Photo Credit: Punch Nigeria

To Protect Or Oppress? The Culture Of Military Phobia In Nigeria

In Nigeria, 7 out of 10 persons between the ages of 16 to 35 have either experienced harassment by the military or know someone who has.

On October 17, 2020, acting director of the Nigerian Army public relations, Sagir Musa, announced a civilian-targeted exercise named Crocodile Smile. The exercise was scheduled to commence from Tuesday, October 20 to Thursday, December 31. The cyber warfare exercise was designed to identify, track and counter negative propaganda on social media.

October 20, 2020, the announced date for the commencement of Operation Crocodile Smile, armed men of the Nigerian Army arrived at the Lekki Tollgate in Lagos, Nigeria and opened fire on peaceful and unarmed #EndSARS protesters, resulting in a disputed number of deaths. 

When questioned, Nigeria’s recently retired Chief of Army Staff (COAS), Lt. Gen. Tukur Buratai, said the Nigerian Army abided by the rules of engagement on the night of the massacre after previously denying the army’s involvement despite multiple eyewitness accounts.

There are Nigerian jokes in skits that describe the fear of “a soldier’s slap” as a “manual reset” to correct an individual’s erring ways. Funny as these jokes may seem, this is the hard and true reality for Nigerians living in Nigeria.

The average Nigerian lives in fear of violent crimes by insurgents, kidnappers, armed robbers and the military. 

From reported day to day harassment to unlawful detention and recently, the massacre of peaceful protesters, the basic human rights of Nigerians are subject to threat under the barrel of the gun of the military.

Despite the promise to protect and defend, each government in Nigeria has allowed the military’s arbitrary and unrecorded killing, bullying of civilians, disregard for the legally mandated rules of engagement and zero tolerance for freedom of speech – a fundamental right as provided in the constitution.

Bullying and Sexual Exploitation Of Civilians 

He threatened to make me bleed blood, in my own country because I asked if he was in the queue. I want justice


One of over a thousand accounts is the story of Ada-Oma who recorded a terrifying video of an army officer assaulting her at a cash point in Lagos. What was her crime? She asked if he was in the queue. Read her account:

“Hello Nigerians,

I was just assaulted by an army official this morning 26/10/2020 at the ATM stand of


at their Oshodi branch. I’m still shaking and crying as I write this because I have never felt this way in my entire life.

I’m also scared writing this because he threatened me. so my Life is in your hands Nigerians. I was on the ATM queue and this @NigerianArmy official asked me to move so he can pass, I asked him if he was on the queue that there is a queue, he asked me to move, I moved and continued asking him if he was on the queue, he flared up as you will see in the video below, and before I knew what happened he brought out his belt and hit me.

@UBAGroup This happened at your branch in Oshodi and your security men were there.

He hit me!!!!! I literally cried my way to the office. I never insulted him. I only asked if he was in the queue and he got angry and furious and violent.

He threatened to make me bleed blood, in my own country because I asked if he was in the queue. I want justice.”

Another account is from the spokesperson for the Independent National Electoral Commission in Nigeria. Festus Okoye accused soldiers in March 2019 of intimidation and unlawful arrests of election officials during the governorship elections in Rivers State.

The Nigerian Army under the leadership of the now-retired Chief of Army Staff Lt. Gen. Tukur Buratai immediately announced the creation of a committee to investigate those allegations within two weeks. The report from the investigation was never published.

A few reports have also detailed accounts of sexual exploitation and abuse of women and girls in state-run IDP camps, informal camps, and local communities in and around Maiduguri, the Borno State capital, and across the Northeast.

Little girls at the IDP Camp. Source: Premium Times- Abdulkareem Haruna

Human Rights Watch (HRW) documented sexual abuse, including rape and exploitation of 43 women and girls living in seven IDPs camps in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State. Most of the women were infected with HIV and other diseases.

The Nigerian government under the leadership of General Muhammadu Buhari ordered a high-powered investigation into the crimes. Unfortunately, very few details of the 2016 ordered investigation were shared with the media. 

