‘Owambe’, a local word in the Yoruba speaking areas of Nigeria has come to become a national social culture and is deeply embedded in the life of most Nigerians because of the fact that ontologically, Nigerians and most Africans have just two strategic social and religious celebrations namely Birth and death.
‘Owambe’ (literally meaning I’m here) being a Yoruba term must have been popularized in Nigeria’s most populated state of Lagos because of the straight fact that most weekends are dedicated to hundreds of celebrations in Lagos. Streets are usually converted to carnival joints attended by hundreds of beautifully dressed participants who are in a convivial moods. Speaking about the merry-making culture which as I said is commonly described as ‘Owambe’ in Nigeria’s biggest state of Lagos and most other states, brings us to the recent epochal celebration of the Nigeria Army Day.
This is because a lot of Nigerians had expected that the Nigerian Army should host series of celebratory activities in keeping with the popular traditions of making merry during anniversaries. But the mood of the nation played a fast one on these expectations. What with the war on terror that has gone on for over ten years and some natural disasters that took place within the institution of the Nigerian military.
The Chief of Army staff who was Major General but promoted to Lieutenant General just after I had scripted this piece, Farouk Yahaya was quoted in the media as saying that the sudden death of many senior soldiers alongside the immediate past Chief of Army staff Lieutenant General Attahiru Ibrahim meant that the anniversary celebrations would not be as elaborate as expected.
One thing that remains the talking point is that the hierarchy of the Army occupied their time in marking the Army Day anniversary by speaking directly to Nigerians regarding what the military leadership intends to do so to ensure that the institution is efficient, effective and professionally compliant to meet the expectations of the citizenry and the provisions of the Constitution.
The Army Chief specifically made mention of the determination that he has to respect the Human Rights of Nigerians. He had said the same thing in a personal letter he sent to us at the HUMAN RIGHTS WRITERS ASSOCIATION OF NIGERIA, this July.
What this commitment and public emphasis on respect for the Human Rights of the citizenry embodies is the ever essential call for the current leadership of the Army not to jettison the laudable structures erected by the past Chief of Army Lieutenant General Tukur Yusuf Buratai in the area of Human Rights promotions.
For emphasis, let us briefly summarize some of these steps that were transparently implemented by General Buratai to enhance respect for Human Rights. On assumption of duty in July 2015, Lt Gen TY Buratai was never in doubt as to the enormous challenges he has to surmount in order to restore the dignity of an army and the nation terribly shattered by Boko Haram terrorists.
As a disciplined military strategist, he understood the key roles of excellent 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.
To this end, he instantly reorganized and empowered the Department of Civil – Military Affairs (DCMA) to function effectively, especially in the campaign for the protection and respect for human rights by the Nigerian Army.
3.1 Solidification The Department Of Civil – Military Affairs
The first step taken to checkmate human rights abuses was to rejig and strengthen the DCMA. Consequently, sensitization workshops and campaigns on protection of human rights where dynamically conducted for members of the NA.
Similarly, corporate social responsibility projects like construction of boreholes, feeder roads, renovation of medical centres and schools among others across selected communities in Nigeria where conducted particularly during operations and exercises. This endeared the troops to the locals and ushered in a sense of togetherness and mutual respect.
Likewise, the Nigerian Army through the department, partnered with some human rights organizations such as the United Nations (UN) Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs to develop capacity that will enhance professionalism and responsiveness in promoting humanitarian principles and conduct during operations.
Such human rights sensitization workshops harped on operational civil – military interactions, humanitarian principles, perception, actions, guidelines, security and coordination as well as humanitarian access.
Perhaps worthy of mention is that while declaring human rights workshop open in 8 Task Force Division, the Chief of Civil – Military Affairs; Maj Gen Nuhu Angbazo (as he then was), who represented the COAS stated that “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” (Vanguard, Jun 2018).
3.2 Setting up of Human Rights Desk
Another 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.
Others are to update existing training manuals, liaising and facilitating interaction with human rights organizations, strategize and strengthen capacity of the Nigerian Army in promoting human rights.
Incidentally, while commissioning the human rights office at the Headquarters of 7 Division Nigerian Army in Maiduguri, TY Buratai, who was represented by the Chief of Civil – Military Affairs expressed 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.
“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. (Daily Post, 18 Feb, 2016).
3.3 Establishment Of Toll Free Call Centre & Public Complaints Rapid Response Unit
On 19 June 2018, at a Military – Media – Public Awareness Programme at Jabi Motor Park in Abuja organized by CLEEN Foundation, the COAS through the Army Human Rights Desk Officer, Major Naazem Langpoe (as he then was) stated 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.
Also Buratai, through Major Lanpoe added that the Army, during its first quarter staff conference for that year (2018) launched some books on respect for human rights during military operations.
“So, the Army is doing its best to ensure that the rights of the civilians are respected”.
