More than a year after the general election in the country, with a recent report by the United States of America (USA), the debate over the role played by the military during the polls is still generating ripples, writes KUNLE ODEREMI.
“None of our personnel will be involved in political campaigns, escort of VIPs for political missions and, above all, aiding or supporting any political party….Our rules of engagement and code of conduct have not assigned any political role to the army in this regard. The army’s involvement in the elections starts and ends with the provision of peaceful and secure environment for the conduct of the 2019 general elections.” That was vintage Chief of Army Staff (CoS), Brigadier General Tukur Buratai, at the threshold of the 2019 general election. His reason for making such unambiguous declaration was not far to seek. Buratai was trying to restore public confidence in the military, following increasing schism about its role in past elections in the country.
For the purpose of the 2019 elections, a huge number military personnel drawn from the Nigerian Army, Air Force and the Navy was deployed by the defence authorities. The Independent National electoral Commission (INEC) had provision in its own budget for logistics support for security. Hundreds of thousands of policemen were on duty for the same election across the country.
Authorities of The Nigeria Police said more than 300,000 personnel were to be deployed across the country, with the six Deputy Inspectors-General (DIGs) assigned to supervise elections in the six geopolitical zones in the country.
The Nigerian Army confirmed that 95 per cent of its men were deployed for security duties during the elections and threatened to treat as a terrorist, anyone caught in military uniform. Authorities at the Defence Headquarters (DHQ) Abuja also dismissed insinuations that those that would be on duty had been compromised to toe the line of a particular political party during the elections. A statement by the then Director of Army Public Relations, Brigadier General Sani Usman, stated that: “The attention of the Nigerian Army has been drawn to some insinuations on various social media platforms that the recent payment of uniform allowance to officers and soldiers was done to sway their voting towards a particular political party. This is not true.
“The payment of uniform allowance was started in 2016 to assist troops deployed on Operation Lafiya Dole as uniform upkeep and maintenance. The allowance was, however, extended to all Nigerian Army personnel because of their increasing engagement in various internal security operations across the country. It is important to note that 95 per cent of Nigerian Army troops will be engaged in security duties during the forthcoming general elections.
“Out of this, almost 40 per cent is in the North-East. Therefore, it is gross unfair and sheer mischief to associate the Nigerian Army with such mundane action. We, therefore, implore all well-meaning Nigerians to dissociate themselves from such fake and unwarranted information calculated to smear the Nigerian Army.”
In obvious reference to the pervasive fear that the military personnel could succumb to pressure to undermine the election, Brigadier-General Usman vouched for the integrity of the officers and men that would be on the field during the poll.
His words: “All Nigerian Army personnel must remain neutral, non-partisan and transparent in all their actions. I need to reiterate that there will be zero-tolerance for any action and in-action by commanders at all levels that are deemed tilted towards giving undue advantage to any candidate, political party, ethnic or religious leanings to the detriment of the unity and integrity of Nigeria.
“The Nigerian Army has always been professional, impartial and apolitical. We wish to state that no amount of campaign of calumny against it would change that.”
The justification for the deployment of troops for the election was not made by the DHQ alone. Top brass of the military corroborated the action, with the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), Gen Abayomi Olonisakin, shedding light on the troop deployment at the 2019 polls. He used the opportunity of an orientation programme for members of the National Assembly-elect to defend the deployment, saying it was constitutional, as the military personnel’s’ role could be described as their “secondary responsibility.”
The CDS noted, among other things, that: “There have been various arguments by different positions of political parties and other stakeholders on the legality and otherwise of the military in support of the civic authority in the election process. A critical area of support that was provided and, perhaps, not very visible to the public is the deployment of military logistics capabilities, especially naval and air access, to support the movement of materials across the country.
