BY: JERRY OBANYERO
There has been a raging debate in several fora as to the appropriate designation or labelling, so to say, for armed robbers and kidnappers who have mercilessly and with temerity been incessantly launching attacks on a number of states in Nigeria especially the north. The attacks are well organized and weapons used are dangerously sophisticated. Everyone is a target including students, women and peasant farmers. Recently, not less than 121 students of the Bethel Baptist Secondary School were kidnapped for ransom in Kaduna, there was an attack on the well-guarded Nigerian Military Academy (NDA) and some officers were killed while another adopted, a fighter jet belonging to the Nigerian Air Force was gunned down in Zamfara State. All this came on the heels of another reports of kidnapping of school children, killing of villagers and farmers, sacking of communities and attacks on government establishment in Niger, Katsina, Zamfara, Kaduna, Benue, Plateau and other states. On a daily basis we hear in the news threats of and the actual act of kidnapping and banditry with people living in fear and sometimes relocating to where they feel safe or abandoning their means of livelihood to escape from bandits and kidnappers.
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Curiously, the identity of this well-armed group perpetrating this evil is not unknown as certain persons in government and religious circle have either gone to the group’s hideouts or invited members of the AK-47 riffle dangling bandits to either government house or opened-door meeting! Some have publicly canvassed for amnesty for the infamous group citing economic woes and government’s neglect as the reason the bandits took arms against the state and its citizens and should instead be empowered rather than condemned. The big questions are: do the activities and acts of this group quality as terrorism? could these bandits be lawfully designated as terrorists?
As a practicing lawyer and curious student of language, this writer delves into the aforementioned raging debate, albeit not to be another voice of controversy. With this in view, to advance the argument made herein, guidance is sought from the extant law, rules of legal interpretation and how political language is used for political reason and/or national interest.
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First off, Nigeria is a sovereign nation with functional government. For time and space, we shall, therefore, restrict the authorities used herein to Nigerian laws. Another reason, for simplicity and in order to raise national consciousness and have us think inwards towards addressing a menace that is taking a hard bite on our national unity and progress. There are a number of laws in the country that directly or indirectly address banditry and terrorism, namely, the Criminal Code Act (Southern States) Cap C38 L.F.N 2004, Penal Code Federal Provisions Act, Cap. P3 L.F.N. 2004 (applicable in the north), Economic and Financial Crimes (Establishment) Act 2004, Robbery and Firearms (Special Provisions) Act Cap R11 L.F.N. 2004 and Terrorism (Prevention) (Amendment) Act 2013. Also, considering the glaring fact that the debate concerns whether the bandit group in the north could be designated as terrorist organization, we shall yet again be dealing in this article with Terrorism (Prevention) (Amendment) Act (supra) referred hereafter as “the Act”.
Photo Credit: The Guardian
The Act, particularly Section 1(2)(a)-(h), defines a terrorist as a person or body corporate who knowingly within and outside Nigeria directly and indirectly does, attempts, threatens acts of terrorism, participates or facilitates, assists, incites or promises act of terrorism. Penalty for the offences referred to in the Act carries a maximum death sentence upon conviction. Section 1(3) of the Act further defines, explains or describes ‘acts of terrorism’, inter alia, as to unduly compel a government or international organization to do or abstain from doing an act, to seriously intimidate a population, to destabilize or destroy political, constitutional, economic or social structures of a country, an attack on person’s life which may cause serious bodily harm or death, kidnapping of a person, destruction to a Government or public facility likely to endanger life or result in major economic loss, seizure of aircraft, ship or other means of transportation, manufacture, possession, supply and use of weapons and explosives without lawful authority, and causing of fire and explosion the effect of which to endanger human life.
Thus, applying the literal interpretation rule, a community reading of Sections 1(2) and (3) of the Act above with a lens and mind cast on the actions and activities of armed bandit/kidnapping group in the past years in the north will leave no one in doubts that the group is indeed a terrorist organization and is lawful for the government to designate and declare it so.
Now, is declaration by government necessary for the group to be designated or accorded a terrorist organization status? Section 2(1) empowers the Judge in Chambers to declare any persons or organization as terrorists or terrorist organization. However, for the Judge in Chambers to make such declaration there has to be an application made by the Attorney General, or the National Security Adviser or the Inspector General of Police on the approval of the President. The order for the declaration shall thereafter be published in the official gazette and two national newspapers. In Section 9(1), on the other hand, the President may, on the recommendation of the National Security Adviser or Inspector General of Police, declare a person suspected to be an international terrorist if the President reasonably suspects that the person participates, has link or is a member of a terrorist organization and is a risk to national security.
