Operation Positive Identification, a window into military (Army) rule

It is a sign of the indifference of the executive branch to democracy and weakness of the legislative arm that the Nigerian Army has propose...

It is a sign of the indifference of the executive branch to democracy and weakness of the legislative arm that the Nigerian Army has proposed a scheme to disrupt life and living in the country, and continue to insist they would go ahead with their plans regardless of the misgivings and criticisms of the civil populace. Not a word has come from the presidency, and little has come from the civil society to justify or deprecate the scheme, not to say reassure Nigerians that the country is not indirectly being subjected to the most virulent and unprecedented form of military rule, the kind never even experienced under the most draconian military regime. The scheme, which would start on November 1, 2019 and tentatively end on December 23, 2019, is, according to the Nigerian Army, designed to fish out fleeing Boko Haram members, bandits and other terrorists who are extending their operations all over the country.
Operation Positive Identification, the operational name given the scheme by the army, will involve soldiers carrying out raids, searches, and arrests with a view to ascertaining the identities of suspects. For soldiers against whom there are tonnes of complaints and petitions for violation of the rights of individuals, the army insists they would respect their rules of engagement and cooperate with sister agencies to carry out the tasks they have set themselves. But the army has been careful so far not to give the impression that it is a service-wide operation, or that it is a military operation requiring the engagement of the service chiefs, or needing the Ministry of Defence and the Chief of Defence Staff to sell the scheme to the civil populace.

The army has ignored the general dismay and has gone ahead to conceive and execute their disruptive plan. Until proven otherwise, there is, so far, nothing to indicate that such a sweeping operation was ever brought before the federal executive council. At least, there was no specific briefing to that effect by any minister — Internal Affairs or Information ministries — nominated to explain the operation’s rationale. There was also no indication that it is a general military operation to which the Chief of Defence Staff or the Minister of Defence would speak. Indeed, even the army itself did not attempt to have consultations with the civil populace both to explain the scheme and elicit their cooperation. Indeed, they could not, for there is no mechanism to enable them interact with governors to elicit their approval.

Undoubtedly, therefore, Operation Positive Identification is a needless, provocative and disruptive scheme solely conceived and executed by an arm of the military, not the presidency, not the police, not the military as a whole, not the legislature, or any other group constitutionally relevant to the conception, execution and success of such a scheme. Femi Falana, the activist lawyer, and the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights (CDHR) have railed against the scheme and minced no words, describing it as an apartheid scheme that reintroduces the infamous and highly deprecated Pass Laws of White rule in South Africa. Mr Falana goes on to describe the scheme as dictatorial and reprehensible. The presidency has looked the other way, partly because they are also fundamentally military in mind and outlook.

Shockingly, only the House of Representatives has made a feeble attempt to question the army’s opprobrious plan. They invited the army to explain why the scheme should not be halted, even as they also asked an indifferent Muhammadu Buhari to halt the army’s violation and disruption of civil life. The Chief of Army Staff, Lt.-Gen. Tukur Buratai, sent a representative who explained the scheme by adopting scaremongering tactics, arguing that fleeing insurgents from the Northeast and other itinerant terrorists were beginning to spread their tentacles to the rest of the country. The House of Representatives was not fully persuaded; instead they whined. The parliament is the most powerful symbol of democracy, but in this and other matters, it has been pusillanimous. But it is clear that the defence of democracy will henceforth rest with the civil populace, not weak-kneed lawmakers, not a diffident judiciary, and certainly not a conniving and authoritarian executive arm.

Consider the arguments of the army. According to the representative the Chief of Army Staff deigned to send to the parliament to answer their questions, Maj.-Gen. U.S Mohammed, the scheme is inevitable. Hear him: “What is happening is that the military has been involved in Operation Lafiya Dole in the Northeast. Within the major operation, we have subsidiary operations and one of them is this Operation Positive Identification. It came about as a result of positive information about the activities of Boko Haram in the Northeast the fact that they are making inroads to other parts of the country. From our intelligence, they are spreading from their traditional stronghold. Based on that, this idea came up to embark on our cordon and search operations. We will make some arrest and do some identification. The operation started on the 22nd of September, 2019…We felt that as these exercises are going on, we should carry out the Operation Positive Identification to areas where we are going to carry out these exercises. It is nothing new.”

