Nigerian Army Colonel Sagir Musa, in an interview with Punch, speaks on issues surrounding Operation Python Dance II, being conducted by the Nigerian Army in the South-East, particularly controversies arising from the army’s clash with the Indigenous People of Biafra.
Questions float right and answers float left.
Many people believe that the military is confused for recanting after it had initially described the Indigenous People of Biafra as a terrorist group. Is the military confused?
Who said so? It must be somebody because the military doesn’t talk. Who made the declaration? I think it is only reasonable I ask this question. Was it me? Who?
The statement that initially announced the declaration of IPOB as a terrorist organisation came from the Defence Headquarters in Abuja.
Then the question should be directed to Abuja, not to me. In the army, when you have your boss, if he talks, you can’t contradict him. You can’t say he is right or he is wrong. You can’t assess him. So people should understand these things. My answer to this question is: I am not the one who said it, and therefore I am not the right person to answer the question. The question should be directed to the person that made the statement. If it came from the military in Abuja, like you said, then the question should go to the military in Abuja.
But do you think the military recanted because of the pressure it came under for describing IPOB as a terrorist group without following due process?
I think you are still on the first question, which I cannot answer because, as you said, the statement came from the Defence Headquarters in Abuja. I think any question concerning that should be directed to the military in Abuja. I don’t know.
The military occupation of the South-East also came under serious questions with people saying it was totally unnecessary as it was the job of the police to quell civil unrest. What do you think?
Let’s be specific and direct, when we showed our presence in Abia State, the same way we have shown our presence in other states in the southeastern part of Nigeria, namely in Enugu, Anambra, Ebonyi and Imo states, we were not quelling any riot because there was no riot at that time to quell. What we were doing, and we made it sufficiently clear, was an exercise. A Nigerian Army exercise! It is routine, it is normal. We had it last year, and because it is a scheduled annual training exercise, we are having it this year, and next year, by the special grace of the Almighty; we will still conduct the exercise, Egwu Eke III (Python Dance III). Now we are on Egwu Eke II (Python Dance II). So it is not something new.
Was it not mischievous for top military chiefs to have left for the South-East and left the North-East open to attacks by Boko Haram when IPOB had not been known to have killed anyone?
We are committed to security in the northeastern part of Nigeria, but remember also, we are committed in the South-South, South-West, North-Central and North-West. You know very well we will soon start Exercise Crocodile Smile in Bayelsa, Rivers, Ondo, Ogun and the creeks of Lagos as well. It’s not that the military left a place and moved to another place, no. We are always there. And not only here in Nigeria, we have some of our colleagues serving in our sister African countries. So we are not leaving anywhere, it is a scheduled exercise and we have to continue with it. And we are doing it the best way. And as of today, there have been commendations for the military because of the exercise and its obvious benefits.
Are you satisfied with Operation Python Dance, so far?
Well, without being immodest, not only me, even you asking that question, you are satisfied. If you go to the police headquarters in all the states that Python Dance II is taking place, they will tell you that crime rate in the last few days has gone down. Even the Federal Road Safety Corps will tell you that accident statistics have gone down to a reasonable standard in the last few days. And I am telling you that in terms of agility, preparation, physical fitness, alertness and training objectives, I think we are gradually getting there. It is being achieved. So the obvious benefits are there.
But don’t you think it will be considered as cruel knowing that some persons were killed and others injured by the military during the operation?
People were said to have been killed but these are hearsays, these are claims, these are assertions, these are rumours, with no evidence. Can you show me the dead bodies? And can you tell me who is responsible? Certainly you cannot do that. So I think the best option is to go to another question that we can verify.
IPOB, and even residents of Aba and Umuahia, have said people were killed. The media also reported some casualties in the course of the occupation of the two towns.
Do we have IPOB in Nigeria? Do we have the Indigenous People of Biafra in Nigeria today?
The group may have been proscribed but it is insisting that its members were killed by the army. In fact, it said 22 of its members were killed when the army invaded Nnamdi Kanu’s residence in Umuahia.
