Famed for peace keeping, with its peace keeping missions around the world, the Nigerian Army usually gets less credit than it deserves, especially because politics sapped its morrow. Lately, however, the military in Nigeria has been burdened with the first serious challenge to the territorial integrity of the country since the civil war of 45 years ago and has been faced with critical reviews. Is there trouble with and in the Nigerian military, or are those asking critical questions about performance being unfair to this institution that is rooted in the West African Volunteer Force. That service was erected by the British Colonial regime to advance the interest of the imperial authorities in a region in which colonial domination would indeed come to be limited by the exposure of Nigerian soldiers like my grandfather, who fought with the British in Burma and found the myth of racial superiority that was rationale for colonizing others, untenable?
One of man’s most basic of desires is the protection of his life. In pursuit of this ultimate good modern man has built institutions civil, such as the police, and those that apply ultimate force to overcome adversaries and ensure peace within its borders; the armed forces.
The Nigerian military was erected to play that role. It started out under the shadow of perceptions created by nationalists confronting the colonial authorities. Many of those stereotypes continued long past their time of relevance and truth.
One such myth is that it was a place for the rejects. As the primitive street gist goes, captured even in parade songs: he who has a soldier does not have a child; the army is for drop outs etc. We know for a fact that some of the best trained professionals in Nigeria today came from the military and are they drawn from so many fields and professions.
It was not surprising that the tradition laid down by the British in training, building of an espiril de corps, and professionalism was very much a feature of the Nigerian Armed forces. This is probably why they stood as surety for the civil order, sometimes intervening through coup d’états. It would fail to produce a Kemal Atatuk and do for Nigeria what Turkey’s military continues to do to date in that unique Guardian State arrangement.
Active civil society, in university students demonstrating at the time of independence against the Anglo – Nigerian Defense Pact severed early the unbiblical cord to the British establishment but that did not get in the way of the young army acquitting itself creditably in peace keeping in the Congo, barely after Independence.
A coup d’état by some of its rank in 1966 would drag it into politics and a major test of its corporate essence. In the end it would become fractured but manage to pull itself together to wage a civil war that lasted from 1967 to 1970.
I was in the conflict zone and as a young person in secondary school interacted quite a bit with soldiers at war and indeed survived being a statistic of the unsavory part of that campaign as I nearly got executed by soldiers near Asaba. But in the main it was a professional military even it was hurriedly expanded to prosecute the war.
The true heroism of the Nigerian military is in how it sacrificed enormously to save West Africa from becoming Somalia. Sadly, the Nigerian Armed forces do not get enough credit for the extra ordinary effort they made to save Liberia and Sierra Leone when the world looked away.
Hindered from their optimum from time to time by the politics the Army was enmeshed in at home, which meant watching out for coup plotters even among officers in the field with ECOMOG, and shipping out troops separate from their weapons until they arrive Freetown, the Army managed to save the Liberians and Sierra Leoneans from themselves. So why is such an army struggling in the North East and ‘maneuvering’ into neighboring countries, as well as being accused of unprofessional conduct that some suggest could be War crimes?
I am not sure I know the answers but I think it is time to look beyond the Obasanjo re professionalizing of the Army by sacking those who had held political positions, and moving a few things around, to asking hard questions about why morale is the way it is and how civilian leadership of the military can elevate rather than reduce the prestige of the institution. We also have to reflect on how we as a civilian population show gratitude for the service of our men in uniform. Let me begin with the last point.
I never cease to marvel at how civic culture has prepped the average American to a display of gratitude to men in military uniform. Flight attendants are warm in saying “thank you for your service” to people in uniform. Just as passerby acknowledge them and bus divers greet them will privileges. I wrote once about an experience flying one early morning from Washington DC to Atlanta and being surprised by this US soldier walking up to me and asking if I was who he thought I was. It turned out he was Nigerian - born US officer, a medical doctor returning from a tour of duty in Iraq.
He said he felt proud to meet me and wanted me take a photo with his family who would be waiting in Atlanta. It turned out I would be more proud to be walking up to the terminal in his company as people showered him with greetings and flowers. Hardly anyone passed us without saying “thank you for your service”.
We need to get our entire population solidly behind our soldiers when they get in harms way on our account. It motivates them and drives up performance. Currently they are made to seem like outcasts prosecuting a private war in the Northeast.
This challenge of united public support for the military, similar to the American experience at some point during the war in Vietnam is partly a failure of political leadership which has not forged common purpose for the people and a clear goal that is just in engaging the problems of the North East. Here the failure of the Northern elite to articulate how they owe it to their immediate constituency to work towards the progress of all, create a more inclusive and prosperous society and help fish out elements that obstruct progress and the common cause before they pollute culture, counts. It is also about how politicians at the center not only understand inclusion, but also how well they insulate the military from the divisive politics they have made a virtue of, and how they promote the military as in integrative national institution.
Then there are the internal issues in the military that affect professionalism. Now that the stereotypes of the drop-out in uniform are ancient history, with the Army as a highly educated leadership team, there remain a number of internal issues the military must master. It has to stop wasting huge investments in human capital with its early retirements. It needs to have stronger post – military life programs that reduce anxiety about quality of life after service which has added to corruption of officers in strategic positions in the military and it needs be more merit based as its old traditions before policization. In the past even officers like the present sultan of Sokoto proved themselves and rose on merit, with little advantage as a result of station of life conferred by birth. Many see too much outside influence in appointments to senior positions of command and promotions today. The army must then also expand ethics and patriotism training as part of a leadership and teambuilding culture that should dominate personnel development. Politics has allowed some officers that should not have made it past captain to become Generals and others who are natural generals to be retired as lieutenant Colonels. The bright young captain that fill the ranks today must be motivated and inspired differently. They should not be deployed on election policing duties where their values are abused and compromised as has been recent practice and, very importantly the prestige they earn should be as valuable as that of the top politician, successful business executive or senior bureaucrat so they can stay professional in contentment, knowing they can be counted among society’s ereme de la crème.
If the Army were to develop in that manner, they would have no trouble, when properly funded and given clear goals to flush out threats to our national security like the Boko Haram menace. Getting the required change to make such happen is the duty of all.