Thursday, September 25, 2014 11:15 am
By Osuolale Alalade
A nine-member military tribunal headed by Brigadier-General Chukwuemeka Okonkwo, sitting in Abuja, has sentenced 12 soldiers to death following the widely reported incident on 14 May when the so-called mutinous soldiers fired at the commanding officer of the Nigerian Army’s 7th Division. They were protesting their deployment to engage with almost their bare hands the Boko Haram insurgents who are armed to the teeth. The news broke against a backdrop of widespread bewilderment in the international community and indeed among perceptive Nigerians that has begun to raise many questions around the commitment and operational quality of the Federal Government’s campaign against Boko Haram. These concerns centered around many issues: the obsolescence of the equipment of Nigerian forces; the questionable state of spirit de corps among Nigerian troops as soldiers could no longer be sure where the sympathies of their comrades lay; the loyalty of their commanders some of whom had earlier been reported to be moles working for insurgent Islamic fundamentalists; and even the integrity of a national political leadership that was perceived to the cynical; as well as blatant exploitation of the Boko Haram for irresponsible partisan mileage across the political spectrum. Questions around the ineffective military campaign has remained crucial, but more fundamentally has been troubling riddles around the instigators, its funders and creeping suspicions expressed in the political undercurrents of the campaign against Boko Haram. Against this problematic backdrop, the 12 courageous soldiers and the military institution are both victims of an entrenched crisis of national command. The decision of Brigadier Okonkwo tribunal must therefore not hold.
Before now, Adelowo Oladipo, reporting from Lagos on 21 May, 2011 had informed the world that no fewer than 600 members of the Nigeria Police contingent to Liberia, Haiti and Sudan peace-keeping missions, had cried out over non-payment of their foreign allowances paid by the United Nations to Nigeria Police High Command, Abuja. The payment was for the services of the grieving police officers to the global organisation. The sum in question ran into billions of naira. The contingent, which comprised Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP), Inspectors of Police, Police Sergeants, Corporals and the Constables, drawn from various state police commands across the country, were unhappy over the delay by the Police Headquarters in Abuja to effect the payment of about $6,000.00 to each of them since their return to the country. The police officers had not been paid despite the fact that the United Nations had confirmed remittance of the said money to the Police High Command in Abuja.
Again, in April 2009, according to Reuters, it was the turn of Brigadier-General Ishaya Bauka, chairing a court martial sitting in Ondo State, to sentence a group of former U.N. peacekeepers to life in prison. The 27 Nigerian soldiers, four of them women, had been convicted of mutiny the preceding July in the state capital, Akure. The troops were pressing for the payment of tens of thousands of dollars of their peacekeeping allowance, which was embezzled by some officers. They had barricaded the busy Lagos-Ibadan-Abuja highway on 4 July. Meanwhile, the same court martial had in January convicted four army officers and a soldier of stealing $68,541 from the troops returning from U.N. peacekeeping missions in Liberia. The officers, including a deputy director of finance at Army Headquarters, then paid each of the soldiers less than the $5,040 each approved by the United Nations, sparking the violent protest that earned the soldiers life prison sentences. In the garrison, the logic is strange.
It was Obasanjo who gave the concept of Garrison Commander an unsavory connotation in Nigerian politics. At the height of one of those crises that characterise the national political process, he described Lamidi Adedibu, the late irrepressible Ibadan politician, as a garrison commander. Adedibu was determined to tele-guide the elected governor of Oyo State, in his capacity as the latter’s political godfather. He was also unhappy about the inconsistency in his unconstitutional and illegal monthly financial allotment from state coffers. To concerns raised about these developments, Obasanjo intoned that a garrison commander could do no wrong. If pressed too hard, the commander may break like a dried crayfish. Obasanjo’s off the cuff remark is insightful as a very telling commentary on the state of Nigeria. Nigeria is indeed a garrison. Therefore the command must be infallible. In the garrison, every one outside the command hierarchy must obey; All must obey!
The principle of an unquestioning “All must obey” is problematic in the military of every state and entity that has any democratic pretentions. It is even more serious in Nigeria because if anything, what Boko haram has revealed is the complete decay of the Nigerian public domain and, if truth be told, the crisis of legitimacy of the Nigerian state. For now, setting aside considerations of the complexities of the social and political context of the predicament of the young men ordered to be killed, in all the cases of the so-called mutinies, the force hierarchy, both in the case of the military and the police, was in the wrong. That is even when allowance is made for the harsh reality of life and the known privations of military regimentation. One cardinal rule for every commander or leader is that your officer is more than just a ward, or a disposable number. Your officer is your child and you stand in loco parentis. It is the responsibility of an officer to gain the confidence of his soldiers by sheer unwavering act of empathy especially in very difficult times such as this for the Nigerian soldier. The entrenched culture of wiping off people’s children in the name of a national campaign would lead Nigeria nowhere. This is what happens where there is no accountability, including for the lives under our care.
A salient puzzle: Is there any Nigerian, soldier or civilian, who can tell us the number of young lives snuffed out in our international interventions in Sierra Leone or Liberia? And how many millionaires were made within the military establishment and their civilian cohorts on account of those campaigns? It is the responsibility of the Minister of Defence to ensure that troops have the best equipment that the nation can afford, before signing on to campaign plans by the military. The Commander-in-Chief should personify at all times the burden and the weight of a national campaign that entails supreme sacrifice of the nation’s young men. The cavalier attitude of the political class and a cowered military hierarchy that is attuned to the dangerous political dance steps just so to get the next star on their epaulets does no credit to the credibility of the national army. In the memoirs of a very recent Secretary of State for Defence of the United States, he writes that he came to feel for the troops, and had an overwhelming sense of personal responsibility he developed for them. This was so much so that these shaped some of his most significant decisions. Towards the end of his tenure, he confessed that he could barely speak to the troops without being overcome by emotion. Those who must inevitably commit others to die in battles must be this empathic.
Watching the quotidian evolution of Nigeria’s national life, it is very easy to throw up our arms in a depressive surrender to the pervasive sheer wickedness. What about the very dishonest attributions of the Arewa Consultative Forum on responsibility for the state of the North. True, the international community, in particular the United States, has given a diagnostic of the Boko Haram phenomenon that is very convenient for its global strategic goals. Must we ourselves lose sight of the realities of why we are where we are. In Achebe’s parlance, must we fail to mark off where the rains started beating us? Just this week, we heard for the umpteenpth time excoriations from the national sage about the wages of impunity of a national leadership that has confirmed the “very worst of what external observers have concluded and despaired of – a culture of civic callousness, a coarsening of sensibilities and, a general human disregard”. These shrill declamations highlight the agony of an abused and a silent national society stuck in the Nigerian garrison. Let it be understood the condemnation of the 12 may be the trial of a decadent nation in the trails of its double jeopardy. I pray Obasanjo’s prophecy does not materialise on this score.