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The use of Nigerian soldiers in civil unrest: what’s in place and what’s missing

By Kester Onor, The Conversation, November 8, 2020

The shooting of #EndSARS protesters by Nigerian soldiers has brought to the fore again the controversial issue of soldiers being used to quell civil protests. Wale Fatade, from The Conversation Africa, asked Kester Onor how Nigeria could resolve this conundrum.

What do you make of the recent shooting of protesters by Nigerian soldiers?

Peaceful protesters were shot by men in military uniform. Initially the military high command denied its involvement. It then went on to admit that soldiers were deployed at the invitation of Lagos State government. For his part, the Lagos state governor made it clear that the order came from an authority beyond his control.

Regardless of where the order came from, it is legally and morally wrong to open fire on peaceful protesters exercising their fundamental human rights. These rights are enshrined in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in the Nigerian constitution.

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The complicity of the Lagos State government and the military is unquestionable. Their explanations and blame games point to the fact that they were deeply involved.

Given Nigeria’s history of military coups, should soldiers be used to deal with civil protests?

Soldiers are very important in sustaining societal peace and maintaining security. I can attest to the fact that the Nigerian Army is adequately trained and equipped for internal security operations. During my service years in the military, I was involved in several successful internal security operations. These operations require minimum use of force, which means that soldiers can be used to deal with civil protests.

We should also remember that apart from the Lekki toll gate shootings, detachments of soldiers were deployed within Abuja metropolis and there were no casualties. Though in Alausa, Lagos some protesters were shot too.

Has Nigeria taken any steps to demilitarise its society?

Nigeria has not taken steps to demilitarise its society. From the executives in various quarters down to the legislators, dictatorial tendencies abound. Our democracy is only in name. At best, Nigeria is practising pseudo-democracy.

Is there a clear understanding of the role of the police and the role of the military?

Absolutely. There is clear understanding of the role of the police and the military in Nigeria. The Nigerian police maintain law and order while the Nigerian Army protects the national borders from external invasion, quells insurrections, and carries out internal security operations.

However, the inability of the Nigerian police to contain violent conflicts and discharge their constitutionally mandated responsibilities effectively – coupled with monumental corruption – have created a serious lacuna which the army has come to fill.

We should also note that Nigeria is at a crisis stage. It faces challenges on a number of fronts. These include the insurgency from the North East, herdsmen who have infiltrated the entire country, the Niger Delta militants threatening to bomb oil installations in the South and the Indigenous People of Biafra threatening to secede. In addition, the country has a large army of unemployed young people.

In my view, these challenges, among others, necessitate the involvement of the Nigerian Army in the maintenance of peace and order in the country.

In addition, inadequate manpower in the Nigerian police, lack of discipline and motivation have made it inevitable for the government to mobilise the military in crisis situations.

That’s not to say that the military has always acted professionally. On many occasions it has acted unprofessionally. This was exemplified by the Odi and Zaki-Biam debacles. More than 100 civilians were killed in Zaki-Biam, Benue State between October 22 and 25, 2001 as revenge for the killing of 19 soldiers earlier. On November 20, 1999, soldiers invaded Odi, Bayelsa State after criminal gangs killed 12 policemen in three separate incidents in and around the town. By December 1 when the soldiers left, every single building in the town except the bank, the Anglican church and the health centre had been destroyed.

Does Nigeria have a legal framework in terms of which soldiers can be deployed on the country’s streets?

Soldiers are expected to apply minimum force or limited force when deployed in civilian settings. However, some act unprofessionally in crisis situations.

We should also bear in mind that the conglomeration of various ethnic groups that make up the army has not helped. Some soldiers have not disentangled themselves from their ethnic affiliations and in some cases, they sympathise with their ethic groups and work at cross purposes to the Nigerian army objectives.

Nigeria isn’t the only country that envisages the use of the military in civilian settings. For example, in the US the National Guard is called upon when the police are unable to contain protests or riots.

An attempt was made in Nigeria to create a similar system that would have set down the parameters of when the military could be called on. This was under the Ibrahim Babangida regime in 1989. But this attempt failed.

This means that soldiers are now called whenever it is expected that the police will underperform.

What should a framework for the military’s engagement look like?

The best thing to do would be to create a special unit in the army that would be professionally trained in civil-military relations. This unit would be like the National Guard in the US. Its sole aim would be internal security operations.

Serious emphasis would need to be laid on limited use of force in dealing with the civilian populace.

But other steps should be taken at the same time. First and foremost, the government must do something about the insecurity quagmire that bedevils the country. Nigerian leaders cum politicians should desist from looting national treasuries and pursue a development agenda that will benefit young Nigerians.

The #EndSARS protest was a wake-up call that the country can’t go ahead on the basis of business as usual. The proliferation of information through the social media has taken Nigeria to the world, and brought the world to our door step.

Kester Onor is Lecturer, Department of Political Science and International Relations, Covenant University

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