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OPINION… Okuama: Use and abuse of the Army

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OPINION: Buhari’s presidency at Nigeria’s expense [1]

Will it not be preposterous to expect the security agencies, especially the armed forces, not to reflect the character of the larger Nigerian society? Members of the armed forces, soldiers in this instance, are not drawn from the outer space. They are our fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, cousins, uncles, aunties, sons, daughters and sundry relations. So it willbe foolhardy to expect them to be markedly different from the rest of us their trainings, exposures, associations and worldviews not withstanding. If ever there was a period we had soldiers who were professional, patriotic and detribalised, that era went with the Nigeria-Biafra civil war of 1967-1970. The military coup of 1966 and the counter coup ofthesame year injected bad blood and deep mistrust into the army. The subsequent civil war dealt a mortal blow on our armed forces. The end of the war in 1970 ensured that the composition of the armed forces became lopsided with the winners assuming dominant positions and commanding heights of the once national institution. This was in spite of the slogan of ‘no victors, no vanquished’. There were winners. There were losers. That was the reality then. That is still the reality today, 54 long years after that war. The physical and human tolls of the war are written all over a particular section of the Nigerian landscape in spite of our pretext to the contrary.

That is no surprise because our country is adept at playing the ostrich-burying its head in the sand. On the physical side the former Eastern region and especially the Igbo nation which bore the brunt of the devastations of the bloody war is still grappling with poor infrastructure; refusal by the winners who became the rulers to rebuild damaged public utilities; presence of unexploded ordinances which pose clear and present danger to indigenes and residents; dispossession of the defeated through the 20 Pounds policy and the weird concept of ‘abandoned property’ in parts of the country; exclusion of the losers from economic activities by the hurried implementation of the Indigenization Policy immediately after the war. This policy ensured the transfer of the ownership of multinational companies from foreigners to Nigerians excluding the Igbo. Fifty-four years since the war the unwritten state policy of excluding the Igbo from critical sectors of the society continues unabated. The Igbo nation is still under-represented in the armed forces, the Police Force and other security agencies. It has gotten to the point that the Igbo now deliberately exclude themselves from the recruitment processes into the army, the navy, the air force, the police, the secret police and the para-military organizations including the immigration and the customs. The Igbo youth prefer to stay out of these organizations given the notorious stories of their elders who are brazenly deprived of promotions and seniority, who face premature retirement after prolonged stagnation on the ladder, denial of training opportunities and sundry frustrations.

A typical Igbo youngster loathes Nigeria’s security agencies. This distrust has not been helped by the activities of the operatives of the security agencies in the East. To the best of my knowledge, it’s only in the Igbo nation that travellers including the aged and the infirm are compelled to disembark from their commercial and private vehicles, save the driver, raise their hands in a humiliating show of surrender to pass through army checkpoints. If this sounds like a wicked and unfounded tale, go to the army checkpoint in front of the Cathedral Church of Emmanuel [Anglican Communion] in Mgbidi, Oru West Local Government Area of Imo state. The act of humiliating Igbo and other travellers on that axis, l must say, started at the army checkpoint in front of Abbot Boys Secondary School in Ihiala, Anambra state. The profiling and extortion of the Igbo by the Nigerian security agencies is a common place daily experience on the Sagamu-Benin-Onitsha highway. Checkpoints by the police, civil defence, army, small arms unit, road safety and other uniformed persons are uncountable, literally speaking.

The checkpoints are all toll plazas. The contention that other Nigerians use same highway and so are subjected to the same torture will not pass the smell test because the experience is that once the vehicles going to other places veeroff that notorious expressway, their horror experience will drastically reduce or even vanish. How will any Igbo young man ever feel safe to join an agency that humiliates his people andthat will ultimately frustrate him? So the state policy of the exclusion of the Igbo and theIgbo self exclusion will continue to deprive Nigeria’s security agencies of the essential national outlook required to build trust.

READ ALSO:OPINION: Who exactly is after Tinubu’s job?

The Igbo experience of mistrusting operatives of the country’s security agencies applies in varying degrees to other nationalities in Nigeria especially in the South. And this mistrust would partly explain what happened in Okuama in Delta state on March 14when 16 soldiers including their commanding officer were killed allegedly by some youths of that community. The events that led to that sad incident are many and varied. The army said the day after that: “The troops from 181 Amphibious Battalion deployed in the Bomadi region, had responded to the conflict in the Okuama community when they were killed on Thursday”. Army spokesman Brig-Gen. Tukur Gusau said in a statement that a “reinforcement team led by the commanding officer was also attacked, leading to the death of the commanding officer, two majors, one captain and 12 soldiers”. However, a community leader from the area, Olorogun Sleek Oshare said the country wasted 16 soldiers to mere land dispute between two families. Speaking on national television he said “the quarrel was just a land dispute between one family and another family and land dispute happen over and over again.

One community felt that the other had a military connection and [that] they were being pressured unnecessarily. The pressure is more on Okuama and they don’t have anybody to speak for them”. Oshare identified the other communityin the dispute as Okoloba. There are other versions of what led to the tragedy including alleged reprisal attacks that led to deaths and destruction in Okuama. We recognize that truth is the first casualty in any war or conflict. The parties in dispute will necessarily stretch the truth to vindicate their role in the saga. Andto make the other party look bad. Given that we operate in a trust and truth-deficit country, we may yet struggle to unravel the real causes of the disaster in Okuama. Getting to the core of this matter should ordinarily benefit Nigeria in guarding against a recurrence. But our rulers are not known for drawing lessons from past experiences to shape the future.

But whatever the case, to lose a colonel and two majors in Okuama was a tragedy of immense proportion. Whatever turns out to be the true narrativemay not matter so much becauseour soldiers are routinely being abused and diminished by the government. The army is not known to be a peace making body.Sothe story by the army spokesman that they were on a peace mission was curious and should be troubling. And the claim by a community leader that our soldiers died while intervening in a land dispute between two families[or even between two communities] is a scandal if it were to be the truth. Squabbles over land? It better not be, otherwise the superior officers who authorized the mission should face a court marshal.

This could sound insensitive but what happened in Okuama will recur for as long as our soldiers are flimsily deployed for all manner of operations. Nigeria is not at war, at least not officially. But reports in the public space have it that the operatives of the armed forces are currently deployed for missions in more than 30 states of the country’s 36 states. The sight of a soldier is now common place in our country. Your co-passenger inside a commercial vehicle could be a soldier in full military gear and wielding an assault rifle to boot. There is little or no reverence for a soldier and we are no longer awe-struck by his presence. In Nigeria the typical soldier cutsthe picture of ‘see finish’ or a very ordinary folk. Ideally the return to civil rule [democracy] about 25 years ago should have led to the retreat of the military to their barracks. But no. Soldiers are everywhere in the country-in every state, on the streets, inside our commercial buses, in our neighbourhoods-and in their military uniforms. They are used for police duties. They areused as escorts to our so-called VIPs. They mount road blockswhere they collect bribes openly. They are used to intimidate, maim, brutalize and kill innocent citizens through ‘operation python dance’ and ‘operation crocodile smile’ and any other operations that their leaders can conjure. Sometimes, the soldiers themselves find personal jobs including debt recovery and taking sides in spousalquarrels. The state of the army is not enviable. Indeed, it is pathetic, pitiable and worrisome. But it actually reflects the state and shape of our country-beleaguered,disjointed, dishevelledand benighted.

AUTHOR: UGO ONUOHA


Articles published in our Graffiti section are strictly the opinion of the writers and do not represent the views of Ripples Nigeria or its editorial stand.

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