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Power show, wrong show

By Rotimi Fasan
OLD habits die hard, and so it is with the Nigerian military establishment that continually fails to recognise its subordinate role vis-à-vis civil authority.

All over the world, especially in those parts with long tradition of democratic rule, the military knows it is not its own master but rather at the service of the people, the task-paying civilian population that recognises the need for an armed force to protect its sovereignty. In those regions of the world where the logic of military subordination still prevails, military personnel learn not to step out of line.

Where they do, they willingly hand in their own resignation or are shoved out of service without much ceremony. When a very senior army officer decided to open his mouth rather too widely against former President Clinton on account of the President’s liberal position on the admittance of gays into the military, he was shown the way out.

Bill Clinton was still his Commander-in-Chief and, no matter how highly-placed, a soldier just couldn’t openly criticise him in a manner that called into question his allegiance.

The officer paid with his commission. But in Nigeria as in many parts of the ‘Third World’, the military are a law unto themselves. Even when it is clear that they harbour subversive, even treasonable intentions, they are never afraid to make them known as they have led themselves to believe nobody can hold them to account.

For several months before the coup that ousted President Shehu Shagari, the news had been abroad that something of that nature was in the offing. But like a sheep being led to the slaughter, the President could only wait for his day of ‘execution’.

The same scenario had played out when Tafawa Balewa and others of the First Republic lamely waited until the Five Majors ‘struck’ in 1966. No doubt because of his own military background, Obasanjo was able to take certain decisions that a civilian, long schooled to piss on themselves at the sight of a rifle, might have been afraid to take.

In a different dispensation General Victor Malu would have been a very difficult kernel for any civilian to crack. But once his ‘cup’ was full Obasanjo didn’t wait for it to run over before showing him the way out, making Malu an embittered man ever since.

The Malu/Obasanjo case was a rare exception to the rule of not just a dog not eating a dog but also a test case for curbing a national culture of impunity among soldiers. Over the years, therefore, the military has become less and less attentive and insensitive to civil opinion, believing it is free to do as it pleases, as happened in Ibadan two weeks ago when they chose once more to throw their weight around.

For a couple of days, men of the logistical unit of the Nigerian Airforce decided to monopolise the use of the ever-busy Ibadan-Ife express. The long convoy of old trucks that they rode in must have taken off elsewhere, perhaps from outside Ibadan, but my observation began from Iwo Road where men of the Airforce Police, fully armed, had taken position early in the morning.

Their mission around the Iwo Road bridge remained unknown until the convoy of trucks, heavy with presumably sensitive materials meant for the military showed up.

Following this, the soldiers, heralded by siren-blowing men of the FRSC, swung into action and stopped vehicles coming from every other side of the roundabout. They couldn’t be bothered about the panic they had caused others going about their business by their sudden movement. For some 10 minutes after the first truck showed up no vehicle was allowed to move.

More slow-moving, heavy-laden trucks would follow and over many more minutes they would form a long chain before moving on. They, thereafter, allowed no vehicle to come in-between them nor did they allow any to go past them.

In that manner they set on the road leading to Ile-Ife. At different points of the expressway they stopped to wait for one another and then continued on their way, snaking along at a snail’s pace. All this happened during the morning rush hours when people were going to work! The confusion this brought about is better imagined.

Travelling on that same expressway the following day, the same drama was again enacted by the soldiers, very likely a different set. And only God knows since it all started and how long it lasted after the second day.

In the cold war era, powerful nations used to display their weapons of mass destruction during military parades that were meant to warn would-be adversaries of what lay in store for them should they overstep their bounds. Such display of might was directed at foreigners and all this belonged in a bygone era.

But like a man who thumbs his chest in self-congratulation after throwing his wife in a fight, Nigerian soldiers are forever proud of their exploits with their civilian compatriots. While they may not be particularly distinguished for prosecuting any salutary campaign, local or foreign, they are eager to unleash terror on the civil populace- on the streets, in traffic or public transport.

People are randomly picked upon and beaten within an inch of their lives. A Nigerian could get slapped or horse-whipped simply for being too slow to leave the road at the approach of soldiers. But a few pertinent questions arise from the Ibadan episode. What was that show of might before unarmed civilians all about?

Why was it necessary for the Airforce to transport by road military hardware(?) that could be better airlifted? Where were their cargo planes? What are the consequences on the soldiers who had to endure long, arduous journeys like this- what are the consequences of such brutalisation on them to say nothing of others?

And in this era when military equipment, including weapons, get sold to criminals for profit, what happens should these soldiers divert their cargo elsewhere? Anything could have happened but it does not look like the Airforce could be bothered. This goes to show just how much (re)training our soldiers need. And that (re)training must start now.

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