THE CURRENT CRISIS
In the latest installment of the initiation of violence by a government against its own citizens, a mob of military men were deployed to forcefully dispel a protest for basic amenities by the students of Nasarawa State University. The use of the military in the circumstances was reprehensible in itself, and should, ordinarily, have given rise to a general hue and cry, but unfortunately, and much more gravely, four students were reportedly murdered by some of the soldiers when shots were fired by the military men at the protesting students. This is not just news, this is a crisis.
In a more civilized country, this wanton killing of unarmed students in such a fashion would be termed as the actions of terrorists, or of persons of unsound mind. In Nigeria, we call these instigators of violent murder “soldiers”—and by extension, “military men”.
THE DEMOCRATIC EXPERIMENT
A Nigerian child born in the year 1999, when Nigeria commenced its current democratic dispensation, would be fourteen years of age this year—a teenager, fully conscious of the responsibilities and characteristics of a democratic government. Our theoretical child would be able to identify the concept of the executive, the legislature and the judiciary as distinct arms of government. The child would understand the electoral process and maybe even the concept of a republican representative government.
It would, however, be difficult for such a child to understand certain aspects of the Nigerian society as it fits into the democratic structure into which he was birthed and within which he has grown up. These unclear aspects of society would include, amongst other things, the relevance of a soldier in a civilian setting—not just because this idea has not been explained to him, but also because the military machinery and its attendant imagery will not exist harmoniously with the rudimentary democratic concept the child has already formed.
An adult may try to explain to the child that the military presence is necessary for security purposes, but the inquisitive child will ask: what then is function of the police? The adult may explain that the police is not well equipped enough, but the child will ask the logical question: why not equip the police instead?
However, the innocent logic of the child is lost on an adult Nigerian population that has lived, consciously, under the excessive force of military rule. To such an adult, the military was, is, and will always be a fundamental part of the governing machinery—either as a direct governor, or as an enforcement tool of the pseudo-democratic ruler.
THE PSYCHOLOGICAL DAMAGE
The interaction of the average adult Nigerian with the military has been one of oppression; rarely of security or protection. From the 1966 coup to the dictatorship of Sani Abacha via the Nigerian Civil War, the military has had a forceful presence in the streets of Nigeria. But unlike the policeman, who is bound (even if more in breach than in observance) by a criminal code and its procedures of arrest and trial, a military man has no rules of interacting with the civilian in a combat—principally because the military man is trained to regard any person he engages as an enemy and to use deadly force against the enemy.
A military man has no rules of civil procedure. He is trained to shoot, and to shoot to kill.
Accordingly when the average Nigerian soldier goes on the streets, he sees the average civilian as a potential enemy—irrespective of citizenry or other factors.
Nigerians have learned this truth the hard way, and have managed to politely step out of the way of the military. The concept of “an officer and a gentleman” is reserved for Hollywood movies only. The best scenario is the current democratic dispensation, which involves an uneasy truce between the average civilian citizen and the military—and under which the civilian has the lesser bargaining power. For all is well with the civilian only as long as he keeps out of the way of the military man’s sirens and convoys. But what happens to a student in the university? What happens when a Vice-Chancellor calls in the attack dogs and a collision becomes inevitable?
THE LEGAL SITUATION
Because the social psychology is biased in fear of the military’s arms, the legal provisions are little enforced and largely ignored. Taking advantage of this psychological mindset, opportunistic democratic governments and their acolytes have continued to utilize the fear of the military to force the execution of policies that are not legally permissible.
The facts of what happened in Nasarawa are unclear at the moment, but in a country where it is possible to hire a soldier for the price of a bottle of beer, it doesn’t take genius to figure out that someone with some form of civilian authority—whether the Vice-Chancellor, a local government chairman or even the state governor—called upon the nearest deployment of soldiers to contain the protesting students and consequently, had four students murdered in the process.
But is the current legal dispensation of Nigeria as fearful as the current psychological dispensation of Nigerians? Thankfully, the answer is “No”. Our Constitution is very articulate in describing why we need an armed forces and what it should consist of. Section 217 of the Constitution (a document still unfamiliar to most Nigerians) states that the armed forces would consist of an army, a navy, an Air Force as well as other branches the legislature may create.
The next paragraph of that section then describes the three functions of the armed forces: defending Nigeria from external aggression; maintaining Nigeria’s territorial integrity/securing its borders from violation on land, sea, or air; and suppressing insurrection and acting in aid of civil authorities to restore order “when called upon to do so by the President, but subject to such conditions as may be prescribed by an Act of the National Assembly.”
Unfortunately, as discussed above, Nigerians have had more experience with the military in respect of this third function, than with any of the military’s other responsibilities.
Even more unfortunately, the innocent dictates of the Constitution regarding the internal usage of the military are widely disregarded by both the government and private influential citizens. The Constitution is quite clear: before the military is deployed internally, there should be three situations in place: (i) it should be in aid, and not the supplanting, of the civil authorities; (ii) the military exercise should be by the direct order of the President; and (iii) the exercise must have legislative backing.
Any internal deployment by the military within Nigerian territory which does not fulfill these constitutional requirements, is, from the logical interpretation of those provisions, an unconstitutional action, as well as an undemocratic one—the kind that merits the jurisdiction of a court martial and the imposition of severe sanctions.
THE FUTURE IS NOW TO BE DECIDED
Now, we have reached the lowest depths of the usage of the military within Nigerian territory. The Nigerian military has not just been incapable of protecting Nigerians; it has also continued to kill Nigerians. This is not just news, this is a crisis.
The tail continues to wag the dog.
The Boko Haram insurgence, which should have secured the affections of the military to the average Nigerian, was widely unchecked and ended on the negotiation table. This failure, ordinarily, should shame any self-respecting military apparatus as they slink into the barracks. The Nigerian military has not improved the security situation of the average Nigerian—and has even shown itself incapable of guaranteeing its own security.
It has now become mandatory that all Nigerians begin to demand for a total return of all military men into their barracks. There should be no more military sirens on the streets, no more military men manning the premises of wealthy citizens, no more indiscriminate combat by the military against school students. It is time for the military to go for good!
In the present crisis, the President should immediately, and with good grace, issue an apology to the student body of the school and compensation to the families of the victims. Recently, the President’s wife celebrated her “resurrection”—and the President should therefore understand the value of a single human life. The Vice Chancellor, or whoever invited the military, should be sanctioned. The officers who led the expedition should be court martialled, and the soldiers who fired the killing shots should be convicted and executed—and yes, hanging is too good for them.
The fight against the military in Nigeria is not over. Nigerians cannot afford to watch idly as soldiers murder students and an unruly military continues to invade civil liberties at different levels. Today it may be some unknown victims in a relatively faraway Nasarawa, tomorrow it could come to your doorstep, with a friend or relative dying in your arms from a soldier’s undisciplined bullet.
Ayo Sogunro is a Lagos writer and lawyer. Follow his thoughts via @ayosogunro