By Dr. Nowa Omoigui




Human Rights and the legacy of Militarization

One of the high points in efforts to democratize Nigeria was the willingness of the Obasanjo administration to investigate human rights abuses under past military regimes.  In 1999, exercising the powers conferred on the President by the Tribunal of Inquiry Act, 1966 Cap. 447, it established the Human Rights Violation Investigation Commission (HRVIC) under Justice Chukwudifu Oputa.  Terms of reference included:

1. Establishing or ascertaining the causes, nature and extent of human rights violations or abuses in Nigeria between 1966 and 1999;

2. Identifying the person or persons, authorities, institutions that may be held accountable for human rights abuses and determine the motives of the violations;

3. Determining whether such abuses or violations were deliberate state policies or acts of state officials or acts of any political organisations, liberation movements or other groups or individuals; and

4. Recommending measures which may be taken whether judicial, administrative, legislative or institutional to redress the injustices of the past and prevent a recurrence in the future.

The panel received thousands of petitions regarding assassinations, genocide, torture and other abuses by security forces.  A few petitions were related to inter-communal violence.   Other high profile petitions revolved around the question of how Nigeria's ethnic nationalities want to coexist and be governed.   However, surviving pivots of the recent military past, Generals Abdulsalami Abubakar, Ibrahim Babangida, and Muhammad Buhari refused to appear before the panel, which has no arrest or prosecutory powers.   Their attorneys argued in court that under the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (1999) the National Assembly is conferred with the power to make law with respect to matters specifically mentioned in Section 4 (2) and 4 of the said constitution. They claim that the tribunal decree creating the Oputa panel was originally promulgated in the context of the suspension of the previous Constitution by the Army.  At the end of military regime in Nigeria in May 1999, therefore, the Tribunals of Inquiry Decree 1966 No 41 was only an existing law within parameters defined by Section 315 of the 1999 constitution.  Since no modifications were made to bring the said Act into conformity with the 1999 Constitution as a law of the federation, its validity was thrown into question.   When it gets the final report, how the government deals with this and some of the more troubling revelations made before the panel by former head of the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI), Brigadier-General Ibrahim Sabo (rtd.) will determine its place in history.

Unfortunately, while focusing on the past, sensitizing the public to human rights issues and accountability, the current behavior of the military during internal security operations in November 1999 at Odi, and in October 2001 at Zaki Biam, Gbagi and other nearby villages during which the aggrieved Armored Brigade at Yola unleashed retaliatory terror on civilian communities accused of harboring civilians (and ex-servicemen) said to have ritually murdered their fellow soldiers has raised eyebrows - including condemnation by "Human Rights Watch" - to which the President's response was to rationalize the culture of vengeance.  Granted the killing, beheading and eye gouging of soldiers on official duty is completely unacceptable and was extremely provocative.  But the appropriate response would have been to uphold law and order through proper investigation, targetted arrests and prosecution of culprits in a court of law.  Swept under the carpet of political controversy was the more subtle issue of whether the incident that led to the deaths of the soldiers in the first place was not a classic case of command failure.

The Army has also been used for internal security duties in Kaduna, Jos, Oshogbo, Ago-Iwoye, Lagos, Warri, Yenagoa and others.  This emerging relationship between the military, the executive and the populace via the flagrant and repeated use of military power is dangerous - amplified as it is on one hand by restiveness in the barracks about conditions of living, salaries and emoluments and on the other by concern in certain parts of the country that ethnic militia excesses which have resulted in horrendous bloodshed have not been addressed firmly and fairly.   Commentators from the core-North, for example, often understandably express frustration and deep anger about the restraint shown in deploying the Army during one or two orgees of ethnic blood-letting in the Lagos area.  At the same time soldiers who are left on the streets to perform internal security duties for too long soon begin to settle into non-regimental routines for extorting money from motorists.

