Nigeria: Ignoring Our Gallant Heroes

On Nigeria’s 50th Independence anniversary in October 2010, many observers of the military were astounded that President Goodluck Jonathan’s elaborate 45 minutes speech did not reference or acknowledge the role of the Armed Forces of Nigeria (AFN) in the country’s journey to that milestone. Neither did he pay any tribute to the souls of those who laid down their lives to keep Nigeria as a single entity or those who have helped in the past to project the country’s power and influence within the subregion, Africa, and the world. In a presidential speech that eulogised and paid glowing tributes to Nigerian scientists, writers, Nollywood stars, lawyers, economists, doctors, diplomats and academics, failure to recognise the military marked a sour point. It is inconceivable that on such occasion, a United States President or British Prime Minister, or indeed any other leader within the continent would make such a momentous omission.

Depending on their antecedents and place in history, the military in many countries remains a highly respected and revered institution. In the United States, for instance, history has taught the people of the gallant role played by the military in the defeat of the British invaders during the American Revolutionary War of 1775-1783 which led to the declaration of independence on 4 July 1776. And when the Confederates of 11 Southern states opted to leave the union between 1860-61 over some long-standing disagreement on the institution of slavery, history taught generations of Americans thereafter, the role the military played in preserving the US as a constitutional union.

In the UK, respect for the military stems from the noble roles it has played in the past to keep the sovereignty of the attractive island that overlooks continental Europe across the English Channels. From the battles of Agincourt (1415), Trafalgar (1805), Waterloo (1815), Somme (1916), and Passchendaele (1917), the British military’s monumental sacrifice in blood and sweat has ensured the great power status it enjoys today. For several years after, the Royal Air Force exploit that thwarted Hitler’s invading Army in the famous Battle of Britain (1940) remains one unique event that is celebrated annually in the UK. As a reminder, Hitler’s planned invasion of Britain, codenamed ‘Operation Sea Lion’ was aimed at establishing control over the UK for strategic and political reasons. Some British people still hold the view that but for the heroic feats of the Royal Air Force against the planned invasion, perhaps German would have been the official language in the UK today.

Beyond the defence against external aggression, military support for democratic institutions rather than intervention in governance has been phenomenal in both the US and UK. Institution of state in these countries have been so well established that the military has remained subservient to democratic political control nearly all through their history. In appreciation of this, landmark military important victory dates are specially and widely celebrated nationally by all the people in those two countries.

Conversely, military intervention in governance has been its albatross and has given it the notoriety it was known for hitherto. This has helped to diminish its respect and recognition by the people. Despite concerted efforts to mend its battered image through sustainable civil military relations since it withdrew back to the barracks in 1999, the Nigerian military is still only feared as an aggressor, but not sufficiently admired and respected. That perhaps accounts for some of the anomalies that we witness today.

In Nigeria, 15 January every year is set aside as Armed Forces Remembrance Day and observed as a public holiday by the military. The date is significant as it marked the end of the 30 months Civil War on 15 January 1970. Close to three million people were lost due to that tragedy in battlefield deaths, diseases, and starvation. In a war characterised by such monumental loss of life, it is a shame that the 15 January date is marked as a Remembrance Day by only members of the Armed Forces and not as a national holiday. The implication of this is that the import of the Civil War and the colossal cost thereto could be lost to future generations who may not have any living relative to make any reference to in what has become a part of our national history.

In the United States, the Memorial Day and Veterans Day are two separate days set aside as public holidays. On these days, many businesses, government offices and schools are closed to observe and commemorate these important occasions. This is not so here in Nigeria. Apart from some flashes of ceremonial parades on television, not many Nigerians feel the impact of the day as one that shaped our destiny as a nation and ensured our continued existence. History also has it well documented, the roles played by the Nigerian military in the First and Second World Wars, as well as in the wars to safeguard democracy in Liberia and Sierra Leone, the Bakassi crisis and the ongoing efforts to defeat insurgency and banditry in some parts of the country.

