ANOTHER day, another scandal involving the Nigerian Army. This time, some soldeirs somewhere within the ranks of the Army had a great idea: declare UNICEF-Nigeria a persona non grata and, bless their souls, reverse the decision after having been begged by “well meaning Nigerians”. This is coming on the heels of violations, excess, and high-handedness too numerous to mention. AMNESTY Nigeria is, to borrow a popular Nigerian expression, “a regular customer” of the Nigerian Army. Whenever an Army General wakes up on the wrong side of his bed, he dreams up new and innovative ways of violating modern, democratic ideas of the civil space.
The sight of ordinary citizens being frog-jumped or beaten black and blue by soldiers is too trite to be mentioned. It is part of the lived experience of the Nigerian citizen. A few weeks ago, Presidential candidate, Omoyele Sowore, recorded a video of a roadside intervention he made to rescue distressed citizens whose right and dignity were being violated by the Nigerian Army. Asked why citizens were asked to postrate – they were lying flat on their stomachs – by the roadside on the Lagos Ibadan expressway, one of the infuriated soldiers explained to Sowore – on video – that they were on their way to pick one of their big Army ogas and the bloody civilians had dared to follow their military convoy too closely. The civilians were not showing enough respect for constituted military authority (apologies to Governor Ajimobi).
Luckily for the Nigerian Army, they are currently enjoying the Nirvana of the most indulgent Commander-in-Chief in their history for I can find no record of President Buhari ever nodding in the direction of even a minimal awareness of this huge problem of the military in civil spaces. On the contrary, he has contributed immensely to fostering a culture of using the military for routine matters of law enforcement.
Beyond being phenomenal autobiographical works of art, Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s “Sorrow, Tears, and Blood”, “Unknown Soldier”, and “Zombie”, are also communal archives and our collective social memory of the long history of brutalization of the Nigerian psyche by the Army. Thirty years of coups and countercoups still largely account for the sociology of the Nigerian Army. In other words, nearly thirty years after our last coup experience and nearly twenty years into an imperfect and wobbly democracy, the Nigerian Army has still not been able to make the necessary mental shift into such notions as the sanctity and rights of civilian life (despite perfunctory lip service), civilian spaces, and civilian authority.
The ordinary Nigerian is particularly worsted in this equation. When the Nigerian soldier sees a civilian, he still does not instinctively see his employer – the taxpayer at whose behest he works to defend our country and who pays his salary and funds the military as an institution. Thirty years of coups and violations have had lasting consequences: the ordinary Nigerian walking in the street is still a “bloody civilian” to be brutalized and put in his place.
There is, of course, a double victim in this situation – the same brutalized citizen. First, he is a victim of a Nigerian state that has never made even the most minimal pretext to show that she subscribes to civilized notions of the inviolability of the life of the citizen. Secondly, this citizen is a victim of his own psychology, battered, bruised, beaten, and shaped to serve as cheerleader for the military whenever they violate civilian spaces. Civics, the only thing capable of coming to his rescue via enlightenment, is absent from Nigerian life. To make matters worse, we are in a phase in our national experience when illiteracy, ignorance, and anti-intellectualism are attributes to be openly embraced and celebrated, especially on social media.
This deadly combination, this double abjection of the Nigerian citizen as victim of the Nigerian state and his own psychology, creates a situation where whoever flags the idea of the military in civilian space as an abnormality becomes “an unpatriotic enemy”. I’ve been at the receiving end of this sort of ignorant recrimination coming from citizen-victims of the military so many times that it is also fair to call me a regular customer of citizen enablers of military violations. Luckily, I am a student of Stockholm syndrome and I tend to be compassionate towards the afflicted in Nigeria.
The Nigerian Presidency does not see a problem. The Nigerian Army certainly also does not see a problem. In fact, I had an altercationon Twitter today with a silly Army officer who is currently on a course at the University of Durham. He ignored my flagging of the situation with UNICEF Nigeria and elected instead to lecture me on the difference between officers who trained at NDA and those who did not. His haughty arrogance in relating to a civilian – despite sadly being on a course that should civilize and humanize him – led me to the realization that the Nigerian Army may infact already be producing the next generation of officers who will still see a “bloody civilian”.
What then is to be done in a situation in which the Army and the Nigerian authorities can reasonably be expected to maintain the status quo? I think the solution lies in continued pressure from civil society. The irritating symbolism of the military in the public sphere needs to attract the attention of civil society much more than it currently does. The Army is ubiquitous in Nigerian public life and it is insufferable. From the mundane to the trite, Army spokespersons are always all over our airwaves, issuing arrogant statements, spitting fire, giving hubristic directives. We are almost at a point where the Nigerian Army will conduct Sunday service in our churches and officiate in Mosques on Friday in between mediating between ASUU and the government.
Civil society must also actively identify civilized and cosmpolitan mid-rank to senior Army officers and engage them positively on this matter. Personally, I know a few Army officers who are complete gentlemen. Total cosmopolitan, cultured, erudite patriots. Whenever the military misbehaves, I wince in pain thinking of such officers. How do we enlist them as warriors within against this epidemic? How do we increase their tribe in the Nigerian Army? We need to figure out ways to engage and hear from them.