Col. Onyema Nwachukwu, spokesman of the Theatre Command Headquarters of the Operation Lafiya Dole, has described the allegations of rape, sex for food, levelled against soldiers and civilian JTF by Borno women in the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) camp in the state, as untrue, saying soldiers were not rapists.
He said the allegations were unfounded and misplaced and probably calculated to dampen the morale of soldiers on the frontline.
About 1300 displaced Borno women had, in a letter to Nigeria’s President, Muhammadu Buhari, accused the Nigerian military of ‘wrongly’ arresting their husbands and children, as Boko Haram suspects, after which they were raped and made to trade sex for food in camps.
The women said their relatives were arrested between July and December 2015 and had since been in detention in Giwa barracks detention centre as well as the Maiduguri maximum security prisons.
The women, who are all IDPs from Bama Local Government Area of the state, wondered why their husbands and children would be kept in detention for such a long time without trial
“We were not allowed to leave the camp (managed by soldiers) and not given enough food but instead asked to pay for extra food… when we didn’t have anything left, they asked for sex; young women were to have sex with the Civilian-Joint Task Force (CJTF) members and soldiers to be able to feed their children,” they wrote.
The allegations were contained in an open letter dated March 1, written by a group of displaced women, who are mostly wives or mothers of arrested Boko Haram suspects who are still in various military detention centers in Bornno State.
The women, who are all IDPs from Bama Local Government Area of the state, wondered why their husbands and children would be kept in detention for such a long time without trial.
The women claimed that apart from the psychological trauma that they had to suffer due to the long absence of their husbands, the military kept them in locked camps where they and their daughters were forced to trade sex for food.
The women said: “Our story is a story of suffering: In 2015 and 2016, we were kept in the horrific conditions in Bama Hospital camp, which was at that time run by the military and CJTF. We were not allowed to leave the camp and were not given enough food but instead, asked to pay for extra food. First, we sold our jewelry. Then we sold our clothes. When we didn’t have anything left, they asked for sex. Young women were to have sex with the Civilian-JTF members and soldiers to be able to feed their children. Rape by the Civilian-JTF and soldiers were rampant.
“We were starved and forced to give our bodies in exchange for food. We saw our children die and there was nothing we could do. Hundreds of people lost their lives in Bama Hospital camp – we in our group alone know 799 people who died. We were the silent witnesses of immense suffering,” they wrote.
However, the military said the claims that their relatives were kept in military custody cannot be true.
“We don’t keep peoples relatives in custody; those that we have in custody are terrorism or insurgency suspects,” he said.
“And if anyone is not culpable after our investigation, they are released. But those who have been found to have either actively or passively participated in terrorism activities by bearing arms or providing other forms of supports to aid terrorism and insurgency are those in custody and would be prosecuted.”
On the issue of non-trial of the detained suspects, the military said the concerned relatives should have appropriately channelled their demand to the Federal Ministry of Justice which is the organ of government empowered by constitution to do so.
“Trial of suspects lies with the judiciary and I believe that they are handling it accordingly. We are all aware that the federal government had instituted some special courts to try the suspects. It is not our responsibility to try any of them. But if somebody is found wanting after our investigations, it is not our duty to pronounced him guilty or not guilty. But we tender our reports as the case may be to those that will be prosecuting them.
Nwachukwu also said that the women or the relatives of the detained suspects do not have the luxury of determining the guilt or innocence of their arrested spouses.
“The public must understand that the onus is not on the complainant to determine whether their relatives are guilty or not guilty,” he said.
“It is the court that determines that. The dynamics of the counterinsurgency war is such that we have different kinds of terrorists, like I earlier said that are either active or passive supporters. Yes, you may not have an arm with somebody, but the person may be aiding terrorism, either by providing information to the terrorists as an informant, or may be supplying logistics to the terrorists in their hideouts, and all these the wives at home might not even know.
“We have arrested several persons who take logistics to terrorists as their means of trade; so they should not look at the issue on the face value and conclude that their husbands are innocent, or they don’t have anything to do with Boko Haram. We really don’t profile suspects as somebody’s husband or relative; all we know is a terrorist is a terrorist, and anyone found wanting would be prosecuted.”
Reacting to the issues raised by the women on their sufferings in the camp, the military said though it was unfortunate, but the public should know that it was not the military that initiated the circumstances that led to their present plight.
“The public must know that it was not Operation Lafiya Dole that initiated that suffering,” Colonel Nwachukwu said.
“In as much as we sympathise with their unfortunate situation, their misfortune was not orchestrated by the operation Lafiya Dole troops; rather it was by Boko Haram terrorists who had been killing, and abducting their children; using their men and kids as foot soldiers, burning their houses. We have been the ones paying the price to protect these women and their families. We are the ones that have been at the forefront to ensure their safety, at the expense of our own lives. We have gone out of our line of duty to provide aid support to these people, we have opened schools in the camps to ensure that their children whose schools were burnt down and denied access to learning get educated. Our soldiers teach them in the schools in camps! We have brought measurable succor to these people. We have carried out several medical outreach to help them remain healthy.
“So they should not see us as their adversary; they should face the issue squarely, Boko Haram is their enemy and a common enemy.
“We have also rescued several women and children and their husbands from captivity, we have liberated them,” he said, adding that this is what they represent and not the other way round.”
On the alleged cases of rape in the IDP camp, Nwachukwu said the military takes such allegation with all seriousness even as he mentioned that the claims were illogical given the role the military plays in the protection of camps.
“I want to categorically state it that our soldiers are not rapists; we have no rapists amongst us,” he said.
“It is high time we began to address the issue of gender based violence very squarely. People should not wake up and start making blanket allegation on troops. If you find anybody wanting, take up the issue and make a report immediately; and not to sleep on it only to come out tomorrow or after several months to come and say troops raped people. We are not rapists.
“The people must help themselves by addressing any issue of gender based violence very squarely and promptly, and avoid making blanket allegations. If anybody is found to be involved in such atrocious act, you immediately report that person, and so far we have not received such report in the headquarters.”
However, he said the military does not rule cases of “bad eggs” in the counterinsurgency operations which he said was the reason the military court martial was put in place.
On the allegations of soldiers using food as bait to have sex with female IDPs, the military spokesman said such allegation cannot be true because soldiers do not have access to food in camp.
“Troops don’t share food in the IDP camp, they are not in charge of sharing food,” he said.
“There are other agencies who carry out all those responsibilities; you can’t say our soldiers, troops or personnel are exchanging food for sex. In the first place, we are not in charge food. Our troops are at the outside cordon of the IDP camps. They don’t have custody of food, talk more of having portion they trade for sex.
“And anywhere our troops are deployed, they are fed centrally by the military caterers who cook for them” he said, adding that no soldier has dry ration that he would use in exchange for sex.
“So that allegation does not hold water as far as the military is concerned,” he said.