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Rights Groups Reject Obasanjo's Defense of Soldiers - 2001-10-30

Human rights groups have reacted angrily to comments by Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo defending soldiers who killed more than 130 civilians last week. Some Nigerians believe the president's comments highlight the continuing influence of the armed forces in their country's government.

The controversy erupted Saturday when President Obasanjo said the soldiers who killed civilians last week in the central Benue State were acting in self-defense.

Benue officials say members of the armed forces rounded up ethnic Tiv civilians in at least four villages early last week and shot them. The soldiers apparently wanted to avenge 19 of their peers who were hacked to death earlier this month by militiamen. The soldiers had been trying to quell ethnic unrest between the Tiv and Jukun peoples.

Nigerian and international human rights groups were incensed by Mr. Obasanjo's comments. Carina Tertsakian specializes on African issues at Human Rights Watch.

"There is no doubt from the information we have received that the killing of these unarmed civilians by the soldiers was a human rights violation of a very serious type," Ms. Tertsakian says. "There is no evidence from any of the information that we have received that the people who were attacked by the soldiers were armed or posing any kind of threat."

President Obasanjo, a former general, was Nigeria's military ruler between 1976 and 1979. Some commentators view the president's reactions to the latest killings as a sign of his continued loyalty to the armed forces.

"He believes that the military is his first constituency," said Fred Ofwahwa, editor of Lagos' Sunday Guardian. "He is a retired general, so he also believes in the ethos of the military, one of which is that you do not allow anything that is done wrong to you to go away." "So he believes that the revenge mission was in order," Mr. Ofwahwa said.

Mr. Obasanjo won a democratic presidential election in 1999, one year after the death of Nigeria's last military dictator, General Sani Abacha. But Mr. Ofwahwa said the armed forces retain considerable influence in Nigeria's public life.

"We have the defense minister who is a general, the president who is also a general, the national security adviser who is also a general," he said. "So you find that it is more like a military establishment that is ruling the country in civilian clothing."

Mr. Ofwahwa does not believe the latest killings are jeopardizing Nigeria's two year old democracy. But he says Mr. Obasanjo should have spoken out forcefully against the actions of the soldiers to prevent a repeat of the events in Benue State.

In a written statement, the government of President Obasanjo says its priority is the protection of law and order throughout Nigeria. The statement says the armed forces will take steps against any soldier who is found not to have followed proper procedures in Benue State.