After reading several rave reviews, I decided to watch the movie, “Eye in the Sky” which essentially centres around the ethical dilemma of the use of drones in modern warfare. Released last September, it features a British military officer (played by Helen Mirren) who, in the process of commanding a joint (British and American) operation to capture some Al-Shabaab terrorists in Nairobi, Kenya, discovered that not only did they have explosives, the insurgents were also preparing two suicide bombers for a fresh attack.
While that changes the dynamics of the operation, the officer would need authorization to equally change the objective so she could kill the terrorists by drone, especially when a British citizen was among them. Meanwhile, an American Reaper Drone controlled from an Air Force Base in Nevada had been providing aerial surveillance on the Nairobi building with the proceedings in the house monitored.
Eventually, the British commander secured the authorization to attack the building but just as the pilots were ready to strike, they ran into another dilemma, this time a moral one: an innocent nine-year old girl had entered the kill zone. The pilots could see the girl selling bread outside the targeted building and were almost certain she would end up as collateral damage if they released the missile. All attempts to use the spy on ground to buy the entire loaves of bread on her counter so she could leave the vicinity failed at about the time the battery of the surveillance video ran flat; and with it, the image from the scene.
Linked by phones and video screens, top politicians and military commanders debated the drone operation that could take the life of an innocent girl against the prospect of multiple deaths that would also occur if the suicide bombers were allowed to leave the premises to carry out their plan. The interesting arguments and counter-arguments that followed provided the essence of the movie, as each layer of political authority tried to avoid responsibility, essentially because of the fear that if things went wrong and the collateral damage became enormous, they could be held accountable by the people.
At the end, the real lesson became obvious for me: it was not that the British and the American politicians cared more about innocent lives but rather that they knew they would be held accountable by their publics if such lives were lost on their watch. The critical issue here is that a society where public officials do not feel that they can be held accountable for the life of a citizen, or any life at all, is also one where impunity would reign. The pertinent question therefore is: if the lives of Nigerians (who have evidently been overpowered by those expected to serve them) don’t matter, how can their money matter?
When on 12th December last year members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria, otherwise called Shiites, had a violent clash with a detachment of the Nigerian Army accompanying the Chief of Army Staff, Lt. General T.Y. Buratai in Zaria, the exact number of fatalities was left to speculations. Even at that, most people believed that the figure of a hundred being touted was mere propaganda. That was until last week when the Secretary to the Kaduna State Government, Mallam Balarabe Lawal, said 347 corpses were given mass burial in a single grave on the night of 14th December 2015. According to Lawal, 191 of the corpses were recovered from the Army Depot in Zaria and another batch of 156 corpses from the Ahmadu Bello University Teaching Hospital (ABUTH).
As disturbing as that disclosure would seem, it was the testimony of the Director-General of Interfaith, Muhammad Namadi Musa, that was actually more chilling: “On December 13, 2015, I received a phone call from the SSG to come to the Government House after which I was directed to go to Zaria to find out the number of corpses and how they would be buried. I moved in company of the State Commissioner of Police straight to ABUTH, Zaria to ascertain the number of corpses. There we counted 156 corpses. At the Nigerian Depot, the SSG directed me to meet with one Major Ogundare regarding the corpses there. After introducing myself, he refused to let me know the number; but later on, the SSG told me the number. He also confirmed the number while they were being buried; as he counted them one after the other as they were laid in one grave. We left the Nigerian Army Depot with three heavy-duty trucks and 60 young officers who escorted us to assist in offloading the corpses. From ABUTH, Zaria, five small trucks carried the corpses. Most corpses were covered with black materials and they included women and children.”
While we can leave the details of this gory incident for now, we can at least all agree on one thing: 347 lives are yet to be accounted for. That could only happen because some people knew they would not have to explain how such a large number of Nigerians died in questionable circumstances under their watch. It is only in our country that such a thing would happen without as much as a whimper from the people. Okay, I know: Why should it bother us; after all, they are Shiites?!
