleged attack and burning of the affected villages. The Delta State Government should ensure that the murder suspects and arsonists among the civilians and soldiers are fished out and prosecuted to serve as a deterrent to other criminal elements in the society, he said in a statement seen by HumAngle. 

Speaking during his appearance on Channels Television’s Sunrise Daily programme on Monday, Falana urged the government to caution soldiers early enough not to embark on any act of retaliation and assure them assurances that justice would be served immediately.

“We are in a democratic system of government. The President cannot order military authorities to fish out civilians involved in heinous crimes. That is the duty of the police,” he added. “Those arrested should be handed over to the police and arraigned immediately as this action would douse tension in the coastal village. There are innocent people in Okuama who are as angry as the government in ensuring that the criminal elements are brought to justice, but when you go and set their houses on fire and attack innocent people, you have offended domestic laws because it is right in our country that there is no vicarious liability in criminality.

“Nigeria domesticated the Geneva Convention in 1960, and under Article 33 of the Geneva Convention, collective punishment is prohibited. Innocent people cannot be attacked, even in a war situation,” he said.

Though a source told HumAngle that some ‘innocent’ citizens had been arrested in Okuama community in the last 24 hours, the military, while reacting to videos and pictures on social media about alleged reprisal, on Monday evening accused the Okuama community of media propaganda.

“Regrettably, the community complicit in this dastardly act has resorted to media propaganda and shenanigans, rather than engage in a positive effort to fish out the perpetrators of this heinous crime. This again is a clear indication that the murder of the troops was a communally orchestrated attack against legitimate forces.  The falsehood being peddled by these criminals and their cohorts to whip up sentiments and sway the public to cover up, endorse or support the outrageous criminal acts of their armed youth gang should be disregarded in its entirety, it is only a ridiculous attempt at justifying their crime, rather than turn in themselves to security agencies. There is no amount of propaganda that would arm-twist the narrative, they are complicit and must be ready to face the wrath of the law,” Onyema Nwachukwu, army spokesperson, said in a statement.

The army, however, assures law-abiding citizens that there will be no reprisal on the part of the troops. 

“We enjoin all to go about their normal activities, even as ongoing efforts are scaled up to positively identify and isolate the criminals to account for their atrocious deeds.”

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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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