When whichever group, even outlawed ones, say so-and-so number of persons was killed, another group somewhere else will give you a number more than that or lower than that. But you know, the Nigerian Army, is a respectable, God-fearing and very responsible organisation. For that matter, I don’t think that in the service of our nation, we should descend so low to be exchanging words or taking issues with outlawed groups.
So, are you saying that nobody was killed?
I don’t have any records or any verifiable evidence to tell you or to confirm that yes, the Nigerian Army, during Exercise Egwu Eke 2 (Python Dance 2), killed somebody, not only in Aba or Umuahia. If I had such evidence, I would tell you.
But pictures and videos of casualties were circulated on social media. Are you saying that those pictures and videos are not real?
Circulated where? On the social media? Can you in all certainty accept 100 per cent, without question, what you see trending on the social media? Would you accept it? If you cannot accept it, I, as a security agent, I don’t think I will rely on social media hype, especially when it comes to issues of life or death. It is an unreliable, sourceless, disreputable source of information which I don’t like to accept.
You are saying nobody was killed, but IPOB is calling on the National Assembly, United Nations, US government, Amnesty International and others to investigate the alleged killings. In fact, it has accused the Nigerian Army of war crimes and is asking the National Assembly and the international community to investigate the war crimes that allegedly occurred in the course of Operation Python Dance II.
Let me make it categorically clear. With all sense of responsibility, there was no war crime because, in the first instance, we were not at war. There were no atrocities, as alleged by the outlawed group called IPOB. Remember, the same group has churned out malicious photographs to use for propaganda on social media, and made very irresponsible claims of rights violations, which as of today, have been found to be fallacious. I want you to understand that photographs can be photoshopped and cropped, just to serve a peculiar group’s interest. The same thing was in play when we started this operation, but gradually, the end of the game is proving what it is to us – propaganda or unnecessary claims to slow down our operations. And at the moment, under the present leadership of the army in the division, they cannot succeed and that’s why we are seeing the situation normalising at a great speed, if it is not 100 per cent normal.
Are you saying that the army will welcome a probe into the allegations of killings and rights violations that have trailed Operation Python Dance II?
At my level, I can’t talk about the issue of probe or not, but as a responsible organisation, ours is to do our job to the best of our ability and with respect to fundamental human rights. This has been the training, this has been the warning – this is clearly spelt out in our rules of engagement, and in our code of conduct. Anybody that is found wanting, and if it is established beyond doubt that he has committed an act against his rules of engagement or code of conduct, we have a mechanism through which we deal with such a person.
Some people believe the name Operation Python Dance has a sinister ring to it when Operation Lafiya Dole in the North-East, where Boko Haram has killed thousands of Nigerians, means peace or something like that?
You need to understand the true meaning of Exercise Lafiya Dole. Literally in Hausa, what does that mean? If you knew, you would not have asked me this question. But be that as it may, military operations are given codenames, and codenames are usually decided upon by the strategic leadership of the military anywhere in the world. Thus we have Exercise Desert Storm, Hurricane, several others. In Nigeria, we have Lafiya Dole – Restore Order; Exercise Crocodile Smile; Exercise Awase in Lagos and Ondo creeks. Here in the South-East, the leadership decided that it should be coded Exercise Egwu Eke II (Python Dance II). They are all exercises.
Are you saying the name ‘Python Dance’ has nothing to do with the intention of the exercise in the first place?
I did not say that, don’t make imputations or paraphrase what I said.
I am asking because pythons are very deadly creatures, so does the name suggest an intention on the part of the military to act like pythons in the South-East?
I think I would appreciate it if you look at Exercise Egwu Eke II (Python Dance II) purely as a military exercise without any sinister motive, irrespective of the codename given to it.
Was the military given a mandate to find and arrest Nnamdi Kanu in the course of the exercise?