The National Assembly, therefore, ought to pay more attention to military welfare, make laws that guide the fair and consistent use of the military by the executive for such purposes and address the problem of excessive use of force by theater commanders which is often due to poor training, equipment, orientation and command failure.  There is a danger that civil society can be antagonized and hyper-militarized, while professional military effectiveness is compromised, with danger of ensuing rupture of the polity. Underlying contributing issues of poor training and tactical leadership in the military have not been the focus of sufficient public comment.

Other than some isolated cases, police brutality has not attracted serious official attention either. Meanwhile, crime rate and insecurity have remained a very serious problem.  Despite government announcements of reform and expansion, the Police even went on strike, a first in the history of the country, citing poor working conditions.  As noted previously, the government sacked its Police Chief in response, and replaced him with a new Inspector General (Tafa Balogun) whose curriculum vitae is as impressive as any I have seen.  (For the first time in history both the Inspector General of Police and the Chief of Army Staff are holders of master degree qualifications).

Meanwhile civilian "vigilante" groups and ethnic militia like 'O'dua People's Congress' (OPC) and 'Bakassi Boys' have emerged, allegedly to fill the police and judicial vacuum. However, they have done much more than that, in some cases fighting pitched battles with the Police, political opponents, and members of other ethnic groups.  Islamic "vigilante" groups have also been established in parts of northern Nigeria to enforce new Sharia codes. There have been occasional outbreaks of civil-military tension with the Army because Barracks are protected by federal law and are thus regarded as "safe havens" for alcohol.   Meanwhile dangerous outbreaks of inter-communal violence have been recorded in several states including Plateau,  Bauchi, Nassarawa, Kaduna, Benue, Taraba, Delta, Ogun and Lagos.  The extent to which repeated incidents of ethnic and religious tensions in civil society affect professional relationships within the military and Police is unknown but calls for discrete monitoring by the government and responsible self-censorship on the part of editorialists and public commentators.  Some of the tragic events in Jos and Kaduna, for example, brought dangerous religious undercurrents to the fore - assuming public statements can be used as a barometer.  It was quite disturbing to read of public calls for redeployment of Army Commanders and Police Commissioners merely on account of their individual religious and ethnic backgrounds.

Nigeria's historical legacy of force and the choices she has made at key points in time show that merely asking soldiers to go back to the Barracks without addressing the profound structural issues discussed in this monograph simply will not do.  It also seems evident that a truly apolitical Military along western lines may be an abstract concept when set against the realities on the ground and the intensely political circumstances in which the military was born and nurtured from colonial times.  The challenge is to develop a model of civil-military relations that is workable, unique to Nigeria and preserves the core capabilities of a real military force without threatening the ability of the Nigerian people to be led by a government that reflects its will.   It is gratifying that efforts have been made to develop a new Defence Policy but unfortunately the process has not been open and public input has been minimal.  One recalls the process by which South Africa arrived at its National Defence Policy.    On June 21st, 1995 a draft policy was published by the Defence Minister with an open invitation to the legislature and the public to comment.  Political parties, NGOs, Defence Industry interest groups, analysts, military officers and the public in general contributed.  The ideas and comments gleaned from this process of consultation with various stake-holders were then incorporated in an updated draft dated October 27, 1995.  This draft was submitted to the Joint Standing Committee on Defence (JSCD), which debated key provisions and resubmitted it to the Defence Minister for consideration.  Yet another draft was released on April 22, 1996 incorporating additional comments from the JSCD as well as the portfolio Committee on Defence.  This draft was then sent to the cabinet.  The version (with minor edits) approved by the Cabinet was then sent back to Parliament for final approval.

In the Federal Republic of Nigeria, early in 2001, the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) announced that a committee was being set up, charged by the Head of State with putting together Nigeria's Defence Policy.  This committee was reportedly headed by Major General Enahoro.  One must presume that the committee met and completed its assignment because in an unrelated news story, the CDS announced that the report would shortly be released.   It was not.  Instead, a new panel headed by Major General Ogomudia, the new Chief of Army Staff, was charged with the responsibility for reviewing the work of the first committee and issuing a report on the report which would conceivably guide Government in releasing a white paper.

