By Chidi Omeje
The Guardian Newspaper Editorial of October 4, 2023, made a strident call for a police-led anti-terrorism operation in Nigeria. In the said editorial with the caption “Redefining Police Role in Anti-Terrorism Fight”, the esteemed newspaper went all out to amplify the recent suggestion by the Chairman of the Police Service Commission, Mr Solomon Arase, an erstwhile former Inspector General of Police, to the effect that the police rather than the military be allowed to lead the war against terrorism.
According to the editorial, the suggestion was to the extent that “such an arrangement may open up the possibility of prosecuting and perhaps securing the conviction of the terrorists, something the military are not trained for”. It said the police are trained to look for and preserve evidence that would aid successful prosecution. “Police officers were trained to secure crime scenes, gather evidence, and prosecute criminals, unlike the military officers deployed in the insurgency-stricken areas in the North East who were not trained to gather evidence and prosecute and, therefore, lacked the knowledge to do so”.
It went further to quote the former IGP as having faulted the practice of releasing and reintegrating arrested terrorists into society without proper profiling, noting that many of them go back to the crime, creating more harm for the terrorism-torn region. The editorial concluded with a position that the suggestion should be considered in the context of the crucial need to successfully crush the insurgency in the North East, which has in fact spread to other parts of the north.
One may not deny the genuine intention of that editorial to share its perspective on what it believes could transform the fortunes of Nigeria’s war against terror, but my point of departure from its prescription is the recommendation that Mr Arase’s advocacy be considered. It should have simply focused on the call for better synergy and collaboration between the police and the military and not for its leadership of anti-terrorism operations. The truth of the matter is that the police cannot lead the operations they have proven incapable of conducting.
To start with, there has never been any controversy as to which institution is the lead agency in the management of internal security issues in Nigeria: it is the police. In fact, our model of internal security management is such that the Nigerian Police Force was envisioned to be the lead agency in the maintenance of law and order. This means that the Nigeria Police ought to be the first responders to internal security violations arising from breaches of law and order. But there is a constitutional caveat to this internal security management structure. Section 217 (2c) of the 1999 Constitution, as amended, provided that caveat in its stipulated roles for the Armed Forces: “Suppressing insurrection and acting in aid of civil authorities to restore order when called upon to do so by the President”.
A simple interpretation of this constitutional prescription would be that when the (internal) security challenge is such that it is beyond the capacity of the civil police to contain or deal with, the civil authority (represented by the President), in exercise of its constitutional duties of providing security for lives and property to the citizens, is compelled to invite the military to deal with the situation. Such serious security challenges as insurgency, terrorism, and cross-border banditry, which threaten the sovereignty of the state or in which its perpetrators deploy combat-grade weapons that have the capacity to overwhelm the police, are the kind of challenges that demand military deployment by the President.
The reality today is the country is assailed by a multiplicity of such serious internal security challenges in almost all the regions: There’s the Boko Haram/ISWAP insurgency in the north-east and parts of the north-central. The Boko Haram crisis, which, by the way, was sparked by the wrong handling of the situation when the Police killed the group’s founder, Mohammed Yusuf, on July 31, 2009, in Maiduguri, is a full-blown terrorism that has devastated the north-east region of Nigeria. With links to international terror networks and possession of high-grade weapons, including general-purpose machine guns, explosive devices, rocket propellers, and anti-aircraft weapons, Boko Haram has shown the capacity and formidability to overrun the country if left to be countered by the police. We are also contending with organized terrorism and banditry that have turned the vast lands of Zamfara, Katsina and other parts of the North West and North Central into a killing field and easy prey to mass kidnappings. There is the violent secessionist agitators in the South East spearheaded by the proscribed Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB). The activities of these so-called freedom fighters have opened up the region for opportunistic criminals who unleash deadly attacks on security personnel and innocent civilians. In the Niger Delta region, there is unrelenting attacks on Nigeria’s maritime assets by a syndicate of well-armed oil thieves and economic vandals; the South West region is no different, as there are also an assortment of violent crimes in the area. The defining element in all the aforementioned ‘theatres of war’ is that the perpetrators are manifestly formidable and in possession of combat-grade weapons capable of upending the country if not adequately countered and balanced out with corresponding force.
So, the question is, which of these serious security challenges assailing different parts of the country today would one say is such that the Nigerian Police can effectively deal with as the lead agency? Is the Guardian newspaper suggesting that the military should be at the forefront of the anti-terror war but take orders from the Police High Command, or what exactly does the Guardian mean in this advocacy? As a former Police Chief, would Mr Arase in all honesty, say that the Nigerian Police as presently wired, can truly provide leadership of Nigeria’s anti-terrorism war? The same police that is more interested in deploying over half of its numerical strength to VIP protection?
To be honest, an institution in dire need of transformation is not the one to be entrusted with the herculean task of leading the war against formidable terror groups and sundry violent adversaries of the state. What the Police urgently need now is total redemption; it needs reformation and it needs restoration (of its past glory) to be able to contribute optimally to the anti-terrorism and anti-insurgency war and other internal security challenges in the country.
The best that the police can offer now in the anti-terrorism war is to present itself for a much more robust collaboration with the military such that they can add value across the various theaters of anti-terrorism operations in the country. For instance, the police should be available to hold the ground in some of the communities where the military had dislodged insurgents, terrorists or bandits, to ensure speedy restoration civil authorities in those areas. They could also be of more assistance in the collation of actionable intelligence that will help the security forces route the adversaries.
On the issue of the prosecution of arrested or surrendered member of terrorist groups, it is important that we interrogate it properly. It will not be entirely right to say that the military has failed in the prosecution of terrorists under their custody. The skepticism and emotions among Nigerians regarding what to do with the surrendered Boko Haram fighters, for instance, are pretty much understandable, but one fact should be clear: Nigeria is a nation governed by laws, and the Nigerian military is an institution guided by law and rules of engagement. Domestic and international laws, particularly the Law of Armed Conflicts and the Geneva Convention, clearly stipulate that when an adversary surrenders or once he is injured to such a degree that he is no longer able to fight, you do not shoot at him or kill him.
The law goes on to say that the best you can do is to take them into your possession by moving them out of the battle zone. You document them and immediately commence the profiling process by instituting investigations to ascertain the level of their involvement and the level of crime they might have committed. Certainly, there are always differences in their levels of culpability in the crime that arrested or surrendered Boko Haram terrorists are perceived to have committed, and as such, those with serious involvement are usually prosecuted and sentenced up to and including capital punishment. The military does all that, but as professionals, they don’t go about killing someone who has surrendered to them.
In effect, therefore, the decision to abide by those laws is never and should never be an indication of compromise or a hint of incapability in prosecutorial skills on the part of the military. The truth, rather, is that the decision to take the moral high ground of operating within the confines of the law of war and decency not only hallmarks the Nigerian military’s sense of responsibility but equally strengthens the non-kinetic part of Nigeria’s counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism strategy. In any case, Nigeria’s administration of the criminal justice system is notoriously nebulous and slow, such that it will be difficult to post a different result in terms of the swiftness of adjudication of terrorism-related cases even if the police are to handle it; after all, we are all witnesses to the many bungled criminal cases that the police prosecuted.
Come to think of it, one can only but imagine the kind of outrage it will provoke in the media and among the same people who are running with the incapability narrative if the troops were summarily executing arrested or surrendered terrorists.
Chidi Omeje is Editor, Security Digest (member of Zagazola Media Network)