The army general said the operation was not new. It is actually new except in the Northeast. He argued that because the insurgents were spreading out from their traditional stronghold, the idea came up to embark on operation cordon and search. With whom did the army meet minds over the idea? Did they discuss it at the defence chiefs level? Did the Defence ministry lead the discussions, let alone find the resolve to sell it to the cabinet and the rest of the country? The general also spoke of the army ‘feeling’ like spreading the exercise to other parts of the country, perhaps because they achieved some unstated successes from executing it in the Northeast. Has the country become so dysfunctional that ideas and schemes that would have national impact would not first be subjected to intensive public, cabinet and legislative debates before they were implemented? Just what kind of democracy is Nigeria running; if indeed it is a democracy?

But that is not all. Said Gen Mohammed: “Operation Positive Identification is intelligence-led activity. Based on credible information, we go to certain areas, make an arrest and profile those arrested by identifying them and through that, we may be able to identify some Boko Haram members and other criminals. There will be no additional checkpoints because it is all intelligence-led. The fact that we are extending it to other parts of the country does not mean there are changes. It is strictly based on credible information and intelligence. We are going to observe our usual rules of engagement and code of conduct for troops during internal security arrangements. Some of these things are being done in conjunction with other sister security agencies which is assisting us in the operation…”

Not only is it damnably wrong for them to carry out such operations on their own; if indeed it is an intelligence-led operation they would not need to go public until suspects are intercepted. Democracy is now considerably undermined in the name of internal security. The army obviously independently organises internal security operations at will, bypasses the national legislature, including the Intelligence Committee, and whimsically determines their scope and magnitude. Nigeria is surely not the first country to run a presidential system. Can it not take a cue from other countries whose internal security has also been threatened at one time or the other? Operation Positive Identification is a retrogression that did not begin today. In one small form or the other, engaging soldiers in purely civilian and police affairs began with the Olusegun Obasanjo presidency, and was taken a notch higher by the Goodluck Jonathan government when soldiers erected checkpoints and seized newspapers they deemed hostile. Now the abuse is escalating to the point of actually threatening democracy full-scale.

As if to sell the unsellable scheme, Gen Mohammed even attempted to patronise the public. Said he: “As I said, we are undertaking three major exercises beginning from 1st of November to 23rd of December. We’re going to conduct raids within those areas. It is essentially aimed at ensuring that some of those security challenges are curtailed to the barest minimum as we approach the yuletide. I want to assure the House and law-abiding Nigerians to go about their lawful duties. It is not going to involve additional troops on the road. Anywhere we get credible information about the gathering of these bad guys, we conduct raids or cordon and search and if in the process, we make an arrest, you will be asked to identify yourself. The major focus is because of the Boko haram and terrorist groups and criminals from the Northeast and Northwest. We have information that they are trickling down to other parts of the country. During the operations, if individuals are arrested, they will be asked to identify themselves and to know who they are. But we are not going to base it on any particular means of identification. We are just trying to ensure that we apprehend some of these criminals who may have escaped from the Northeast.”

There is nothing the army can say to attenuate the obnoxious impact of a scheme that has neither been reasoned out by its officers — not even the military high command — nor put through the legislative and bureaucratic mills. The scheme is militaristic, wrong, unacceptable, disruptive and it endangers democracy. The army in particular has formed the habit of independently conceiving ideas and schemes for the civil populace and the nation at large, rushing them half-baked into execution, while troops, as international and local rights groups have attested, inflict extrajudicial punishments on civilians. It is up to the civil populace to defend their hard-earned democracy and ensure that the army and the military in general are confined to their constitutional duties. If troops would carry out any operations, it must be sold to the public by the relevant civil authorities. Operation Positive Identification disgraces the country and is an indication that democracy in Nigeria is tottering on the brink of disaster.

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