Nigerians groan under undue influence of soldiers in Jonathan’s civilian administration
A DECADE and a half after Nigeria returned to democratic rule, the people are still reeling under the jackboot of soldiers across the country. From Lagos to Kaduna, Odi to Badagry and Jos to Enugu, the people have one or two sad tales to tell about their unpleasant experience with the men in uniform.
And for most Nigerians, the fear of the military has suddenly become the beginning of wisdom. Those who refused to imbibe this all-important ‘law’ either did not live to tell the story or are currently carrying the scars of their defiance.
Perhaps, it was in reverence of this ‘law’ that the people of Okrika in Rivers State are currently protesting against the plan by the Jonathan administration to draft soldiers to provide security for oil pipelines in their community. They are asking that policemen be drafted instead of soldiers whose excesses they had witnessed in different parts of the country in recent times.
Nigerians who thought that they had seen the worst the military could do in a civilian setting after the invasion of Odi and Zaki Biam, two communities in Bayelsa and Benue states, during the Obasanjo administration are beginning to have a rethink after the excesses that soldiers have exhibited under the Jonathan administration.
Not even children are spared of the terror that soldiers have been unleashing on the civilian population. A parent, who asked not to be named, told the story of Thelma, her five-year old daughter and Nursery One pupil of a popular private primary school in Lagos.
Thelma’s mother said: “I noticed that my five-year-old girl had suddenly developed a serious phobia for uniformed men, particularly if they were carrying a weapon. She would cry and cringe at the sight of a soldier or a policeman.
“On one occasion, she started crying when she noticed that a military vehicle was coming behind ours. She asked me to park the car and allow the soldiers to overtake us and go away. As I continued to wonder what the matter was with my girl, I suddenly remembered an encounter she had had with soldiers a few weeks earlier.
“It was a beautiful afternoon and I was taking her home when we came across a pick-up van occupied by some soldiers. We were already close to the gates of our house when some gun trotting soldiers jumped down from the siren-blowing vehicle and descended on a commercial bus driver whose offence was that he hesitated in making way for them.
“In our presence, the soldiers beat the hapless commercial bus driver black and blue. My poor daughter clung to me and wailed as the beating continued. I think it was also because she saw that there was confusion and everybody was trying to run away. Since that day, she frets and cries each time she sees a policeman or a soldier.”
After 15 years of civil rule many men and officers of the Nigerian Army appear yet to come to terms with their primary role of defending the nation’s territorial integrity. Hence, rather than halt Boko Haram’s steady annexation of the North East, they would rather dissipate their energy on hounding the political opponents of President Goodluck Jonathan, impounding the circulation vans of influential newspapers, setting government-owned buses ablaze and generally harassing and assaulting innocent civilians.
Terror in Lagos
About three weeks ago, some soldiers unleashed terror on defenseless civilians at the Onipanu section of Ikorodu Road, Lagos, after a soldier who was riding a motorcycle on the BRT lane exclusively reserved for Lagos State Government-owned public buses, was allegedly knocked down by one of the buses.
For several hours, motorists who happened to be on the road at the time found themselves at the mercy of rampaging soldiers who immediately launched a destructive protest against the death of their colleague. They set scores of the expensive buses ablaze and harassed poor civilians who were going about their normal business. The crisis also caused a snarl of traffic on the Ikorodu Expressway and left thousands of commuters stranded.
The incident, described by the governor of Lagos State, Babatunde Fashola, SAN, as unfortunate, would later be denied by the army authorities who blamed the mayhem on ‘area boys’. However, the claims made by the military were not helped eyewitnesses accounts of the incident as well as media pictures of soldiers in the heat of action.
Before the Onipanu incident, residents of Badagry, also in Lagos State, had had a bloody encounter with soldiers. In a trend that is fast becoming the norm, soldiers who claimed to be avenging the death of their colleague who was allegedly killed by the police at a checkpoint descended on the community, killing two senior police officers and six other innocent civilians.
According to eyewitnesses, the crisis started when a soldier who was riding on a motorcycle was accused by the police of contravening traffic rules. Unfortunately, the soldier was allegedly killed in the struggle that ensued as the police tried to arrest him. Realising that the victim, who was said to be in mufti, was a soldier, and fearing that his colleagues could come on reprisal attack, the policemen hurriedly removed their uniforms and abandoned all the checkpoints in the area as well as the police stations in the town.
The fears of the policemen were soon confirmed as soldiers stormed some police stations in the area after barricading the roads in search of policemen. While answering a call for a meeting to resolve the crisis, a Divisional Police Officer (DPO) and his Divisional Crime Officer (DCO) were allegedly ambushed by some soldiers who opened fire on them.
For three consecutive days recently, newspaper houses were the butt of assault by soldiers who claimed to be acting on orders from above. In a Gestapo-like operation, soldiers swooped on circulation vehicles of major national newspapers, particularlyThe Nation, and confiscated the newspapers. Authorities of the Nigerian Army would later claim that the soldiers were searching for weapons; a claim most Nigerians took with a pinch of salt.
