By Tonnie Iredia
In a typical society, the maintenance of law and order which may involve a drastic crackdown on some elements in the society is essentially a civil matter. It is not expected to involve the military; hence most countries hardly call out their military to deal with such matters that are clearly less than war. It used to be so in Nigeria as every infraction was usually left for the police to handle.
The culture of keeping the armed forces in their barracks was however altered by years of military rule which militarized the people and civilianized the military; and although military rule ended in 1999, Nigeria has not been able to return its armed forces to their proper role and location in the country.
Now and again, soldiers are deployed to quell communal clashes or to deal with one type of conflict or the other which are being erroneously seen as military functions. As a result, our armed forces are often invited to many rudimentary security-like duties which they ought to be called to only as a last resort. As a matter of fact, even the routine police function of road checks across the Nigerian highways to apprehend criminals has virtually been usurped by the military, on the grounds of helping to combat insecurity.
Expectedly, the image of the military is fast becoming like that of the police following the behavior of soldiers at checkpoints. To start with, the locations at which checking is expected to be done have not only become too many, the time spent at each point is so excessive that it takes a minimum of 10 hours these days to travel from a place like Asaba to Abuja.
There is a checkpoint between Asaba and Agbor, another one between Agbor and Uromi, another before Auchi, then two in Okene, one before the Lokoja Bridge, another at Abaji, then one after Giri junction before the last one which is immediately after the Airport junction in Abuja.
There is doubt if we had as many during the civil war. Perhaps there are issues from the security dimension that are unknown to lay men which compelled the military to create and sustain the policy for so long. Unfortunately, it has raised too many posers.
The first is the rationale for the long queues especially the resultant long hours imposed on travellers. Despite the argument that people should make sacrifices for their own good, every public policy ought to help the people and not to punish them.
Due to wrong handling of a road contract for instance; people are inconvenienced for longer than is necessary while Government officials explain that everyone would be happier for it at the end of the project. Must people make avoidable sacrifices? Meanwhile, the international construction companies do the same work timely and diligently in other countries.
In the same manner, the attitude of military operatives at the checking locations is a problem because it is so obvious from their disposition that they are contemptuous of public opinion and are insensitive about the high degree of public discomfort which their operations create.
If soldiers insist on checking the booth of every vehicle as well as every luggage in it, there are many people who would leave the scene happy that some good work was being done. It is a different matter if the soldiers tell everyone in the car to disembark in the rain because they (soldiers) who are always in the rain and sun are also human.
As some people told this writer in Lokoja the week before; what the soldiers claim to annoy them is that the occupants of some vehicles leave their air conditioners running while in the queue. What an offence? When someone is about two hundred vehicles away from a checkpoint, he tends to think that some earnest efforts are being made to apprehend criminals and their weapons.
But on getting close to the end of the queue, he suddenly realizes that the checkpoint is merely designed to slow down traffic and that in reality no checking is going on. When this is added to the fact that military convoys and siren piloted vehicles drive off along the curves and sometimes against traffic to avoid the discomfort of long queues, the credibility of the institution of the operatives is diminished.
To argue that military convoys can be trusted and need not be checked makes it hard to explain the several times when impostors have used military uniforms etc to cause havoc and insecurity?
The exclusion of military vehicles from checks is not the only evidence of the self serving nature of the military on our roads. There is also the aspect in which they operate with a retaliatory mindset instead of the larger picture of ensuring public safety. The new and vicious Okene checkpoints confirm this.
As we hear, the recent mayhem in the town which led to the killing of some people including 2 soldiers is responsible for the overwhelming brutality at the points. In other words, the Okene checkpoints are operated for vengeance against the world at large as a deterrent to the innocent never to attempt to hurt a soldier.
To avoid the first checkpoint in Okene, some vehicles use a longer route through Kabba. Others dump the airport road for the Kubwa road into Abuja. What this suggests is that it is irrational to have permanent checkpoints as we now do which having been known can be avoided.
Indeed, the mounting of checkpoints as a security device is obsolete in this age of technology. There are devices that dispense with that. The officer cadre of the Nigerian military of today is too educated to allow this to continue. Accordingly, they must immediately review the mundane functions they are engaged in and disengage from them.
Until that is done, they have to seriously induct their field operatives on a code of conduct otherwise those who deprecate their unwholesome behaviour especially at checkpoints which even the police are abandoning, may assume that our soldiers have no supervisors.