No one knows exactly how this process is supposed to work.  Very recently, the Minister for Defence announced that the Defence Policy is still undergoing review.  Will the Nigerian people have any opportunity to make input into the country's Defence Policy?  Will the Senate and House of Representatives have the opportunity to make input?  It would be unwise to presume that the Nigerian public is uninterested in contributing to the new policy which could shape the Armed Forces for years to come.   The business of the military is too serious to leave to Generals alone.


It is not a secret that the Defence Sector has for many years been one of the most corrupt in Nigeria.  In March 2002, during a keynote address to participants at the first MOD retreat in Kaduna the Minister of Defence, Lt. Gen. T.Y. Danjuma, said the sector "lacked transparency in the conduct of its affairs, as it was prone to mismanagement and corrupt practices, especially among the top echelon of its management."  Indeed, early in the life of the administration, the permanent secretary, Dr. Makanjuola, was arrested along with others for alleged fraud - although the status of the case has become somewhat vague.

An anti-corruption commission has been created, anti-corruption legislation passed, and some progress made in recovering huge sums expropriated by the late General Sani Abacha - although terms of the alleged plea bargain have been controversial.

Some senior military officers have also been asked to refund monies misappropriated from Cocoa Buffer Stock Funds.   The government has also released a white paper on Brigadier Oluwole Rotimi's commission, charged in June 1999 to inquire into illegal acquisition of federal government land and properties.  But corruption remains a very serious - and ongoing - issue in Nigeria.

Judicial Issues

Under democratic rule, the national judiciary has supremacy over the military judicial system. This check and balance and oversight was absent under military rule.  Ad hoc methods were used to implement Decree 105 (the guiding document for military justice also known as the Armed Forces Act). However, all of this should work well if stake-holders know what role each should play in the process.  Unfortunately, the required knowledge will take time to develop for the military, political class and civil society.

For example, the jurisdictional relationship between the military and the rest of civil society in terms of crime is an often ignored component of the civil-military discourse.  Recently, an application of this principle reared its ugly head in Nigeria.   A soldier on duty at 1 Division HQ in Kaduna, went to Kawo garage off his base, and shot a Moslem cleric and at least six others dead.  Controversy erupted. Who has jurisdiction to arrest and prosecute the soldier? The military or civil police?  Under which law? Common, Sharia or Military?  In which court?

Such a scenario should ordinarily be the subject of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) amicably negotiated and signed between the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Justice.  In the United States, for example, if a soldier kills anyone, soldier or civilian, on post, then the military has jurisdiction to investigate and try the soldier. On the other hand, if a civilian kills on post, the military in collaboration with the civil police investigate, while the civil police prosecute in civil court. If a soldier goes to commit murder out of post, killing either a soldier or civilian, the civil police have jurisdiction.

Having said that, there has been at least one instance in which the supremacy of the civil court system and the constitution was used to reverse the judgment of a previous military court martial.  On July 16, 2001, the Court of Appeal in Lagos set aside a prior 1986 conviction by a General Court Martial convened by the Commander of the Lagos Garrison Command.  It discharged and acquitted one Lt. Col A. Akinwale who had been sentenced to a long jail term.


It has already been pointed out that the burden of history means it will take us long to find an acceptable level of balanced civil -military relations.

The syndrome of "bloody civilians"

The historical background is compounded by the real perception among many elements of the military that Nigerian civilians are not security conscious and have limited expertise in areas of security and defence policy.  Through this prism, rightly or wrongly, many members of the national legislature and even civil servants in the Ministry of Defence are viewed.  This perceived real or apparent lack of civilian capacity is a stumbling block to the democratization of the military and is an issue that does need to be explored and addressed, along with the question of knowledge of roles.  Did the military during its period of political stewardship in Nigeria contribute to it by jealously guarding what they considered their own exclusive preserve?  On the other hand, even if it had the capacity, has civil society in Nigeria articulated its interests in the sphere of civil-military relations?  To some extent (other than a small minority) it has said in more ways than one that it does not want military dictatorship. But beyond this fairly rudimentary understanding, and the usual cacophony of sometimes uninformed debates over the ethnic balance in the military, it seems to have no consensus or clarity.

