The take-off of the army’s Operation Crocodile Smile amid the #EndSARS protests and the shooting of unarmed protesters in the Lekki area of Lagos, have attracted public outcry, OLALEYE ALUKO reports
Barely five days after the Nigerian Army commenced its Operation Crocodile Smile across the country, the impact has been felt everywhere, albeit negatively.
The military’s alleged use of brute force to quell youth protests against police brutality (tagged #EndSARS) has been condemned by many.
As early as Tuesday morning, a video emerged from Ado Ekiti, Ekiti State where soldiers barricaded the Fajuyi Bridge, seeking to stop the procession of #EndSARS protesters.
In the evening of same day, the country was shocked when video clips of army personnel allegedly opening fire on peaceful #EndSARS protesters at the Lekki Toll Plaza in Lagos emerged on the social media.
The shooting allegedly led to the death of seven protesters.
Expectedly, this led to public outcries against the activities of the military and its intervention in the #EndSARS protests.
On October 18, the army said Operation Crocodile Smile would hold between October 20 and December 31, adding that it was meant tackle cyber warfare and insurgency in the country, particularly in the North-East, where Boko Haram insurgents had caused massive destruction.
The acting Director, Army Public Relations, Col Sagir Musa, had explained that the “exercise is deliberately intended to be all-encompassing and will include cyber warfare exercises designed to identify, track and counter negative propaganda on social media and across cyberspace. This is the first-ever cyber warfare exercise to be conducted in the history of the armed forces.”
Based on the antecedents of the military, this explanation did not go down well with many Nigerians and socio-cultural groups including the Pan Niger Delta Forum, which described the deployment of soldiers as “the most provocative at a time Nigerian youths were agitating for an end to police brutality.”
The PANDEF National Chairman/former military governor of Akwa Ibom State, Air Commodore Nkanga (retd.), said the group, “deems the nationwide Operation Crocodile Smile exercise announced by the army as most provocative, and another unnecessary misadventure.”
Meanwhile, violence had erupted amid EndSARS protests in Abuja and Benin, Edo State.
But the army clarified a day later that the operation was not targeted at #EndSARS protesters, with the army spokesman, Musa, noting that “to now insinuate that it is an exercise meant to stifle the ongoing #EndSARS protest is to say the least highly misinformed.”
“It has nothing to do with the ongoing protest and the Nigerian Army has never been involved in the ongoing protest in any form whatsoever,” he added.
However, the incidents – caught on videos in at least two places, Ado Ekiti and Lekki areas, where soldiers were seen playing negative roles – have proven otherwise the army’s stance.
Since the deployments, there have also been anger and violence in several cities, following the numbers of reported deaths, injuries and vandalised public property.
These happened in places like Aba, Abia State; Benin, Edo State; Ibadan, Oyo State; Osogbo, Osun State; Akure, Ondo State; Port Harcourt, Rivers State; and the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja.
Speaking with our correspondent, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Yusuf Ali, said the army had no business with cybercrimes or civil protests, noting that the involvement of the police was sufficient.
He said, “You must make a distinction between civil crimes (which cover cybercrime) and military-related crimes. The military cannot look into anything civil. The police also cannot look at offences domiciled with the military.
“The constitution is clear about this and that is why the constitution created a court-martial. Whereas for all civil crimes, we have the regular courts; so, cybercrimes and others fall under the civil authorities. They are committed by civilians.
“So, it cannot be a valid reason to say the military is coming out for cybercrimes. This is the overlapping problem of security agencies which doesn’t make room for efficiency. As a matter of national issues, the military are not supposed to take part in matters of civil unrest. It is only in cases of insurrection – the law is very clear.
He added, “All those protests are civil unrests – it is because of the long military rule in Nigeria that we think it is normal. It should not be so. We only deploy military when there is insurrection – not when there are issues of civil disturbances.”
Despite video evidences, the Nigerian Army has continued to deny the involvements of its personnel in the notorious shootings and alleged killings of #EndSARS protesters at the Lekki Toll Plaza in Lagos.
This has subsequently aggravated public outcries against the military.
In the heat of the Tuesday shooting in the Lekki areas Lagos, the Nigerian Army on its Twitter handle branded as fake the videos that its soldiers allegedly shot at protesters, saying it did not deploy any soldier in the area.
But the Lagos State Governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, admitted during a live broadcast on Wednesday that the army indeed deployed troops in the Lekki Toll Plaza on Tuesday night.
