By Owei Lakemfa
DODAN Barracks, which was the seat of military regimes, is in Obalende, Lagos; the area I grew up. There were three gates I knew: the State House, Keffi and Obalende gates with the last being the general entrance.
In those days, the guards at the Obalende Gate in the evenings could be heard barking at anybody approaching: “Halt! Who goes there? Enemy or friend?” The usual response was “Friend” to which the guard would command: “Advance to be recognised.” Obalende residents joked that some of the guards were so illiterate that they could not pronounce the words “Advance to be recognised” Rather, they said: “Advance to the coconut”.
The tough side was when mischievous guards barked at the person approaching: “Halt! Who goes there? Enemy or foe?”
In the 1970s and ‘80s, I witnessed lots of military brutality on the streets of Lagos. Soldiers who thought they are the guardians of discipline, liberally whipping citizens on the streets for all sorts of real or perceived misdemeanour.
It was not uncommon to find a soldier accuse a passerby of committing an infraction or being disrespectful to him, pronouncing corporal punishment and administering it on the spot with either a cowhide (koboko), his military belt or the butt of his gun.
Soldiers who have the mentality that they are above the law, commonly refer to fellow citizens as “Bloody Civilians”. The police whom soldiers in those days referred to as ‘women’ also imbibed the culture of the army by taking the law into their hands. They became so brutal that in the 1970s, Nigerians referred to the anti-riot squad as ‘Kill-and-Go”, meaning the police had licence to kill.
That the populace came to see itself as being under siege and view the military and police as antagonists rather than protectors, did not come as a surprise. Over the years, the police tried to change its public image with an empty slogan: ‘The Police Is Your Friend’.
It can be argued that those were the days of military misrule when we had no constitution and power flowed from the barrel of the gun. However, the events of the past week when in the name of enforcing the government lockdown, soldiers and police were recorded in irrefutable and undeniable video clips torturing, battering and whipping Nigerians across the country, show that nothing has changed in the last 20 years of civil rule.
Some of the scenes were quite gory such as the summary execution of 28-year-old Joseph Pessu in Delta State. A few days before the lockdown, the video of a fruit seller washing mangoes in a dirty gutter went viral. But can the hazards of such evil act be compared with that of soldiers forcing citizens to swim in dirty gutters? If the whole idea of the lockdown is to limit or stop the spread of a virus, how does forcing citizens to swim in virus-infected gutters help?
After initial denials, the army has now asked citizens to: “Report any unprofessional conduct by Nigerian Army personnel during COVID-19 lockdown.” But what happens to those soldiers identified? What has the army done or is doing about soldiers caught in such videos some of whose locations are easily identifiable?
The police has also followed suit asking its officers to stop the brutality and torture. Again, what has it done to bring its men caught on tape to book?
The army is supposed to defend the territorial integrity of the country, so why, over a simple case of lockdown for health reasons, does the Buhari government need to turn armed soldiers loose on the populace? How can mass torture and brutality, and even death, be the penalty for those allegedly violating the lockdown? Why can’t the security forces arrest violators and prosecute them?
If the governments were serious, heads would have rolled in all the agencies whose personnel are involved in these gross violations. But ruling by brute force even under so-called constitutional rule, is a shameful tradition of our political rulers.
To me, the rampage against unarmed, defenceless and hapless civilians are symptomatic of the over 160 years these agencies have been brutalising Nigerians; first on behalf of British marauders who colonised the country, and then under their heirs: the undertakers of freedom and justice who replaced the colonialists.
The birth of the Nigerian Army is embedded in the colonial politics of Equatorial Guinea, a territory Portugal gave Spain in 1778 in exchange for some Spanish territories which were merged to establish Brazil. Spain loaned Equatorial Guinea to Britain between 1827 and 1836, then gave notice that Britain quit. With that, Britain set its sight on Lagos which it invaded in December 1851.
Ten years after, it annexed Lagos on August 6, 1861 and formally colonised it on March 5, 1862. To maintain its hold on Lagos, repress the populace and control its trade, Captain John Glover of the Royal British Navy that year, picked 18 persons from what is now Northern Nigeria and made them the nucleus of a colonial army. They were called the “Glover Hausas”.
This punitive force in 1900, metamorphosed into the West African Frontier Force, WAFF, then into the Queen’s Own Nigerian Regiment, QONR, the Nigerian Military Force, NMF, in 1956 and the Royal Nigerian Army in 1960. To ensure the new army was sectional, the British recruited the infantry and the artillery from the North; and from the Second World War, recruited the technical and officer corps mainly from the South. So there were in practice, two armies in one.
There wasn’t enough integration of the army before the first coup in 1966; so, it was not surprising that the officer corps which organised that coup was Southern. One year later, the army split into two to execute a senseless Civil War.
The army’s orientation remains that of a punitive force with little respect for the populace. The police also has similar origins and orientation. Some police formations were established by British traders in 1820 and in 1879, a 1,200 strong Hausa constabulary was born. In 1894, the Constabulary of the Niger Delta Coast was formalised. These became the Nigeria Police Force.
The problem of the military and the police is that they have never been subjected to the control of the Nigerian citizenry in line with Section 15:2a of the Constitution which states that: “Sovereignty belongs to the people of Nigeria from whom government through this Constitution derives all its powers and authority.”
As it stands, it is the security forces exercising sovereignty over the citizenry; a case of the tail wagging the dog. Nigerians have the option of either surrendering to the armed forces and police, or remolding, orientating and bringing them under control.