Why then is the Nigerian government reluctant to declaring the armed and dreaded bandit group a terrorist organization? From the government’s body language, it is obvious that the choice and use of ‘bandits’ by Nigerian government to address or describe the terror group attacking, kidnapping and killing innocent citizens is not a mistake. Politics is often referred to as the ‘art of the possible’. ‘Bandit’ as used by the Nigerian government to describe the terrorist organization is no other than intentional creation of semantic or vocabulary alternative for political reason and probably national interest. This is “Language of Politics” at play. Put differently, usually politicians or government all over the world deploys and uses language of politics sometimes to give subtle or inexact interpretation or euphemize words, acts, activities and events. A language is constructed to give indirect meaning or meaning suitable to the government or politicians or party they belong as in George Orwell’s famous novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Also, sometimes words are used to exaggerate things, events and actions so as to give government right to employ state power to crack down on opponents or internal or external enemies either real or potential. For example, the US hinged their invasion on Iraq in 2003 on the unproven claims that Iraq had ‘weapons of mass destruction’ which the country intended to use against the US. The claims of ‘weapon of mass destruction’ may have been well constructed to serve as a strong reason for the US army to launch attack and topple the Saddam Hussein’s government.
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Similarly, for political reason, the Buhari-led government may have settled for the bandit appellation to reduce or soft pedal the gravity of effects and backlash especially from the international community that come with officially declaring another group as terrorist organization in the north. The government is still battling the Boko Haram terrorist organization in the North East and declaring another group as terrorist might have been thought unwise. Besides reputational damage on the region and risk of desertion by visitors and businesses which will further impoverish the region, the elite and heavy weight politicians from the region fear being publicly identified with or connected to the group and being placed on the terrorist watch list by the US, as unconfirmed reports have linked some past Governors and Emirs as sponsors of the group. President Buhari might have listened to the cabal in the Aso Rock which dictates most of the administration’s policy direction against declaring the bandits as terrorists.
Nigeria has for years been marked as a security risk country with several advanced countries warning their citizens either against travelling to the country or some parts of the country. This has affected the inflow of foreign investments and/or capital importation and even our production sector which requires huge investment and this has dealt a heavy flow on our local currency. Also, this present government has been on borrowing spree since its inception. So far, Nigeria owes billions of dollars and the government is not stopping this debt accumulation any time soon. Declaring another group, a terrorist organization, in the thinking of Mr. President’s handlers, may not serve the interest of the nation. Note, some parts of Niger State seized by bandits is few kilometers to the Presidential Villa. By declaring the armed bandit group a terrorist organization it may seem the government is telling the world it is not in control of the security and may be toppled by armed bandits who are in its neighborhood the way the Taliban sacked the Afghanistan government. Terrorism is not treated with kid gloves on the international scene and Nigerian government may as well be careful not to further batter the image of the country and lose confidence investors and global community. This reason, however, is arguable and complicated especially since the same government has officially proscribed the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) and arrested and charged its leader, Nnamdi Kano for terrorism and other related offences.
In the light of the above, can the government still charge the individual members of the bandit group for terrorism without declaring the group as terrorist organization? Any person who commits any act captured in Section 1(3) whether is attack on someone’s life, kidnapping, destruction of government’s property or possession and use of dangerous weapons etc. can be charged for terrorism under the Act either as an individual or member (s) of a group even when such group is yet to be proscribed or declared as a terrorist organization. Section 30 empowers the Attorney General of the Federation to prosecute and he may delegate such power to any agency charged with responsibility for terrorist investigation to institute criminal proceedings against any person in relation to offences mentioned in the Act.
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In conclusion, we can decipher from the foregoing that there are lots of politicking and even completely absent or insufficient will power to arrest the ugly security situation in the north. Whether the reason is merely political or done for national interest, the failure or lackadaisical attitude of the government to apprehend and prosecute terrorists that are kidnapping and killing innocent citizens and destroying private and public property is a clear infraction of the constitution which saddles the responsibility of maintaining law and order on the government. There is time when the occasion may demand government to use political language, but what is being experienced currently is a case of unwarranted and senseless assault on the people, the government and nation.
The English saying ‘a stitch in time saves nine’ could not have been better said.
Obanyero is a lawyer and an advocate for fair and equal access to legal services. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org