Imagine for a moment, that the British Army went to a part of England and opened fire on her citizens. While the British have done this to the Irish in the Internment in Northern Ireland, and committed similar brutish expeditions in their former colonial states, in 2021, it is extremely unlikely that the British Army would be rolled into the streets of London with .50 caliber machine guns pointed at protesters. The same however can not be said for the Nigerian Army whose operations have led to more crisis across the country. Currently, the Nigerian Army, with a personnel strength of 160,000 has operations in 33 out of 36 states.
In 2018, in Abuja, the country’s capital, the Presidential Guards Brigade whose commander reports directly to President Muhammadu Buhari used a heavy .50 caliber machine gun to shoot at a Shi’ite procession. In 2021, the Nigerian Army shot at peaceful protesters in Lekki, a middle class suburb, without being held accountable.
A Colonel addressing a group of young boys and girls in a military secondary school said that the Nigerian Army was what kept the country united. He also referred to the military as the most important Nigerian institution. And he was right. The Nigerian Army consistently committed massacres over the years, even until recently. One of the greatest failures of the Nigerian Army is a lack of discipline, not just in a military regime but also in a democracy. It lacks the discipline of subsuming itself under civilian authority and, the belief that it is answerable to the citizens. This has caused many to have apathy and almost resentment to the military.
In Liberia, the Nigerian Army headed the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) peacekeeping force, and is reported to have traded with several rebel groups while arming them. Thus prolonging a peace process that ended up requiring intervention from America. Conflict resolution revealed itself as one weakest points of the Nigerian Army and government.
Prior to then, the Nigerian Army was reported to have committed massacres in Odi, Gbaramatu, Zaki Biam, Ugep, and Asaba. Just the same way the British and many colonial armies committed massacres to suppress and control their colonies. To understand the Nigerian military, you must first understand its source and those who trained it, the British. Across the continent, punitive armies were sent to deal with ‘natives’ who rejected the imposition of the Crown. In Nigeria, the 1897 Benin Expedition remains a historical reference point. 1,200 soldiers were sent to Benin Kingdom, a response to an ambush of a British party. This response is similar to the Zaki Biam Massacre also known as Operation No Living Thing, where the Nigerian Army retaliated the killing of some soldiers.
In 1863, Lt Glover selected 18 indigenes from the Northern part of the country and organized them into a local force called the “Glover Hausas.” Glover used them for expeditions in the hinterlands of Lagos. They later became the Lagos Battalion in 1901 when they got incorporated into the West Africa Frontier Force. When Nigeria was merged, there was the Northern Nigerian Regiment and Southern Nigerian Regiment whose role between 1901 and 1903 was the annexation of Nigeria by Frederick Lugard. With the creation of Nigeria in 1914, the Northern Nigerian Regiment and Southern Regiment became the 1st , 2nd, 3rd, 4th Battalions of the Nigerian Regiments respectively. When Queen Elizabeth visited Nigeria between January 28 and February 15, 1956 she renamed the Nigerian regiment to the Queens Own Nigerian Regiments which eventually became the Nigerian Military Force (NMF).
“By 1st June, 1958, the British Army Council in London relinquished control of NMF to the Nigerian Government. In 1960, when Nigeria became independent, the NMF became known as the Royal Nigerian Army (RNA). When Nigeria became a republic, the RNA changed to the Nigerian Army.”
With a history of expeditions against its fellow country men, there was no change in the modus operandi of Nigeria’s military. There was still a dichotomy between the north and the south. And when it came to military operations, soldiers of southern extraction were taken to the north, and soldiers of northern extraction were taken to the south. The aim was that there would be no sentiments when executing operations. Ironically, this revealed how broken the Nigerian Army is.
Many of Nigeria’s first officers were sent to the UK for training under the British and when they returned, they exerted themselves on the country. It did not take long before Nigeria’s military took over the reins of power and asserted itself into the fabric of the country for close to four decades. In those decades, the colour of democracy in the country changed to a stained linen. Our military continued like it was still a colonial army. And in turn, we had become like our military, seeking power without justice. The entire country was ruled by fiat and decrees, changing the entire fabric of the country to a military structure. Those in uniform became more powerful with each coup that took place, cementing themselves psychologically into the country’s everyday life. Somehow, the only form of power Nigerians could trust to bring order was the military.
When Moshood Abiola was elected as president, Brigadier David Mark (former President of the Senate) is reported to have said, “I’d shoot Chief Abiola the day NEC pronounces him the elected president.” He was not the only one who made this statement. With the military’s politicized wing spinning propaganda, Max Siollun captured General Abacha’s exclamation, “Abiola retire me? God forbid!” Democracy was never meant to exist in this country.
The existence of Nigeria is cloaked and wrapped under its constant interaction with men in uniform. The summary of Nigeria’s elections many times is how many uniformed men can you control? As a result, the whole country suffered and suffers from Stockholm syndrome. Wanting ‘strong leaders’ who further bring punitive policies.
Max Siollun wrote of Muhammadu Buhari, in his book, Soldiers of Fortune, that “Buhari recalled that as a young man ‘the Emir of Kano told one of us that if soldiers could overthrow a line of kings descended directly from the Prophet, it could happen anywhere. So we should go and join the army.’” When a man has this motivation for joining the armed forces of his country, there should be no surprise when the army of that country sees its role outside of constitutional limitations, or when that man refuses to abide by constitutional restrictions.
One of the places where power easily resides in Nigeria is among uniformed men. All over the country, there is a littering of these uniforms, but in strong contradiction, there is almost no accompanying law or order.
Since 1998, when democracy seemed to have taken roots in the country, it has been almost impossible to shake the country from its military relic. With the love Nigerians have for ‘strong leaders’ past military leaders have time and again found themselves in Aso Rock and behaved like they are leading military operations and not a country.
The psyche of an average Nigerian is tilted towards supporting military actions and herein lies the problem. Take the Lekki Massacre for example where some men on my street argued that the protesters were at fault for standing their ground when the military came. The mental shift from a military regime to a democracy is one that is yet to happen to the average Nigerian for one reason; the militarisation of the country, including its highest office, has shown over and over that men in uniform in Nigeria are not beholden to the constitution but to individuals in power.
During the #EndSARS protests, it was not surprising that the Nigerian Army referred to protesters as ‘subversive elements’ ‘trouble makers,’ and ‘anti-democratic elements.’ The Army also reaffirmed its ‘unalloyed loyalty and commitment to the President.’ This kind of language in a democratic setting revealed how much of a military state Nigeria still is, and this is thanks to political leadership that allows the army play this role outside of the constitution.
With the recent dabbling of the Nigerian Army into labeling any criticism about it as fake news, it has built more scepticism around its institution. What the Nigerian Army has done since independence, is to create a befitting environment for the rising of ethnic militia across the country. And just as we are surprised at the decade old war against Boko Haram, we will likely be surprised at how each region has its own militia. Unfortunately we would have failed to see the million cuts that will lead to the final blow.
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