Allegations of extrajudicial killings blight army’s peacekeeping operation in C’River

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Allegations of extrajudicial killings of civilians in a farming community by troops of the Nigerian Army in Cross River State have continued to raise dust. Following repeated denials and defence by the Army authorities that its personnel went on a search and rescue operation in the area. Lukman Abolade tracked victims and eyewitnesses who sorrowfully relieved horrifying accounts of events that unfolded

As a gust of wind blew over Nko, in the Yakurr Local Government Area of Cross River State on the morning of Sunday, June 26, it revealed smouldering ruins left in the wake of an alleged reprisal by soldiers drafted to maintain peace in the area plagued by recurrent communal conflicts.

Weeks after the attack, PUNCH Investigations gathered that fears of more military invasion still hangs thickly over the agrarian community, with many still preferring the dangerous confines of the bush to the comfort of their homes.

Taken by surprise

PUNCH Investigations learnt that as residents went about their daily activities on the evening of Saturday, they were startled by sounds of gunfire and scampered in different directions for safety.

It took them some time to realise that the shots were being fired by troops drafted from Edor Barracks in Ikom to curtail the recurring communal conflicts between the community and Oyadama in Obruba LGA.

The twist, however, according to eyewitnesses, was that the soldiers were not shooting at armed dissidents or non-state actors, but directly at residents. They were also alleged to have broken into homes to kill those caught unawares, went after some that ran into the bush and burnt property. Several eyewitnesses that spoke to PUNCH investigations confirmed that the men who invaded the community were soldiers in full combat uniforms, noting that the invasion started on Saturday and continued up till Sunday.

 How it started

PUNCH investigations gathered that a day before the incident, six soldiers including a colonel, were attacked by rampaging Nko youths that accused the Army of being partial in their face-off with Onyadama community.

Angered by the act, soldiers in their numbers were alleged to have launched an offensive on Nko, which the Army authorities described as an operation meant to fish out those that attacked its men. It was learnt that by the time the soldiers left and silence descended on the community, wives had been turned into widows and children orphaned.

As billowing smoke from burning buildings dissipated, it revealed an unimaginable carnage left in the wake of the alleged military onslaught. No official figure of the dead has been released, but villagers claimed that six fatalities were recorded, including women and the elderly. There were also claims of missing persons.

 Septuagenarian allegedly burnt in his house

For members of the offem family, the charred, grotesque remains of their 70-year-old father, Cletus, were what their mother, Mary, returned to meet from the bush where she ran naked, to take refuge.

The aged couple, it was gathered got wind of the attack rather too late.

Cletus, fondly called ‘That Kind Man,’ based on his wife’s account, rushed into the house to make her dress up quickly, but luck was not on their side as the soldiers, in no time, allegedly surrounded the house, destroyed everything in sight.

Cletus

PUNCH Investigations learnt that before the elderly woman could grab a wrapper, some soldiers allegedly broke into the house through the front door and she ran out naked through the backdoor into the bush. Cletus, her husband was, however, trapped inside the house and it was learnt that he died in the most horrifying manner.

Aaliyah is the elderly couple’s second daughter and she resides in Abuja. She was inconsolable while speaking with our correspondent about the incident, which she said she got wind of through a Facebook post.

She said, “A mutual friend in the village tagged me in the post, calling my attention to the incident. When I was finally linked to one of those that witnessed the incident, I was shocked by what I heard.”

The young lady said she was further traumatised by her mother’s graphic details of the incident.

Aaliyah recounted, “My mother felt that once they enter the sitting room and don’t find anybody, they would leave, by which time my father can escape to the bush. From where my mother was hiding, she saw the soldiers aggressively break into our house, destroying things.

“At a point, she saw smoke coming out from the house and ran out from the bush, towards the house in search of my father. She was shocked to realise that our house had been set ablaze. She said my father bought fuel the previous day and filled the generator that was usually kept inside the house. She knew it was unsafe for him. My mother said she heard an explosion from the house and as my father tried to come out, the soldiers pushed him back inside and locked the door.”

She added, “They pushed my mother aside as she wept and begged them to open the door. She called on people to come to rescue her husband from the burning building. It was after they left that some women sneaked out from the bush and gave her a wrapper to cover her nakedness. They then dragged her away from the building into the bush.”

