There is apprehension and palpable fears across the country, following the nationwide kickoff of the Operation Positive Identification (OPI) by the Nigerian Army, a procedure that would compel all individuals residing in the country to produce on demand, their means of identification.
The operation, which began yesterday, and expected to last till December 23, is aimed at fishing out fleeing Boko Haram insurgents and other terrorists as well as some illegal immigrants, who had infiltrated the masses. Some communities across the country yesterday witnessed the presence of military personnel and other security agencies as a result of the procedure, just as many Nigerians were of the opinion that the operation will curb incessant attacks on villagers by suspected Fulani herdsmen. However, despite the fears of harassment being nursed in some quarters, Saturday Telegraph gathered that people have been going about their normal duties unmolested, as seen by our correspondents across the country.
But a source in the Nigerian Army told one of our correspondents that the exercise was not meant to be a nationwide operation, as there are plans to concentrate on a few troubled spots. According to the high ranking officer, the ‘stop and identify yourself’ show would be carried out at strategic locations to curb the activities of terrorists towards the yuletide. When probed on the logic behind the announcement of a countrywide operation, the General explained that the broadcast was to intimate people of what to expect and also to prepare the populace ahead of any eventuality.
“I am sure you are aware that it is done at strategic levels, and that is why I said we should just leave it at that. I don’t want you to quote me for anything. It is something that is being handled at the strategic levels. The situation here is just that if anything happens, it will cause tension”, he explained.
North: No sign of operation
In some parts of the North, including the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, and Jos, the Plateau State capital, people were seen freely going about their normal businesses, but not without apprehension. Though the presence of the military is not new to the people of Plateau State, there is no indication that the military hasstarted the operation in the state, as some citizens kicked against the exercise, saying identification of citizens is not the prerogative of the Nigerian Army.
An indigene of Plateau State, Mr Nenfort Gowon, while querying the rationale, said: “are the soldiers not the ones we see daily harassing Nigerians without provocation? With this new order, abuse is imminent. I think the immigration service, police and the DSS are in better position to carry out this high level profiling and not the army”, he said Another indigene of the state, who gave his name as Makut Adams, said the decision by the Nigerian Army to require people to move about with legitimate means of Identification such as National Identification Card, Voters Registration Card, Drivers’ License and International passports, is unconstitutional, illegal, null and void.
“This decision violates the rights of Nigerian citizens to freedom of movement as encapsulated in Section 41 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 as Amended”, he said. In Niger State, there was no extra military presence to what was obtainable as people went about their daily routine, though the Nigerian Army had on Thursday launched an operation code named ‘Ayem Akpatuma 2′ to curtail the security challenges. Also in Benue State, the Nigerian Army yesterday launched an operation to combat all forms of criminality, especially kidnapping, armed banditry, cultism and communal clashes in order to allow law abiding people go about their activities freely as the yuletide season approaches.
At the flag-off of the second phase of Exercise Ayem Akpatuma in Makurdi, the Chief of Army Staff (COAS), Lt. General Tukur Buratai, said the public are expected to go about their legitimate duties and to pass information about criminal activities to security agencies. Buratai, who was represented by the Chief of Logistics of the Nigerian Army, Major General J.I Unuigbe, said the exercise was been conducted in conjunction with other security agencies operating in the state. He said the code of conduct and rules of engagement of the personnel have been drawn up for the exercise to guide the conduct of the troops throughout the duration of the exercise.
“Troops are therefore, expected to conduct themselves in the most professional way that is expected of all Nigerian military personnel,” he said, warning that the army won’t condone human rights abuse by the troops that involved in the exercise. Governor Samuel Ortom lamented the level of criminality in the state that led to the killing of over 73 people early last year as well as Catholic Priests in later part of the that year.
The governor who spoke through his deputy, Benson Abounu, noted that even though the issue of insurgency has been put in the past, there is resurgence of kidnapping in the state which he described as a “dead devil criminality which put victims in terrible trauma.”
Ortom, who urged the troops that would be engaged in the exercise to “deal ruthlessly and comprehensively with the criminals”, expressed optimism that the phase two of the Election Ayem Akpatuma will tackle frontally, the issue of kidnapping that has taken the centre stage in the state. “Deal with these criminals ruthlessly and comprehensively, you have the authority of the governor that you can go ahead and do this because that’s the only way that we can have peace of mind.”
South: Unnecessary, antipeople
In the southern part of the country, places like Rivers, Lagos, Onitsha and Asaba witnessed usual hustling and bubbling activities with commercial and vehicular movements on the increase. There was no clear evidence of ‘stop and search’ routine across the states as residents were seen going about their normal business transactions.
However, the speculation that the military exercise may have started rented the air, forcing residents to go about with their ID cards, even as some of them maintained that the operation was anti-people and unnecessary since the country was not in anarchy.
A human rights activist, John Onyema, who urged Nigerians to reject democracy in military toga, also queried the modus operandi of the operation. “Are we in a state of war? The exercise is uncalled for. The military should allow citizens to go about their lawful duties without fear of being harassed or intimidated.