In our country today, it is very convenient to label people and with that discount their humanity and value. They are Fulani herdsmen. They are Agatus. They are Yorubas. They are Igbos. They are Christians. They are Muslims. They are settlers. Even the authorities have bought into that dangerous typecasting and segregation as can be glimpsed from the second issue: A statement credited to the Directorate of State Security (DSS) on five Hausa-Fulani herdsmen abducted in Abia State who “were suspected to have been killed by their abductors (IPOB) and buried in shallow graves, amidst 50 other shallow graves of unidentified persons.”
Here, let us assume that the DSS authorities were actually investigating the killing of five herdsmen (as distinct from Nigerians!) but then stumbled on their shallow graves along with 50 other shallow graves. That shock-find ordinarily should change the nature and context of the investigation: From five Nigerians who could not be accounted for, the number had increased to 55. But the DSS leadership could not be bothered about those other 50 “unknown” Nigerians who also met their untimely death in the hands of some criminals. Yet, as I stated earlier, in a society where lives don’t matter, it is sheer waste of time to expect accountability in the management of public resources.
In his latest Note titled “Who should get foreign aid”, Mr. Bill Gates (no introduction needed) wrote that “Nigeria has a higher average income than Vietnam, Pakistan, or Ghana. But compared with people in those countries, Nigerians die younger, are less likely to be literate and are more likely to die before age 5 or in childbirth.” That is what happens in a society where leaders place little or no premium on the lives of the ordinary citizens.
One measure of the countries we like to call ‘developed’ is that they also happen to have a higher sense of fellow feeling. One American life or one British life in danger anywhere on the globe is cause enough to commit troops to ensure they are extracted or saved. But here, our citizens are mere statistics while those in authority hardly care about the loss of innocent lives except such victims are their tribesmen whose death they can use to serve some political end.
Before I continue, I need to stress that this cynical approach to lives is not limited to this administration. It was the same disposition that led to the Odi killings in Bayelsa State and Zaki Biam massacre in Benue State under President Olusegun Obasanjo; the extra-judicial execution of Boko Haram leader, Mohammed Yusuf and some of his lieutenants under the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua and the manner in which President Goodluck Jonathan practically looked the other way while innocent children, including the Chibok girls, were being taken away by Boko Haram insurgents.
However, part of the narrative constructed by the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) campaign to oust President Jonathan was that his administration was playing politics with the death and killing of Nigerians. While it can be argued that Jonathan and his team provided ample materials for such narrative, the Buhari administration does not appear to have shown any inclination to do things differently. If anything, they have doubled down on a longstanding tradition of trifling with Nigerian lives.
For instance, the president was quick to condole with the French and Belgian governments when they those countries recently suffered mass casualty incidents. Yet his silence in respect of the Zaria tragedy and the vexatious matter of 55 bodies and the curious SSS statement are both deafening and frightening. The idea that 347 Nigerians can be buried in a mass grave with no word of solace from our president beggars belief.
On behalf of the administration, it is argued that there is a judicial commission of inquiry set up by the Kaduna State Government and that it should be given the space to finish its work. There are two critical problems here. One, while it is heartening to see the Army testify before a judicial commission of inquiry, the fact remains that ultimately, the military high command will take directive only from their C-in-C. Two, events in Zaria engage the direct responsibility of the President. He can’t outsource how it is dealt with.
The Army (in respect of the 347 bodies) and the DSS (in respect of the 55) are directly under the command and control of the president. Therefore, it is difficult for the administration to escape an inference that the actions of these institutions have his explicit or implicit nod. The only person who can debunk this inference is President Buhari himself. Body language would be a good place to start. But his actions would speak even louder.
At a time of national distress occasioned not only by security challenge but also by a worsening economic situation, the people need to see their president demonstrate that Nigerian lives in fact do matter to him. That is the beginning of accountability, without which any government programme, including the much-touted war against corruption, would be futile and meaningless.