Tweets for help

Aaliyah claimed that on Monday, a day after the incident, while her mother and others were still hiding in the bush, the soldiers returned, causing more havoc, which prompted her to go on Twitter to draw attention to the dire situation.

Using the Twitter handle @Soyi Hadassah, the young lady, who is a chef, tweeted, “Dear Nigerians, They’re still shooting sporadically in my village (Nko, Yakurr area). It’s enough that they burnt our house with my father in it and my poor mother is still in the bush hiding for her life. We can’t even travel, which makes it more horrible. Help me, help my father, help the homeless and poor people in Nko.”

Another, using her handle, @Christiine_U, tweeted, “A family friend just told me about this. Her mum is stuck at home and she can’t walk, the people taking care of her and feeding her have fled to the bush leaving her to her faith. The woman is scared and hungry alone at home. My friend is scared here in Lagos. Send help to Nko.”

Also, another frantic Nko indigene, using the handle @thatgirlsteh wrote, “My colleague had to leave work early cuz she got a call that they burnt her family house and her mom’s shop and that her dad is missing.”

Also, @EduEle5 tweeted: “Nigeria has happened to one of our own again. These soldiers burnt the home of @Soyi_Hadassah with her father inside. I was on the phone with mum today when she was telling me about the refugees that are looking for where to lay their heads in our town.

“The soldiers staged a raid, razing down buildings and fired live bullets at villagers, alleging that their personnel were killed by Nko youths. After the raiding by the army last night, normalcy returned but suddenly between 6 a.m. this today, they appeared again and started shooting everything on sight.”

Aside from the irreparable losses, one huge burden, which the community might find hard to address in a long while, are the retinue of internally displaced persons created by the alleged military operation, and who have fled to Ugep, a nearby community to seek refuge.

Their presence was confirmed by the traditional ruler of the community, Obol Lopon of Ugep, Obol Ofem Ubana in a report.

He said, “As a result of the violence, there is a huge population of refugees from Nko in my palace in Ugep who arrived for safety.”

Lingering communal clashes

For over a decade, Onyadama and Nko communities have been engulfed in intractable conflicts over a land dispute.

The unresolvable conflicts led to the loss of lives, property and destruction of the economic base of the belligerent communities.

On June 9, more than seven persons were feared killed and several others injured less than two months after both communities clashed over a boundary, which led to the alleged kidnap of one person from Nko. It was gathered that several efforts to unite both communities through signing a peace accord never yielded any positive results.

The inability of the warring communities to reach an amicable resolution and the alleged attack on soldiers deployed to maintain peace, PUNCH Investigations learnt, led to the dethronement and de-certification of the Obol Lopon of Nko, Obol Etim Ayomobi and the Clan Head of Onyadama, Ovarr Vincent Erena, by the state government.

In a statement by the Deputy Chief Press Secretary to Governor Ben Ayade, Linus Obogo, the decision for the dethronement of the monarch was taken after service commanders deliberated on the incessant communal clashes during a State Security Council meeting.

The parcel of land under contention was also revoked and taken over by the state government in public interest.

However, PUNCH Investigations gathered that despite allegations of extrajudicial killings levelled against the soldiers, the state government supported the sustenance of their operation in Nko, until those behind the attack on the troops were apprehended.

“Additionally, the government has ordered the sustenance of army operation in Nko community until those behind the shooting of the six military personnel are produced or fished out,” the statement by Obogo added.

Widowed 23 days after childbirth

Like Aaliyah’s mother that lost her husband in the most horrifying manner, other victims of the alleged attack were left with sad memories of irreplaceable losses.

Among them is the family of Eta-Iko who just welcomed a baby after three years of marriage. Their joy was cut short following the killing of the newborn’s father, 39-year-old, Ebri.

Ebri’s wife, Mary, said that he was allegedly shot dead by one of the soldiers, 23 days after the arrival of his son.

“He is dead. The soldiers killed him,” she wept profusely while speaking with our correspondent on phone.

The woman, in a shaky voice, said she was not allowed to see her husband’s corpse, as he was buried in the bush, far from the community.

PUNCH Investigations gathered that the decision not to allow Mary to see her late husband’s bullet-riddled body before burial was because of the Nko tradition forbidding such.

He was shot in the head – father

Overwhelmed by despondency,  Eta-Iko, 88-year-old father of the deceased, emotionally recalled how his son was allegedly killed by soldiers.

