A country at war with itself
The Christian Bible tells us that greater love has no man than this that a man lay down his life for his friends. How true! That is why people who opt to join the armed forces, whether in Nigeria or in any other country for that matter are very highly respected. Their show of gallantry in choosing to lay down their lives in defence of their country is something every citizen ought to respect. It’s never so easy to come by that kind of decision. For one thing, there will be opposition from parents,opposition from siblings and close relations like uncles and aunties and opposition from friends who don’t want to lose their own. Choosing to die for the country above all these other relationships is an option that every citizen should know is not so easy to adopt. And so, we must respect those who have taken that decision. Every good Nigerian should feel a sense of obligation to those sons and daughters of the land who have signed up to surrender their lives so that other citizens may live. No one can possibly have greater love than them.
Over the years, Nigeria has produced very many eminent soldiers who studied in the most prestigious military schools in Britain, America, India and Pakistan. The country has proudly participated in many peace keeping campaigns around the world but especially on the African continent. We should be very proud because of them. But, like Professor Patrick Lumumba would say, we will not stop there.
Today, as the election of a new Nigerian President or the confirmation of the continued stay of the current one heats up, we need once again to recollect the irony of that regrettable day, the 15th of January 1966, when the Nigerian army first struck and dislodged the fledgling democratic evolution of the country. It may have been a well intentioned plan to knock commonsense into the heads of the politicians of those days who had begun not only to ostentatiously display their wealth in public, but also to take a do-or-die stance in the politics of the country at the Western House of Assembly.
Everyone who is old enough to know the story saysthe army meant well. The problem was that by training and orientation, the army is structured toalways obey a hierarchical command. The army, as I have said before, is like a one-party government. Strict orders are issued from head to bottom and every member of the organisation is expected to fall in line. No arguments are allowed with superior officers.
On the other hand, democracy demands a shared value by people who have the same perception. Issues are debated if people have divergent views or opinions, and the opinion of the majority carries the day. So, essentially, the military is not sufficiently equipped to manage pluralistic societies such as Nigeria because of their training and orientation. That is the fact, and it has to guide Nigerian voters when they go to the polls in future.
After the army sacked the civilian government in 1966 and took over, it became difficult for them to return power to the civilians. They had tasted power. They had found it was ‘sweet’. To relinquish it became a problem. They had the guns, and that was important. What they needed was the guts. And that they schemed their way to have with all the military interventions that disrupted what could have been a smooth development of democratic norms in the country.
That 1966 coup, when the military invaded the political arena and toppled the democratically elected government of the people was characterised bysubsequent coups and countercoups that were spiced with a few years of civilian intervention here and there to cover up the grand design. It became difficult for Nigeria to have the real experience of true democratic evolution. By the army intervening in the political process, the voters who should always be the umpires were denied the opportunity to exercisetheir franchise at the polls to vote out the party that was not performing creditably and vote in a new party.
It is over fifty years, and for the majority of Nigerians the experience they have is like waking up on a bright morning to embark on a long journey andthen discover that despite the enormously brightsunlight, they still continue to hit their feet against huge stones every few steps they walk. Apart from the pain, or perhaps because of the pain, it will definitely take a longer time to arrive at theirdestination, very tired or even completely worn out.It is the same story as the journey of Nigeria as a country desirous to march boldly towards democratic dispensation.
In his book “Witness to Justice”, Bishop Matthew Kukah suggests that we may never know the real reason for the military intervention of 1966 and beyond. But obviously Nigerians do know. Even the bishop captured the reasons for that “ambitious” act of the military in 1966 in the same book.
The first was the lust for power on the part of the top military officers. The issue of being obsessed with absolute power has been dealt with by many writers. But in summary, when one is obsessed with the desire to acquire unbridled power, there are demands. First, the one becomes emotionally bereft. The quest for power first deprives one totally of any form ofemotion, and later it denies one of a conscience. At that point, one can do just about anything to remain “strong and relevant”. The second is the need to settle scores within military circles. The third, andperhaps the most compelling, is greed for material wealth. These are the main reasons the military has continuously found it necessary to wander from the barracks into the political forum.
As has been appropriately noted by many pundits, the taste of power is never relinquished without a fight. So, the moment the military tasted power in the political dispensation soon after the 1966 putsch, they felt the need to remain “relevant” in the scheme of things in the country. They institutionalised their form of rule from what they knew of British colonialadministrative policies and their one- party type of military training, capitalising on the vulnerability and inherent fears of indigenous communities.
That is why it seems that nothing is working in Nigeria today. That is why the government finds it difficult to call for a referendum, so that Nigerians can decide for themselves whether or not they still want to live together as one huge, united country or if the component parts want to go their separate ways because things have fallen apart and the centre cannot hold anymore. That is why the government has refused to address the lingering issue of resource control among federating states. That is why General Buhari says the unity of Nigeria is non-negotiable. In a proper democracy, it should be negotiable if any of the federating states feels it is no longer comfortable with the social or political arrangement in its current context. And that is why General Babangida postulates that the only way to ensure that the blood of millions of Nigerians who died as a result of the Nigerian civil war was not shed in vain was to keep the country together.
