3 Times Unarmed Citizens Were Caught in the Crossfire of the Nigerian Army

Written by | B, Sarauta Archives

The return to democracy on May 29th 1999 was a time of jubilation for the citizens of Nigeria. However, different forms of uprisings and ethnoreligious crisis continued to take place with the birth of the fourth republic. There has been a disturbing willingness by the civilian government, to use the same methods as the military government of the past to quell these disturbances.  From Odi in Bayelsa to Zaki Biam in Benue state, the Nigerian Army deployed to restore order, ended up adding fuel to the fire.

Nigerian Army

Lekki toll Plaza was one of the main meeting points during the EndSARS protests

Unfortunately, the situation in Lekki as a result of the #EndSARS protest was an event of peace. Prior to the Lekki massacre which took place on the 20th of October 2020, no form of violence had been reported in Lekki. Which calls for the question; Why was the military deployed and who ordered that deployment to that location? The Lekki massacre shows similarities to the other times unarmed citizens were caught in the crossfire. Three of these situations are discussed in detail below.

Nigerian Army activities in Odi

The Odi massacre was carried out in Bayelsa State in November 1999, by members of the Nigerian Army. The conflict started when some militant forces took over the town of Odi and held the city hostage. They caused problems by extorting money from local traders, stealing food and mounting illegal roadblocks. In this case, there was little the local authorities or traditional rulers could do because these youths were armed with automatic rifles.  Reports from human rights watch show that the traditional ruler wrote to the Governor on the disturbing situation in Odi but got no response.

On 4th November 1999, an armed gang killed seven Policemen in the community. In the days that followed, five other Policemen were reportedly killed from confrontations around the community.  After the death of the officers of the Nigerian Police, President Olusegun Obasanjo, in a letter addressed to the Governor of Bayelsa State, Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, threatened to declare a state of emergency if the murderers were not brought to justice. The Governor was given two weeks to handle this situation.

Unfortunately, before the 14 days elapsed, the Nigerian Army marched on the town of Odi. They came under attack from the militants who allegedly killed the policemen and engaged in a short-lived battle. Reports say after the military gained access to the city, they destroyed everything in their line of sight. Eyewitnesses who hid in the bush also reported that soldiers fired indiscriminately at residents, targeting young men in particular. Most of the youths who brought trouble to the town were reportedly shot and killed but a lot of them fled.  They also didn’t take time to ensure buildings were empty before setting them ablaze.

The destruction of Odi went on for days and every building was brought to the ground. By the time the Soldiers left, everything was destroyed except the bank, an Anglican church and a health centre. Odi became a ghost town and everyone coming in and out of the town was searched thoroughly. The level of civilian casualties was so high and nobody could give an accurate figure of how many people died. The Federal government denied that any military action had been ordered but that to avert the breakdown of law and order, security forces had been deployed.

Nigerian Army

The Nigerian Armed Forces mount a roadblock somewhere

Nigerian Army activities in Zaki Biam

The events in Zaki Biam area of Benue state had similarities with what happened in Odi in Bayelsa state. The Tiv – Jukun crisis had been going on for a while and the Nigerian Army was brought in to quell the situation. While this was happening, 19 soldiers were attacked and killed by the Tiv militia. Their mutilated bodies were found in the Zaki-Biam area of Benue state. This worsened the situation and the Olusegun Obasanjo administration, urged the military to do everything in their power to bring the killers to justice.

According to the human rights watch report, the military operation began on Monday, October 22, when soldiers rounded up people in a village (Gbeji), separated the men from the others and opened fire on the men indiscriminately. Eyewitnesses reported that some of the victims’ bodies were also set ablaze. The soldiers proceeded to other villages around the Zaki Biam area and there was widespread destruction of properties. A lot of terrified residents had to abandon their homes and flee into the bush for safety.  The accurate number was never established but eyewitnesses reported that between 100 and 200 people lost their lives during the massacre.

Shia Attack

The attack on Shiites took place in December 2015 by members of the Nigerian Army. According to eyewitnesses, the problem started when the Chief of Army Staff, Lt. Col. Buratai got caught up in a roadblock of protesters in Zaria. According to the Army, their confrontation with the Shia sect members resulted from an assassination attempt on the Chief of Army Staff, whose convoy was passing by. They shot their way out of the jam.

Nigerian Army

Nigeria shiites muslim took to the street to protest and demanded the release of Shiite leader Ibraheem Zakzaky in Kano, Nigeria, Monday, Dec. 21, 2015. Hundreds of Shiites were reportedly killed in an army raid in Nigeria last Saturday. (AP Photo/Muhammed Giginyu)

Unfortunately, the military weren’t done as they proceeded to carry out attacks on three different locations; a mosque, El Zakzaky’s home and the sects burial ground in the course of two days. At the end of everything, reports estimate over 300 Shiites were killed and many others injured as a result of the attack by the military. The military also carted away with their bodies and buried them in a mass grave. As a result of this, many people couldn’t locate their loved ones to have a proper burial. It was also difficult to determine an accurate death toll because of this.  Though it was reported that the Shiites had sticks and stones, no army officer turned out dead or reported injured from the Shiites.


The Lekki massacre seems to be another occasion in which unarmed citizens were caught in the crossfire of attacks by men in uniform. Eyewitness reports and different video clips place the members of the Nigerian military present at the scene. What we have gotten so far is outright denial and different calls for patience as the investigations go on. We hope this time will be different and justice will be served.

Last modified: April 24, 2021

4 Responses to :
3 Times Unarmed Citizens Were Caught in the Crossfire of the Nigerian Army

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