“For clarity, it is imperative to explain that no sitting governor controls the rules of engagement of the military. I have, nonetheless, ordered an investigation into the rules of engagement adopted by men of the Nigerian Army that were deployed to the Lekki tollgate last night.
“This is with a view to take this up with higher commands of the Nigerian Army and to seek the intervention of Mr President in his capacity as the Commander-In-Chief to unravel the sequence of events that happened,” the governor explained.
A security expert and former Director of the Department of State Services, Mike Ejiofor, called for an investigation into the alleged excesses of the military, describing the development a misplaced priority for the army.
He said, “It is most unfortunate that the military would get involved in purely civil matters. When people were protesting, the military went and started shooting into the air. Now, everybody is shifting responsibility. The military is saying it was not involved but we saw soldiers in the video clips. These clips are there for everyone to see.
“The Chief Security Officer of the state who is the governor also confirmed that he was not aware – maybe the orders came from a higher authority. So it must be investigated to enable us to get to the root of the problem. This action by the military has only aggravated an already bad situation. It is most unfortunate and Nigeria has now been portrayed in the international community in a very bad light.
“I will advise that the military gets less involved in civil matters. Many states are now on a 24-hour curfew. So, is the military going to invade houses to ask people for Positive Identification? So, I think we should set our priorities right and get our operations properly coordinated. I think there is no coordination.”
Also speaking, a security expert, Mr Ben Okezie, said the failure of the President and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, Maj Gen Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), to promptly address the country worsened the protest and this subsequently led to the Tuesday killings in Lekki and other places.
Okezie said all the military personnel who participated in the Lekki killings must be fished out and prosecuted.
He said, “It is unfortunate that despite the public outcries, the President and Commander-in-Chief of the country did not deem it fit to promptly address the country. There have been several disruptions of Federal Government and Lagos State Government infrastructures; and the President for days said nothing. The Vice President also came on Twitter – what if there was no Twitter?
“The thing is that the President should have said something, and early. The army is denying, although the feelers we have is that the army went there. These boys were tensed; the governor of Lagos State and some other governors had shown interest in this struggle; these boys had demands including that the President should talk to them.”
“It would have helped in dousing the tension if the President had spoken on time. Then, when the curfew came, there was escalation. The military personnel who came for the Lekki Toll Plaza operation and the commanders who approved the operation must be made to answer for their action. The government must name them to the public.
“In the first place, the military operation was not needed. Riot policemen should have be enough to take care of the demonstrations. They are a part of the society and they understand the language of civilians – not the military. It is not the military’s job; it is a misnomer.”
Meanwhile, the military appears not ready to accept any wrongdoing for the timing of the Operation Crocodile and the shooting at Lekki Toll Plaza.
The Defence Headquarters, Abuja, on Thursday urged Nigerians to wait for the outcome of the ongoing investigation into the Lekki shooting.
The Coordinator of the DHQ Defence Media Operations, Maj Gen John Enenche, noted that the military also believed that some of the videos being circulating were doctored.
He said, “The issue is not an operation that I can respond to, but I can tell you that it is an allegation, for now; so let us not set the cart before the horse. If the matter was still open-ended, I would have had a response for you but it is no longer open-ended, because immediately, not even up to five hours before midnight, the Governor of Lagos State set up an inquiry. So, whatever we say now will not be fair to the commission.
“So, these operations are still standing and running and I am aware that the state governments are using them in all these capacities; that is internal security. The level we are now is internal security and that is why the police proactively came out and deployed all necessary packages to handle the (violence).”
Meanwhile, some international bodies and countries have called on the Federal Government to investigate the shootings and killings, reportedly committed by the military and other security agencies.
The United States of America, the United Kingdom, European Union, United Nations, Amnesty International, among others have also called on the Federal Government to investigate the reported killings by security agencies.
However, Wikipedia has listed the reported killing of seven #EndSARS protesters by soldiers at the Lekki Toll Plaza among the engagements by the Nigerian Army.
A visit to the Wikipedia page of the Nigerian Army on Wednesday confirmed this development, listing about nine other engagements attributed to the Nigerian Army, namely; the Boko Haram insurgency, invasion of The Gambia, Northern Mali war, and Nigeria-Cameroon border conflict.
Others are the Nigerian Civil War, Congo Crisis, First Liberian Civil War, among others.
Despite the public outcries and international condemnation, Experts say only the President has the constitutional powers to order or stop military deployments if the heads of the military appear not to be willing to accede to such requests.
It is difficult to tell whether Buhari will do this or not. From his brief address to the nation on Thursday night, the President is not likely to make any major pronouncement regarding this in the coming weeks.