“I need to reiterate that this deployment is in line with constitutional role of the Armed Forces of Nigeria as earlier stated. Even in the last general elections, the security situation in the country during the election process is better imagined, if the military had not been deployed to perform their secondary responsibility. “Thus, the effect of security on governance is an important aspect that lawmakers, military personnel and the civil public need to understand, in order to make the right decisions. A good understanding of these dynamics would enable political leaders and public officials to make realistic decisions and enact laws to achieve national security objectives. Over the years, the Armed Forces of Nigeria have built various capacities to enable them to perform our various goals.”
However, the final reports of the various local and international election observer teams that monitored the last general election had a common denominator on the perceived role of the personnel of the security agencies and services during the poll. They declared that the role played by the military was, to say the least, partial and curious to all discernible minds.
According to them, the actions and inaction of the security agents undermined some of the gains of the more than 20 years of civil rule in the country.
The US, EU verdicts on 2019 elections
A report released by the United States government on the Human Rights record of Nigeria in 2019 has rekindled public scrutiny on what many now describe as undue militarisation of elections in the country. In the 88-page document, the US accused the personnel of the Nigerian Army and the Department of State Services (DSS) of unprofessional conducts during the general election. It claimed to have evidence that the army and the DSS intimidated voters, officials of INEC and election observers during the poll.
The report, tagged: “The 2019 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices in Nigeria,” which seems to resonate with the final reports of many local and international observer teams that monitored the election, has since been denied by the DSS.
Part of the US government report reads: “During the year (2019), INEC conducted the presidential election, National Assembly elections, state House of Assembly elections, and local elections in all 36 states plus the FCT, as well as governorship elections in 30 states. There was evidence military and security services intimidated voters, electoral officials and election observers.
In addition, violence in several states contributed to lower voter participation and added to the sentiment that the army is a tool of the ruling party in many parts of the country, particularly in the South.
“For example, widespread violence and military involvement in electoral processes, including during the vote collation process, significantly scarred the governorship election in Rivers State. Additionally, several of INEC’s Resident Electoral Commissioners (RECs) reported DSS operatives intimidated them when the RECs attempted to protect voting materials. Some RECs reported that security service personnel visited them multiple times prior to the elections.
“There were reports that corruption, including vote-buying, were historically high during the 2018/19 electoral season. Examples of vote-buying were apparent in the re-run of the Osun (State) gubernatorial election in September 2018, and during the Kano (State) gubernatorial election on March 9 (2019).”
It should be noted, for example, that there was an unprecedented massive deployment of troops, Intelligence, Reconnaissance and Surveillance (ISR) aircraft across the country by military authorities during the election. The development elicited reactions from within and outside the country, including the United Kingdom (UK), which expressed concerns over reported military interference in the elections, particularly in Rivers State.
The Nigeria Civil Society Situation Room also condemned the conduct of the military, demanding an independent inquiry into the conduct of the elections. Through its twitter handle, @UKinnigeria, the UK government was irked by “military interference in the election process in Rivers State,” following reports of UK election observers in Nigeria.
“Extremely concerned by reports, including from @UKinnigeria observers, of military interference in the election process in Rivers State. Monitoring the situation closely; @inecng staff must be allowed to do their job in safety, without intimidation,” it tweeted.
But, the then Defence spokesman, Colonel Onyema Nwachukwu, reiterated that the role of the military was in line with the provision of the constitution of the country.
He said: “The Armed Forces do not act on their own. Whatever role the Armed Forces of Nigeria are playing in the electoral process is as enshrined in the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria as amended. I have made reference several times to Section 217-220 of the constitution. Those roles are vested in the Armed Forces as enshrined in the constitution. The military does not act on its own. If you look at those sections, you will understand the role of the military and why it is deployed. The military does not just wake up and deploy itself.”
An international delegation organised jointly by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI) also issued a report on the election and advised on the issue of security. The IRI and NDI, which have monitored elections in Nigeria since 1999, noted that though security services and the military, police and unarmed security officials, for the most part, conducted themselves with restraint and professionalism in polling units where NDI/IRI observed.
“Observers reported a heavy military presence in some areas, including near polling units, which heightened tensions and raised fears of imminent military intervention in the election process. Media and credible observer groups also reported that the military disrupted the polls in some areas, including in Rivers State where soldiers were deployed heavily around INEC’s office.”
