The Director, Army Public Relations, Brig. Gen. Sani Usman, speaks with OLALEYE ALUKO on abuse of human rights by soldiers, the Boko Haram operations and other issues
Some Nigerians ask why soldiers appear to see civilians like people to trample on. Does that feeling come from the training soldiers get or what?
We have told you times without number that the army has zero tolerance for human rights abuses by any of our personnel or group of personnel, as the case may be.
It is in that vein that the Chief of Army Staff, Lt. Gen. Tukur Buratai, deemed it fit to establish the human rights desk at the Army Headquarters, Abuja, and subsequently at formation levels.
The desk has the responsibility to listen to, investigate and make recommendations on related cases.
This is apart from the normal administrative procedures that we have. If you look at it, the army is a disciplined and professional body that does not tolerate unprofessional conduct on the part of its troops.
There appears to be an increase in the number of cases of soldiers physically abusing others, especially civilians. What is the army doing to curb this trend?
There are already existing mechanisms and administrative procedures for dealing with these issues.
And I can give you examples. Recently when the issue of the cripple in Onitsha occurred, there was no formal report of that incident to the military. We saw it on social media and took action. The same was with one Miss Ebere, the abuse which was said to have occurred between Port Harcourt and Onitsha towns.
We, however, have some other cases which were reported. Apart from the human rights desk administrative procedures, you will notice that lately, whenever we have field training exercises, we always issue statements, including phone numbers of the different commanders.
This is done in case there are infractions that people might want to report. In addition to that, there are telephone numbers for our human rights desks. Anyone who sees or hears anything that is inappropriate is eligible to make a report. Everyday therefore, we try as much as possible to make sure that we protect the human rights of citizens.
We have this respect for human rights built into our Code of Conduct, regulations and Rules Of Engagement.
The principal point in our ROE is to protect human lives. We tamper with lives as the last resort and that also has to be justified. So a lot is being done in this area.
If there were allegations of infractions, it would not go uninvestigated. We therefore want our people to have faith and trust in the Nigerian Army. Whenever things happen, the social media should not be the only place people run to. People should give room for dialogue and let the army make efforts to ameliorate the situation.
Sometime ago, we sentenced a sergeant to prison for molesting a young man, and another soldier was also sentenced to prison for assault. There are so many disciplinary procedures that are ongoing. We do not sit by and watch.
It is just that the Provost Marshal is the one who can give the exact number of such cases that we are handling. People will make allegations against the army and we would investigate. The people want offending soldiers to be prosecuted. Knowing full well that we will arraign the soldiers before the court, we ask the complainants to come as witnesses but we do not see them again. They run away.
This happens in about 75 per cent of such allegations made against soldiers by the public. If you know our battle against human rights abuses, you will realise that things are not the way they are being portrayed to the public.
Is it really an offence for someone who is not a military man to wear military uniform?
Exactly! It is an offence. I expected journalists to have done their homework very well. The Penal Code is there. And I think the punishment is even mild.
Knowing what the law says about wearing military camouflage is part of basic civic responsibility. I also know that ignorance of the law is not an excuse.
However, for the benefit of doubt, please know that Sections 110 & 111 of the Nigerian Criminal Code Act states: Any person who unlawfully wears the uniform of forces, etc. L.N. 112 of 1964. 1967 No. 27(1) not being a person serving in any of the armed forces of Nigeria, wears the uniform or any part of the uniform of such forces, or any of the armed dress having the appearance or bearing any of the regimental or other distinctive marks of such uniforms; or (2) not being a person holding any office or authority under the Government of Nigeria or of any part thereof, wears any uniform or distinctive badge or mark or carries any token calculated to convey the impression that such person holds any office or authority under the government; is guilty of an offence and is liable to imprisonment for one month, or to a fine of N10, unless he proves that he had the permission of the President or of the Governor of a State to wear such uniform or dress, badge or mark or to carry such token: Provided that this section shall not apply to the wearing of any uniform or dress in the course of a stage play or in any bona fide public entertainment.
