One of the most shocking aspects of the events in Benue was the federal government's response, or lack of response, to the news that soldiers of the Nigerian army had massacred civilians and destroyed towns and villages. Senior government officials were quick to condemn the killing of the nineteen soldiers. President Obasanjo and Vice-President Atiku Abubakar made several public statements urging that no effort be spared to track down the perpetrators. For example, on October 18, the vice-president was quoted as saying: "The Federal Government will not tolerate any act of terrorism in whatever form. Investigations are still going on in the killing of the soldiers and we will apprehend those involved in it and they will be brought to book."47 On October 22, on the day of the funeral of the nineteen soldiers, President Obasanjo was quoted as saying: "I have directed security agencies to track down and bring the perpetrators to book. We will make sure it does not occur again."48 It was while the president, the minister of defense and the chief of staff of the army were all attending the soldiers' funeral in the federal capital Abuja that the military began its killing spree in Benue.
When news of the military reprisals first became public, it was greeted with silence by the federal government, in stark contrast with its strong condemnation of the killing of the nineteen soldiers. An army spokesman first denied that soldiers had engaged in killing and destruction, claiming that they had been instructed to find the killers of the nineteen soldiers, not to take revenge on civilians. Army Chief of Staff Alexander Ogomudia said: "I wish to categorically state that Nigerian Army soldiers will for no reason engage in any vengeance mission during internal security operations as this is against our Rules of Engagement and Code of Conduct which are very clear [...]" He claimed that the troops had been deployed to the area to find the killers of the nineteen soldiers, after the Benue State government had failed to do so "within a specified period."49
Eventually, as pressure from the media mounted, President Obasanjo was forced to comment. In a response which seemed to bear no relation to the gravity of the events reported to him, he indicated that such actions were to be expected from the military, and that the soldiers might have been acting in self-defense. In a conversation with journalists on the "presidential media chat" on national television, reported in the press, he was quoted as saying: "[...] Whatever else soldiers are taught to be or not to be they are taught to fight in self-defence. [...] I don't know what you mean by any action against those who carried out the destruction. Military men have their orders, what they do and should not do [...]"50 He was also quoted as saying: "If they [soldiers] are injected into operations and things go wrong, you blame them for nothing. That is not their training."51 The army chief of staff also told a news conference: "The troops will fight back in self-defence. We cannot allow the soldiers to fall again."52 Elsewhere he was quoted as saying: "When you send troops out, you give them instructions on what to do, even if everything fails, I don't think self-defence should fail. It doesn't give me joy to fight Nigerians. But some things ought to be done. If nineteen soldiers are killed and we keep quiet, a whole battalion can be wiped out. We have to make it clear. You can't kill people who work for government. You must not make the mistake of attacking them."53
In the face of increasing criticism from human rights organizations and others, including the National Human Rights Commission, the government eventually announced a commission of inquiry on November 11.54 However, by the end of February, it had still not been inaugurated or begun its work. Its terms of reference are extremely vague, extending well beyond the events in Benue to cover the situation in several other states. The mandate contains no specific reference to the need to investigate the actions of the military in October.
In an official, more detailed response to events in Benue by Minister of Information Jerry Gana, the government stated that "the commander-in-chief in halting the advance of the troops has also instructed that any soldier found to have committed any act of indiscipline or not to have followed the rules of engagement will be appropriately dealt with." However, the substance of the statement dealt with the abduction and killing of the soldiers. In relation to the Tiv-Jukun conflict, Jerry Gana denied that the federal government was taking sides in this or any other dispute.55
It was several days before President Obasanjo ordered the suspension of military operations in Benue. However, even then, he did not order the withdrawal of soldiers from the area, despite many appeals from individuals and organisations in Benue and elsewhere. By early February 2002, soldiers were still stationed in Katsina-Ala, and others had been brought in from Wukari (in Taraba) to Tinenune, close to Zaki-Biam, in Benue. At the end of February, the government finally announced that the soldiers would be withdrawn and replaced with mobile police.
The federal government's first real condemnation of the army's actions came from Vice-President Atiku Abubakar, who visited some of the afflicted towns in Benue on October 31. He was reportedly shocked by what he saw, regretted what had happened, and undertook to convey his impressions to the president. He stated: "Two wrongs do not make a right ... Unfortunately things went out of hand and today we have to manage two wrongs."56 It is not known whether or how the findings of his visit were followed up by the president's office.
More generally, President Obasanjo has repeatedly condemned the outbreaks of intercommunal violence in different parts of the country, and has set up a number of other commissions of inquiry and meetings between government officials, including governors of the affected states, to discuss preventive measures. It is too early to judge the outcome of these initiatives, the aim of which is to study the historical causes and longer-term aspects of these conflicts, rather than to deal with the immediate situation.
