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Let me begin this article with a secret: I love the military profession. When I was younger I tried joining the army as a private soldier (recruit) but my folks, especially Mum, would not hear of it. As a relatively fresh university graduate I tried to sign up as a short service officer but somehow it did not work out. I even tried for the Air Force as an airman but no way. Till date I read books that relate to military history, tactics, guns, espionage and related matters like no man's business. No matter what anyone may say, I refuse to accept that God says I am not destined to wear a military uniform in my lifetime. It need not be that of the Nigerian Armed Forces. Anyway, that is not the substance of this piece.

I only went into this background to help readers understand why I hold the Armed Forces Remembrance Day so dear to my heart. To most Nigerians it is an empty ritual; there is no love lost between the average non-military Nigerian and his uniformed compatriot. Our past under military rulers only heightened this animosity between them. So when you talk about the Nigerian military as heroes who give their all for their fellow Nigerians, it does not sink in. Perhaps only the recent onslaughts by terrorist groups which have called upon the lives and limbs of the Nigerian military in a way nothing has since the civil war may drive home the point that these uniformed people are our last line of defence.

There are a lot of historical and contemporary factors responsible for the yawning and sad gulf between the Nigerian military and civilians. Historically, the Nigerian armed forces were forged as anti-people forces. What we know as the Nigerian Army has its roots in the Hausa Constabulary formed by the British in 1863 to police and protect the colonial master's interests. Subsequently, under Frederick Lugard who set up the West African Frontier Force to fight against those West African chiefs opposing colonial expansion and secure the ambit of the Royal African Company the imperialists had taken control of as controllers of what we now call the Niger Delta, there was the Nigerian Regiment. Historical records indicate that the Nigerians fought with distinction in the Force's campaigns. In those days the Nigerian component was overwhelmingly made up of Northern boys.

The Army evolved with the skewered evolution of the Nigerian state. In 1956 the Nigerian Regiment of the Royal West African Frontier Forces was renamed the Nigerian military forces. Control of the military passed from the British to the Nigerian Government in 1958. In 1956 the Nigerian Navy was established while the Air Force was set up with German assistance in 1964.

Time and space do not permit in-depth analysis of these bare facts but I will briefly point out the underlying currents that bolster the 'separateness' between the uniformed and non-uniformed components of the Nigerian society:

Our military were set up by colonial masters to promote and enforce colonial interests at the expense of the people. They were invaders who left trails of sorrow, tears and blood. They did not begin life as 'our' army; our boys. The British used the Nigerian components of the Force to raze Benin in 1897, subdue Igbo land from 1901-2, unseat stubborn Emirs in the North and seize the palm oil resources of the Niger Delta. Compare that with the campaigns of their modern descendants in Umuchem, Rivers State; the anti-MOSOP war; Odi, Zaki Biam, and the Abacha-era operations. Such a legacy does not create a forum for rapport between our military and civilians.

The non-subordination of our Armed Forces to constituted, legitimate authority. Agreed, the history of our civilian governments does not honestly indicate that they derive their being from the people, but that does not justify the military becoming lords to themselves. If the Nigerian Armed Forces had not become infested by the coup virus, perhaps Nigerians would have learned how to better manage the political space. In fairness, there were times when the civilians so messed up things that Nigerians thought the military would save us. In retrospect that was a wrong notion; both for us and the military. I call upon students of Nigerian coups from 1966 to 1997 to learn that the uniformed men, for all their idealism (e.g. the Ifeajuna/Nzeogwu coup ) and ethnic hegemonyism (e.g. the Babangida coup ) would have not have fired a shot without solid overt and covert civilian blessing and backing. But then the military broke from the British military tradition of subordination to civilian and democratic authority and learnt they could enjoy the perks of power. The consequences were dire: loss of professionalism in the Armed Forces; decimation of the country's best and brightest officers in fierce power struggles within the military; destruction of the command structure and its attendant repercussions; national instability generated by the force that should have stabilized it; a civil war we are yet to understand, let alone fully recover from; acute loss of prestige of the military in civilian eyes; and exposure of sheer military brutality to civilians.

The closed system of the Nigerian military is also at the heart of the lacuna between them and other Nigerians. While I am not advocating that we bare our security secrets in the name of building bridges, yet even the Americans, in this era of high-pressure terrorist wars against implacable enemies, do not shut their citizens out. There are books by both civilians and military on Special Forces units of the American and British Forces such as the Special Air Service (SAS) and SEALS. There are road shows in which the military showcase what they do and how they do it to their citizens. Agreed, these measures need not be strictly applied in Nigeria. Besides, the societies are not the same; the military antecedents and challenges faced are different. But the Nigerian military should win the people's hearts and minds by moving away from the unwholesome aspects of their history. Why must a fellow citizen be a 'bloody' civilian just because he does not wear a uniform?

In spite of all these, the members of our Armed Forces are doing a vital job here and in those countries where they keep the peace under the auspices of the UNO, AU, and ECOWAS. I never cared much about the deeds of our military during the civil war; the Armed Forces, in my view, were an instrument of unnecessary murder. Perhaps I hold that view because I am from the area that made up the secessionist enclave of Biafra; Biafra's woes may have biased me to the roles of the Nigerian Army. But in retrospect it was not the job of the average Nigerian soldier to make policy but carry it out on the battlefield. The jury might still be out on whether they did well by keeping us as one but the impacts of the modus operandi adopted are still with us.

Contemporary challenges bedevil our military. The soldiers are our sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, etc. My soldier brother-in-law is on a tour of duty in Northern Nigeria, proximate to Boko Haram heartland. Do we pray for them, in spite of their individual and institutional shortcomings? Have you asked yourself how you can fight a sophisticated guerrilla insurgency restricted by international conventions that come close to telling you to tell the terrorist before aiming your gun at him? How do you fight for a government with rudderless anti-terrorism policies? How do you go out to die for a people who do not care, unsure whether your entitlements and pension will get to your dependents if an Improvised Explosive Device blows your head off during a search and rescue mission? How do you die for fat cats when your family live in pigsties miscalled barracks?

So as we go about our lives let us stop to sincerely thank our living and dead uniformed men and women. They deserve it, imperfect though they are.

Henry C. Onyema is a writer and historian. Email: [email protected]

Disclaimer: "The views/contents expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of Henry Chukwuemeka Onyema and do not necessarily reflect those of The Nigerian Voice. The Nigerian Voice will not be responsible or liable for any inaccurate or incorrect statements contained in this article."

Articles by Henry Chukwuemeka Onyema