Monday Column by Emmanuel Yawe
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At the burial ceremony of the 19 soldiers killed by the militia in Zaki Biam in 2001, Obasanjo announced that he had ordered security agencies to track and arrest the murderers. This was not a difficult assignment because the criminals posed with their victims in photo sessions before killing them. The pictures were widely circulated in the Nigerian media.
The decision to grant the dead soldiers a Grand National burial in Abuja created excitement in media circles in the Federal Capital. I was at the Defense Headquarters in Area 7 that day to get access to information when I ran into a Defense Attaché from a Western country. He told me originally that as he was talking to me at that time, the military were bombarding General Victor Malu’s country home in Benue. His visit to the place was to find out why the military was attacking the country home of its former chief. Regrettably, he was frustrated as no officer wanted to talk to him about the attack.
The Nigerian media has wrongly termed what happened that year as the invasion or sacking of Zaki Biam. The truth however is that Zaki Biam is just the headquarter of a Local Government in a senatorial zone of six Local Governments. This whole zone was cordoned off by soldiers with an armada of armored tanks that were given air cover by helicopter gunboats. The military juggernaut then proceeded to unleash systematic terror on unarmed civilians, a type that had not been seen or heard of in Nigerian history.
The Human Rights Watch did a very detailed and painstaking report on the invasion. It includes the atrocities at Gbeji where soldiers gathered unarmed people in the market square, supposedly for a peace meeting and shot many of them at point blank range. Others at the gathering were shot in the legs, drenched in petrol and then set ablaze.
A special target for the invading army was the country home of Obasanjo’s former Chief of Army staff General Victor Malu. His family house at Tse Adoor in Katsina Ala local Government was razed to the ground; his mother of over 80 years drilled and beaten while his blind uncle of over 90 years was thrown into a burning house where he roasted to death as his shocked wife watched. She was later shot to death.
Before General Malus mother died this year, I had the privilege of talking to her on several occasions after the invasion about her ordeal. She told me the soldiers who drilled and tortured her said they were sent specifically to kill her and her son the General. She told me she responded that she was the mother of all Nigerian soldiers and she would be glad to die in the hands of her children. I have known that woman of extraordinary Christian faith and courage since I was born. She couldn’t have told lies to me.
Additionally, roadblocks were mounted in the Senatorial Zone and Tiv tribesmen who were travelling in vehicles brought down and shot. In fact the damage done to human life at Zaki Biam was minimal because as news of the mass slaughter of Tiv men by soldiers spread, they all fled the town into the bush. Still the soldiers made sure they leveled all buildings in Zaki Biam – the Local Government Secretariat, the Divisional Police Office and particularly the modest house of Hon. Benjamin Chaha, former Speaker House of Representatives.
Obasanjo never went to see the damage that was done by his soldiers but he allowed his Vice President Atiku Abubakar to go. The Vice President expressed horror at what he saw. Chuba Okadigbo, the Senate President also went and in disbelief said the brutality used to destroy Zaki Biam was not used even during the Biafra civil war.
The first reaction of President Obasanjo was to deny the involvement of Nigerian soldiers in the massacre of civilians. Then as evidence became irrefutable, he argued that what happened in Benue is what people should expect when they kill soldiers.
Due to domestic and international pressure, Obasanjo reluctantly set up a panel under Justice Okechukwu Opene to investigate communal disturbances in Benue, Plateau, Nassarawa and Taraba states. This panel and its terms of reference did not meet the expectations of those who wanted the atrocities during the Benue invasion properly investigated. To expand the panels scope – covering other states – looked like a deliberate diversion.
At the sitting of the panel, the army came with fabricated accounts of what took place in General Malu’s country home. They said the destruction there was caused by explosives stored in the compound to wage war against the Nigerian army. The General himself sat there shaking his head in absolute disbelief of this cooked up story and many more bizarre ones from the army he served and even led. Still, he and other people cooperated with the panel and by 2003, it submitted it’s report.
The report went the way many other panels set up by governments in Nigeria go – thrashed and forgotten. It is believed that the government of Obasanjo refused to release it because it said one or two things in its conclusions that were not in favor of his government. This was reinforced by the fact that his successor, Umaru Yar’adua and his army chief tendered a public apology to the people of Benue for the conduct of the military during the massacre.
The massacre also attracted litigation. Dr Alexander Gaadi an indigene of Vandeikya Local Government in the Senatorial zone took the army and government to court with claims that he suffered physical torture, loss of property and relations during the invasion and won his case. A Federal High court in Enugu granted him the over 40billion Naira he claimed as damages. And even though there has been no appeal and no superior court has voided that judgment, the compensation was not paid until Dr Gaadi himself died in frustration.
Now that the conduct of the Nigerian military has led to a debilitating stroke and death of one of the finest officers Nigeria has ever produced, the army needs to sit down and do a thorough review of how they relate with the civil society. If the army could display this kind of barbarism against one of their own, their very best, their chief, then how safe is the bloody Nigerian civilian?
While the Nigerian army often comes back from foreign peace keeping missions with suspicious accolades of their exemplary conduct, what we witness in Nigeria when they are called upon to quell internal disorder like what happened in the Tiv-Jukun clashes of 2001, culminating in the attempt to assassinate Gen Malu leaves much to be desired.