Anyone can understand this veiled logic. Nigeria remains one as long as it is unitary in administrative practice like a one-party government. Nigeria remains one as long as power is dispensed from Abuja. If you are a governor and your people say you are not performing, you run to Abuja and get military support and by the time anyone knows it, the military are performing snake dance right on your doorsteps, to forestall any action by scared voters.
As Bishop Kukah also noted, the failure of the military to effectively get the country on a proper footing in the democratic process and the arduous journey towards nation building was not necessarily because the military had no such intentions. It was not that the policies they adopted were skewed. It was not that there were no competent men and women in the country to implement those policies. The fact, and that is the truth that even the military should accept if their intention in Nigeria is genuine, is that by its very nature, the military and its institutions were never designed to manage pluralistic societies.
Nigeria happens to be one, with over 250 ethnic groups and 250 languages. The military establishment as an institution deals with order and unquestioning obedience. It deals with strict hierarchy and command control. These are diametrically opposed to the demands of democracy. Democracy in a pluralistic society such as Nigeria demands dialogue, collaboration, consensus and shared values. These are the component parts that create the favourable condition for integration and a common vision and mission, which in Nigeria’s case, is nation building.
After the military drew up a “constitution” for Nigeria in 1999, they imposed the document on Nigerians and asked for “elections”. Several civilian governments have come and gone and none has had the good will to map the road to true democracy in the country by abrogating the so-called constitution of 1999 and empowering the National Assembly to undertake the onerous duty of creating a proper constitution for the country, where federating states or zones are given complete autonomy over their resource control and development.
Nigeria is important to the world in many ways. They have produced so many special people – people like Adebayo Ogunlesi who bought three first class airports in the UK, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala who has just been appointed a director by Twitter, the paediatric surgeon, Professor Oluyinka Olutoye who made waves around the world after a successful rare surgery, and many more that no country can take Nigeria for granted.
And yet the citizens are complaining every day. Why?
The reason, I can imagine, is that the influence of the military has yet to leave the political arena, to enable true democracy evolve in Nigeria. That influence of one-party system of government is what informs the current situation where all power resides in Abuja and state governors carry their plates in hand to beg for Abuja allocation. Political leaders at state and local government levels are not encouraged to explore internally generated revenue sources. It is the same idea of a one-party system, where all authority comes from the Abuja Command and trickles down the states and local councils. So, we discover that while we talk democracy with our mouths, we are in actual fact trapped by a cleverly woven military dictatorship that has long become a cabal of exploiters of the Nigerian economy.
Even after the military have retired, they come into civilian life and vie for public offices. But as they say: “Once a soldier, always a soldier” and a leopard can never change the colour of its skin. These ex-soldiers still have their mates in the military and they blend with those of them in agbada to keep influencing the status quo.
While no one is under-estimating the importance of the military in defending the country from external aggression, it must be made clear to the military that they have no business in “creating” conditions for democracy or moderating its evolutionary pace. Their business should be limited to the defence of the country from external aggression, full stop.
The police should be allowed to do their duty of maintaining peace and order internally. If the Inspector General does not have enough policemen to secure the place, more policemen and women should be recruited. Nigeria has enough money to maintain a huge police force. But more importantly, surveillance cameras should also be put in place to deter criminal activities throughout the country.
This whole thing is so simple to fix if Nigerian leaders are not the greedy type and if those who remotely manipulate the system, especially the civil servants and the army can for once sit down and think deeply what would be the difference between the type of “democracy” the country has been saddled with over the past five decades and true democracy where only the voters are the umpires. If they vote in the wrong people, they bear the brunt of their foolishness for the next four years at most and if they vote in credible people they relish in the wisdom of doing so. If the performance of an elected government is so shoddy that the voters cannot tolerate it, they protest to the party that fielded him to get the public office holder out of the way or lose the next election. In such a way, the voter remains the ultimate force that determines the future of the country. That is democratic dispensation.
And I think that no matter how far we have wandered into the wilderness of misunderstanding as civilians, it is never too late to come back home. Whenever a civilian president is elected into office, he should summon the political will to call the top army officers and top civilians so that they can sit over this issue of army influence in the democratic evolution of the country. Should the army stay and influence the country internally or should they go and save the country only when there is an external aggression?
Nigerians must learn the ropes and work for true democracy as it is practised by those countries whichwere there before us. We must embrace the demands of true democracy and stop the impression we give to the world that we are a country at war with itself.
Mr Asinugo is a London-based journalist and publisher of Imo State Business Link Magazine (imostateblm.com)