Most recently, on January 24-26, 2002, the president held a retreat on peace and conflict resolution in several states in central Nigeria, including Benue and Taraba. The retreat, which was attended by the president, the vice-president, the governors and other delegates from seven states, produced a number of positive recommendations, highlighting, in particular, the need to resolve disputes around the notions of "indigenes" and "settlers". The retreat also recommended that all displaced persons "be adequately re-settled immediately and the withdrawal of the military in the crisis areas should be vigorously pursued in the context of demonstrated evidence of the restoration of lasting peace and security."57
At the state level, prior to the military operation of October 22-24, there had been meetings between the governors of Benue and Taraba states to try to prevent further violence in the area and resolve the conflict between Tivs and Jukuns. Unfortunately, none of these meetings succeeded in averting the army massacre, nor in stemming the ongoing violence in Taraba. In relation to the specific events in Benue, the governor of Benue State, George Akume, apologized to the federal government for the abduction and killing of the nineteen soldiers. According to Governor Akume, a security meeting was called, during which the police said they would not be able to control the situation in the aftermath of the soldiers' murder. It was agreed that the governor would request the deployment of soldiers to cordon off the area while the police searched for the perpetrators, and that the soldiers to be assigned to this mission would be from the 72nd paratroop battalion from Makurdi, on the basis that they would be likely to be more neutral than soldiers of the brigade whose members had been killed. The president approved the request and operational orders were given on October 19. However, according to the governor, when the commander from Makurdi reached Zaki-Biam, he was informed that the soldiers from Yola had crossed over from Taraba into Benue, had ill-treated people in Kyado and were preparing to kill them. The commander from Makurdi intervened to try to protect civilians in Kyado, as described above. However, soon afterwards, for reasons which are not clear, the soldiers from Benue were withdrawn and the Yola brigade took over, with the disastrous consequences which followed.58
The governor of Benue State unreservedly condemned the vengeance exacted by the military on the population of his state on October 22-24. Given that the Tiv constitute the majority ethnic group in Benue State, and that the vast majority of the victims of the military operation were also Tiv, it is not surprising that he and other state government officials in Benue should have strongly criticized the killings and destruction by the army. The state government has also provided assistance to people displaced by the army's destruction, but its means have been limited and its resources overstretched, as the state was already hosting tens of thousands of internally displaced people from Taraba and Nasarawa states. The living conditions of the internally displaced in Benue remain extremely poor, despite contributions by nongovernmental organizations such as the Nigerian Red Cross and church-based groups. In late February 2002, the governor of Taraba State, Rev. Jolly Nyame, announced that he would be encouraging the displaced population from his state to return home; a number of measures were being considered to reassure them of their security, including the deployment of police who would not be perceived as biased. However, many internally displaced persons remained apprehensive and fearful that violence could recur.59
There has been intense speculation as to the origin of the orders to avenge the death of the nineteen soldiers by sending in the military from Yola to punish the population of Benue. The Benue State government appears to have been completely bypassed in this decision. The Nigerian army being a national institution, answerable to federal and not state authorities, the decision to deploy them in an operation of this kind can only have been authorized at a very senior level in the federal government. Ultimately, the responsibility lies with President Obansanjo, as commander-in-chief responsible for the armed forces.
Many observers have laid the blame, without hesitation, on Minister of Defense Theophilus Danjuma, who is himself a Jukun. Human Rights Watch is not in a position to confirm this theory. However, it is clear that the military operation in Benue must at least have been carried out with the minister of defense's knowledge or approval. The theory that Minister of Defense Danjuma may have been personally involved would also appear to pit him, a Jukun, against the former army chief of staff, Victor Malu, a Tiv, whose house was specifically targeted during the military attack.60
Minister of Defense Theophilus Danjuma himself was interviewed by journalists about the events in Benue. In an interview with The News magazine, he denied any role in the military operation, claiming it was not his but the army's responsibility, and that the journalists should direct their questions to the army chief of staff instead. He stated: "I don't command the soldiers, but I do know that soldiers obey the rules of engagement. You send them out, you tell them what you expect. [...] You don't shoot except in self-defence, when and if you shoot, you should shoot to kill [...] If they acted outside their brief, that is a different question and it is a question only the Chief of Army Staff can answer." With regard to the broader conflict, he denied using his position as minister of defense to manipulate the conflict against the Tiv, but accused the Tiv of having "expansionist tendencies" and of blaming him "as an individual in order to divert attention from themselves."61
47 See "Killers of 16 soldiers identified," in the Lagos-based Comet, October 19, 2001.
48 See "As army buries 19 slain soldiers...," in the Lagos-based This Day, October 23, 2001.
49 See "As army chief absolves soldiers of blame ... How Tiv villages were sacked," This Day, October 26, 2001.
50 See "President Obansanjo explains role of military in clash hit states," in the Lagos-based Guardian, October 29, 2001.
51 See various media reports, including "Kill soldiers, invite disaster, says Obasanjo," This Day, October 28, 2001.
52 See "Thousands hide in Bush after Nigeria army killings," Reuters, October 25, 2001.
53 See "Army refutes report of reprisal killings in Benue," The Guardian, October 26, 2001.
54 The National Human Rights Commission is a government-appointed body, created in 1996.
55 See, for example, "Benue: FG reads riot act to soldiers," in the Lagos-based Vanguard, October 29, 2001.
56 See "Nigeria vows `never again' after massacre by army," Reuters, October 31, 2001.
57 Statement of the Presidential retreat on peace and conflict resolution in some central states, Kuru, 24th to 26th January, 2002.
58 Human Rights Watch interview with George Akume, governor of Benue state, in Makurdi, December 20, 2001.
59 Human Rights Watch telephone interview, February 27, 2002.
60 Ironically, Victor Malu was chief of staff of the army at the time of the military operation in Odi, in November 1999. In response to questions from journalists about the parallels between the two sets of events, Victor Malu claimed that events in Odi had been completely different and that soldiers there had been acting in self-defense.
61 The News, November 12, 2001, Vol 17, no 19.