Senate President, David Mark
By Chuks Okocha and Michael Olugbode
A n amendment to the Anti-terrorism Act, 2011, is underway to compel the trial of terror suspects, their sponsors and others suspected of aiding and abetting terror suspects under military law, THISDAY has learnt.
THISDAY gathered at the weekend that President Goodluck Jonathan would soon send an executive bill to the National Assembly to amend the Act, which when passed, would preclude members of Boko Haram, their sponsors and others involved in terrorist activities in the country from being tried in regular courts.
The proposed amendment is meant to hasten the trial of suspects and prevent them from exploiting any loopholes in the existing Anti-terrorism Act and the nation’s legal system to escape justice.
Boko Haram’s attacks, which have claimed about 1,500 lives since they were launched in 2009, have increased in intensity following the 2011 general elections which Jonathan contested and won in the presidential stanza of the contest.
The death toll rose again by three yesterday when suspected terrorists and members of the Joint Task Force engaged in a gun duel at a wedding in Maiduguri.
Also, in Potiskum, Yobe State, where suspected Boko Haram members attacked a cattle market, killing about 60 people on Wednesday, the people marched on the streets yesterday in protest against soldiers whom they accused of not coming to their aid during the attack.
THISDAY learnt that apart from members of Boko Haram, the amendment to the law will ensure that all those involved in unlawful combat against the government and their sponsors would face a military trial.
Others that may be affected by the martial law are Niger Delta militants and other militant tribal groups.
The amendment bill, which is being drafted, seeks to define the term of “unlawful combatants” to include all belligerent suspects, their sponsors and Niger Delta militants who are yet to surrender and others engaged in militant activities that are not defined within the context of the “Armed Forces of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.”
“The decision to ensure the invocation of full military trials or what could be described as martial law,” a presidency source explained, is that the passage of the bill “is a full declaration of war by the federal government on the unlawful combatant forces.”
According to the presidency official, “These unlawful combatant forces are engaged in various hostilities and have committed belligerent acts or have directly sponsored or supported hostilities in aid of unlawful combatant forces against the stability and security interest of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and its citizens in general.”
He said the decision to adopt this measure stemmed from the fact that “Nigeria is at war against a mobile, dangerous and fanatical individual gang that has been inspired by an extremist interpretation of the Koran, and which will use the techniques of mass terror, violence and hatred to attack innocent citizens – both Christians, Muslims and otherwise minded.”
He said under the proposed amendment, the term “unlawful combatant” is defined to include, “an individual who was part of, or sponsored or supported the terrorist activities of unlawful combatant forces, or associated groups that are engaged in terrorist hostilities against the stability and security interest of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, and its citizens in general.
“This shall include any person or persons who commits a belligerent act or has directly aided, abetted, or is perceived to have sponsored or supported hostilities in aid of unlawful combatant forces.”
The presidency source added that “the bill would endeavour to curb the excesses of some lawyers, whose deliberate use of legal tactics stall the trial and prosecution of those connected with unlawful combats.”
The bill will empower the Nigerian government to collaborate with countries that have successfully dealt with terrorist organisations like Israel, the United States of America and the United Kingdom which have a vested interest in combating global terrorism.
This, the source said, was to ensure that Nigeria is not a safe haven for terrorism or for its promoters.
In Maiduguri, a wedding ceremony became a theatre of war when members of Boko Haram and JTF personnel exchanged gunfire.
When the battle subsided, three people were killed in the crossfire and eight persons were arrested.
It was gathered that the military invaded the wedding, said to have been organised by a man suspected to have links to the sect at Sabon Layi, Gwange, following a tip-off that notable members of the sect, who are on a wanted list, would be in attendance.
On sighting the soldiers, the terrorists at the wedding were said to have immediately opened fire on them.
The guests at the ceremony scampered to safety as the members of JTF and Boko Haram engaged in a deadly gun battle.
It was gathered that most of the members of the sect in attendance shot their way out of the venue without being captured as they were conversant with the area.
JTF spokesman, Lt. Col. Sagir Musa, in a statement, confirmed the clash between the parties, saying three civilians were killed and four others, including two soldiers, were wounded.
He added that an AK47 rifle, 20 rounds of ammunition and a vehicle used by the terrorists were recovered.
Similarly, there was a breakdown of law and order in Potiskum, the commercial nerve centre in Yobe State, yesterday as residents challenged the authority of the soldiers deployed to the town at the peak of the Boko Haram crisis.
Irked and still mourning the killings of about 60 persons by suspected Boko Haram members, the people accused the soldiers of not coming to their rescue when it mattered.
It was gathered that problem started when the people accused the soldiers of manhandling some residents.
A source from the town told THISDAY that the soldiers are in the habit of beating up people at will.
He said the people, still incensed by the Wednesday attack, challenged the soldiers and demanded that they leave the town.
He said more people later joined the protest and went to drive away the soldiers from checkpoints in the town.
“Of what use are these soldiers anyway? They keep harassing innocent residents of the town but when the occasion presented itself last Wednesday to show the merit of having them around, they chickened out,” a resident said.
Attempts to get the military authorities in the state to comment on the issue proved abortive as calls to the phone lines of the officials failed to connect last night.
Also, the state police spokesman, Toyin Gbadegesin, could not be reached.