THIS week, in a widely criticised move, the Chief of Army Staff, Lieutenant General Tukur Buratai, dared the international and human rights communities, labeling critics as subversive elements for their utterances over the shooting of unarmed protesters at Lekki toll gate, Lagos, recently. Among others, the European Union, the United Kingdom and United States governments and rights groups like Amnesty International had called for a probe of the Lekki incident, with some local activists threatening to drag Buratai and other officers and soldiers of the Nigerian Army to the International Criminal Court and calling for a travel ban to be imposed on key military officials. Apparently taking umbrage at the calls for accountability over the Lekki shootings, Buratai declared that criminals were threatening him and the Army with a travel ban. He said: “We will not allow any force, elements or destabilising agents in or outside our country to set our beloved country on fire. We remain resolute in doing everything possible to ensure that subversive elements, detractors and other enemies of this great nation do not achieve their aims and objectives of destabilisation.” Buratai made this submission while addressing principal staff officers, general officers commanding and field commanders at a meeting in the Nigerian Army headquarters in Abuja.
The organisers of the #EndSARS protests, said the army chief, planned from the outset, “massive propaganda to discredit the military and the government so as to set the people against the NA once it is called out to aid the civil authorities.” He added that the Nigerian Army being aware of the devilish plan was careful not to be dragged into the fray and thus issued its initial warning through a press release on 14 October of its resolve to secure and safeguard a united Nigeria. He then surmised: “Now, the detractors alongside their local and international collaborators have mischievously and deliberately misrepresented troops’ efforts to ensure compliance with the curfew imposed by legitimate civil authorities in Lagos and other states.” For good measure, Buratai dismissed the calls for a travel ban on top military officers over the Lekki tragedy, saying: “Criminal elements are threatening us with travel ban but we are not worried because we must remain in this country to make it better. The first time I travelled outside of this country, I was already 50 years and a General, so I don’t mind if I live the rest of my life here.”
Were there no documentary evidence that the army chief made the comments attributed to him, it would have been extremely difficult to believe that an officer of his calibre could make such demeaning and condescending statements against the country’s human rights community and the international community. Among the #EndSARS protesters were some of the country’s brightest minds, and it is on record that professional organisations, the academia and virtually the entire country supported the protests. So did Nigerians in the Diaspora, as well as freedom-loving people all over the world. What is more, state governments across the country and even the Federal Government in which Buratai serves not only acknowledged the legitimacy of the protests but also took immediate declarative steps to address the demands of the protesters. In any case, the #EndSARS movement started in 2017 and the events of this month were only the culmination of latent outrage built up over the years. It is therefore disingenuous to say that the protests were aimed at discrediting the Nigerian Army or the military. In any case, as many have pointed out already, until the Lekki incident, no one was calling for the indictment of military chiefs.
It is surprising that the army chief failed to see the broader picture of the concern of the international community, which is justice for victims of the Lekki shooting and the consolidation of democratic rule in the country. We find his declaration that he was 50 and already a General when he first travelled out of the country quite petty. It is shameful that the COAS evaded the real issue, which is accountability over the Lekki shooting. We also note that while Buratai directed his warning at the #End SARS protesters who were exercising their constitutional right to legitimate protest on October 14, the Defence Headquarters issued a statement expressing its noble intention to protect the protesters from hoodlums. In previous editorials, we have had occasion to deplore Buratai’s utterances. We find it noteworthy that we have had no occasion to take up other service chiefs, apparently because they have not habitually courted controversy.
We categorically reject Buratai’s characterisation of civil society and the international community as criminals. There is no evidence that the #EndSARS protesters and their supporters within and outside the country, including Senior Advocates of Nigeria, are hoodlums or criminals. We also reject the implicit defence of the Lekki atrocity while investigations are still supposedly ongoing. To be sure, we are not against the prosecution of hoodlums who took advantage of the peaceful and colourful #EndSARS protests and unleashed mayhem across the country. And neither do we make light of “troops’ efforts to ensure compliance with the curfew imposed by legitimate civil authorities in Lagos and other states.” What is at issue is the nature of these “efforts” in Lekki. We urge the army boss to be circumspect in his utterances going forward. Duty, conscience and professionalism would dictate no less.
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