Urging members of the public to relate with military and report to then any case of human right violation by the personnel, he added: “we assure them that once they come to us their rights are protected and we do our best to serve them better”. (Vanguard, June 19, 2018).
3.4 Construction and Commissioning of Joint Investigation Centre and Cells for Boko Haram Suspects
In response to complaints of human rights abuses of detainees due to poor state of the detention facility in Giwa Barracks Maiduguri, in the areas of poor sanitary condition/ventilation, overcrowding and irregular water supply, the COAS; TY Buratai (as he then was) on Friday April 29, 2018, commissioned 400 capacity Joint Investigation Centre and Detention Cells for Boko Haram suspects in Maiduguri.
The facilities where built with heat and ordour extractor, coupled with constructed borehole to enable detainee’s access water.
Lt. Gen Buratai, who was represented by the then Theatre Commander, Operation LAFIYA DOLE; Major General Rogers Nicholas stated during the commissioning thus; “this modern facility will go a long way in changing the narrative in the criticism of the Nigerian military, this is a clear indication that we welcome positive criticisms to see where we can improve on it, and this is what we have demonstrated here”, he added (Leadership, 29 Apr, 2018).
Why we need to re-emphasize on some of the concrete efforts made by the previous Army Chief is to state that the current occupier of that position needs to very rapidly consolidate on those measures so as to further create the right public image for the Nigerian Army as a public institution that follows the law and respect Human Rights.
So it would seem like he was responding to the desire of the public when the Chief of Army Staff, Lt. Gen. Faruk Yahaya, declared that the Nigerian Army would meet the expectations of Nigerians with regard to its constitutional role and respect for human rights.
Speaking at a briefing in Abuja to mark the Nigerian Army Day celebrations (NADCEL), the army chief said the army was determined to meet the expectations of the citizenry by adhering to its constitutional role, respect for human rights in tandem with rules of engagement.
“The Nigerian Army will continue to employ synergistic approach with other services and security agencies in consolidating on these achievements. We shall equally employ the support of critical partners to better secure our dear country.
“We shall prioritise welfare of personnel and promote merit, we shall equally celebrate gallantry, honour our heroes as well as support our families,” he said.
Yahaya said the army “shall discharge our constitutional duties in tandem with the rules of engagement, respect for and aspects of human rights as enshrined in the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria as well as other international principles and guidelines to which Nigeria is a signatory.”
He said Nigerian Army with its long history stretching to 1861 had achieved so much and would continue to sustain the tempo.
“We remain resolute and require the collaboration of all stakeholders to fight terrorism and insurgency including other forms of criminalities in the country. “I also want to use this opportunity to solicit for cooperation and goodwill of all law abiding citizens as a necessity to achieving a lasting peace in Nigeria,” he said.
“We all must put national interest first above all forms of primordial sentiments capable of destroying our unity. Together we shall succeed. I strongly believe so,” he said.
He listed other activities lined up to mark the NADCEL 2021 celebration to include juma’at prayers in all Nigerian Army formations and units on Friday 2 July 2021 which will be followed by interdenominational church service to be held in all Nigerian Army formations and units across the nation on Sunday July 4, 2021.
“The NADCEL 2021 will also enable the Nigerian Army reach out to the public through its Medical Outreach Programme on Monday July 5, 2021, during which inhabitants of some selected communities around the country will benefit from a free medical services.
“Equally there will be humanitarian outreach programme to be conducted by members of the Nigerian Army Officers Wives Association (NAOWA) in selected areas of FCT and environs on July 5, 2021.
“The NADCEL 2021 activities will culminate with a lecture and COAS Commendation Award on Tuesday July 6, 2021 at Command Officers Mess 1, Asokoro Abuja”, he said.
One more thing is to remind the Army Chief is that the World is watching to see how well he would be faithful to his Solemn promises to build upon the antecedents of his predecessors and further professionalize the Army.
For instance, these are the positions espoused by Mathew Page, Associated Fellow, Africa Programme of the U.K based Chatham house.
He wrote amongst others that: “To reboot its international relationships with longstanding partners like the United States and the United Kingdom, the army would – at a minimum – need to soften its standoffish attitude toward accepting international help and substantively address human rights concerns”. “Until top officers …acknowledge the army’s deficiencies and embark on much-needed reforms, international military engagement likely will remain as contentious, intermittent and unfruitful as it has in recent years. And Nigeria’s escalating security crises will only get worse”.
The new Army Chief should as expected rise to the occasion and show proofs of his avowed commitment not to tolerate indiscipline and lack of professionalism. The Department for Civil and Military relations must not be allowed to go to sleep but must be enabled to set up much more robust structures to take the lessons of human rights to soldiers who come face to face with the commoners all around the Country.
BY EMMANUEL ONWUBIKO
EMMANUEL ONWUBIKO is head of the HUMAN RIGHTS WRITERS ASSOCIATION OF NIGERIA (HURIWA) and was a federal commissioner at the National Human Rights commission of Nigeria.