• Thursday, July 25, 2024
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BusinessDay

The military’s past, present and future  

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In many western countries, it’s almost a taboo to criticise the military. There is no law against it, of course. But by convention, based on genuine respect for what they do, they are revered. Indeed, in the US, it burnishes your political image if you’re seen to be military-friendly, and hurts it if you’re not. Michelle Obama clearly won more support for her husband’s second-term bid with her initiative, “Joining Forces”, which mobilises public support for US service members, veterans, and their families. In the UK, there are countless military veterans’ charities, and political leaders and the general public are often effusive in their support for the military. Even in Africa, the Egyptian military is well-liked by most Egyptians, viewed as protectors and friends of the people.
By contrast, the Nigerian military has rarely enjoyed public affection. Why is this so? Well, part of the answer lies in the attitude of the average Nigerian soldier and partly in the role the military has played in Nigeria’s national life. At the individual level, the military hasn’t been very good at building healthy relations with the civilian population. Military courtesy is legendary, but it’s hardly extended to “bloody civilians”. The military’s “first-among-equals” mentality often alienated it from the people. Instances of soldiers physically abusing civilians were common. Even senior officers had no qualms using their military might in any dispute with civilians. And when dealing with insurgency or militancy, the military often failed to protect the civilian population, and sometimes brutalised them, as in the “Odi massacre”. The point here is that, even individually, the military has not endeared itself to the people. It has often been more feared than loved!
Things got worse at the institutional level. Of course, we must remain eternally grateful to them for keeping this country together during the civil war. But, apart from fighting the war, the military’s overall contribution to Nigeria’s national life has been unimpressive. Between 1966 and 1999, there were several military coups; the military overthrew a civilian administration twice (1966 and 1983); and overturned the will of the people by annulling the 1993 presidential election. To be fair, militarism thrives on political instability, and on the two occasions the military seized power from civilians, they rode on the crest of a wave of popular support. But each time the soldiers came to “save” the country, they left it worse than they met it; they became more corrupt than the government they overthrew, and destroyed the social fabrics of the nation.
But if the military’s past wasn’t that noble, bar the bright spot of their civil war gallantry, what about their present, since returning to the barracks in 1999? Well, we should again give credit where it’s due. That Nigeria has enjoyed 16 years of uninterrupted civil rule is a credit to the military’s subordination to civilian control. However, while they remain in the barracks, recent events suggest they still exercise background, and sometimes overt, influence in the polity. For instance, not only were the general elections postponed on their say-so, the INEC chairman said recently that “only the service chiefs can guarantee whether the rescheduled elections would hold”? Surely, the conclusion must be that the military is exercising veto power in the system.
There is also the damaging perception that the military is conflating subordination to civilian control with being in cahoots with politicians. Of course, the saying is that “the soldiers only do what the politicians tell them”. But there is always a line in the sand. Some recent events suggest the line is being crossed. For instance, the deployment of soldiers in elections for political purposes crosses that line. No credible democracy uses soldiers to conduct elections. It’s also deeply concerning when military officers hold secret meetings with politicians of one party in relation to an election, as alleged in the Ekiti case. This compromises the military, and undermines democracy.
Certainly, the Defence Headquarters (DHQ) also crossed the political line with its recent response to former President Obasanjo’s criticism of the military’s role in the elections. Both in language and in tone, that statement dripped with political venom. It’s hard to avoid the impression that it was written by politicians and given to the DHQ to publish as their own. But if the DHQ actually wrote the statement itself, then military officers must have hung around the political salon far too long to understand the political lingoes. Of course, the military had the right to respond to Obasanjo’s allegations, but they went too far in doing so, with a very political statement.
This was the same DHQ that couldn’t stand up for another retired general, Buhari, who was called a “semi-literate jackboot”, and whose school certificate qualification was called into question. Did it not occur to the DHQ that the certificate saga was an insult to the military? What level of military training is “equivalent” (the word used in the Constitution) to a school certificate? Even a 2nd Lt should feel offended by the insinuation. It’s hard to imagine a retired Egyptian general or a retired Israeli general being described as a semi-literate jackboot, or having their basic education questioned. But compare the DHQ’s hard-hitting response to Obasanjo’s criticism to its noncommittal and almost apologetic response on Buhari’s certificate issue. The barely disguised politics won’t be lost on many!
Yet, there are far more serious issues to worry the military. The spread and daringness of the Boko Haram insurgents have exposed the military’s offensive and defensive weaknesses. Of course, we must support the on-going foreign-backed offensive against the insurgents, but lest we forget that the insurgency is six years old. Obsolescence of ideas, equipment and training is the Achilles heel of the armed forces anywhere. And if truth be told, the Nigerian military suffers chronic and acute deficiencies in these areas. Successive governments have failed to build military capacity, although it’s also true that the military top brass have mishandled equipment and supplies, and even budget. The military is a powerful interest group worldwide, but elsewhere military chiefs are concerned with the health of the armed forces, and not partisan politics. They lobby for better equipment and training.
To be sure, the future of the military lies in modernisation and professionalism. Certainly, there are domestic triggers, including the need for a well-equipped, well-trained and combat-ready military that can protect the country and its people. But Nigeria also has global ambitions. For instance, it wants to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council, whose mandate is military security. Yet, the two countries, Egypt and South Africa, with which Nigeria is likely to compete for the African seat, are militarily stronger. According to Global Fire Power, Egypt has the most powerful military in Africa; South Africa the 4th, and Nigeria the 5th. But when you consider the defence budgets of these countries, Nigeria is nowhere near the two on per capita basis.
In his 1984 book, ‘Middle Powers in International Politics’, Carsten Holbraad listed Nigeria among 18 “middle powers” in the world, using 1975 data on military and economic strengths, among other metrics. Today, even though Nigeria is Africa’s largest economy and the world’s 26th, few will regard it as a middle power based on its military strength.
Yet, Nigeria needs a military that can guarantee its security and stability, and that matches its global ambitions. Only a strong, professional and politically neutral military will serve this vital national interest.
Olu Fasan