It is not even our responsibility to check such excesses. It is the responsibility of the other security agencies, notably the police to check such excesses.
What happened was that in the Onitsha incident, the two soldiers were on an Operation Checkmate. The operation was to checkmate any erring soldier in the area.
Take for example, if I am sending a soldier into town, I am supposed to give him what you call, town pass. This pass will say why the soldier is in town.
Except with the pass, his going to town is not legitimate, because he is supposed to be in the barracks. If he is found to be without pass, you are supposed to bring him to the barracks and sanction him.
So these guys were on that exercise in Onitsha but they went overboard. And when we see things go wrong, we are supposed to report them so that the authorities can act on them.
In the ROE, if I see you trying to kill another person, I will kill you.
The Penal Code says three to four months imprisonment and N20 fine, which is not commensurate to present day realities. Such a law calls for a review.
What is the army doing about the state of military barracks as many of them are said to be unfit for habitation?
Which of the military barracks specifically? Look, those who come to equity must come with clean hands. People coming with allegations must be specific. I do not like sweeping allegations.
I have been to 95 per cent of barracks in this country. So I can tell you about the barracks. I do not mean that the barracks are with all the (necessary) facilities.
From records, we have newly remodelled and renovated soldiers’ accommodation in Dodan Barracks, Lagos State. We also have newly constructed Barracks in Gwoza, Borno State, Maimalari Cantonment, Maiduguri, and newly renovated barracks in Maxwell Khobe Cantonment, Jos, Plateau State.
All these were done by the current Chief of Army Staff’s administration.
Yes, there were barracks or accommodation built over the years that were in certain conditions, but I can assure you that new barracks are also being built every day.
Also, the dilapidated accommodations are being renovated and reconstructed. The Chief of Army Staff was in Calabar, Cross River State last week and he expressed his reservations about the shortage of accommodation for soldiers.
So, this work is ongoing. So many things are being done.
Even though the Army said it had defeated Boko Haram, attacks on innocent individuals have continued in the North-West region. Have your claims that you have defeated the sect been a ruse after all?
How do you mean? Let me tell you one thing. That is where some people lost it. Before we embarked on crackdown and clearance operations, we deliberately sensitised members of the public.
There are documents to support this. First, there were warnings; there was a first warning, a second one and a third one to ensure that innocent people left that region.
We implored members of the public, and also members of the families of the Boko Haram insurgents to prevail on the insurgents to come and surrender their arms.
There were leaflets and so many enlightenment programmes and campaigns, including the drug-related campaigns to ensure that any innocent person is not caught in the web. During operations, we cannot kill any suspected insurgent that is not armed. This is because we are not in a state of war.
The only exception is the people bearing improvised explosive devices. There were also committees and interrogative panels that looked into these issues.
I agree that some people were held as abductees and victims of the Boko Haram. We usually screen into them and then determine our next line of action.
If anyone is held against his or her will, the humanitarian agencies are there to monitor such people, and cater to them. Ours is to ensure that freed suspects are not compromised.
From records, the final warning we gave the insurgents was in October 2015.
We gave out a call that the Boko Haram members should come out and surrender to the troops as we had closed up on them. We also implored members of the international agencies and the world at large at that time to persuade the terrorists and their international collaborators to renounce their ideology.
The army had called on the terrorists to immediately and unconditionally release all their abductees, including the Chibok girls. That was the final warning to the insurgents.
Therefore, we gave three warnings. The first was when we appealed to parents and the people of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states to persuade their children and the terrorists to drop their arms. So, we sent out warnings before we began the final crackdown.
Also, we do not carry out armed operations without credible intelligence about the position of the insurgents. We do not just get up and carry guns.
But you also have to safeguard the lives of the troops too, such that you know the kind of arms to go with when leaving for an operation.
In October 2016, you came out with the list of some Boko Haram sympathisers, why is the army presently quiet over that issue?
What we said was that we were carrying out investigations. We did not say that they were Boko Haram sympathisers. They were rather disgruntled elements and the investigation was not meant to intimidate any soldier or officer.
