According to federal Nigeria propaganda, last Tuesday’s bombing by a Nigeria Air Force jet of an Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp in Rann, Borno State, was an “accident.”
It was not.
The death toll, about 70, could rise to over 100, officials said of the attack, in which 200 others were injured.
The target and the embarrassing toll included previously hurt and starving refugees trying to obtain humanitarian aid, soldiers, as well as aid workers of Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) and the Red Cross.
Fearing an international scandal, the Nigeria military quickly claimed the bombing to have been an accident, as if that would absolve it of responsibility.
The bombing was anything but an accident; it was the direct consequence of the military’s tradition of indiscipline and incompetence.
In a comment in August 2012, I asked of the Joint Task Force (JTF), which was at the time handing the insurgency in the Northeast, “What is the JTF, and on whose side is it?”
It was in the months before an emergency was declared in the area, the JTF emerging as being as deadly as the Boko Haram it claimed to be defeating, but operating as if it were an army of occupation, rampaging through civilian populations with no apparent control or consequence.
Bragged the then JTF spokesman, Lt. Colonel Sagir Musa, Boko Haram was on the run and would “soon be defeated.”
“Who is supervising the JTF, especially in areas of conflict that have become increasingly impossible for observers and journalists to visit?” I asked, as reports continued to seep through about the quality of its carnage.
“Does JTF care when civilians are killed? If JTF is the best protection that desperate civilians can get in areas where they are looting, raping and brutalising, what does that portend for the future? When members of JTF act outside the law, who evaluates them, the JTF? When they brutalise and kill the innocent, who sanctions them, the JTF?”
Observing that the JTF seemed to make up its own rules of engagement as it marched, I asked, “When the JTF, smarting from criticism and monumental failures, announces it has arrested militants or discovered huge caches of arms or will soon end the war, is it strange that nobody seems to believe them?”
I am certain it did not surprise locals that JTF never defeated Boko Haram. It is the consistent character of the Nigerian military where it confronts conflict to impose terror and carnage, and sulk when accountability is demanded of it.
The bombing of the Rann IDP camp continues that tradition. How in the world does an authority which has enjoyed maximum and uncontested air control over an area since the conflict began claim it does not know the location of each camp where injured and starving civilians are huddling in fear?
If so, that is part of the indiscipline and incompetence.
How does an authority which is in celebration over its vanquishing of Sambisa and the dispersal of the enemy bomb one of the few IDP camps in existence only to describe it as an accident?
If so, that is part of the indiscipline and incompetence: some of the very factors responsible for our losing the Chibok girls in the first place three years ago.
How does the Air Force assault a civilian location it has had coordinates of for weeks or months and bomb it not once, but three times?
Worse still, did the Air Force have no coordinates? If so, what else doesn’t it have? What else has it blown out of existence we do not know because Red Cross and MSF personnel were not there? Could it, on the other hand, “accidentally” bomb the presidential palace in Abuja next week, or the Kaduna Stadium, or the Port Harcourt International Airport?
I have heard it said that the NAF has apologised for this incident. In other words, we should forget it and move on. It is not as if the dead have a choice, or as if the grieving families have a recourse. Our history is that every time a human rights report has indicted any of Nigeria’s security forces for violations of human, civil or political rights, they have reacted with outrage, as if—being so powerful—their right to do as they please should never be challenged. When caught, their crimes should never be reported.
That is partly why we are where we are as a people.
But is it just coincidence that, last week, just two days after the Cann bombing, policemen walked into the offices of Premium Times in Abuja and casually arrested its influential publisher, Dapo Olorunyomi upon “orders from above”?
Orders, not an infraction of the law by the publisher, or by Evelyn Okakwu, his judiciary correspondent whom the police seized along with him.
Their offence: their online news platform challenged the legal manhood of the Chief of Army Staff Tukur Buratai after the army asked them to retract certain news stories about its operations.
Naturally, the online news platform refused, and demanded that the army apologise for its unfounded insinuations, including sympathies with Boko Haram.
And so, the police showed up at Premium Times to visit pain upon the company and its staff for the equivalent of insubordination. Armed with “orders from above,” the old byword for “we don’t know what we are doing.”
It is not difficult to understand that Buratai’s real battle is with his image: an army chief who has failed to persuade his country he legitimately acquired luxury real estate in Dubai, a story championed months ago by the likes of Premium Times. An ethically-challenged army chief who—wink wink—has been allowed to continue in office.
And so, position—not character, not the law—appears to be on the ascendancy again, as some of us have predicted of current Nigeria. That is exactly how corruption overran the country in the first place, and how Nigerian officials came to own huge slices of the developed world, leaving their people the dump location for their waste and excess.
The government responded to the carnage in Rann by sending a delegation led by the Chief of Staff to the President, Mr. Abba Kyari. Its task: to condole with the government and people of Borno State and the international aid agencies.
No, these victims do not need condolences or visits by officials who would have forgotten them by next week. The citizens need truth and justice, which can only come from a government inspired by the patriotic spirit, not one which simply proclaims it.
But again, is it just coincidence that, two days after the Rann bombing, President Muhammadu Buhari was heading out to more developed and less-troubled climes?
A medical vacation, officials said. Convenient for him, but hypocritical, and somewhat in mockery of the dead, dying and bereaved of Rann.
I hope Acting President Yemi Osinbajo will demonstrate higher character. Into his hands falls the challenge of publicly ensuring the survival of some semblance of character for this government.