Amnesty International has published a report claiming that the Nigerian military killed some 150 pro-Biafra demonstrators between August 2015 and August 2016. Amnesty analyzed 87 videos, 122 photographs, and took the testimony of 146 witnesses. It concludes that “the military fired live ammunition with little or no warning” into crowds of demonstrators. Amnesty also has “evidence of mass extrajudicial executions by security forces” of demonstrators calling for an independent Igbo state. Despite official military denials, the Amnesty report, like other reports of Nigerian military abuse, is credible.
The 1967-70 Biafran civil war still haunts Nigeria. Against a backdrop of military coups and anti-Christian, anti-Igbo pogroms in the north, Igbos attempted to secede from Nigeria and form the independent state of Biafra. In the civil war that followed, an estimated one million died before Biafra was re-incorporated into Nigeria. Then-military chief of state Yakubu Gowon followed a general policy of “no victors, no vanquished,” and the former Biafra and the Igbo were quickly re-integrated into the Nigerian state. However, Igbos continue to complain of a “glass ceiling” and myriad other forms of discrimination. Especially during periods of economic difficulty, sentiment for Biafra resurges. Government response to Biafra sentiment is rarely subtle.
Since Nigeria’s 1999 restoration of civilian government, there have been recurring, credible reports of military massacres of civilians and of extra-judicial killings. Some of the better known include the 2001 military killing of more than one hundred civilians near Zaki-Biam in Benue state in retaliation for the killing of nineteen soldiers. Another was the killing of Muhammed Yusuf and several hundred of his followers in 2009, an episode that led to the emergence of Boko Haram. Amnesty International and the western press documented the military’s massacre of hundreds of detainees at Giwa barracks in 2014. In 2015, the military massacred several hundred Shia in Zaria. Official commissions investigate the killings and produce reports. Yet, thus far, the military killings continue.
As part of an effort to forestall possible military coups, successive civilian governments have starved the Nigerian military of resources. Further, the massacres usually take place in circumstances and situations where in other countries it would be the police, not the military, which would take action. But, the Nigerian police is weaker than the military, even if much more numerous. Ever since colonial times, it has been the military that governments have used to restore domestic order, not the police. Yet, as its defenders say, the military is not trained or equipped to fulfill a police function. Further, genuine civilian command-and-control of the military remains an aspiration.