Essays / The Pontifical Papers


The Nigerian military is sick and requires urgent intervention.

Clearly, public intervention in military affairs is a sensitive issue, and our politicians generally avoid commenting on military issues except when it affects their electoral interests. However, the rest of us must not remain mute when it is clear that an intervention is needed. In the last three years, we have witnessed the military’s increased impunity in the conduct of its operations, disregard for the rule of law and civilian control, and contempt for public accountability. The Nigerian military has become uncontrollable in a way that we have not seen since the transition to civilian rule.  

A theory of civil-military relations, formulated by Samuel Huntington, is the idea of “objective control” of the military by the civilian authority. According to Huntington, objective control requires the military authority to: (i) demonstrate a high level of professionalism and recognition of the limits of its professional competence; and (ii) effectively subordinate itself to the civilian authority that makes decisions on military policy. Likewise, the civilian authority has to recognise and accept the professionalism and autonomy of the military and minimise the use of the military in politics or the politicisation of the military. As it exists today, the Nigerian military lacks proper civilian control, professionalism, and political autonomy. Instead, it has willingly become a political tool aimed at the brutal suppression of ordinary Nigerians.

For example, The New York Times published a report in late 2018 that examined the circumstances relating to the October 2018 killing of Shiites in Abuja by members of the Nigerian Army. Video and eyewitness evidence clearly pointed out the fact that soldiers (including men from the president’s elite guard) had disrupted what was, till then, a peaceful procession, barricaded the road and, when confronted by members of the group, shot into the procession at close range. Up to 39 Nigerians were killed and over forty injured.

Back in June 2015, shortly after he came into office, President Buhari responded to a report by Amnesty International on human rights abuses by the military and promised to “leave no stone unturned to promote the rule of law, and deal with all cases of human rights abuses”. In February 2016, the Nigerian Army established a Human Rights Desk tasked with investigating all cases of human rights complaints brought before it. For a period between 2016 and 2017, several military trials were conducted based on complaints to the Human Rights Desk. But, in the long run, nothing has changed. Instead of improved military-civilian relations and increased respect for the lives of Nigerians, the Nigerian military has, between 2015 and 2018, become more reckless in its operations and more brazen in its impunity.

In December 2015, over 300 people (including children) were killed in an attack by the Nigerian military on a Shiite compound in Zaria. Members of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) have suffered similar atrocities. Between December 2015 and May 2016, up to 80 Nigerians were killed by the military during pro-Biafran protests. In other instances, the military has simply been careless. In January 2017, the Nigerian Air Force bombed an IDP camp in Rann, Borno state and killed 167 civilians, again including children. A 2018 report by Amnesty International also showed how soldiers used force and threats of force to rape women in IDP camps. Till date, on one has been held accountable for these horrific incidents.

And, as these things often go, the military has turned cannibal, becoming a victim of its own atrocities, and devouring itself from inside. It has become common for soldiers to mutiny or protest the conditions of their service, including expressing dissatisfaction with equipment and welfare conditions. As reported by The Guardian, even unemployed Nigerians are fearful of joining the army despite an ongoing recruitment exercise.

In fact, the Nigerian military has lost public trust. The military authorities are prone to deceitful information and issuing outright lies. The command chain continues to be secretive, if not confused. The Nigerian public rarely knows who gives operational orders and who to hold accountable.

Today, only those who want to bury their heads in sand will believe that the Nigerian military cares about protecting Nigerian lives. Instead, the military concerns itself only with protecting state security – personified in the president and his supporters – at the expense of ordinary Nigerian lives. But we must not allow this abnormality to continue. It is abominable that the supposed defenders of our lives are the ones most likely to take it. If constitutional democracy is to be sustained in Nigeria, then the Nigerian military must be reformed and reoriented to prioritise the life of the ordinary Nigerian. And the first step in this reorientation process is accountability. If we are to progress, we must ensure that those who commit atrocities must be confronted by justice – either under domestic or international law.

 Originally published here in slightly different form for my monthly column for The Guardian.

Also, watch my interview on related issues with Sahara Reporters:

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Ever wondered about the class structure of Nigerian society? Read the mini-series on the Hierarchy of Nigerian Policy.



  1. Pingback: A Short History of the Cruel and Terrible Second Regime of Muhammadu Buhari | by Ayo Sogunro | Ayo Sogunro

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