Import of barbaric murder of 17 soldiers

By Azuka Onwuka

Reports of mass killings in Nigeria ceased to be news long ago, but last week’s killing of 17 soldiers in Okuama community in Ughelli South Local Government Area of Delta State could not escape the headlines. Among those killed were one lieutenant colonel, two majors, one captain, and 13 non-commissioned officers. Reports said that the troops, who were from the 181 Amphibious Battalion, were on a peace-making mission to maintain peace between Okuama and Okoloba communities when they were ambushed and killed.

It was not just that they were killed, the gory and bestial way they were killed was shocking. The details are too graphic to be repeated here. These are fellow human beings. That they are soldiers is secondary. They were not born soldiers. They were fathers to some people, husbands to some people, sons to some people, brothers to some people, and uncles to some people. They had life dreams like other people. They faced life challenges like other human beings. Yet they were brutally killed and their bodies desecrated in a horrific manner.

But one clear message is that something incomprehensible has happened to the humanity of many Nigerians. Human life has been so cheapened that it means nothing to many anymore. There is always a justification from all quarters, with each group pointing the finger at the other as the aggressor or initiator of the callousness.

The military and police (and all other security agencies) are usually accused of being excessively callous to civilians and different groups pushing one ideology or the other. There have been reports by Amnesty International of security operatives shooting unarmed civilians from the back – a sign that the civilians were fleeing instead of confronting – pouring raw acid on them, torturing them in unimaginable ways, etc. The security operatives, in turn, would accuse civilians and different groups of initiating the callousness by repeatedly killing and dehumanising the bodies of security operatives, as was seen in this Okuama case and many other cases. Given these scenarios, whenever one side has the opportunity, it visits bestiality to the other side with the belief that it is embarking on revenge or retaliation. And like it is said, an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.

Immediately after the gruesome murder of soldiers was reported, residents of Okuama abandoned their homes and fled to other communities. Why did they flee? Based on the antecedents of the military, they feared that soldiers would attack the community in a mindless manner, kill everybody in location and destroy every house in view. And true to their fear, the next day their community was attacked. Houses were set ablaze one after the other. TV stations showed a row of houses burning. While people, fingered the military in the attack, the military denied it. However, not many people believed that denial because of how the military had reacted to similar attacks in the past.

In the past, when soldiers were killed in Odi and Zaki Biam, for example, the military descended on the communities and razed them to the ground. Even though it was not done under a military regime, the military did not even deny that it did it. Rather it was justified as the consequence of killing soldiers. One does not know if the president, who is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, is usually aware of such actions. But the bottom line is that it has become “acceptable” as the norm for soldiers to burn down any community where their officers were killed. Afterwards, no soldier is charged for such wanton killing and destruction. People are still warned not to dare the military.

What this has fostered is a vicious cycle of mindless violence, barbarism and lawlessness. Given the many instances of the gruesome killing of security operatives across the country, it has proved that razing down communities has not served any positive purpose. What it has done is to increase the bestiality in those who engage in atrocious killings.

No matter how it is explained and justified, razing down a community in retaliation for the killing of soldiers paints a shameful picture of Nigeria. It says to the outside world that Nigeria is a lawless country. When non-state actors carry out such mindless killings and arson, it does not project the country well. But when it is executed by state actors, especially the military that is charged with defending the country against external aggression, it is interpreted as the military taking up arms against the country it is meant to defend. Developed countries find it shocking and difficult to explain.

Twenty-five years after the end of military rule, the military still finds it hard to treat things in line with democratic principles. The military still believes that it is above the law, that it is above other citizens, that every problem should be resolved with violence. When civilians have any issue with soldiers, the soldiers beat them up, torture them, dehumanise them. It is taken as the norm and even joked about by comedians and civilians. But the military authorities have to be commended for sometimes punishing soldiers who are caught on video torturing civilians.

But it should go beyond punishing soldiers who are captured on camera dehumanising civilians. The better way is to have a military that has the culture of respecting civilians and treating them with dignity. Developed countries have achieved this. Soldiers in such countries don’t see themselves as above the civilians. Even when a civilian shouts at them or assaults them physically, they don’t retaliate. They report such to the police to handle.

In such countries, when a civilian wears military fatigue like trousers, shirts or caps, the military sees such as an advert for it, the same way a company will see anybody wearing its clothing bearing its logo. However, in Nigeria, any time the military sees a non-soldier wearing anything considered to have military colours, it is an opportunity to assault the person.

Given the long unbroken 25 years of democratic rule in Nigeria, one would assume that the relationship between the military and the civilian populace would have changed for the better. The civilians still fear the military and see it as an aggressor, while the military sees the civilians as enemies who are ever ready to wipe out the military. It is hard to believe that the soldiers and civilians are from the same country.

There needs to be a strong orientation between the soldiers and the civilians on how to relate with one another. First, the mindset of soldiers needs to be completely overhauled to see themselves as protectors and friends of the civilians, while the civilians should be made to understand that soldiers are doing the extraordinary duty of protecting them and therefore need all the love and appreciation. No soldier should be targeted for killing by any group. It should not be acceptable in whatever form.

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