The octogenarian said he his son was shot in the head while running to hide, noting that Ebri never deserved the fate that befell him.

“Dem don kill my pikin o! As I dey so, I don dey cry for long time. Nothing wey my pikin do dem. Na soldiers kill am. When dem come, I run, my pikin too run but dem meet am for road kill am,” he said in smattering English.

 “My son was shot before me”

Not far from the house of Ebri’s father, lives a mourning mother, Oneh Offem, that lost her only son.

She alleged that her son, Ikpi Usami, was killed by the rampaging soldiers.

The 60-year-old woman, whose voice was hoarse from crying, told PUNCH investigations that she was getting ready to leave for the farm with her son when the commotion started.

“When they started shooting, he ran with me into the bush, but they came after us and shot him in front of me. There was no fight when the soldiers came. Everywhere was peaceful,” the distraught mother lamented.

Usami, 45, left behind a six-year-old son, whom his mother said was fond of him. The woman said his son’s estranged wife came to pick up the boy after the incident.

“My grandson was disturbing and asking after his father,” she added tearfully. Offem is demanding justice for the “unprovoked” killing of her son.

 “Bullet entered my foot and came out through my ankle”

While some victims could not live to recall their experiences, a survivor, Sunday Oju, who sustained a bullet injury to his leg said he survived by providence.

He recounted, “We were trying to move our family members to the bush to hide when an Army vehicle stopped. We started running and they shot directly at us. When I saw them, I fell on the ground and started crawling, looking for where to hide. I was shot under my foot and the bullet came out through my ankle. Two other persons, who were shot near me, died instantly.”

An eyewitness, Eworo Ekwe, said the soldiers came fully prepared as if they were headed for the battlefield.

“I saw them when they were coming to the village. They came in two vans, fully kitted with their weapons,” he added.

Another survivor, Ezekiel Ineh, claimed that the soldiers that attacked Nko numbered over 40. He alleged that they began to shoot indiscriminately immediately they entered the community, adding that in a bid to stay alive, he forgot to look out for his bedridden, aged mother.

Family demands compensation

Following Cletus’ death, the man that was allegedly burnt in his house, the family wrote a petition to the Nigerian Army, seeking justice.

In the petition written by their lawyer, Akpama Ekwe, of which a copy was made available to PUNCH Investigations, the family demanded compensation of N1bn for his death.

In the petition, the Army authorities were given a seven-day ultimatum to reconstruct the house, which they claimed was burnt “without any justifiable cause.”

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The petition read in part, “One of the victims of the atrocities committed by the Nigerian Army against the Nko community is the husband of our client, Mr. Cletus Egbai Ofem, whose house was completely burnt with him inside. His corpse was discovered after the inferno.

“You will agree with us that the attack on Nko community is unethical, unprofessional and against international humanitarian laws and rules of engagement in civil conflict. Such an attack on unarmed civilians is against all known principles of maintaining peace and against the Geneva Convention.”

The lawyer said his client might take legal action against the Nigerian Army if it failed to respond to the family’s demands.

The petition dated July 4, had the Nigerian Army Headquarters acknowledgement stamp dated July 5.

At the time this report was filed, the lawyer said he had yet to get any response.

 NBA condemns soldiers’ act

The Nigerian Bar Association, Calabar Branch, in a report published by The PUNCH on Saturday, June 30, condemned the attack on civilians in Nko.

The Chairman, Attah Ochinke, and Secretary, Eno Edet, in the statement, urged the state government to withdraw the troops from the community.

“While we join the governor in condemning the embarrassing and seemingly intractable communal clashes between these neighbouring communities, we view the directive of the governor to the army to sustain its operations in Nko community as appalling and ill-advised.

“It is common knowledge that the army is currently engaged in a reprisal action against the Nko community over the alleged shooting of six military personnel in the course of the crisis.

“The army is alleged to be currently engaged in indiscriminate shooting, summary execution and rape of hapless citizens in Nko community under the guise of fishing out the perpetrators responsible for the shooting of the military personnel. Houses and other property are being burnt or destroyed by the military in the operation to fish out the culprits. The reprisal are raw vengeance and not an investigation,” the statement read.

