The impunity with which some Nigerians have claimed they have been treated at the hands of security agents generally has now been visited on members of that class. The death of the officers is a tragedy and the hearts of Nigerians go to their relatives, who have to pick up the pieces.
Since the slow decline that began just before the turn of the decade, starting in 2010, insecurity in Nigeria has reached alarming levels. With the fear that this decline has generated in the minds of Nigerians, the last thing the country needs is for two of its most important security forces to be at each other’s throats. What the country needs, even less, are the insinuations of complicity in the insecurity that has smeared the image of our armed forces and other security agencies for the past few years. Therefore, the recent report of the killing of some policemen by soldiers in Taraba State is one most unwelcome news.
According to reports, an Intelligence Response Team of the Police, deployed from the force headquarters in Abuja, apprehended a suspected kidnap kingpin, identified as one Hamisu Bala, on Tuesday, August 6. The team was transporting the restrained suspect to the Police command headquarters in Jalingo when they were gunned down by soldiers at a checkpoint near a village, along the Ibi-Wukari Road in Taraba State. Police sources claim that the police team had adequate means of identification. The Army spokesmen, on the other hand, claimed that the policemen were mistaken for kidnappers.
The picture of mistaken identity that should ordinarily emerge from the accounts of the different security agencies is however shattered by one vital detail. The suspect, Hamisu Bala, known locally in Taraba as Alhaji Wadume, was nowhere to be found. Four people are reported to have been killed in the shooting – three police officers and one civilian – but none of them is the suspected kidnap kingpin. An understandably furious police has released statements with not-so-veiled accusations directed at the army, asking one important question: Where is Wadume?
As at the time of writing, there is no answer to that question. After trading barbs with the Police, recent moves by the Army have shown, at least, a partial acknowledgement of possible wrongdoing by one or more of its officers. The Army has advised its officers in all formations to avoid confrontation with aggrieved policemen in their places of deployment. Then there is the news of the investigation of six soldiers, including one captain, who are supposedly responsible for the death of the policemen. Most importantly, Defence Headquarters has issued a directive to the troops responsible, the 93 Battalion stationed in Taraba, to produce Wadume.
Since the shooting, the police has not let off on its accusations and insinuations, of a possible cover-up by the Army, in light of what it paints as connivance between soldiers and the kidnap kingpin, who is thought to be on the run. Particularly, the Police has expressed fear that the suspected kidnap kingpin may be killed by soldiers if they get to him first. This open display of distrust between the two security forces is a new low in the rivalry and often confrontational relationship that exists between security agencies in Nigeria.
Evidence of a close relationship between the army captain, now facing investigation, and the suspected kidnapper, has also come to light. It may be too early to speculate about the nature of that relationship, but the chips are falling into place and the picture emerging is appalling. The Army may be unable to explain this one away.
Eye-witness accounts of the incident, in some reports, have it that the policemen were seen trying to evade a group of Wadume loyalists who were on their heels, which caused the team to speed past the checkpoint before the soldiers opened fire on them. Two of the policemen were said to have died in the initial barrage of bullets, while the third, in his panicked fumbling for his Identity Card, was reportedly shot at point black range.
Under normal circumstances, because the Police team was travelling in an unmarked vehicle, and because of apparent misleading reports to soldiers by Wadume supporters about his being kidnapped, maybe one could have forgiven the soldiers their mistake. But the mistake theory was impeached by the evidence in the video that circulated online, where the soldiers showed no remorse about the revelation that the victims could have, in fact, been policemen. That same lack of remorse was displayed by the Army spokesmen afterwards.
Evidence of a close relationship between the army captain, now facing investigation, and the suspected kidnapper, has also come to light. It may be too early to speculate about the nature of that relationship, but the chips are falling into place and the picture emerging is appalling. The Army may be unable to explain this one away. It causes one to wonder what other ‘mistakes’ may have been committed in the past. The fact that Wadume was let go at the scene, even after the apparent discovery that the men killed could have been policemen, also raises eyebrows. The competing theories now are that of Army complicity or lack of procedural intelligence and good professional instinct by the soldiers.
While we are on the subject of complicity and professional integrity, it is important to note that no matter how much the police want to vilify the Army for the death of the policemen in this case, the two security agencies are alike in their seeming lack of professional integrity. Confidence in our security forces is low, and when public distrust is compounded by inter-agency suspicion, incidents like this are the results we will get.
The appropriate authorities must act, and act quickly, in this fast-closing window of opportunity, to salvage whatever vestige of confidence is left in the nation’s security apparatus. Once the window of opportunity for a strong recovery closes, only the window of doubt, in any outcome, will remain. The longer this matter stretches, the more skeptical Nigerians will become, even if Wadume is later found. An issue of this magnitude, that is shaping out to become a scandal for the Army, must be handled decisively. For this to happen, there must be a clear line of authority through which instructions must pass unhindered.
If there are indeed sections of the Army that have been compromised, how can the ranks be cleansed when the public does not even know who, besides the commander-in chief of the armed forces, to hold responsible for any such cleansing? With discipline in the military generally at an all time low, strict orders need to fly down the ranks.
This column has written repeatedly about the lack of a clear line of authority in military operations. The Army, for example, has the chief of Army staff (COAS), the chief of defence staff (CDS), minister of defence and national security adviser (NSA) to contend with. The line connecting these officials is blurry, and their interests have been known to compete, rather than converge, in the hierarchy of authority. This results in divided loyalty, which travels down within the ranks of the military and that makes the job that must be done in a case like this difficult.
If there are indeed sections of the Army that have been compromised, how can the ranks be cleansed when the public does not even know who, besides the commander-in chief of the armed forces, to hold responsible for any such cleansing? With discipline in the military generally at an all time low, strict orders need to fly down the ranks. Lately, we have had news of women being plucked out of the street to be raped by soldiers, indiscriminate killings, beatings and many things that occurred under the old military era.
The impunity with which some Nigerians have claimed they have been treated at the hands of security agents generally has now been visited on members of that class. The death of the officers is a tragedy and the hearts of Nigerians go to their relatives, who have to pick up the pieces. But we all hope that the shame of this episode helps security agents to have an awakening about their engagement in the field and how it is seen by the public.
Perhaps, Wadume will be caught and bigger revelations will be made, perhaps not. What is important is for the facts that have come out not to be ignored or eased out of public consciousness, like many things in the past have. If Wadume really is a kidnap kingpin, then his recapture does more than throw a spanner into the wheel of kidnappers in Nigeria. For the Army, its integrity in this case hinges on finding, and delivering Wadume. For the police, finding Wadume is a vindication and a win in a tough time in its public relations. For Nigerians, finding Wadume means hope for an end to debilitating insecurity.
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