• Monday, April 15, 2024
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Okuama killings: Nigeria must tackle the roots of military-civilian conflicts

Urhobo groups say won’t participate in military-led board of inquiry

The incessant ambushing and killing of soldiers and policemen by civilian gangs in Nigeria is a sign of anarchy. When soldiers and policemen, symbols of state authority, become frequent targets of civilian attacks, it’s an indication that citizens are rebelling against the state and that the state lacks a monopoly on the use of organised violence within its territory. But unless the situation is controlled and contained, reprisal attacks could exacerbate long-standing local grievances and trigger a spiral of tit-for-tat killings—a dreadful state of affairs!

Read also: Vengeance or justice: What should the army pursue in Okuama?

Every decent Nigerian must be appalled by the recent killing of 17 soldiers, including four officers, in Okuama, Delta State, as well as six policemen in the state, and I pray for the repose of their souls and ask God to console their loved ones. But we must also ask the critical question: why does the situation exist in Nigeria? Why are military-civilian relations so bad that civilians frequently ambush and kill soldiers? Elsewhere, it’s almost taboo to criticise the military. This is not because there’s a law against doing so, but because, by convention, based on genuine respect for the military, people revere soldiers. For instance, in the US and the UK, there are countless charities established to support serving soldiers, veterans, and their families. But such public affections for the military and, indeed, the police hardly exist in Nigeria. Why?

I am always inspired by the motto of the London School of Economics: “Rerum cognoscere causas.” It’s Latin for “to understand the causes of things.” That’s the right approach to solving problems; you must first understand their causes. But Nigeria focuses on the symptoms of problems rather than their causes. For instance, the president, Bola Tinubu, condemned the Okuama killings as “unconscionable crime against the Nigerian people ” and gave the military “full authority” to bring the perpetrators to justice. He saw the problem only through the prism of retributive justice. Yet, the regularity of the ambushes and fatal attacks on Nigerian soldiers, not by Boko Haram terrorists but by people in otherwise peaceful but aggrieved communities, require more than condemnations and retributive justice. The situation calls for thoughtful consideration of the causes and the way forward.

So, what are the causes of the deteriorating military-civilian relations in Nigeria? Well, there are three main causes. First, Nigeria is not a nation. It is a state, but not truly a nation. It is hard to imagine citizens regularly ambushing and killing soldiers and policemen in a true nation. Second, even though Nigeria is a state, with all the paraphernalia of statehood, it is a fragile state. It lacks the capacity to tackle security threats from organised, non-state violence. And third, the military and the police have not endeared themselves to the Nigerian people. As a result, there is mutual distrust, even hostility, between them and many people who see them as oppressive agents of an unloved state. Let’s explore the three causes.

For instance, the president, Bola Tinubu, condemned the Okuama killings as “unconscionable crime against the Nigerian people ” and gave the military “full authority” to bring the perpetrators to justice.”

Take the first. Few appreciate this, but there’s a difference between a state and a nation. A state is a mere political entity with a settled population, a defined territory, a government, and instruments of coercion. But a nation is more than that. A nation has internal cohesion and stability because all its people have a sense of belonging and a strong sense of shared and undivided national identity. But Nigeria lacks nationhood; it lacks a centripetal force that pulls everyone towards unity; rather, it has a centrifugal force that pushes people towards disunity. Power is at the centre, while the core ethnic identities remain in the regions. However, in any country where there is a mismatch of power and identity, disharmony is inevitable. The central government won’t have legitimacy in the eyes of many people and can’t secure their voluntary compliance.

Read also: Okuama: Will Nigeria go to war with itself?

Here’s the truth. Aggrieved communities across Nigeria see the Nigerian state as responsible for their problems, yet it is far removed from them. There’s hardly any aggrieved community targeting their state government; rather, their target is the federal government. In the First Republic, people in the regions rarely blamed the centre for their problems. Why? Because the regions had significant responsibilities, and each region self-governed in its own concerns, Scholars posit that the solution to the mismatch or misalignment of power and identity is to move the structure of power towards the structure of identities. That means decentralising power and devolving it to regional governments. The Nigerian state is a symbol of grievances and hatred in communities across the country; Nigeria must restructure and devolve power to the regions.

The second problem, of course, is that, even though Nigeria is a political leviathan, it is a fragile state. Indeed, according to the Fragile State Index (2023), published by the Fund for Peace, Nigeria ranked 15th out of 179 countries, which means that it is extremely fragile—even more fragile than the Niger Republic, which ranked 21! One of the categories measured in the index is cohesion, which is divided into three sub-categories: security apparatus, factionalized elites, and group grievance. Expectedly, Nigeria performs poorly on all these elements. Of course, lack of security is at the heart of state fragility, and a key characteristic of a fragile state is that it can’t respond effectively to security challenges. So, here’s the question: how can Nigeria escape from the fragility trap and become an effective state? Well, truth be told, Nigeria can’t be an effective state unless it is a strong nation. That’s because state building requires nation-building.

Which brings us to the third problem: the failure of the military and the police to endear themselves to Nigerians. In their seminal report on state fragility, Professors Paul Collier and Tim Besley wrote: “Each interaction between the security forces and a citizen is a ‘teachable moment’ that either increases or reduces trust in government.” Sadly, interactions between the Nigerian security forces and civilians are terrible ‘teachable moments’ for the citizens, as they show an overbearing and oppressive state. As a result, such military-civilian interactions breed mistrust, even hatred, and not trust.

In their book Nigeria: What Everyone Needs to Know, John Campbell and Matthew Page wrote that the Nigerian military “sees collective punishment of civilian communities as a legitimate and effective military tactic.” And there are many examples of such heavy-handedness and such extreme overreaction, especially when civilians killed soldiers or policemen. In Odi in Bayelsa State (1999), hundreds of civilians were killed after locals killed some policemen, and in Zaki Biam in Benue State (2001), the army killed more than 100 civilians after civilian gangs killed some soldiers. What about the over 800 people killed in 2009 after a military crackdown on Mohammed Yusuf and his followers in Maiduguri or the massacre of more than 300 people in Zaria in 2015 after a clash between soldiers and members of the Shia sect? The truth is, such heavy-handedness only deepens hostilities; it doesn’t engender affection.

During the Arab Spring in the early 2010s, President Hosni Mubarak ordered soldiers to clamp down on the protesters, but they refused. As a result, Egyptians today see their military as protectors and friends. But the Nigerian military will readily suppress legitimate protests at the government’s orders and even brutalise and kill protesters, as they did during the #EndSARS protests. For many years, the US refused to sell military equipment to Nigeria, citing the military’s human rights abuses. A good military-civilian relationship can’t exist in such circumstances.

Read also: Deaths and garbled narratives at Okuama

So, Nigeria must tackle the worsening military-civilian conflicts at their roots. That means forging genuine nationhood, building an effective and functioning state, and reorienting the security forces to endear themselves to the people.

Happy Easter, dear readers!