In its report, the European Union (EU) underscored issues that threatened the integrity of the 2019 general elections and came up with how to improve the conduct of future polls in the country. The EU election observation mission’s final report made 30 recommendations on how to improve future elections, especially through fundamental electoral reform. The EU deployed 73 observers to 223 polling units and 81 collation centres in 22 states for the general election.
The chairman of the INEC, Professor Mahmood Yakubu, said the commission adopted the EU recommendations on previous elections, being a steady partner since Nigeria returned to civil rule. He said the observations and recommendations of the EU election observation mission to the 2015 general election were particularly useful, as they were used for the design of some important proposals for reforming the electoral legal framework and in improving the electoral processes and procedures. Yakubu has promised that the EU team recommendations on 2019 elections would form the benchmarks in the reform to be submitted to the National Assembly.
“Every election in any democracy around the world is work in progress. We, therefore, look forward to the full EU EOM report and recommendations on the elections. We are confident that there will be useful lessons for the commission as we prepare for future elections. Indeed, the report is coming at the right time as it will feed into our ongoing review of the conduct of elections.”
The local observers› report
Similarly, the Nigeria Civil Society Situation Room questioned what it regarded as alleged unprofessional conduct of security agencies during the elections. The position of the coalition of 70 civil society organisations was contained in its preliminary statement on the March 9, 2019 governorship and state Houses of Assembly elections. The convener of the coalition of election monitoring groups, Clement Nwankwo, was concerned about the implication for the nation’s electoral process and called for quick action from the authorities to remedy the trend.
“Situation Room notes the worrying trend of increased and excessive involvement of the military and security officials in elections in Nigeria. These concerns have mounted, following the trend noticed in the February 23 elections. So, Situation Room would like to restate the provisions of Section 29 (3) of the Electoral Act.
“This states that the ‘deployment of Nigerian Armed forces for elections shall be at the request of INEC and only for the purpose of distribution and delivery of election materials and protection of election officials.’
“Situation Room calls on the Armed Forces to restrict themselves to these responsibilities as defined by INEC and the electoral law. Situation Room calls on the security agencies to ensure that they provide adequate security for the elections and in a manner that does not allow or encourage violence to be used as a tool for vote suppression.”
CODE is an INEC accredited observer for the 2019 elections, which has the record of monitoring electoral processes in Kenya in 2013, Nigeria in 2015 and the USA in 2016. It also released a final report on the 2019 presidential poll. Before the polls, the organisation launched Uzabe, a real-time (web-based map) situation technology for gathering real-time security intelligence and observing the electoral process. Apart from expressing serious concern about some inadequacies that characterised the elections, the body made a few suggestions on the way forward. The recommendations included that, in order to enhance confidence in the election process, INEC’s complete autonomy must be strengthened to ensure it provides more effective and objective electoral process; that the INEC should be decentralised to avoid issues of logistics and operational issues. It added that appropriate authorities should investigate all allegations of violence and cases of violent acts, as well as vandalism and destruction of election materials and electorates’ properties, in accordance with the rule of law, and perpetrators held legally responsible.
Besides, the organisation advised that: “Security agents must do better in protecting lives and properties of the electorate and ensure lives are not lost during the electoral process; we cannot keep addressing issues of electoral violence, except we adequately prepare for these contingencies.”
In the same vein, human rights activist, Mr Femi Falana (SAN), has consistently championed the crusade for the military adhering to its statutory function of protecting the territorial integrity of the country, instead of dabbling into electoral duties. Falana buttressed his position on several court injunctions against the involvement of the military in elections. For instance, he quoted Justice Mohammed Rilwan of the Federal High Court in Sokoto, as saying that “other than for the purposes of protecting Nigeria’s territorial integrity, there is no constitutional provision that allows for the deployment of the military for elections.”
