By Ochereome Nnanna
IF the current Nigerian leadership still has any conscience, it must be shocked and sobered by the reaction of the people of the South East over the unfounded “Army vaccine” rumour that took place last week. It was a conclusive proof that due to the prevailing unsavoury atmosphere foisted by the regime on major national institutions, a section of the Nigerian populace no longer sees the Nigerian Army as their own. They are now feared and despised, rightly or wrongly, such that even when they are involved in noble activities in the interest of the common man, they are suspected.
Following the outbreak of the monkey pox virus epidemic, the story, manufactured from devil knows where, made the rounds in the theatre of Operation Python Dance, that some individuals dressed in army uniform had invaded schools in Imo and Abia States forcibly administering vaccines to spread the monkey pox diseases within the Igbo population. Unfortunately, people believed this story, even though no one had any evidence to that effect. All over the five states of the geopolitical zone, parents and guardians rushed to schools to withdraw their children, a situation that evoked the atmosphere of 1967 when the civil war started.
Never since then had anything like this happened. Never since then was the Nigerian Army seen as an “enemy” force in that part of the country. Something we thought had become a folk tale for the benefit of our grandchildren is being re-enacted live! All these, because the people who precipitated this atmosphere of fear 50 years ago have found their way back to power when they should be long consigned to the dustbin of our history.
It is not difficult to identify the factors that generated this pathetic ambience. The Buhari regime is the primary source of this national distrust. His open declaration that he would not be fair to those who did not vote for him, followed by the virtual exclusion of the South East from the government and distribution of government dividends provided the fuel for separatist agitations which ballooned after the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra, IPOB, leader, Nnamdi Kanu, was arrested and detained. When he was released on bail after sixteen months in the slammer, Kanu came out and became a monster no one could control.
To buy over the people’s mind, IPOB isolated “Biafra” from the rest of Nigerians, and started calling the Nigerian Army an army of the “Hausa-Fulani Jihadists”. The Army and other security and defence forces did not do much to debunk this labelling. They openly condoned the murderous activities of the armed Fulani herdsmen who were attacking communities all over the Middle Belt and Southern states. The Nigerian Army, through the public statements of its spokesmen, Acting Director of Army Public Relations, Brigadier-General Sani Usman Kukasheka, never admitted crime of the herdsmen’s attacks on communities.
Instead, the Army, just like the Federal Government, chose to talk about the menace of “cattle rustlers” in the North and what they described as “farmers-herdsmen “clashes”. They gave the impression that the assaults on the indigenous populations were none of their business. The pretences were dropped when unarmed self-determination campaigners, IPOB, was declared a “terrorist” organisation by the Federal Government and the Army, while the armed Fulani killer militias were merely tagged “criminals”.
Since Buhari came back from his medical venture in London, he appears to have followed the demands of hawkish elements of the North, especially the Arewa Youths and their sponsors, to use the Army against unarmed self-determination protesters in the South East and South-South. The two national broadcasts he made since then were just like words borrowed from the Arewa Youths. There was nothing conciliatory about them. Therefore when he decided to deploy the Army against Nnamdi Kanu, the IPOB propagandists depicted it as an “invasion” by an enemy ethnic force. Again, the Army did not do much to deflate this notion.
The videos of military trucks chasing down unarmed young men at top speeds the same way as Islamic terrorists use trucks to crush their victims in Europe trended in the social media. Footages of young men being dehumanised, tortured and beaten to death still litter the internet, yet the Army always claimed to adhere to what it calls “rules of engagement” (ROE).
For me, Operation Python Dance did succeed in achieving a useful purpose: it doused the Biafra agitations, at least for the moment. It was becoming a great distraction for most of us. In fact, it was moving towards dangerous grounds which many of us were not willing to enter. I want self-determination within Nigeria, which is possible with genuine restructuring and devolution of powers. I don’t want a break-up or a separate republic; not yet. I hope I will never do. Buhari’s government is just a temporary irritant to our national unity. He will go, just the same way he came. We will then reclaim our country from these medieval-minded ethnic bullies and sectional caterpillars stuffing their guts with our commonwealth like ravenous hyenas. Nigeria is still bigger than any individual, no matter whom he thinks he is.
It was a great miscalculation for the Nigerian Army, in spite of the terrible image it had presented of itself to the people of the South East to still go ahead with the medical outreach, even if in Anambra alone. It was bound to be repudiated as part of the alleged unwholesome agenda of an “invading force”. The Army and security agencies have been used by this regime in the South East in manners that have not instilled confidence in the people of the zone. They don’t see them as being there to protect them. They are seen as being there for sinister purposes, though this may not be true. Under such an atmosphere, the most noble of intentions can be misread.
The Nigerian Army owes it a duty to prove to Nigerians of all shades of political interests that it is indeed the Nigerian people’s Army, and not an institution fronting for the parochial interests of a section of the country. Unfortunately, the Armed Forces, Police and Security Agencies tend to change in orientation in line with the personal temperaments and selfish inclinations of whoever is their current Commander-in-Chief.
Under Presidents Umaru Yar’Adua and Goodluck Jonathan, nobody in the South East had reason to suspect the Army whatsoever. In fact, there was joy when the Army opened its massive Ohafia facility named after President Goodluck Jonathan. The Nigerian Army’s huge presence was rhapsodically received as a sign that the South East was reclaiming its lost ground where it mattered most in Nigeria. The use of the Army to bury Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu planted the Nigerian Army deeper into Igbo hearts. No one could have doubted any medical outreach by the Army in that zone given the way it was projected to the people then as their own.
It is up to the Army and the political authority driving it to learn from this monkey pox vaccine hoax and re-brand accordingly. Even if the Army has to crack down on any group to maintain the unity of the country as it did with IPOB, it can be done without necessarily terrorising the entire population or betraying sectional bias. This is the Nigerian Army, not a sectional army. It is for all of us. It must conduct itself in a nationalistic manner, no matter where it is sent to do its work.
God bless the Nigeria Army.