POLITICAL REFORM: Taking Nigerians’ lives seriously

By Chidi Odinkalu

“If we are interested in bringing the violence to a stop, we should be interested not just in crime and punishment but, more so, in political reform.” – Mahmood Mamdani


ON Thursday, February 25, 2016, a senior officer (Group Captain) in the Nigerian Air Force who is also a medical doctor in Residence at the Obafemi Awolowo University Teaching Hospital in Ife, in Osun State, reportedly assaulted a female colleague who is also a medical doctor and Sickle Cell patient. He actually fractured her skull and other bones. Her crime? She did not come out quickly enough in his estimation to remove her car which was said to have impeded his as he was about to set out in the morning.

Around the same time, an incident between sedentary farmers and pastoralists in Agatu, Benue State, reportedly led to the killing of hundreds. Contemporaneously, in Ogoniland, Rivers State, an operation by security agencies to reportedly arrest a suspected militant ended in mass slaughter. No one knows how many were actually killed. Two months later, in another encounter, the sleepy, farming community of Nimbo in Enugu-North was the site of more mass slaughter. Casualty count remains uncertain and no one has been caught – but “killer” pastoralists were reportedly involved.

Since this year, soldiers have reportedly killed many young people in parts of South-East Nigeria, including in the commercial centres of Aba and Onitsha. These were simply expressing their solidarity over the fate of detained leader of the “Indigenous People of Biafra”, Nnamdi Kanu. In Zaria, Kaduna State, over a 48 hour period from December 12 to 14, 2015, the Nigerian Army killed hundreds of Shiites reportedly because they allegedly created a nuisance in the path of the Chief of Army Staff, who, presumably, could not suffer the indignity of being offended by civilians.

Each of these incidents draws allegations of official discrimination, wilful persecution or executive malevolence based on identity. A more likely theory, however, is that our government has historically had no regard for the Nigerian life. It is immaterial who is in power or what the ethnicity or religion of the victims may be.

In nearly all incidents in which Nigerians are murdered, the body language of government is eloquent. The victims are for the most part unidentified. We dispose of their bodies in mass graves. In the Zaria Massacre, government publicly admitted that it deployed over 40 soldiers. These military personnel spent more than six hours to bury over 347 victims in mass graves located some 80 kilometres from where soldiers killed them.

Very little effort is made to afford the affected families any closure or comfort. Trauma care is not available. The average Nigerian response is quite often: they deserved what they got. Few of those affected will ever be acknowledged. None of the perpetrators are likely to get identified or punished. It is as if to government and to Nigerians alike, the Nigerian life has become worthless.

At the funeral of 26 Nigerian women who died while crossing the Mediterranean Sea. They were buried in November 2017, at the Salerno cemetery, Italy. There was no representative of the Nigerian Government. Photo Credit: REUTERS/Ciro De Luca

The average perpetrator of crimes of violence in Nigeria now assumes that they will more likely than not enjoy impunity from a tolerant or complicit state. If the perpetrator is an officer or employee of the State, this assumption is more-or-less a guarantee. If they are foreigners, they believe they can mess with Nigerians because that’s the way we do things.

Captivated as we all have been by the violence in the North-East Nigeria, few have noticed how violence and vigilantism have become the default for settling disagreement in Nigeria. In its report submitted to the Federal Government in September 2013, the Presidential Committee on Dialogue and Peaceful Resolution of the Security Challenges in the North (chaired by then Minister for Special Duties, Tanimu Turaki, a Senior Advocate of Nigerian) complained about the “impunity with which crimes and other acts of violence are carried out (in Nigeria) possibly because of prolonged absence of deterrent measures taken to punish perpetrators” and lamented “the ease with which citizens take up arms to protect themselves because of the apparent feeling of government inability to guarantee their safety.”

Some people suggest that this happens because of the onset of official fatigue at the frequency of chronic violence in the country. This is not good enough and can’t be right. It suggests that government has abdicated its responsibility to protect life in Nigeria. In the face of this perception of official abdication, foreign countries and institutions are taking matters into their hands in our country.

Among our citizens and beyond our shores, the sense has grown of a country unable to discharge its responsibilities or protect itself. Neighbouring countries now believe that they can fight their various security battles on Nigeria’s territory. Soldiers or soldiers of fortune slip into Nigerian territory from Cameroon, Chad, and Niger. Others have come from Israel, the United Kingdom and the United States as “military advisers”. For Western countries, Nigeria is now a legitimate frontier in the new technology of drone warfare. In November 2015, the International Criminal Court announced that it was investigating allegations of war crimes against officers of the Nigerian Armed Forces in the operations in the North-East.

There is no reason why any or all of this should be regarded as normal. But our ability to change it cannot also be taken for granted. It requires committed political leadership. The primary responsibility for the protection of every person in Nigeria belongs to the Federal Government. This is why the President under the constitution and the law remains the operational head and Commander-In-Chief of all security agencies, including the Police, the Department of State Services, and the Armed Forces. He has the obligation to set a tone for the Services that he commands. Yet, while Nigeria’s Presidency has been eloquent in condemning violence in other countries, its silence has equally been eloquent in the case of violence that takes Nigerian life.


Ending the perception of high level tolerance for violence in Nigeria requires not just clear political communication from the Presidency but also firm action to exact accountability against those that do it. In particular, there must be zero-tolerance for violence against civilians by personnel of the uniformed services.

The uniformed services should be more open and forthcoming in providing information on how they manage complaints of violence committed by their personnel. Unquestionably, the legal process does not promise to rebuild communities; it is much more difficult to rebuild communities destroyed by mass violence without some form of accountability.

As Aryeh Neier points out, “the lesson of Germany in the 1920s is that a free society cannot be established or maintained if it will not act vigorously and forcefully to punish political violence.”



    Above all, it is important to understand that violence on this scale is political because it endangers the very existence of Nigeria when citizens no longer believe that government has the ability or interest to care for or protect them.

    Changing this requires fundamental reform of the way we run the country. Political reform can only make sense if it means and results in the renewal of the state and its institutions to prevent, police or punish violence. That is the first reason for statehood in the first place – to guarantee physical and then economic security.

    Political violence is not an incident. It does not explode in one day with no warning or intelligence. It is the culmination of a process of institutional decay and incapacity often ignited by an accretion of bad memory.

    Chidi Odinkalu was the Chairman of the Nigerian Human Rights Commission (NHRC). He tweets @ChidiOdinkalu

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