Governor’s aide resigns

Following the alleged military offensive, a Senior Special Adviser to the Cross River governor on Solid Mineral Protection and Monitoring Development, Mr Goddie Akpama resigned over “insensitive” handling of the crises.

The indigene of Nko, while speaking with journalists at the Ernest Etim Bassey Press Centre, Calabar, three days after the alleged invasion, alleged that his people had been going through tough times at the hands of the military.

He said, “They (the soldiers) are arresting and killing some persons and introduced a reign of terror in the area. Women and children have abdicated their homes to take refuge in unknown locations, mostly on their farms, suffering the harsh effects of the associated weather with the rainy season”

Akpama decried the order for the Nigerian Army to sustain operation in the community and accused the governor of not visiting the scene to access the situation.

“The governor has not visited the scene of action, yet acts on hearsay, yet over 10 persons have been shot dead, houses razed down. Children, women and aged displaced, property destroyed by the military,” he alleged.

 Denied right to education

PUNCH Investigations learnt that the alleged invasion by Nigerian Army, denied pupils in the four secondary schools in Nko the right and opportunity to participate in the just concluded nationwide National Examination Council’s examination.

It was learnt that the pupils, who took refuge in neighbouring communities, were scared of returning to the unsafe environment.

National Human Rights Commission silent

The National Human Rights Commission is the government agency saddled with the responsibility of promoting, protecting and investigating alleged human rights violations in accordance with the Nigerian Constitution, the United Nations Charter, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, and the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, among others.

The commission is also expected to assist victims of human rights violations to seek appropriate redress and remedies.

Contacted, the NHRC Deputy Director of Public Affairs, Fatimah Mohammed, said that the commission had yet to receive any complaints on the attack on Nko.

 Other reported Army invasions

Accusations of extra-judicial killings during alleged reprisals, which many have referred to as the use and abuse of military force are not uncommon.

In many of such instances that took place in states such as Imo, Anambra, Benue, Zaria and Kaduna, they are alleged to have jettisoned extant rules of engagement with civilians.

Extrajudicial killings by the Army dates back to 1999, when soldiers deployed to Odi, Bayelsa State, opened fire on those alleged to have killed policemen.

According to Human Rights Watch, a US non-governmental organisation that conducts research and advocacy on human rights, the Army razed all the buildings in the community occupied by about 15,000 residents.

HRW also said more than 100 unarmed civilians may have been killed during the operation.

In another retaliatory attack, about 200 residents of villages along the border between Benue and Taraba states were allegedly killed between October 22 and 24, 2001 by soldiers.

Investigative panels set up by the Kaduna State government confirmed that the soldiers used excessive force and killed over 300 people in Zaria, Kaduna state in 2015.

On October 22, 2020, the military allegedly attacked and killed about six people in Oyigbo, Rivers State, during a reprisal.

Why army reprisals persist

A Security and Public Affairs analyst, Senator Iroegbu, said that the deployment of the military to quell communal clashes had contributed to the rise in extra-judicial killings in Nigeria.

He attributed it to the nature of military training troops were often subjected to.

Iroegbu noted that the military should only be brought in when the police were overwhelmed, adding that it should be a temporary measure.

He said, “The military can’t play policing role. They are not trained for such a function. They are trained for combat operations; to fight enemies. So, due to that orientation and indoctrination, when they begin to have altercations with the civilian populace, they begin to see them as their enemy.

“Now, efforts are being made to re-orientate them due to the asymmetric nature of conflict where they are beginning to find themselves increasingly in the midst of civil population. That is not how military indoctrination was in the past. It shouldn’t be encouraged too so that you don’t dilute orientation.”

He averred that the military should be re-oriented to respect civil rights and exercise some restraint, especially when in civil space.

He added, “If the military finds itself in civil space, they should also begin to restrain themselves from using total force, because such a situation doesn’t even equate to the full-blown warfare where they are engaging the enemy. The people are not their enemies.’’

Iroegbu noted that one of the reasons why soldiers were being drafted to douse communal clashes was the collapse of Nigeria’s policing system.

He said, “Sophistication of weapons by non-state actors seemed to have overwhelmed the little police presence we have. The policing we have is deficient both in system, structure and functionality. The military can’t replace policing role. Indirectly, we are trying to use the military to replace policing role and we are taking it as normal. It is not normal and the negative impact is what we are seeing.”

