Military shake up: Matters arising

Dan Ali

Dan Ali

As the institution responsible for the defence of Nigeria’s territorial integrity, the Nigerian military has always appropriated a significant space in the democratic debate. Across sectors, there is a groundswell of conversations about how to ensure that the men and women, who bear arms to defend the nation, imbibe utmost professionalism. While there are several dimensions of the much talked about need for professionalism, the key component of discipline, which includes, subjection to civilian control, remains critical.

For many, reforms and renewal in the military become imperative on account of the familiar history of the institution as well as the political dynamics, since the return to democracy. Before Nigeria navigated towards becoming a democracy in 1999, the military had made several incursions into the democratic space, stunting the growth of popular governance, based on the free will and direct consent of the people. As several students of Nigeria’s development trajectory would point out, the military regimes, which presented themselves as corrective interveners, ended up doing more damage to the national soul. The culture of impunity and systemic corruption, which currently underlie Nigeria’s crisis of governance are some of the negative effects of prolonged military occupation of the political space. These were some of the realities, which for instance confronted President Olusegun Obasanjo in 1999, when he took the reins.

One fundamental issue President Obasanjo had to deal was how to insulate the military, which had within its ranks, officers who had tasted the opium of political power, from further interfering in the political space. Obasanjo reckoned that the first way to diffuse the unhealthy influence of the military in the political arena was to send officers who had been too close to the corridors of political power into retirement. So in one fell swoop, within two weeks after he took office on May 29, 1999, the former President ended the careers of 116 military officers, who had held political offices since 1985.

In that sweep, former Military Governors of Nigeria’s 36 states, as well as former ministers and chairmen of board and agencies, who were military men lost their jobs. Obasanjo also fired Major-General Patrick Aziza, chairman of the military tribunal that convicted him of complicity in the 1995 coup against the late dictator General Sani Abacha. Officially, however, these moves were explained as measures taken to ensure the permanent subordination of the military to civil authority. It was stressed that the move to retire the officers was to achieve a clean break from the years of military incursion into politics.

Down the line, however, the reasoning that sacking military officers, who engage in political flirtation, would serve as deterrence, and strengthen professionalism, has not proved to be the case. The ascendant political elite in the post-1999 era routinely dragged the military into the partisan arena. Intermittently therefore, the separation of the military’s role as defenders against external aggression was mixed up with several internal policing roles.

The military therefore continued to wield enormous influence in domestic politics. This would be gleaned from such nebulous assignments as policing the electoral environment during polls. This has made the military targets of real and imagined allegations of partisanship, and interference with the democratic process.

Similar to what President Obasanjo did immediately he took power, President Muhammadu Buhari has begun the process of reshaping the military using his own prism of what a professional armed forces should be. This latest intervention is not unexpected given the historic shift, which saw the Nigerian electorate vote out the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in the Presidential election of March 28, 2015.

Whether by design or coincidence, the military demonstrated enormous influence in determining the direction of the electoral process. At the time, Buhari was an outsider within the power structure, and he could merely complain as those who controlled the military pushed it into the partisan arena.

For instance, the Army, the institution that propelled Buhari to national prominence suddenly claimed it could not find his credentials, thereby playing into the main narrative of the PDP that candidate Buhari was not qualified to vie for the office of President in the first place. In the heat of the political environment, it may be reckoned that the military at the time was between the proverbial rock and a hard place. It could however have communicated in a nuanced way to dispel charges of partisanship.

Similarly, after the then National Security Adviser, Colonel Sambo Dasuki (rtd) alluded to the need to postpone the 2015 general election during a lecture in Chatham House in the UK, the service chiefs followed up with a letter to the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).

In the correspondence, they pointedly told INEC that they could not guarantee security for the elections, and therefore, called for the postponement of the polls. Many analysts saw that move as a coup against democracy. By that singular action, the military had fully jumped into the political arena in a manner that put them at variance with the democratic aspirations of Nigerians. Instead of showing their hand in the titanic political struggle that was on at the time, they could have allowed civil authorities make the explanations about the reasoning behind the calls for the shift of the polls.

Perceptions were, therefore, rife that the military was used to buy more time to steady the then incumbent’s floundering bid for re-election. Beyond the justification for reforms in the military on account of the descent into the political arena, the inability to tame the deadly Boko Haram insurgency in the North East, pointed at a serious decline.

It was a serious blow to national pride that Nigeria’s famed military power, which was distinguished in several parts of the globe during peacekeeping operations, was taking a serious beating from a bunch of fanatics.

The terrorists became so audacious to the point of establishing a Caliphate right in the heart of Nigeria and upending Nigerian sovereignty in 14 Local Governments Areas. There are also allegations that the military aided the PDP to win the June 2014 governorship election in Ekiti State, following which there were investigations and dismissals. Preventing such serious breaches in the future definitely meant that there was bound to be an inquest into how things degenerated so fast for the giant of the African continent.

With the revelations that have come to the fore about how funds meant to equip the security forces ended up in the pockets of the top military brass, it became apparent why the military was incapacitated in the fight against the insurgency. For a new administration, it would clearly not have been tenable to assume all is well and allow the structure, which produced such disastrous outcomes, remain. This is the background to which the Buhari administration is anchoring the ongoing retooling of the military.

However, as the government goes about clearing the rubble, the question being asked by citizens is: how does it intend to do it in a transparent and fair manner, such that it does not open itself up to allegations of vendetta. The simple approach to is to clearly communicate to the public and give those involved the right to fair hearing. No matter how noble the intentions of the government are with the exercise, without clear communication and the application of the principles of natural justice, the perceptions would remain that the whole move is about getting even with those within the military perceived to have opposed Buhari’s quest for the Presidency.

Consequently, the ongoing process must grapple with how to position the military such that it is no longer susceptible to the whims of power elite who in their desperation tend to always drag the military into the partisan arena. Added to this, is the record of the military in dealing with skirmishes involving civilians. The brute force with which the Army responded to troublesome Shiite Muslims in Zaria, resulting in the killing of hundreds, call for a serious re-evaluation of the rules of engagement. So too is the bloody outcome from the encounter between the Army and protesting youths clamouring for Biafra recently in Onitsha.

It is important therefore to note that as the administration goes about the task of reforming the military, it must do so with the goal of making it a professional force that respects the human rights of all Nigerians, including the right to life. This is the only way to sustain genuine reforms and make it clear that the ongoing changes are not about evening scores with perceived adversaries.

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