The statement of Falana, entitled; “Illegal Involvement of Armed Forces in Election Duties,” read: “No doubt, President Olusegun Obasanjo engaged in the illegal deployment of the army for the manipulation of the 2003 general election. However, the courts have consistently enjoined the Federal Government to desist from involving the Armed Forces in the conduct of elections. Thus, in the leading judgment of the Court of Appeal in Yussuf vs Obasanjo (2005) 18 NWLR, the Court of Appeal held that “It is up to the police to protect our nascent democracy and not the military, otherwise, the democracy might be wittingly or unwittingly militarised. This is not what the citizenry bargained for in wrestling power from the military in 1999.
“The court reiterated its views in the case of Buhari vs Obasanjo (2005) 1 WRN 1 at 200, when it stated that; “in spite of the non-tolerant nature and behaviour of our political class in this country, we should, by all means, try to keep armed personnel of whatever status or nature from being part and parcel of our election process.
“The civilian authorities should be left to conduct and carry out fully the electoral processes at all levels. In upholding the judgment of the lower court, the Supreme Court stated in Buhari vs Obasanjo (2005) 50 WRN 1 at 313, that the State is obligated to ensure that “citizens who are sovereign can exercise their franchise freely, unmolested and undisturbed. Notwithstanding the aforesaid pronouncements of the courts, former President Obasanjo decided to deploy several battalions of soldiers to many states for the 2007 “do-or-die” general election.
“His successor, the late former President Umaru Yar’Adua, continued the illegal policy, as he deployed soldiers for the rerun gubernatorial election in Ekiti State in 2009.
“A week before the deployment, the then Speaker of the House of Representatives, Mr. Dimeji Bankole, had, during a political rally at Igede-Ekiti on April 2, 2009 sang, ‘a o lo soja, awa to lo mopol lojosi, a o lo soja’ (we shall use soldiers this time around, we who used mobile police the other time, we shall use soldiers this time around).
“The Armed Forces were involved in the conduct of the Edo, Anambra, Osun and Ekiti governorship elections. On June 19, 2014, two All Progressives Congress (APC) governors, Comrade Adams Oshiomhole and Mr. Rotimi Amaechi of Edo and Rivers states, respectively, had their fundamental rights to freedom of movement crudely violated at Iju, Itagbolu in Ondo State by armed soldiers who crudely prevented them from attending a political rally at Ado-Ekiti, the Ekiti State capital. The soldiers had claimed that they were acting on “orders from above.” The armed soldiers also subjected every hotel in Ado-Ekiti to search without warrant between 10:00 p.m. and 2:00 a.m. for the sole purpose of ejecting all those who could not give “satisfactory” explanation of their businesses in Ekiti State.
Yet, while all “illegal aliens” like then Governor Amaechi and others suspected to be APC members were harassed and expelled from the state by the army, some non-indigenes who were chieftains of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), including two serving ministers and an influential thug from Anambra State were allowed to “monitor” the election. Indeed, they were fully protected by the armed troops.
The courts› ruling against presidential abuse in civil matters
“Although the Court of Appeal affirmed the verdict of the Ekiti State governorship election that Mr Ayo Fayose of the PDP won, it condemned the intimidation of voters by armed troops.
“Speaking for the court, Justice Aboki stated that: “Even the president of Nigeria has no power to call on the Nigerian Armed Forces and to unleash them on peaceful citizens, who are exercising their franchise to elect their leaders.”
The court shortly before the 2015 general election also spoke against the deployment of soldiers during a civil exercise like elections. The Federal High Court, sitting in Sokoto, had declared the planned involvement of the Armed Forces in the 2015 democratic exercise illegal and unconstitutional.
The presiding judge, Justice Mohammed Rilwan, said that “other than for the purposes of protecting Nigeria’s territorial integrity, there is no constitutional provision that allows for the deployment of the military for elections.”
If the president was desirous to deploy soldiers for elections in the country, the judge advised him to request the National Assembly to enact a law to that effect. In the same vein, Justice Mohammed Buba of the Federal High Court granted the relief sought by Honourable Femi Gbajabiala and restrained the then President Goodluck Jonathan from deploying the Armed Forces for the 2015 general election.
