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Mixed reaction to army's apology

New recruits to the Sierra Leone army undergo training at Benguema outside Freetown supported by British soldiers from the Integrated Military and Advisory Training Team (IMATT), Sierra Leone, 26 May 2007. They are helping to make the national army more p
(Tugela Ridley/IRIN)

The Nigerian army has apologised for a 2001 attack on a community that killed some 1,000 people, but relatives and human rights advocates say the move falls short.

In 2001 the Nigerian government sent troops to Benue State to stop militants from the Tiv and Jukun ethnic groups from fighting each other. But some Tiv militants turned on the army killing 19 soldiers. The troops took revenge by attacking seven towns the largest being Zaki-Biam.

This month the army officially acknowledged for the first time what its troops had done. “It all happened because we had to play our role, and we are sincerely apologising and pray that you understand our own role as enshrined in the constitutional role,” said Chief of Army Staff Gen. Luka Yusuf at a conference in Benue State attended by the country’s top military leaders.

Yusuf added that the army “is now more focused, result-oriented and committed to upholding the rule of law and protecting the security of lives and property”.

Whether his apology is adequate is a matter of opinion.

Some Nigerians have said it is a sign that the country’s security forces are undergoing a human rights revolution, bringing an end to the era of impunity that was integral to military rule. “We cannot but commend General Yusuf and the military high command for summoning the courage to apologise for a wrong done to the Zaki Biam people”, a recent editorial in the local newspaper the Daily Champion said.

But the army announced no plans to compensate the families of those killed nor has it said it would prosecute any of the soldiers responsible for the massacre.

Political representatives of the victims called the apology inadequate. “The military deliberately caused genocide against Tiv people,” Senator Joseph Waku, an ethnic Tiv, told a local newspaper. “Therefore, the government must pay compensation over the damages, no matter how apologetic it is."

International human rights groups agree. “Apologies are simply not enough for the hundreds of Nigerians killed by the army in Zaki Biam and elsewhere,” Human Rights Watch’s senior researcher in West Africa Corinne Dufka told IRIN.

“If President Yar’Adua is serious about building a Nigeria based on the rule of law, he can take a giant step forward by initiating an investigation into the perpetrators of these egregious acts, and keep up the pressure until those responsible are held accountable,” Dufka said.

An official in Nigeria’s Defence headquarters disagrees. “It’s purely a military thing to decide whether to punish anybody or not to punish anybody,” he told IRIN on the condition of anonymity.

The army has also remained silent on other atrocities it is accused of having committed. Eight years ago a Nigerian battalion allegedly invaded and ransacked the village of Odi, in the Niger Delta Bayelsa State. The destruction came three days ahead of an ultimatum by Nigeria’s president at the time, Olusegun Obasanjo, for the Bayelsa state government to hand over youth responsible for having killed 12 policemen.

The army has previously defended its actions in Odi and Zaki-Biam as an effort to stop criminal activities but they offered no evidence of having investigated crimes or arrested criminals.

A resident of Odi, Nimi Bolayefa, told IRIN: “I am waiting to hear what the authorities will say about our own case.”

Since the attack, he said, “I am now a refugee in my own state because I lost everything.”

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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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