To press the point home, let me borrow an anecdote presented by Eboe Hutchful at a recent conference on civil-military relations in Latin America.  "That week in Washington, he had run into two visiting African parliamentarians. Both turned out to be members of the oversight defense committee; one was a former student. They had just approved their first defense budget, and the process was thus: the Minister of Defense came to Congress, told the Parliament they had to pass it, and they did. The Deputy Speaker said they did it that way because that was the way it had always been done. The Speaker was left over from the last regime; while the other parliamentarian was a former general. Another thing the Minister of Defense did to was to take members of the oversight committee on a tour of the barracks; the MPs were shocked at the decrepitude of the quarters."

The "retired military" question

A related question in Nigeria is whether retired military personnel (all of whom are products of prior military regimes) share the same reported disdain for alleged civilian ignorance of defence and security issues as active duty personnel.  Such a question is crucial because retired military personnel play an important role in the political process and civilian government structure and cannot be said to be ignorant of security and defence issues. Retired Generals are at the helm of affairs as President and Defence Minister, National Security Adviser, Director of State Security, Aso Rock Chief of Staff etc... and occupy high positions in the affairs of political parties, the National Assembly leadership and certain legislative committees. Furthermore, certain ethno-regional associations which are hard to miss on the pages of newspapers as arbitrators of civil attitudes like Afenifere, Ohaeneze Ndigbo, Middle Belt Forum, Arewa Consultative Forum etc. have key military retirees in their leadership ranks.  There is also the association of retired army officers which has intervened quietly on occasion to mediate certain sensitive matters such as pensions for qualifying ex-Biafran soldiers.  A related adhoc group is the small club of retired Inspectors-General of Police that is reported to have recommended the recent dismissal of the last Inspector-General of Police - a move that had seemed fairly obvious for some time to ordinary citizens who have long struggled under the weight of personal insecurity.

Whether these retirees act as a bridge between civil and military/security constituencies or merely as exclusive agents for their own agendas - in some cases as agents provocateur - is going to be a key factor down the road in determining the nature of civil-military relations in transitional Nigeria.

There are observers - like Father Hassan Kukah - who strongly feel that Nigeria is not yet a democracy and that retired military personnel should stay away from politics for at least ten years.  Even the non-military politicians are predominantly persons who cut their teeth and acquired wealth (with no visible means of livelihood) during past military regimes and, therefore, retain obvious and not so obvious loyalties.

The relationship between the retired military and the civilian society on one hand and the active duty military on the other is important.   In the early days of the current transition, for example, there may have been concern (perhaps without justification) that retired officers - with no official position - were influencing personnel decisions within the active duty military.  Furthermore, the management style of official force managers is a key determinant of success in any organizational transition, recognizing the inherent fears and tensions that go with any kind of change. One management style issue that likely impacts civil-military relations in Nigeria relates to the status of the President and the Defence Minister as ex-soldiers in this civilian administration and the age and achievement gap between them and the second tier of force managers.  Are they unconsciously acting out their roles as very senior military commanders condescendingly interacting with very junior officers? Are they susceptible to the temptation to think they understand all the problems of the military?  Do they project a passive-aggressive approach to the military driven by their own frustrations with the serious decay that has occurred in the establishment since they left?  Does the current generation of active duty officers see itself as being more militarily exposed than its retired forebears in policy making positions who benefited from the accelerated promotions of post-independence Nigerianization, wartime demands and politics?  Does the military get the false impression that the President, sometimes acts, perhaps unwittingly, as if he would rather not relate with them in order not to tarnish his democratic credentials - even though he readily "sends in the clowns" when there is crisis?  Closely related to this is the degree of direct control of the military by the President and the absence of enforcement of constitutionally nuanced checks and balances between the Presidency, the MOD and Parliament.

To be continued


* This is an excerpt of a much larger publication by the author.


will be listed at the end of the last installment