With the plethora of achievements, it is therefore surprising why the military is not well respected and admired by Nigerians just as the people do in the examples cited. Yet, it is an incontrovertible fact that the Armed Forces of Nigeria today has by every global standard remained a ‘force for good’. Since 1999, it has continued to serve the interest of the nation without overstepping its boundaries. It is carrying out its constitutional roles diligently, prioritises protection of Nigerian citizens, upholds human rights, engages in humanitarian efforts, contributes to peacekeeping and in doing all these, operates under the rule of law with accountability and transparency. These notwithstanding, some occasional knocks and outbursts against the military’s capacity to deal with threats that confront the nation suggests that not all the citizenries are pleased with their armed forces.

From the occasional tirades by Borno State Governor Babagana Zulum which draws inspiration from the 2012 call by the Borno Elders Forum for the withdrawal of soldiers from Maiduguri to the grant of amnesty to bandits and terrorists, authorities in Nigeria have not shown sufficient appreciation for the efforts of the military. Only recently, Asari Dokubo, chose nowhere more strategic than Aso Rock, the office of the president to denigrate the military. He was soon followed by ‘militant’ turned businessman, Tompolo. Yet, open confrontations of these nature can only diminish respect for a military that is doing its best even when so overstretched and in the face of limited resources.

Today, what the military needs in the conduct of its affairs is a whole of society support that will foster a sense of national cohesion and reinforce its morale and determination. The military relies on the support of the society to maintain its effectiveness in fulfilling its objectives. This support could translate into better funding, provision of equipment and improved community relations that could enhance and guarantee information gathering critical to mission success. The political class and Nigerians must take ownership of the military to bridge the existing gap. Any gain by the military must be considered a national gain, while its loss must also be a national loss.

As observed, the increased utility of the military in managing internal crisis and conflicts has been overwhelming and this has a potential to bring the military into conflict with the larger society. Beyond its combat engagements in the Northeast, Northwest and North Central, the military is involved in internal security duties in about 32 of the 36 states in the country, a task which ordinarily should fall within the domain of the police. The current administration of President Bola Tinubu can help to lessen this burden on the military by instituting a viable reform in the security sector, the end state of which is to bequeath a well-staffed, structured and equipped police force capable of dealing with internal security challenges with emphasis on community and area policing rather than providing personal security for notable individuals as we have today.

Some recent events have shown that the military itself has some work to do to keep its personnel especially the lower ranks subservient to the dictate of a democratic environment where everybody is equal before the law. It must purge its lower ranks of the nuances that bring them in occasional confrontation and conflict especially with the civilian populace. Nothing infuriates members of the public about the military than seeing its personnel who are paid and sustained from taxpayers’ money, turning to visit violence on innocent civilians. It is a carryover of the archaic practice of the military era, which only helps to bring back terrible memories and fuels anger among the people. The military is known for discipline and obedience of orders. It must continue to educate and reorientate its lower ranks and file on the imperatives of subordination to civil authority and laws.

Meanwhile, the military as part of its constitutional role of providing aid to civil authority is often called out to provide security during elections across the country. In the past, there have been accusations and counter accusations on the partisanship of the military during such election duties, a situation that has caused severe damage to the image and reputation of the institution. In a country of desperate politicians riddled with bad losers, the military would continue to take the knock over its role during elections. The military must maintain its respect by always remaining apolitical and professional. It must avoid the ugly incidents of the past as we had in Ekiti Elections 2014, Edo Elections in 2015 and Rivers Elections in 2019.

Irrespective of the challenges that may arise, the military has done well for Nigeria. On a day such as this therefore, it is important that the people remember all those who paid the supreme sacrifice in the bid to keep our nation together.

Olawumi, a retired Major General of the Nigerian Army and former NYSC Director General is a member of THISDAY editorial board.