Twice last Friday, the Nigerian Army issued statements, one suspending the activities of United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) in the northeast of the country and the other lifting the suspension. The first action was faulty, we must say. The second was the triumph of commonsense and we commend it. In the first statement, the military accused the international humanitarian agency of training persons to sabotage the counter-insurgency efforts of troops in the North-east where Boko Haram and its splinter group, Islamic State in West Africa Province, have waged a decade long insurrection in which tens of thousand people have been killed and many more driven from their homes. These are catered for by aid agencies, including UNICEF.
However, the military alleged that UNICEF was “training and deploying spies who support the insurgents and their sympathizers”. The statement went further to characterise the agency’s “unwholesome practices that could further jeopardize the fight against terrorism and insurgency”. For that reason, its operations in the North-east were being suspended in the northeast until further notice. Hours later came a second statement, saying the military had held an emergency meeting with UNICEF representatives late on Friday. “After extensive deliberations on the need to seek modalities to work harmoniously with the security agencies in the theater of operation, the Theatre Command has henceforth lifted the three months suspension earlier imposed on UNICEF”. The military said during the meeting it urged “UNICEF representatives to ensure they share information with relevant authorities whenever induction or training of new staff is being conducted in the theater”.
We said earlier that the suspension was faulty because it was precipitate. It was an action, taken most probably on the spur of the moment. That means it was not thought trough. In this war against insurgency, the military cannot afford new enemies, especially people that are connected internationally. We are not saying if UNICEF staff had done anything untoward, the military should shut its eyes simply because it is an influential world body. No! We are saying that an allegation as weighty as aiding and abetting the insurgency should have been reported to the United Nations while local investigation was going on. From the reaction of the spokesman of UNICEF in Nigeria, it did appear that was not done.
A thorough inquiry would have established whether or not the accusations were true. At the same time it would have given the military an opportunity to put its case across to Nigerians and the international community. But that hasty action of suspending the agency’s operations shut that window of opportunity. No wonder, many Nigerians, especially beneficiaries of UNICEF’s humanitarian work in the North-east and other parts of the country were not sold on the military’s accusations. We recall that that in April, military declared three UNICEF employees “persona non grata”, in connection with alleged leaks of information about soldiers sexually abusing children in the northeast. The declaration was rescinded days later after pressure from diplomats. And now this latest faux pas! We advise that the military, next time, try to avoid the embarrassment of taking a punitive action only to reverse itself moments later.