However, in April 2019, an Air Force officer was convicted and sentenced for sexual exploitation of a 14-year-old girl in Bakassi IDP camp, Maiduguri. 

Disregarding Legally Mandated Rules of Engagement And Code Of Conduct

The Nigerian military has successfully hidden its horrendous crimes against humanity in the guise of an unending war with the Boko Haram insurgents. 

On October 3, 2019, the military released 25 children held as Boko Haram suspects from Giwa barracks in Borno state. This came after the Human Rights Watch asked the Nigerian government to sign and put into effect a United Nations handover protocol to ensure the swift transfer of children apprehended by the military after discovering children were held in degrading and inhuman conditions in Giwa barracks. 

According to reports by the UN, 1,900 children were detained in 2017 and 418 children were detained in 2018  for their or their parents’ alleged association with Boko Haram. The Human Rights Watch added that they were to date unaware of how many children were still detained by the military.

Section 217 (2) (c) of the 1999 Constitution and Section (8) (1) and (3) of the Armed Forces Act, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, (LFN) 2004 provides code of conduct and rules of engagement for the armed forces in internal security.

A highlight of one of the rules is the principle of minimum force while engaging in an internal crisis. The law permits the use of lethal force that includes live ammunition in the case of unexpected attack or suspected Improvised Explosive Device (IED) attack during which a delay could lead to loss of life or serious injury to personnel.

A demonstrator holding a sign during the #ENDSARS protest in Lagos, Nigeria, on 17 October. Source: Sky News

How then can the Nigerian military explain the shooting of protesters who were unarmed and exercising a constitutionally mandated right? Where was the suspected possession of IEDs by the protesters? 

Silencing The Media

On October 26, 2020, the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission fined Arise TV among others for airing live coverage of the Lekki Tollgate shooting. The media stations were fined 2-3 million naira each for what was termed “reporting unverified news”. NBC also threatened to suspend the license of the stations if they continued to air reports of the shooting.

The Nigerian government has done so well in blindsiding the media in military trials that affect civilians despite the knowledge that the country currently runs a democratic government that should allow individual access to information.

Information is carefully and painstakingly hidden as oftentimes, reporters like me have to depend on reports done by international media for accurate data.

Also, a survey filled by 100 participants in Lagos State, Nigeria, showed that 74% of the participants had been harassed by men of the NA or other military outfits. This survey was created due to the lack of accurate data on military harassment in Nigeria despite how widespread accounts of assaults are. Most reports found seemed doctored to paint a perfect picture of the military, while others had zero information to work with.

In February 2016, the Nigerian Army (NA) created the Human Rights Desk in response to alleged human rights violations by troops of the Nigerian Army in counter-insurgency and internal security operations in the country.

At an accountability hearing on Wednesday, November 13, 2019, Capt. Veronica Williams, Nigerian Army Human Rights Desk Officer, disclosed that the NA had received 350 complaints in three years.

The report showed that assault, torture, cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment received the highest complaints with 15% among others.

William’s report assured Nigerians that 90% of the reported cases had been treated while 10% was still under investigation. Till now, no further report has been shared with the media about the cases.

Unfortunately, not all of us have the courage or means to record or report an assault like Ada-Oma especially as peaceful protests have now been unofficially criminalized in Nigeria. How then can the military treat this military phobia 74% of 100 Nigerians live with?

Should the military continue to nip at the surface by focusing on the numbers of reported cases that only accounts for a small percent of the problem? 

It should be reiterated that the primary duties of the Nigerian Armed Forces are to follow the constitution, defend the country from external aggression, protect the country’s borders and by so doing, protect the lives of the Nigerian people.

It is not too much to ask to feel safe in one’s own country. It is not too much to ask that the military allows Nigerians the freedom provided by the constitution, neither is it too much to ask that the military allows transparent convictions of criminal officers which allow for accurate accounts for report writing. Like Ada-oma, we all want justice and we want it NOW.

Patsy Nwogu

Reporting on data-driven featured stories and investigations.

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