The Defence Headquarters has said Operation Positive Identification, which will begin on Friday (today), is meant to flush out “foreign combatants infiltrating our borders and conducting attacks.”
The acting Director, Defence Information, Col Onyema Nwachukwu, in an interview with one of our correspondents in Abuja on Thursday, said the exercise would focus mainly on bandits and criminal elements.
Nwachukwu said this just as a human rights lawyer, Mr Femi Falana (SAN), sued the Nigerian Army, its Chief of Army Staff and the Attorney-General of the Federation, praying for an order stopping the Operation Positive Identification by the army.
But the Chief of Army Staff, Let-Gen Tukur Buratai, who appeared before the House of Representatives Committee on the Army, defended the operation, saying any means of identification would be accepted during the exercise.
Early in September, the Nigerian Army had said that it would embark on Operation Positive Identification. On September 25, the Nigerian Army, in a statement by the acting Director of Army Public Relations, Col Sagir Musa, said the operation would be extended nationwide to “check out for bandits, kidnappers, armed robbers, ethnic militia, cattle rustlers as well as other sundry criminals across the various regions of Nigeria.”
The acting Director, Defence Information, Col Onyema Nwachukwu, in the interview with one of our correspondents, noted that the operation was to fish out foreign attackers, bandits and fighters.
Defending the exercise, the acting director of defence information said the operation was first conducted in the North-East.
According to him, Operation Room Assessment, which the military conducted in the North-East after Operation Positive Identification, led to the arrest of top Boko Haram commanders. He said this made the military to see the need to extend the OPI to other regions.
He said, “Operation Positive Identification was first of all conducted in the North-East of Nigeria. What actually led to that operation was because there were sleeper cells of the Boko Haram and the Islamic State West African Province members that infiltrated the populace.
“For instance, during one of the combat operations with the insurgents, the military found a brand new mobile phone on a dead terrorist and also the receipt of the phone which had just been obtained from a market. This means that he had bought that phone and had been in town just days before he returned to the forests to meet the terrorist commanders. So, such instances give us the intelligence that the Boko Haram members infiltrate the towns in the North-East.
“So it was a successful operation in the North-East as several Boko Haram commanders and members were arrested and many weapons recovered. That operation was not all about the army; other services of the military and other security agencies partook in it.
“We adjudged the operation as successful in the North-East and it was decided that such operation should be extended to other theatres of operation such as the North-West and North-Central, where we have had issues of foreign combatants infiltrating our borders and encroaching on our country and conducting attacks on Nigerians who live on the fringes of these borders.
“We have had encounters with these infiltrations through forests in Zamfara, Sokoto and others being used as enclaves in the North-West. So we decided to extend the operation to other regions so as to address these cross-border criminals.
“The evaluation we did was that Operation Positive Identification would be extended to the North-West and North-Central regions because of its successes in the North-East. The operation involves all the security agencies, both those who are involved in the kinetic and non-kinetic operations.”
Falana asks court to stop operation
But a human rights lawyer, Femi Falana (SAN), asked a court to order the stoppage of the operation.
The suit marked FHC/L/CS/1939/2019 was filed before the Federal High Court in Lagos on October 25, but a copy of it was seen by The PUNCH on Thursday.
According to Falana, the planned nationwide operation scheduled to start from November 1 (Friday) and end on December 23, 2019, by which Nigerian citizens will be required to move about with means of identification is unconstitutional, illegal, null and void.
It violates citizens’ right to liberty – SAN
He argues that the planned operation violates his right and that of other Nigerian citizens to liberty, “as encapsulated in Section 35 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 as Amended and Article 6 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights (Ratification and Enforcement) Act, (Cap A10) Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004.”
He filed along with the suit an order seeking an interim injunction restraining the three defendants from going on with the plan pending the hearing of the substantive suit.
In a supporting affidavit filed along with the suit, Falana recalled that on October 8, 2019 the Chief of Army Staff, Lt-Gen Tukur Buratai, disclosed that Operation Positive Identification, said to be ongoing in the North-East theatre of Boko Haram insurrection, would be extended to cover the entire nation.
He said the operation required Nigerian citizens to move about with legitimate means of identification such as the national identification card, voter registration card, driving licence and passports or other valid official identification.
Falana argued, through his lawyers, Mrs. Funmi Falana and Taiwo Olawanle, who filed the suit on his behalf, that by virtue of Section 215 (3) of the Constitution, the Nigeria Police Force “has the exclusive power to maintain law and order and secure public safety and public order in the country” and not the army.
He contended that going by section 217(1) of the constitution, the Nigerian President could only deploy the armed forces for the suppression of insurrection and acting in aid of civil authorities to restore law and order.
But he said, “There is no insurrection in every part of the country which the Nigeria Police cannot contain to warrant the deployment of armed troops all over the country from November 1, 2019 to December 23, 2019.
“Neither the Constitution nor the Armed Forces Act Cap A20 LFN, 2004 has empowered the Nigerian Army to arrest any citizen who is not subject to service law.
