There’s something that sounds immediately sinister about the Nigerian Army’s “Operation Python Dance” simply because of its code name.
Of course, the Army always tries to downplay the first impression the name creates to ease tensions about its intentions, and that makes sense. The code name is originally derived from Exercise Egwu Eke, an Igbo phrase. This is because the operation was first launched in the southeast region in 2016 to combat criminal activities like armed robbery and kidnapping.
The most prominent reason “Operation Python Dance” rings a very loud bell in Nigeria today is because of its very controversial status in the southeast region especially when it returned for a second run in 2017, code named Exercise Egwu Eke II or Operation Python Dance II.
The exercise, used as training for troops, gained widespread notoriety after soldiers of the Nigerian Army were involved in well-publicised clashes with members of separatist group, the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), and its controversial leader, Nnamdi Kanu.
Soon after the commencement of the exercise in 2017, soldiers publicly clashed with IPOB members with the group alleging that dozens of its members were killed in a crackdown that lasted over a week and ended in the disappearance of Kanu before he later resurfaced in 2018.
In the course of that week, soldiers also attacked the Abia State Council of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) in Umuahia, assaulting a national union officer and damaging laptops, phones, as well as other valuables in the building. Their crime? Someone was taking photographs of troops from inside the building.
Over a year since Operation Python Dance II, the Army is relaunching the exercise for a third run (Operation Python Dance III); only this time, it will be conducted everywhere across all six geopolitical zones in the country.
During a flag off ceremony on Friday, December 28, the Chief of Army Staff, Lieutenant-General Tukur Buratai, represented by the Army’s Chief of Training and Operations, Major-General Lamidi Adeosun, announced that the exercise will run from January 1 to February 28, 2018 as a fulfillment of the Army’s mandate to conduct internal security operations in the country to combat criminality and other security challenges.
More crucially, Maj.-Gen Adeosun noted that the exercise aims to ensure that law and order is maintained as the nation approaches the 2019 general elections.
He said, “As the build up to the 2019 general elections gathers momentum, an upsurge of security challenges such as stockpiling of arms by criminal groups, formation of ethnic militias and violence induced by political activities has been observed.
“These challenges coupled with other security threats across the country such as terrorism, militancy, kidnapping and banditry portend that dissident groups and criminal elements could cash in on the situation to perpetrate large scale violence before, during and after the 2019 general elections.”
Why does a military training exercise aimed at combating criminal activities across the country hold troubling possibilities? Well, to begin with, public trust in the Nigerian Army is characteristically low.
During a series of protests by hundreds of members of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN) in October, soldiers applied lethal force and opened fired on demonstrators, killing around 50 people and injuring dozens. Even though the Army only admitted to killing six while also claiming that soldiers acted with utmost responsibility, several video evidence of the clashes on social media have proven its claims to be largely false.
The Army’s conduct with those protesters and its conduct during Operation Python Dance II in the southeast and during many of its engagement with civilian populations don’t exactly fill anyone with confidence about a large-scale military operation in the country, especially during an election year.
There have been complaints, most especially in 2018, about how stretched the Army is with troops being deployed several times in civilian areas mostly to battle criminal activities that are best (or, at least, should be) handled by the Nigeria Police Force.
Further stretching troops to combat “an upsurge of security challenges”, even in parts of the country that are not troubled, begs for more convincing answers than preventing possible election-related troubles.
This is particularly puzzling since the Army has recently suffered damaging losses against terrorist group, Boko Haram, in the northeast region that has been troubled for nearly 10 years, with the group’s insurgency leaving tens of thousands dead and millions displaced.
Why is the Army broadly applying a military operation to cover peaceful locations in the country when it could more properly focus attention on critical conflict zones?
The crux of the fears surrounding Operation Python Dance III rests squarely at the door of politics.
The main opposition party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), has criticised the exercise as a ploy by the ruling government to intimidate voters and rig the 2019 presidential election.
“Our nation is a democratic state and we are not in a state of emergency that requires the militarisation of our electoral process,” an official statement read.
For all of the brash shooting from the hip that the PDP has been engaging in as an opposition party, its position on the true import of Operation Python Dance III is clearly the same as the position of an impartial observer of the exercise.
With President Muhammadu Buhari, a former military Head of State, at the helm, military moves tend to be placed under more scrutiny than the usual; and Operation Python Dance III is one of such that should raise eyebrows.
Nigeria, as a democratic state, does not have an overwhelming security problem that should trigger a military operation on the scale of Operation Python Dance III.
And the fact that it covers the period of high-stakes elections already set to be contentious makes it all the more worrying about what the results might be.
The only silver lining to hope for with Operation Python Dance III is that it means Nigeria will most likely not experience the same wanton blood-filled start to 2019 as it did in 2018.
On that note, while Nigerians will hope that the exercise bears fruits for the nation with no costly drawbacks, the fears about the true intentions behind Operation Python Dance III will remain, for good reasons.
Happy militarised New Year, Nigeria.