A serial abuse of martial engagement
But the Nigerian governments have continued the serial abuse of the power of the president to control the military by deploying them strategically during elections. Political experts claimed the soldiers were deliberately employed directly to influence elections through intimidation of opponents and the civil populace who were usually cowed and prevented from carrying out their civic duties.
The governments in defiance of the perpetual injunction granted by the courts against the involvement of armed troops for elections have continued to use soldiers brazenly citing different exigencies for doing so.
For instance, former President Goodluck Jonathan in 2015 while justifying his decision to use soldiers in the 2015 elections on the lethal threat posed by Boko Haram terrorists had also directed the military men so deployed to guarantee “security” during the general election. The opposition, which cried blue murder, had accused the government of plotting to rig the election by using the force of the military.
The situation has continued in earnest under President Muhammadu Buhari. Every election conducted since he assumed office in 2015 had been held and supervised with the full force of the gun. Even staggered state governorship elections which ordinarily should have been managed by the police had witnessed military involvement with allegations of direct intervention and intimidation of citizens by soldiers. The 2018 governorship elections in Osun and Kogi states and their outcomes were said to have been hugely influenced by soldiers who were deployed by the president to provide security. There were reports of intimidation and even brutality of the electorate linked to the soldiers in some instances and allegations of compromise and/or complicity with the political class to rig in favour of some political interests in those elections, fuelling outrage and condemnations by both local and international observers.
The reason given by the government for deploying the Armed Forces was to “maintain law and order” during those elections and the 2019 general election.
In fact, General Buratai had reportedly been threatening to deal ruthlessly with electoral offenders.
But Falana has persistently maintained that the deployment of the Armed Forces for maintenance of law and order during elections cannot be legally justified, by virtue of section 215 (3) of the constitution which has vested the police with the exclusive powers to maintain and secure public safety and public order in the country.
In his opposition to the decision of the Buhari government to maintain the inherited tradition of using the military in elections by deploying them massively in the 2019 elections, the rights lawyer said it was simply an abuse of a civil process.
Though he agreed that the president is empowered, under Section 217 (2) of the constitution to deploy the Armed Forces for the “suppression of insurrection and acting in aid of civil authorities to restore law order,” meaning that «before the Armed Forces may be involved in the maintenance of law and order, there must have been insurrection or civil disturbances which cannot be contained by the police,» Falana contended that the provision did not give the president the power to use the military indiscriminately to suppress the people›s right to vote and be voted for.
“The constitution never envisaged that the Armed Forces will usurp the powers of the police with respect to the ‘preservation of law and order’ in any part of the country. As the constitution has limited the involvement of the Armed Forces in internal security to (a) the suppression of insurrection, including insurgency, and (b) aiding the police to restore order when it has broken down, it is illegal and ultra vires on the part of the president to deploy the armed forces to maintain law and order during elections,” he had argued, calling for more funding for the police that have been charged with the constitutional duty of securing the people and maintaining internal order.
“Consequently, the Nigeria Police should be adequately equipped and funded to discharge the duty of ensuring internal security in the country, while the Armed Forces are restricted to the defence of the nation’s territorial integrity. “Notwithstanding the contemptuous decision of the authorities of the Armed Forces to involve armed military personnel in the 2019 general election, they are advised to comply with the directive of the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, President Muhammadu Buhari, not to subject voters to intimidation while casting their votes on February 23 and March 9, 2019. Since all citizens, including voters, are restricted to their wards during the elections, the police and civil defence officials ought to maintain law and order, while military personnel are placed on alert as they are confined to their barracks,” Falana had argued.
Punishing electoral offenders
The reports also observed that electoral offenders are hardly punished in the country, calling for more strict enforcement of electoral laws. To improve the integrity of future elections in the country, the NDI/IRI suggested that the security agencies should work with INEC to enforce the electoral law by investigating and prosecuting perpetrators of election-related criminal acts, as well as investigate and sanction security personnel who violate the rules of engagement on Election Day.