Last week, soldiers allegedly killed some members of the group of fiery preacher, El-Zakzaky, including three of his biological children after a procession in Zaria, Kaduna State.
According to sources, the sect were in procession to mark the annual Quds day when they clashed with soldiers at the popular PZ roundabout in the ancient city, resulting in the death of the sons of the Shiites leader and four others.
The crisis was said to have started when the soldiers tried to disperse a procession where members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria denounced Israel’s aggression against the people of Gaza.
But an even more dangerous trend is the misuse of soldiers by the authorities to intimidate perceived enemies. Many observers considered the use of soldiers in the June 21 governorship election in Ekiti State as particularly troubling, especially considering the fact that the soldiers were drafted to do a job that was primarily preserved for the police.
According to reports, days before the election, the soldiers took over major streets and towns in the state. To announce their presence, they drove round the state in commando-like fashion; a sure sign to the defenceless civilians to give way for whatever was to come. And while representatives of the Federal Government, including the governorship candidate of the People’s Democratic Party, Ayodele Fayose, were accompanied by soldiers everywhere they went, members of the opposition were hunted and hounded by the same soldiers.
Not even opposition governors have been spared the punishing acts of soldiers. Edo State governor, Adams Oshiohole, was told by soldiers that his chopper was not allowed to fly because of orders from above. After a few exchanges with soldiers at the airport, the governor, who was billed to attend an APC governorship rally in Ekiti State, had to return to his office in Benin.
Also, soldiers stationed between Akure, the capital of Ondo State, and Ado-Ekiti, the capital of Ekiti State, prevented Governor Rotimi Amaechi of Rivers State from reaching the political rally of his Ekiti State counterpart, Dr. Kayode Fayemi. In fact, soldiers stationed at the boundary between Ekiti and Ondo states reportedly threatened to shoot Amaechi dead if he did not heed their warning not to step into Ekiti State for the rally.
Another aircraft that was bringing Governor Rabiu Kwankwaso from Kano was denied landing rights at the Akure airport. The soldiers reportedly told both governors that they had no clearance to attend the Fayemi’s rallies.
The President,Women Arise & Campaign for Democracy (CD), Dr. Joe OkeiOdumakin believes that recent activities of soldiers in the polity, particularly the harassment of civilians in a supposed democratic government is a clear reflection of our inability as a nation to get over the jackboot mentality which necessitates such behaviours.
She said: “These actions are quite condemnable. It is a dangerous signal, especially to the younger generation of Nigerians who are being made to believe that we have transited from the era of military to a civilian regime.
“It is therefore a clarion call on the authorities to ensure that nobody is allowed to behave as if they are above the law of the land and ensure necessary punishment whenever our laws are violated irrespective of who is involved.”
Constitutional lawyer and former Head of Law Department, University of Benin, Prof. Itse Sagay, says he is worried about the activities of soldiers in a democratic setting like ours.
Sagay said: “Two things have struck me recently about the activities of the military, even though I am not an expert in military or armed forces issues. One is the weakness of the military in fighting Boko Haram, which is not formally trained. I don’t understand why Boko Haram go to the villages in the North East every day and kill people while we have a standing army.
“What happened in Lagos recently when the military went wild shows gross indiscipline. People who should be in Sambisa Forests were seen in urban area unleashing terror on the people. It creates a negative picture and I am anxious.
“The military should be redirected to face their real duty. They have really abandoned their real duty. I blame the government for using them for elections. Their presence in Ekiti was uncalled for. It was an opportunity to promote the fortunes of the government in power.”
Condemning soldiers’ repeated attacks on hapless civilians in a democratic setting, another respected lawyer, Chief Ladi Williams, SAN, said: “The armed forces have a commander-in-chief in the President. He is to use them to protect lives and property of Nigerians. They should not be used for anything contrary. The moment anybody uses them for anything contrary, we would be having a serious problem to deal with.
“When an order is given and it is manifestly wrong, the military should ignore it and always remember what their role in the society is. They are not meant to be used for election purposes and all that.
“I believe the military still has its integrity intact, but they should not allow anybody to use them for anything contrary to what they have pledged their loyalty to do for the country.”
Another constitutional lawyer, Fred Agbaje, said: “The military, traditionally and constitutionally, is supposed to defend the territorial integrity of the country against external aggression.
“In a democracy, the role of the military is conspicuously silent because the police take the centre stage anywhere in the world. It is in rare cases that the President will go through the National Assembly to call out the military, particularly when a part of the nation is having challenges as we currently have it in the North East.
“Other than this, to me as a constitutional lawyer, it is the
height of intellectual aridity. It is wrong and totally condemnable
for the military to invade media houses, used as election monitors or to quell riots. It is an aberration constitutionally and a thorough
violation of the principle of rule of law and a big misunderstanding of democracy which is about the protection of the rights of the people.”
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