In February 2013, soldiers were deployed to supress a protest by students of the Nasarawa State University. Not surprisingly, there were provocations and reactions. At the end of the ensuing fracas, four students were murdered by the soldiers. Later on, the state government and the army brass would deny deploying the soldiers. At the end of it all, four Nigerian students died and nobody could determine who gave orders to the soldiers.
A similarly mysterious scenario had occurred the previous year. At the dusk of the Occupy Nigeria protest, soldiers had appeared overnight on the streets of Lagos ready to deal with any anti-subsidy removal bravado. The state government denied inviting the military, and the military denied acting unilaterally.
This involvement of the military in post-1999 democratic Nigeria is not unusual. In 2005, as a student in the University of Lagos, I had witnessed a restive period which resulted in a violent protest by the students against the university authorities. The aftermath included the appearance of an armoured personnel carrier outside the gates of the university—for a year or so—just in case the students developed a new rash of radicalism.
Such militaristic situations manifest in different ways in Nigerian society: soldiers have raided and wiped out an entire village, soldiers freely interfere in civilian disputes, soldiers have been known to beat up “disrespectful” civilians, seize newspapers, force cars out of the way in traffic, set public buses on fire, and get involved in a miscellany of other civilian scenarios, that is, while they are not busy guarding politicians or harassing their opponents, dispelling non-violent protesters, monitoring university campuses, and—more recently re-introduced—overseeing elections. Under Jonathan’s government, the independence of the military has reached even more alarming levels.
Military apologists in Nigeria are always quick to point out military “sacrifices”, particularly their efforts in the war against Boko Haram. The external/territorial operations of the Nigerian military are generally commendable, but it is also their duty as soldiers. And the fact that soldiers carry out their duty is neither excuse nor justification for any unlawful interference in civilian affairs. “Military” is not the same as “violently undisciplined”, and that is why military codes of conduct and rules of engagement exist.
In the last few years, Nigerians have raised dust over these undisciplined military activities, but the politicians—both the executive and the legislature—have, half-hearted probes aside, generally allowed such incidents to slide without remedy or punishments. The only redress have come from individually obtained court judgements by aggrieved persons.
This indifference by the politicians is more upsetting when you consider that the 1999 Constitution is quite clear on the functions of the Nigerian military. In summary, s. 217(2) of the Constitution directly prescribes the functions of the armed forces as: (a) defending Nigeria from external aggression; (b) maintaining Nigeria’s territorial integrity/securing its borders from violation on land, sea, or air; and (c) 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.”
One doesn’t require a law degree to understand those words. Yet, this provision has been continuously violated by almost every internal military operation since 1999, particularly the third function which allows the military to deal with internal threats subject to: (i) a direct order by the president, and (ii) enabling legislation by the National Assembly. This is the constitutional authority for civilian control of the military—and it is a core principle of democratic governance.
But for almost sixteen years of our constitutional democracy, reigning politicians have used the military against the general civilian population anyhow—from local government chairmen to the Presidency, from vice-chancellors to governors; for sixteen years, the military has terrorised ordinary Nigerians in a hundred different ways and the politicians have enjoyed the benefit of the military’s semi-autonomy. Even though democratically progressive Nigerians have complained about this, politicians—both ruling and opposition —haven’t been much bothered.
But now, at the dawn of a transition period, just as soon as the military’s power over the elections has been acknowledged by the electoral commission, these damned politicians have remembered the law.
And so, this week, the major opposition party, APC, wrote to INEC explaining why it was unconstitutional for the military to be utilised during the electoral process without an enabling legislation.
If this had been a case of the military being sent to suppress a school riot, I’m not quite sure the politicians in the APC would have interfered this much. But, with their fortunes directly affected, their eyes are now opened to a constitutional provision that has been in place for sixteen years.
There’s a part of me that gleefully thinks: “Well, eat shit and die. You refused to take control of the military and you deserve the consequences”.
But unfortunately, the consequences of having a fully autonomous military, with control over the electoral process, will affect us all. Very likely, negatively.
And so I agree: it is unconstitutional for the military to be involved in the current electoral process or in any other internal civilian issue. You should agree as well. But while you support APC’s stance on this issue, don’t forget that they are not doing any of this for our sake.
Because, really, these politicians are mostly selfish bastards.
Ayo Sogunro is the author of Everything in Nigeria is Going to Kill You. A lawyer by profession, he also indulges in socio-legal philosophy on this blog. Interact with him on Twitter via @ayosogunro.
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