Like we told you, military exercises, just like Egwu Eke II (Python Dance II), have certain objectives. The objective of this exercise has been made clear. We are purely on a training mission. We made it clear that, though, it is a training period, it can still transmute into real military exercises whenever the need arises. For instance, if our troops are on road block, or they are on patrol, and they encounter armed robbers, or their attention was drawn to the presence of armed robbers, certainly they can act to save lives, with a view to arresting the bandits. If along checkpoints, even if they are training at the checkpoint itself, they see somebody in the booth of a car, yelling or wailing, asking for help, signifying that he has been kidnapped, certainly, they will intercept. They can even use force, to a reasonable extent, towards saving the life of such a person. That is why I said
If along checkpoints, even if they are training at the checkpoint itself, they see somebody in the booth of a car, yelling or wailing, asking for help, signifying that he has been kidnapped, certainly, they will intercept. They can even use force, to a reasonable extent, towards saving the life of such a person. That is why I said although, it is a training period, it can transmute into real time operation.
In that sense, why did the army invade Nnamdi Kanu’s house?
Nnamdi Kanu is not an issue, what is an issue is that any violent organisation that takes laws into its hands, have arms in its possession, to the extent of using them against a legitimate national army, it follows that such kind of group needs to be defeated.
But IPOB insists that it is non-violent and don’t have arms.
But you know, I know, and Nigerians know that they have arms, and that they are violent. Otherwise, on many occasions, when they went on the rampage, they set vehicles ablaze. We saw it in Aba and if not for the presence of soldiers, terrible damage could have been done in addition to what we saw. There was an attempt by the same group to set ablaze Ariaria International Market in the town. Security forces – army, police and other security agencies, prevented that from happening. Again, few years back, there was an attempt by the group to block Asaba-Onitsha Bridge despite the strategic importance of that bridge, in terms of business, movement and others. It was rescued by the Nigerian Army in conjunction with other security agencies. I am bringing these cases up to buttress my point that contrary to the claim that they are non-violent, these assertions are enough to prove that they are violent.
IPOB had on several occasions alleged that the Federal Government infiltrated its ranks or employed some people, who were instructed to engage in violent acts in the group’s name, in order to give the group a bad name. What do you have to say about that?
I don’t know, and therefore I cannot comment on it.
When does the military plan to commence Operation Crocodile Smile II in the South-South and parts of South-West? The planned operation has already been condemned by many. What justification do you have for this?
I am not in a position to speak on Exercise Crocodile Smile.
Many people believe the mandate given to the military is to crush any dissenting voice in the South-East and that the military has been a pawn in a tribal war being executed by the President Muhammadu Buhari-led Federal Government. What do you think?
When military exercises are being mixed with political issues, people like me cannot comment on such issues.
Are the military authorities provoked when IPOB and other pro-Biafra groups like the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra make statements that suggest that they are ready to face the army if any confrontation arises? For example, when the Federal Government asked the court to revoke Nnamdi Kanu’s bail, IPOB and MASSOB vowed to resist any attempt to re-arrest Kanu. How does the army view such statements?
Don’t you think they are contradicting themselves if you consider such statements and their insistence that they are non-violent and not armed?
I think there is contradiction in that claim because no group can withstand a national army if its members are not equally armed. But the question you asked should be directed at the Federal Government. My mandate is Exercise Egwu Eke II (Python Dance II) and it is within this issue that I can comment.
A pro-Biafra group, the Biafra National Guard, is led by a civilian who goes by the rank of ‘General’. Also, some of the militant groups in the Niger Delta are led by individuals who ascribe the title ‘General’ to themselves. As a professional soldier, how do you feel about such developments?
Well, I feel such assumptions are not good. It is abnormal. It is not just abnormal; it is like somebody taking a title he does not merit. That alone is actionable in law. That is my opinion.
So when is the military withdrawing or pulling out finally from the South-East?
I am talking about Operation Python Dance.
If you say pull out, it is a big matter. We are not pulling out. But if you ask: when is the exercise officially ending, I will say it started on September 15 and it will end on October 14. But remember that even before the exercise, we had Operation Mesa, you (would see us at) check points, you (would) see roadblocks. When there is need to do so, we do engage in..
When there is need to do so, we do engage in show of force. Show of force should not be misconstrued to mean intimidating or harassing; rather, it is just to show you that we are there. If you are a criminal, you should watch out. If you want to fight the state, if it is force you are going to use, we are telling you that you cannot win in the theatre of force. That is the essence of show of force. Not to intimidate, not to harass, but to show you that we are capable and so you should watch out.