I had been in Maiduguri the previous week on a special assignment where I encountered a team of Lt General Tukur Buratai, the Nigeria’s Chief of Army Staff. They had been regular in the North-East zone probably in anticipation of meeting the presidential deadline to rout Boko Haram terrorists by December 2015.
There is this general impression of Buratai from not only his team but ground troops and the local community who refer to his exemplary conduct of humility, simplicity, probity and integrity. A son of a soldier, General Buratai is a Soldiers’ Soldier who is passionate about soldiering. I gathered that he hardly stays in the cosy Army Headquarters but at the battlefield coordinating military offensives against terrorists. Rather than merely directing the commanders, he leads in some daring military campaigns of pursuing terrorists, recovering villages and rescuing captives from Boko Haram’s dens.
His troops have become accustomed to his trademark infectious smile and can readily vouch for its genuineness. They are also at home with the fact that his words are constantly reassuring and his promises especially on welfare are kept. In the thick of the battle, he stays close to his troops, interacts, eats and sleeps with them – a risky undertaking for his rank and position. But like a leader who matches his words with actions, he does that to prove his sincerity and share in their critical moment of sacrifice for the nation.
When I returned the missed call on that Saturday, Colonel Usman Kukasheka narrated an incident that happened in Zaria when the convoy of Chief of Army Staff on a courtesy visit to Emir of Zazzau was obstructed by protesters. As we were talking his line went off and I could not reach him again.
I reached out to an embedded journalist in the convoy who narrated the incident. He said that some miscreants blocked the convoy of the Chief of Army Staff and that they remained adamant despite the pleadings and admonitions of Col Usman and other senior officers who pleaded that they allow the convoy a passage. The journalist disclosed that General Buratai had cautioned his team not to shoot but to plead even when the protesters were shouting and brandishing arms like Knives, catapult and clubs, in most provocative manner against the military convoy. He added that “The officers prevented the Army Chief from stepping out of his vehicle, to avoid being harmed by the protesters…”
I therefore sent a text to Colonel Usman requesting for an official Press Release on the incident for syndication by PRNigeria which he obliged with photos and video clips from the incident.
After the episode of December 12, 2015 with fewer casualties, the following days witnessed unfathomable confrontations that claimed over 300 lives of men, women and children, based on official estimates by Kaduna State government.
Many had expected an immediate response from the government. In the previous administration of Goodluck Jonathan where similar incident occurred in July 2014, the former National Security Adviser and Sokoto Prince, Sambo Dasuki led a government delegation to empathise with the community, sympathise with the victims and condole Sheik Ibrahim ElZakzaky whose children were also killed then. At that time, the then opposition leader, Nasir Elrufai tagged the incident “Genocidal Jonathanian Army kills Once Again” on his facebook page. But as a governor of the state one year after, his (Elrufai) state officials were prompt in demolition of residence, institutions and places of worship belonging to the Shiite group.
Meanwhile before the December incident in Zaria, there were some official releases by the Army that cautiously warned about attempts by undesirable elements to frustrate the war on terror. For instance, the Army Press Release of September 8, 2015 disclosed that it had “uncovered plans to thwarts efforts on War on Terror” by some organisations to create situations for human right abuse. In another Press Release of September 25, 2015, the Army warned “prominent individuals and political groups who hailed from Borno State in particular and North East generally… over plans to undermine and scuttle the fight against terrorism and insurgency in Nigeria.” It went further to state that the individuals and groups “are employing the services of marabouts and other unethical means in order to frustrate our efforts and the operations in addition to campaign of calumny.”
Similarly, there was also a final warning to terrorists in October 20, 2015, where the Army cautioned “All Boko Haram terrorists wherever they are, to desist from all acts of terrorism, surrender themselves and face the law (and that) … failure to surrender will result in serious consequences as our troops have closed up on them.”
Finally, on November 23, 2015, the Army issued an alert on impending smear campaign by some disgruntled elements. The release clearly stated that “The Nigerian Army has received report of some elements both within the Nigerian Army and outside… to ridicule the Nigerian Army and the person of the Chief of Army Staff for reasons best known to them. They intend to execute this plan as from next month, December 2015, using all means possible….”
The release also alluded to the existence of fifth columnists in the system when it added that “the Nigerian Army has identified some of the officers involved and their collaborators. The officers are being investigated to unravel their motive and motivation.”
Going by those warnings and alerts, could it not be possible that some undesirable elements infiltrated the protesters in Zaria by acting the ugly script since the Shiite group are claiming that they had been holding such processions and demonstrations for more than 30 years? Can the speedy action of Kaduna State Government in the demolitions of Shiite’s places have other motives? Apart from the military presence could there be some unknown forces remotely triggering the reported carnage? Were some members of the community who are now blaming the Shiites for nuisance in Zaria be directly or indirectly involved in the whole shoddy incident?
I was delighted to accompany the management of Centre for Crisis Communication (CCC) on a visit to the Chief of Army Staff in Abuja last week with the hope that General Buratai would say something on the issue. During our interaction however, the quintessential General narrated the successes of the military campaign in the North-East and other initiatives on human right compliance in the armed forces. When the issue of Zaria incident came up, his countenance changed: his head bowed with jaws resting on his hands. For some seconds the room was silent.
When he raised up his head, looking towards our direction, his smile had disappeared, and with emotion, he merely said: “I don’t want to join issue with anyone…. But I must state that by our culture and professional training, soldiers don’t just attack anyone arbitrarily without provocation and justification. We abide by the rules of engagement which guide every action we take. We have a responsibility to protect our citizens from insecurity and impunity.
“We have been fighting terrorism with all our might, spirit and energy and would avoid anything that will distract our efforts.”
“How can anybody accuse a responsible armed agency of government of murder? On the contrary, the people were attacking the soldiers with petroleum bomb and other weapons. In actual fact, not all of them knew how to handle Molotov they were trying to use against the Army and it back fired on them.”
After his words, I realise that there is an urgent need for a thorough, independent and unbiased investigation on Zaria carnage to unravel the mystery behind the sad incident.