They should restrict their exercise to the troubled and seized Boko Haram towns. How do you differentiate a criminal from a law abiding citizen? I don’t think it is by show your identity card that you detect a criminal.” In the same vein, a member of the Market Woman Association at the popular Ogbeogonogo Central Market in Asaba, Madam Chinwe Aniamaka, said the Federal Government should make its intention known over the exercise and stop militarizing the land. She said: “is that the solution to Nigeria’s economic quagmire? Why are the leaders always chasing shadows and leaving the substance? A kidnapper, armed robber and terrorist will surely identify themselves and go, but the poor masses will be the casualties of the exercise”, she lamented. In Ado-Ekiti, the Ekiti State capital, there was no unusual presence of soldiers, but there were regular military checks on major roads by the military and police who requested for people’s means of identification.
A resident of the state, Mr Olawale Jemilehin, argued that scanty presence of soldiers is an indication that the military’s OPI is being carried out in border areas, as such, there won’t be much presence of the soldiers within the metropolis. He said: Ekiti is not a border area. Probably that is why there is no heavy presence of the military. It is just the usual checks by security agents, people are going about their normal businesses. On its part, Adebayo Samuel, who resides close to a major checkpoint, said the OPI is a waste of efforts and an untimely program:
“At a time when the Nation is busy fighting Insurgency and all forms of insecurity across the land, I would have expected the government or the military to focus more attention on curbing insecurity in the land, rather than deploying soldiers from the warfront to the streets to cause apprehension among the populace”, Adebayo said. Also, Kenneth Adolf, in his response, said the program is anti-people and an infringement on the provision of rights of citizens to free movement. Noting that exercises such as this can only be a appreciated if taken to the border areas, Adolf advised that the military should re-strategise to ward off uncontrolled movement of illegal immigrants to the country. Adolf said: “It is very surprising to note that government could exhibit such level of ignorance, wickedness and callousness. This is an attempt to imprison and padlock citizens”, he stated. “To think of deploying soldiers among civilians, when citizens are still groaning under the closure of borders, is an ill thought”, he said.
‘Shun politics, redeem army’s image’
A coalition of Civil Society Organisations (CSOs), has however urged the Chief of Army Staff, Lt. Gen. Tukur Buratai, to ensure that Nigerian soldiers were not dragged into politics, in order to redeem its image. This, they said, would also enable the army to concentrate on its war against terrorism in the country. The group, after submitting a letter of petition to Buratai, said the nation’s territorial peace was under threat, as such the military should be galvanised from political manipulations, so that it could muster the required force to compact terrorism and banditry. Leaders of the group, Deji Adeyanju, Ariyo-Dare Atoye and Adebayo Rapheal, in the petition warned that unless Nigerian Army stays away from politics, the damaged image would get worst. They also urged the army to resist every attempt by politicians to taint its image during the forthcoming Kogi and Bayelsa states gubernatorial elections.
The petition reads in part: “As we approach the Kogi and Bayelsa states gubernatorial elections, we believe it is paramount to remind the Ni-gerian Army that its involvement in the 2019 general elections left indelible scars and traumas in the hearts of most Nigerians. “Reports by local and international observers documented how the deployment and involvement of the Nigerian Army in the elections led to widespread voter intimidation, voter apathy, and electoral violence. “It is equally important to remind the Nigerian Army that it has been helped to ward off pressure being mounted by politicians to get involved in our elections, with several court judgements, which between 2003 and 2015 emphatically declared the deployment of soldiers during elections in Nigeria as completely unconstitutional and illegal.
“It is against this background that we wish to strongly urge the Nigerian Army to jettison all plans to deploy soldiers for the forthcoming Kogi and Bayelsa States governorship elections. This should mark a turning point for the Army to regain the trust of Nigerians.
“We believe that history will look favourably on the Nigerian Army if it chooses to honour the Nigerian constitution by refusing to be a tool in the hands of politicians, and refusing to deploy our gallant troops during the forthcoming governorship elections. “The Army is already overstretched with several internal operations and it should be saved from political distractions. The Police are adequately prepared to deploy officers for this election as they did during the general elections. If the police could adequately deploy its officers to 36 states during the elections, it won’t have any challenges in just two states – Kogi and Bayelsa.”
OPI approved by Buhari, says Buratai
The Chief of Army Staff (COAS), Tukur Buratai, has however justified the exercise, while revealing that President Muhammadu Buhari approved the ‘Operation Positive Identification’. Buratai said this when he appeared before the House of Representatives committee investigating the operation. Buratai, represented by Usman Muhammed, Chief of Civil-Military Affairs said the President and Minister of Defence are in support of the operation saying the exercise, first launched in the north-east in September, is being extended nationwide to intercept Boko Haram insurgents who had relocated from their enclaves to other parts of the country.
He, however, denied claims that the operation would involve deployment of troops into communities across the country saying it is an intelligence-based operation to intercept insurgents and other “criminal elements” relocating from the north-east to other parts of the country.