There is no way you will be working for an organisation and your attitude or utterances will counter the operational objectives. By doing that, you are putting the lives of the troops in jeopardy. In the military, you are supposed to be honest, loyal and transparent.
What you see here in me is what you will see tomorrow and any day. Otherwise, you will find it difficult to believe me, to give me responsibilities or to follow me to war because you are not too sure what you will get. There are issues that people do not understand.
It is just like other fake stories that a French man or some groups of white people were caught in the Sambisa Forest. That is not true.
Yes, among the ranks of the Boko Haram terrorists, there are foreigners, who of course, came in from neighbouring African countries. We are arresting them, but they are not whites and there is no French man (among them).
Some security experts have said you do not claim total victory over terrorist groups because it could come back to prove a point. Did you see it that way?
The meaning of defeating an enemy in the theatre of war is when you prevent your enemies from successfully carrying out its intent.
In Nigeria, the Boko Haram terrorists were determined to establish an Islamic Caliphate and the Nigerian Army fought to see that it did not happen and can never happen. They cannot and they will never achieve that, and the army is proud of this.
The capture of Camp Zairo is the culmination of other operational activities that we engaged in. The fact that 21 Brigade entered the camp did not mean that 26 Brigade or 27 or 28 were not involved in the operations and in blocking positions. The troops were able to block and intercept a lot of terrorists.
What special provision is being made for widows who lost their husbands to the war?
We always have casualties and the provisions are there. But you have to find out what the provisions are. There has never been a time when there are operational allowances and provisions for families of troops like we have now.
We have several statutory provisions. We have what you call the Benevolent Fund. The Benevolent Fund is a contributory amount of money. You don’t get it until when you are leaving the service, if you are alive. But if you are not, your family will get a percentage of it.
We also have the Nigerian Army Welfare Insurance Scheme. You also contribute to that scheme, and get a premium and some amounts when you suddenly disengage from service.
There are also the death benefits and gratuity. It is for dead officers and it will depend on one’s rank and the number of years spent in service.
Also, there is Group Life Assurance. For example, just last week, a sum of N400m was given to about 179 families of dead soldiers.
Furthermore, for every soldier or officer who dies, his family members (of maximum four children) are sponsored by the Nigerian Army right from primary school to university level. And the payment of the children’s education varies from course to course.
These are five or six welfare provisions in the army.
Some of the allowances are paid by the Military Pension Board. But you will not appreciate this until you know what the situation was four or five years ago. If you lose a soldier today, the allowances are automatic and processed faster.
Therefore, there are some people who just talk without knowing the provisions of the army. It becomes the fault of the army if these officers are not given their allowances as and when due.
The Army will hold its championship in Sambisa Forest in a month’s time, are you concerned that the insurgents may want to invade surrounding villages?
Well, I know that responsibilities have been given out, including security. I want you to understand that the army is a professional and thorough body that does not take things for granted. Even though, it is now seven years that we have had such field exercise, I can assure you that adequate security has been put in place to ensure the safety of participants, as well as the communities.
I do not want to jeopardise the ongoing operations, but I know that we have continued the clearance and mopping up of the Boko Haram terrorists. And we have always implored the general public to assist us with information about the presence and whereabouts of the terrorists. Those who have been running and those who have been hibernating will be arrested.
We are living up to our word in the sense that efforts are ongoing to make sure that the Nigerian Army Small Arms championship takes place inside the Sambisa Forest. Already, arrangements are ongoing in terms of security, infrastructure, and everything you can think of to make the championship a hitch-free one. Committees have been set up.
Formations, units and corps have been directed and charged with responsibilities. And so far so good, with the arrangements in place, we are just waiting for the D-day to commence in earnest.
In the next few years, is it possible to have a Nigeria where there is zero Boko Haram operation?
I cannot tell you because it is not the army that created the Boko Haram in the first place. You see, the bottom line is that you have to study the meaning of insurgency to understand where we are headed.
Militarily, we, as the army, are doing all that we are expected to do to the best of our capabilities. But we are supposed to look at the other components of the society. If you find out how the sect started, you can then predict its end.