Although his administration is known for perpetrating injustice such as human rights abuses and disregard for the rule of law, President Muhammadu Buhari last week in New York, United States, spoke about his avowed commitment to global peace and justice. In his farewell speech to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) as President, Mr Buhari told the 77th session that the key take home from his years in public service is to uphold values such as justice, honour and integrity at the national and global stage.
“Let me convey my final reflection from this famous podium. We live in extraordinary times with interdependent challenges but enormous opportunities. The pace of change can seem bewildering, with sometimes a palpable and unsettling sense of uncertainty about our future.
“But if my years in public service have taught me anything, it is that we must keep faith with those values that endure. These include, but are not limited to such values as justice, honour, integrity, ceaseless endeavour, and partnership within and between nations,” he said.
However, contrary to his call for justice, the actions of the Nigerian leader since he assumed office as democratic president in 2015 have been characterised by many cases of injustice and illegality.
Catalogue of Human Right Abuses
Although Mr Buhari pledged to investigate allegations of human rights abuses against the military in his inaugural address in May 2015, the administration of the former military dictator did not waste time to start scripting its own bloody chapter of state terror. In December 2015, seven months after Mr Buhari assumed office, the Nigerian Army, which Mr Buhari superintends as Commander-In-Chief, extra-judicially killed over 350 members of a Shiite minority group, IMN. The victims included women and children. The army accused the Shiites of blocking a road being used by the then army chief, Tukur Buratai, thus endangering his life. The Shiites were holding a demonstration by members of the group on a major road in Zaria, north-west Nigeria, during which they blocked the road users and Mr Buratai’s convoy.
The killings occurred over two days including a late-night raid on the religious base of the Shiites in Zaria. Apart from killing hundreds of the Shiites, the army also arrested scores of them including their leader, Ibraheem El-Zakzaky, and his wife Zeenah. The hundreds of people killed by the army were also buried in secret mass graves. The massacre was condemned by local and international human rights groups such as SERAP, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Also, when a court ordered Mr Zakzaky and his wife released in 2016, Mr Buhari’s government ignored the ruling and instead filed murder charges against them. Most IMN members jailed in 2015 were released between 2019 and 2020 after the court found them innocent of all charges. But the continued detention of Mr El-Zakzaky and his wife sparked protests that turned deadly, leading the Nigerian government to outlaw the sect in 2019.
After nearly six years in illegal detention, a Kaduna State High Court eventually acquitted the couple and ordered their release in 2021. The Nigerian government reluctantly released them but is still holding on to their international passports. No soldier or commanding officer has been prosecuted for the massacre while Mr Buhari later appointed Mr Buratai an ambassador after the latter retired from the army.
Similarly, the secret police, SSS, in November 2019 refused to release Omoyele Sowore, publisher of Sahara Reporters from illegal custody despite a court order. The SSS, which reports directly to the Nigerian president, said in a statement that Mr Sowore was still held because no one had turned up to collect him from detention.
Omoyele Sowore in Court
They made the statement two days after a federal judge signed Mr Sowore‘s release order after the activist satisfied stringent bail conditions imposed on him as part of his trial. The Nigerian government filed a seven-count charge of fraud and treasonable felony against him about 50 days after he was arrested and detained by security operatives. It was the second time Mr Sowore would be deprived of freedom despite a court order. He previously secured bail two months earlier, but it was not honoured by the SSS, whose agents subsequently filed new charges that were used as an excuse for disregarding the first order. His first arrest was in August 2019 on allegations of plotting to overthrow the government by organising a protest.
Like Shiites, like IPOB
Also in 2015, in Onitsha, Anambra State, south-east Nigeria, soldiers killed 12 people who were celebrating the court-ordered release of Nnamdi Kanu, the leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB).
The killings had been preceded by threats by the army against the then peaceful pro-Biafra protests in the South-east. The military described the protests as treasonable. After investigations, Amnesty International (AI), in May 2016, issued a report accusing the army of killing 17 IPOB members. Expectedly, the army denounced the allegations as unfounded.
However, an investigation by Easterner portrayed an even larger scale of wrongdoing.
That heavy-handed clampdown on the IPOB members is believed to be one of the reasons the group became radicalised. Nobody was prosecuted for the killings. In his media parley on 30 December 2015, Mr Buhari jettisoned the idea of the police investigating the military’s excesses and defended his administration’s disregard of court orders for the release of Mr Kanu and the detained former national security adviser, Sambo Dasuki. Like the case of Mr Kanu, the president also, for several months, disobeyed court orders for the release of Mr Dasuki.
In a subsequent interview on Al Jazeera, the president seemed unmoved and even irritated when questioned about human rights violations by security forces in the South-east region. This infuriated activists and observers in Nigeria.
“The persistent domestic deployment of the army for civilian policing tasks on domestic soil in violation of the constitutional requirement of Senatorial approval, as stated in Section 217, is a clear example of official lawlessness and impunity. Such illegally and unconstitutionally deployed troops are responsible for the massacres in Zaria and in the South-east”, Chris Ngwodo, a consultant and political analyst, wrote in an opinion article published by Easterner in June 2016.
In 2016, the Nigerian Army compulsorily retired 38 officers.
Many of them were the country’s brightest in internal and external security operations but were forced out of service without recourse to the rules of disengagement. Most of the affected officers were neither queried nor indicted by any panel. They were arbitrarily retired in what was considered a witch-hunting and partisanship by authorities of the army. Even after the affected officers petitioned Mr Buhari, the presidency turned a blind eye. Apart from the injustice of wrongly dismissing the officers, the Buhari administration has also refused to obey court rulings that ordered the reinstatement of some of the officers.
The Illegal Recruitment
Easterner in April 2017 exclusively reported the shocking lopsidedness in the composition of newly appointed cadet officers of the SSS. The recruitments favoured northern Nigeria, particularly Mr Buhari’s home state of Katsina. Findings revealed that the SSS recruited 51 persons from Katsina alone, whereas all the six states in the South-south got a combined 42 candidates. Also, all five states in the South-east got less than 50 people.