Another security expert, Ben Okezie, also noted that the involvement of the military in communal clashes was a major contributing factor to the rise in extra-judicial killings.

He noted that soldiers were not trained for civil engagement, adding that they were not fit to be deployed among civilians when cases arise.

He said, “It is not an ideal situation. We are trying to normalise military deployment to every security situation when these things are supposed to be police-led operations. We have normalised military deployment, and this has made the police to take a backseat in trying to handle some of these situations.

“It shows gross lack of capacity and they (police) just concentrate on mundane things. The military is not trained to handle these internal security issues. Mostly, they are trained for lethal operations; to confront enemies of the state.”

Okezie stated that though soldiers were being trained and re-oriented on how to handle internal security, he stated such had negative implications.

He said, “Due to the asymmetric nature of crises, there is a re-indoctrination or re-orientation of the military on internal security operations because they are increasingly seeing themselves engaging in internal security operations.

“This is where a civil-military relation comes in as cases of human rights violations and killings don’t endear members of the public to the military. If you try to dilute the military operations to become police-like, it will have a negative implication.’’

Police unaware – C’Rivers command 

In a publication (not The PUNCH), the spokesperson for the Cross Rivers Police Command, Irene Ugbo, said that what led to the soldiers’ alleged invasion was not clear, noting that a major was shot.

She said, “The army didn’t have any bad intentions but the circumstances made them do what they did. A major was shot in Nko, which triggered the whole thing.

“The government is responsible, trying to bring the two communities together, reassure them and if they can’t, they make sure the community vacates such land that’s in a dispute. But this escalated, whereby we called for the army’s support but it has not been in a good light because some of the complaints are that the army is being brutal.”

However, in a twist, when Ugbo was contacted by our correspondent, she claimed not to be aware of the incident, and not in the position to speak about the activities of the soldiers in the community.

“I am not aware that the Army invaded the town. What I know is that there is an ongoing clash between the Nko and Onyadama community,” she added.

CDS denies reprisal

The Chief of Defence Staff, Lucky Irabor, on his part, denied that the soldiers engaged in extrajudicial acts in Nko.

During an interview on AriseTV on June 29, he said there were never issues of rape and destruction. He, however, stated that some soldiers were attacked by members of the community and efforts were made to apprehend those responsible.

Irabor said, “I am aware and the troops were never involved in any issue of raping and destruction. No, that’s not correct.

“Like you rightly mentioned that it was a communal clash, what is the business of the military getting involved in a communal clash?  But of course, because lives were being lost and we have military deployment around these areas, it was on that basis that the commanding officer of the unit went to redress the problem they had.

“Now, getting to the scene, one of the communities for whatever reasons were armed, they shot at the commanding officer, wounded him and also wounded about five soldiers. So, no officer would see his men being wounded when they came to keep peace. No soldier would stand idle and see citizens unleashing mayhem, not amongst themselves only, but equally taking up arms against those who have come to bring sanctity to the environment. So it was at that point that they insisted that those who shot at the commanding officer and the soldiers should be apprehended.”

He further claimed that reports of deaths and destruction in the Nko community were being peddled by those unhappy with the military intervention.

“These are reports that are being peddled. Don’t forget that there are two communities that are involved. Now, what is being peddled is that the military is destroying one community. It only tells you that perhaps some individuals who were not happy about the intervention of the military may just come up with some form of falsehood and propaganda that could dissuade the understanding of Nigerians about the matter. But what I need to assure you, and of course assure Nigerians is that the military is apolitical. We don’t take sides. We are there to give support to civil authorities, in this case, the police, especially on this matter of Nko and Obubra,” he said.

Soldiers were professional in conduct–Army

The spokesperson for the Nigerian Army, General Onyema Nwachukwu, said the troops were professional in their conduct in Nko.

He corroborated Irabor’s claim that the soldiers were attacked and injured by youths in the community.

He said, “The commanding officer and some other personnel went to mediate. It was a mediatory move that was made and in the cause of that, he was shot. When a civilian bears arms, what is he called? He becomes a combatant, isn’t it? And how do you deal with a combatant? They had to defend themselves, they were attacked.”

When he was told that PUNCH Investigations’ findings showed that the alleged reprisal took place a day after the altercation with the armed youths, Nwachukwu claimed that the soldiers were on a search and rescue operation for their colleagues held hostage. ,

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