Before last month’s heroic capture of the Boko Haram stronghold at Sambisa Forest in Borno State, the Nigerian soldier had not had a good public image for 45 years.
The last time soldiers were seen as heroes here was during the Nigeria Civil War, which ended in January 1970. In those days Federal soldiers had everyone’s support as they fought “To Keep Nigeria One,” which the Head of State General Yakubu Gowon said “Is A Task That Must Be Done.”
The military’s war songs, many of them composed by the late Major General Mamman Vatsa, were constantly played on the radio and all the children memorised them.
There was a new song before every major operation. In addition, local poets in every community in the North composed more songs in praise of soldiers. In my hometown, there was a local poet called Dan Gwamna who composed many patriotic songs during the Civil War.
He sang as he played with his achikokko, which was made from dried palm leaves. The top heroes in the songs were General Gowon, Brigadier Hassan Usman Katsina and Brigadier Mamman Shuwa. Another highly admired figure in those days was Major Titus Numan, alias Hauka da Bori, the army’s most popular recruitment officer during the Civil War.
Not long after 250,000 Federal troops returned home from the civil war, soldiers’ public image began to undergo a tectonic shift for the worse. The main problem was that soldiers in those days had no barracks and they lived in compounds within communities.
That meant endless fights with neighbours over water, toilets and kitchens. Soldiers’ wives were particularly aggressive at communal wells and water taps and if anyone crossed their paths, they ran and called their husbands, who immediately drew their belts and whipped the offender mercilessly.
Soldiers also had an unusual community spirit; if one of them got into a fight, other soldiers joined in the fight without asking questions.
Living with communities also made soldiers’ foibles visible for all to see. Too many non-coms drank beer with all their salary and gave little or nothing for family upkeep. In 1973, I went as a small boy to the new army barracks in Sokoto and saw two lines of soldiers and their wives collecting salary.
I heard that whenever a wife reported her husband as not catering for her, the army commander in Sokoto, Brig A.A. Ahmadu, split the soldier’s salary into two and the wives lined up on payday to collect their portion.
I entered Bayero University, Kano’s School of Preliminary Studies in September 1977 and before we settled down, there was trouble. A hit and run driver knocked down a soldier in front of 5 Brigade Barracks in Kano so the soldiers blocked the highway and burnt many passing vehicles. The Speaker of the BUK Students’ Parliament, Yusuf Mamman, called a Congress meeting and we embarked on a demonstration to the Government House demanding to see the Military Governor, Col Sani Bello.
Instead, the police chased us with tear gas all the way to Gidan Murtala. Stories of clashes between soldiers and civilians were common in the newspapers in those days.
Many of these problems had eased by 1979 because the Murtala/Obasanjo regime demobilised soldiers and reduced the army to about 100,000. The Gowon and Murtala/Obasanjo regimes also embarked on massive barracks construction and relocated soldiers out of communities.
Problems however persisted at petrol stations, on highways, in football stadiums etc where soldiers were always aggressive towards civilians, clearly because the country was under military rule.
At the higher levels too, the military’s long involvement in governance lowered its esteem in the eyes of citizens. Stories of corruption and highhandedness were common.
Draconian laws, arbitrary detentions, zigzag transition programs and at one point, state-sponsored murder and international isolation all ruined the military’s image. Coups, counter-coups and abortive coups were all very destabilising to the country. Public execution of coup plotters was very traumatic for Nigerians.
Soon, soldiers’ claims that they were in power to cleanse the country and right all wrongs became the butt of jokes. On top of it were outrageous statements made by some military rulers such as “Telephones are not for the poor,” “I am leaving the treasury as I met it” and “All those who were captured will be held as prisoners of war.”
On some occasions soldiers redeemed themselves, such as in 1980 when Major Haliru Akilu led soldiers to put down the Maitatsine uprising in Kano, as well as later eruptions in Kaduna South, Bulunkutu, Yola and Gombe. Boko Haram however proved to be the toughest nut to crack.
The army’s inability to put down the insurgency over 5 years did not help its tough-guy image. Matters were worsened by stories of desertions, mutinies and courts martial, heavy handed army response when the insurgents were hiding in Maiduguri, international allegations of torture and summary executions, not to mention the corruption.
Stories that emerged since 2015 about how funds meant for arms were looted, how service chiefs diverted billions of naira into their pockets all soiled the military’s image no end. Nor was it very helpful to the military’s image that the major towns occupied by Boko Haram were recovered in early 2015 only with help from South African mercenaries.
The new service chiefs appointed by President Buhari in August 2015 however turned the military’s image around. Most visible in this regard have been Army Chief Lt Gen Tukur Buratai and Air Force Chief Air Marshal Sadeeq Abubakar.
Their stomping all over the North East, the new sense of urgency and direction they brought to the war, the enormous improvement in the military’s equipment, firepower and overall capabilities, the exotic names given to military operations, the string of successes recorded by various military formations culminating in the recapture of Sambisa Forest and Boko Haram’s greatly diminished fighting power all helped to turn around the image of the Nigerian soldier.
Recapture of Sambisa Forest was the single most important turn around. To think of a psychological equivalent, one must go all the way back to the fall of Umuahia during the Civil War. Now, at last, Nigerian Army Generals are walking with a new spring in their steps.
I noticed some of it when my colleagues and I recently visited Army Headquarters in Abuja. Last week’s disastrous bombing of an IDP camp at Rann however took some shine out of the Generals’ new found lustre.