President Buhari’s Order for an Internal Military Investigation into War Crimes Allegations against Nigeria’s Military Will Short-Change the Truth: What is Needed is an Impartial, Independent and Competent Inquiry

President Buhari has ordered an “internal investigation” into Amnesty International’s allegations of War Crimes against the Nigeria Military in its conduct of anti-terrorism operations in the North-east. The President said a final decision on what course the administration will pursue concerning the allegations will ultimately be dependent on the advice of an Attorney General who has not been appointed at this time.

Access to Justice welcomes the President’s concern and decision not to sweep the allegations under the carpet, as his predecessor in office mostly did over past allegations. Government’s refusal to take necessary action on previous reports of war crimes, as it appears, mostly emboldened the culprits and gave them a blank cheque to do more.

However, President Buhari’s order to the military accused of these atrocities to undertake an internal investigation comes far too short to ensure that the inquiries produce any credible conclusions that take Nigerians nearer the truth of how our military is conducting anti-terrorism operations and what the real costs of the war has been for voiceless, vulnerable and innocent people.

This is because it is unlikely that a military that has, through its hierarchy, consistently denied it was guilty of wrongdoing would be open to allowing any outcomes that contradict its entrenched positions. It may be recalled that shortly after the publication of Amnesty International’s report, the defence headquarters characterized the allegations as “a continuation of blackmail” and “a premeditated indictment”; it also said that the military has “continued to state and restate its commitment to the rights of Nigerians and all its citizens while prosecuting its anti-terrorism campaign” and accused Amnesty International of pursuing an “agenda against the security agencies.” It is highly doubtful that a military force that has out-rightly denied grave and widespread allegations of war crimes or crimes against humanity, and feels that its officers were targets of pre-meditated attacks will allow any credible internal investigation to find otherwise. The work and outcomes of such internal inquiry will be tainted and unreliable, and will lack public confidence.

Nigeria’s international obligations to undertake investigations into war crimes allegations, as well as allegations of extra-judicial killings without a doubt, require such investigations to be prompt, credible, effective, impartial and independent. Nigeria has ratified and domesticated the Geneva Conventions applicable in war situations. Article 50 of the Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded, Sick and Shipwrecked Members of Armed Forces at Sea Aug. 12, 1949 provides that:

“Each High Contracting Party shall be under the obligation to search for persons alleged to have committed, or to have ordered to be committed, such grave breaches, and shall bring such persons, regardless of their nationality, before its own courts...”

Article 9 of The United Nations Principles on the Effective Prevention and Investigation of Extra-legal, Arbitrary and Summary Executions also provide that: “There shall be thorough, prompt and impartial investigation of all suspected cases of extra-legal, arbitrary and summary executions, including cases where complaints by relatives or other reliable reports suggest unnatural death in the above circumstances”.

An internal inquiry by the military of the allegations made against it will not meet the criteria of impartiality. If the government wants to conduct an internal inquiry first, then the government may appoint a Military Commission of Inquiry made up of retired military officers with unquestionable integrity and competence for this purpose. To ask serving Commanders in the military who themselves serve under the control of senior officers in the military hierarchy who may have been implicated in the commission of these war crimes will short-change the truth and defeat the purposes of such inquiries.

Joseph Otteh                                 
Executive Director