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Published On: Tue, Apr 3rd, 2018

Alleged ethnic cleansing and the military

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By Jibrin Ibrahim

Nigeria’s former defence minister and chief of army staff, T.Y. Danjuma, on Saturday accused the Nigerian armed forces of aiding the on-going killings in the country, especially the deadly attacks in his home State of Taraba. “The armed forces are not neutral,” General Danjuma said at the maiden convocation of the Taraba State University in Jalingo; “They collude with the armed bandits to kill people, kill Nigerians.” He added that the armed forces rather than protect the people, “facilitate” the movement of armed attackers and often provide cover for them. His conclusion was chilling: “If you wait for the armed forces to stop the killing, you all die one-by-one,” The way forward, he said, was for the people to defend themselves.
There has been a national debate on his comments. This is partly because he rarely speaks and when he does, people listen. People also know he is a close confidant of President Buhari and the expectation is that if he has a message for the government, he has the access to directly reach the summit of the state. The consensus therefore might be that no one is listening to him, so he decided to speak out to create impact. The other reason for concern is that people know he chooses his words carefully, so this is not an outburst but a decision to openly rebuke and express his disgust with the institution, the Nigerian army, that made him.
Many people feel that his statement might push people towards arming themselves and creating anarchy, as they give up on security agencies and procure arms to descend on their neighbours, who they have re-categorised as enemies. This is my main concern. We all know that the armed forces often overreach themselves and violate the rights of people. We also know that currently, the armed forces are deployed in at least 32 States in the country, where they are engaged in operations. I recently served on the Presidential Panel Investigating Alleged Human Rights abuses by the military and there are three things that struck me from the evidence we heard. The first is that there are indeed human rights violations by the military but it is not systematic. The second is that when communities are asked whether the military should be withdrawn from their area, the universal response is usually ‘NO’ because there are security concerns that only the military can handle. The third issue is that for most Nigerians, the police, who should normally be the agency to handle civil conflicts, is so bad that the military is the only viable option for now. It is for this reason that I am concerned about the blanket condemnation of the military by General Danjuma.
The other concern I have is the assertion by the General that: “There is an attempt at ethnic cleansing in the State and of course, some riverine states in Nigeria. We must resist it. We must stop it. Every one of us must rise up.” He did not say who was committing the genocide against whom. The assumption among those listening to the General is that the genocide is by “Fulani herdsmen” against indigenous communities in Taraba State. If indeed this is the assumption, then there is a problem. Taraba State is one area where there are credible reports of large-scale massacre of Fulani pastoralists and there is evidence that the killings go both ways. We need to be careful about the way in which we use concepts such as ethnic cleansing.
The term “ethnic cleansing” came into wide usage in the 1990s, to describe the treatment suffered by particular ethnic groups during conflicts that erupted after the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia. It would be recalled that after the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina declared its independence in March 1992, Bosnian Serb forces waged a systematic campaign of forced deportation, murder, torture and rape, with the aim of expelling all Bosnian Muslim and Croatian civilians from the territory of eastern Bosnia. This violence culminated in the massacre of as many as 8,000 Bosniak men and boys in the town of Srebrenica in July 1995. In his 1993 article, “A Brief History of Ethnic Cleansing,” published in the magazine Foreign Affairs, Andrew Bell-Fialkoff writes that the aim of the Serbian campaign was “the expulsion of an ‘undesirable’ population from a given territory due to religious or ethnic discrimination, political, strategic or ideological considerations, or a combination of those.”
Using this definition, historians have rolled back the term to apply to the aggressive displacement of Native Americans by European settlers in North America in the 18th and 19th centuries as ethnic cleansing. The case of Rwanda in the 1990s is also categorised as ethnic cleansing because members of the majority Hutu ethnic group massacred hundreds of thousands of people, mostly minority Tutsis, from April to July 1994. The most prominent example of extremist nationalism-fuelled ethnic cleansing was that of the Hitler regime in Germany and its campaign against Jews in German-controlled territory from 1933 to 1945. This movement began with cleansing by deportation and ended in the horrific “final solution” — the destruction of some 6 million Jews (along with some 250,000 Gypsies and roughly the same number of homosexuals) in concentration camps and mass killing centres. The term ethnic cleansing is often linked to genocide, and is today considered to be “crimes against humanity” and “war crimes.” We therefore need to be careful about the way we use it.
The allegation by General Danjuma about the lack of neutrality of the armed forces is serious and should be thoroughly investigated. We live in a country with a long history of the lack of neutrality of the security agencies. During the First Republic, the NPC regime of Tafawa Balewa declared a State of Emergency in the Western Region to give the police full “freedom” to harass the opposition. In the North, the Native Authority Police was used as an instrument to harass and intimidate the opposition and these practices played a major role in eroding the legitimacy of the democratic order, leading to regime collapse. During the Second Republic, the police was also used to intimidate the leadership of the opposition states and state police commissioners acted as if they were alternate governors posted to impose the “federal might”. This created a huge political anomaly as state governors are supposed to be in charge of peace, security, law and order in their states. Now that the military is deployed all over the country on operational duties, the feeling of lack of neutrality could pose a real problem to State legitimacy.

Jibrin Ibrahim is a Senior Fellow of the Centre for Democracy and Development, and Chair of the Editorial Board of PREMIUM TIMES.

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