“The 1st respondent (the Nigerian Army) under the leadership of the 2nd respondent is not empowered to take over police duties and the President and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces lacks the power to deploy members of the armed forces in the maintenance of internal security in any part of the country by virtue of Section 217 (a) (b) and (c) of the 1999 Constitution, as amended.”
Buratai defends operation, says any means of identification acceptable
But Buratai, in the House of Representatives on Thursday, defended the operation, saying any means of identification would be accepted.
The House had on Tuesday asked President Muhammadu Buhari to stop the operation, saying it violated human rights.
The House had mandated its committee on army to invite the Chief of Army Staff to explain the operation.
After Buratai’s briefing on Thursday, members of the committee were divided over the operation, which was criticised by lawmakers, including the Minority Leader, Ndudi Elumelu, on Tuesday.
Buratai was represented in the committee by the Chief of Civil Military Affairs, Maj-Gen Usman Muhammed.
Some lawmakers supported the operation and asked the military not to infringe on citizens’ rights. Others dismissed it, saying it was against the constitution.
Such lawmakers stated that the military was taking over responsibilities of the Nigeria Police and the Nigeria Immigration Service.
Members of the committee, while asking a series of questions, expressed contrary opinions about the OPI.
Chairman of the committee, Mr Abdulrazak Namdas, was forced to set up a sub-committee, whose members were drawn from the opposing sides of the panel, to harmonise their resolutions and report back before Tuesday.
He stated, “Based on this interaction, we cannot just conclude. We will have a sub-committee that will handle this and report back to the committee on Tuesday.”
Earlier in his opening remarks, Namdas expressed the concerns Nigerians had about OPI, especially on the report that they could be stopped anywhere at any time to identify themselves.
He said, “We know that the Army is seriously tackling a lot of security challenges. The major role of the Army is to safeguard the territorial integrity of Nigeria. Of course, when there are internal security challenges that demand the attention of the Army, certainly the Army is always called upon to help.
“Given the quantum of the issues at hand, we are shocked to add that the military is also adding to its own authority by taking the job of the police or the immigration. Today’s military is different from yesteryear’s military. Today’s military is subservient to the civil rule. If what we have been reading on the pages of newspapers is true, then, it is likening this scenario to the dark days of the military rule when a military man would wake up in the morning and just decide what to do.”
Buhari aware of operation – Buratai
Responding to questions from the lawmakers, Mohammed admitted that the operation would be conducted nationwide. He said cordons, searches and raids would be done at specific areas where intelligence indicated that there were suspects. He also said President Muhammadu Buhari was aware of the operation.
Any valid means of identification acceptable – Buratai
Muhammed also explained that identification would not be limited to “valid identification” like the passport, driving licence, voter card or the national identity card. He added that any “means of identification” would be adequate.
Responding, Buratai’s representative said, “Essentially, what has been happening is that the military is involved in Operation Lafiya Dole in the North-East, which has been going on for several years. Within the major operation, we have subsidiary activities or operations which we undertake. I may not give you all the details but one of them is this OPI.
“Based on credible information and intelligence about the activities of Boko Haram terrorists, they are no more in their enclaves. We have the information that they are spreading out; away from their traditional strongholds. Based on that, this idea of the OPI came up, so that we can undertake cordon and search operations. We will, based on intelligence, go to certain areas, cordon it and arrest people. From there, we will identify them and from there, we will make a lot of arrests.
“It actually started on the 22nd of September (in the North-East) and we just felt that when it comes to this time of the year, the military has introduced some exercises. They are all aimed at tackling some of the security challenges within particular geographical zones.”
Insurgents fleeing their traditional areas – Buratai
Muhammed added, “The OPI is an intelligence-led activity which, based on credible information, we will go to specific areas and effect arrests, profile and identify them, and from there we will be getting some of the Boko Haram terrorists arrested. I can tell you that from the North-East, you don’t notice change; it is not as if we are going to have increase in number of troops on the roads, no additional checkpoints, no roadblocks. It is all intelligence-led.”
The General stated that the military would observe the rules of engagement and code of conduct in the execution of the OPI, stressing that it would be in collaboration with the Nigerian Intelligence Agency, Defence Intelligence Agency and the Department of State Services.
He said, “It is not something I should say here. We are actually getting information from other technical sources and human intelligence which is actually assisting us in conducting this particular operation we are undertaking. Now extending it across the country does not mean it will be any different. You will not even notice anything.
Details on social media false – Buratai
“Unfortunately, we got information from the social media and the traditional media, even commentaries were being run as to how we are going to conduct the exercise, when even I, in the Army Headquarters, did not hear of some of those things. So, we are surprised when we saw this alert before you. We came up with another one that says it is a fake alert.
“I just want to submit that the exercise is not anything too different and it is actually something that is going to assist us, as part of our multiplier effect to add value to whatever we are doing in the North-East.”