By Most Rev. Lucius Iwejuru Ugorji, Catholic Bishop of Umuahia
1. Our country is passing through turbulent times. This seems to be as a result of the growing culture of impunity, greed and graft among the political elite, as well as the injustice and inequity in political appointments and the distribution of social amenities. While public officers and their cronies obscenely amass ill-gotten gains at the expense of the masses, the growing army of unemployed youths are daily assailed by deepening frustration as they behold a future that seems to promise them little or nothing. Consequently, agitations of disillusionment and dissatisfaction are growing louder across the nation, especially in the last two years. While some groups in the nation are calling for restructuring of the country, others such as the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) are pressing for secession.
2. In the wake of these agitations, which have heightened the tension in our distressed nation, the Chief of Army Staff, Lieutenant-General Tukur Yussuff Buratai, set out to militarise the South East region of the country by the deployment of the 82nd division of the Nigerian Army in the zone under the code name Operation Python Dance II. As the public was informed, the military operation was to last from 15th September to 15th October 2017 and was being undertaking to check criminal activities that have become prevalent in the zone. Nevertheless, the Chief of Army Staff failed to explain why the Nigerian Army was brazenly assuming the constitutional responsibility of the Police Force.
3. Sadly, when the ominous Operation started five days before its official commencement date, Afaraukwu in Umuahia North Local Government Area of Abia State, the home town of Nnamdi Kanu, the IPOB leader, was quarantined and turned into a theatre of violence. Heavy armoured trucks were displayed in the show of force, which instilled fear and panic into the community and its environs. As the Operation unfolded, it became a tale of terror, bloodshed and tears. Hapless and armless IPOB members, who fell into the net of the Nigerian Army in Isiala Ngwa Local Government Area of Abia State were subjected to unimaginable cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. The gory video clips that went viral on the internet portraying young men compelled to swim in a muddy pond vividly revealed the abysmal contempt of human dignity exhibited by the Nigerian Army.
4. To ensure that their atrocities were not reported in the media, the military invaded the Secretariat of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), Abia State Chapter on 12th September 2017 without the slightest provocation and traumatised the journalists carrying out their legitimate duty. The Operation rose to its highest level of terror and brutality with the invasion of the ancestral home of Nnamdi Kanu on 14th September 2017. As recorded, heavily armed Nigerian soldiers massacred armless and defenceless IPOB youths and made away with their corpses, ostensibly to cover their tracks. The continuous shooting of heavy machine guns by the Nigerian Army on that fateful day caused panic among the peace-loving and law-abiding inmates of Afaraukwu community and made them to flee to neighbouring towns for safely. The violent face off between the Nigerian Army and the members of the IPOB in Umuahia triggered off the bloody skirmishes recorded at Aba in Abia State and Oyigbo in Rivers State respectively. Given the rising tension at the time, the government of Abia State imposed curfew on some parts of the State to prevent the complete break down of law and order. With the gradual withdrawal of the military from Abia State, relative peace is returning to the embattled communities and people are now able to go about their normal business. We thank God that the grisly video clips of brutality and indignity disseminated in the social media did not escalate the violent conflicts into a national conflagration.
5. We must express our disappointment that government decided to deploy heavily armed soldiers for a show of force in the South East in a very volatile and provocative atmosphere. Rather than engage soldiers to eliminate non-violent agitators, government should urgently address the anomalies that are the root causes of agitations in the nation or at least pursue the path of dialogue to a logical conclusion. By trying to use excessive force to suppress agitators, who were peacefully voicing out their grievances, government showed contempt to the fundamental rights and freedoms of the citizenry in a democratic society. Above all, deploying armed soldiers to unleash brutality on unarmed and defenceless agitators is totally against the tenets of a true democracy. The lessons of history teach that such draconic measures far from crushing agitators rather energise and embolden them.
6. We are deeply saddened to observe that in carrying out the Operation Python Dance II, the Nigerian Army displayed an abysmal lack of professionalism that has brought embarrassment and shame to our nation. The engagement of the military must abide by the ethical standards and rules that safeguard the sanctity of human life and the dignity of the human person. Given the sanctity of human life, soldiers in self-defence or the defence of the nation may only kill an unjust aggressor during an armed conflict, if and only if that is the only way to ward off his unjust aggression. No matter how one looks at it, nothing can justify the killing of unarmed and defenceless members of the IPOB nor the degrading and inhuman treatment meted out to some others. Even war prisoners are entitled to a decent and humane treatment. We also need to stress that the molestation and intimidation of law-abiding media practitioners by the members of the Nigerian Army is highly condemnable. The Nigerian Army must act within the confines of the law and should avoid arbitrariness and impunity.
7. We feel the pains of millions of Nigerians who are deeply wounded by poverty in the midst of the great wealth with which God has blessed our people. We also share the hurts of the victims of discrimination and injustice, who desire a better future for themselves and their children. However, in exercising their rights and freedoms, agitators have to respect the rule of law and always keep in mind that their rights are limited by the rights of others. We have to stress categorically that hate speeches capable of inflaming passion or incendiary statements that pitch one part of the country against the other, far from solving our national problems rather compound them. Consequently, they should be avoided.
8. In concluding, we urge all to embrace a life of repentance and turn to God in prayer for an enduring solution to our nation’s distress. For as Scripture assures us: “If my people who are called by name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, I will hear in heaven, forgive their sins and heal their land” (2 Chr. 7:14).
Lucius Iwejuru Ugorji
Bishop of Umuahia