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Between the US and Nigerian military

By Patrick Dele Cole
10 March 2020   |   2:01 am
The USA and Nigeria each have a civil war. One was to keep the USA united and to end slavery. The USA through the civil war developed a healthy respect for the military.

The USA and Nigeria each have a civil war. One was to keep the USA united and to end slavery. The USA through the civil war developed a healthy respect for the military. That was also set in place the values which had promised the USA to be a nation of the free and the brave, where anyone and everyone could develop to the best of their potential. All these are founding principles that formed their war of independence from the British in 1776. They also built monuments to remind all about these values for freedom/republicanism: the Statue of Liberty, the Lincoln Memorial and the encapsulation of this freedom and values in their constitution.

The Nigerian civil war was not about freedom, although elements in the south tend to feel that their freedom was guaranteed by the federal cause. The Nigerian military has been unable to maintain the respect its counterpart in the US had sowed and maintained. The US military is regarded as probably the most venerable institution in the country, the epitome of service and sacrifice. The Nigerian military had quickly squandered all the veneration it may have had. The US military has been at the service of freedom and democracy answering the call to quash autocratism, xenophobianism and the holocaust. The Nigerian military had also served with distinction all with the world; Israel, Congo, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Burma, Uganda, Tanzania, etc. but it has never caught the imagination of Nigeria the way the US military has done in the US; In diplomacy and in the setting up the institutions to anchor peace after World War 2, the names of the US generals ringed with a halo- Eisenhower, Marshall, etc.

Among Nigerian soldiers, none has climbed up to the stature of great men. Maybe there were too many of them in the public space in so short a time that quantity devalued quality. I may have read the military legacy wrong but I stand to be corrected. Perhaps also time plays tricks on all of us.

The US military that is so venerated today was also at some point the bastion of racism where segregation was practiced until recently.
First black 4-Star General, Colin Powell came only in 1990s etc. But when the US wants to feel good about themselves, they turn to the army – their united veneration for a thoroughly professional service. Who do we turn to in Nigeria? Even if the US veneration of the military is an artificial construct – it nevertheless encompasses all the values the Americans are so eager to proclaim to the rest of the world. Why can Nigeria not find a similar construct to venerate and raise Nigerian values?

The influence of the military in the development or lack thereof, of Nigeria, has been seminal, profound and continuous. In the 60 odd years of Nigeria’s independence the military has been in power for nearly 30 years, civilians 30. But 16 years of the 30 during the civilian rule the country was ruled by former military head of state, General Obasanjo and General Buhari – thus providing a unique hybrid, or a hermaphrodite in the pantheon of Nigerian presidents: men who can hunt with the foxes and play with the hare. This military dominance at the level of the Presidency – actually 4 civilians – Balewa, Shagari, Yar’adua and Jonathan; military – Ironsi, Gowon, Mohammed, Obasanjo, Buhari, Babangida, Abacha, Abubakar. Civilians have ruled Nigeria since 1999 to date – 21 years, during which retired Generals – Obasanjo and Buhari – joined a political party and became presidents. Can a leopard change its spots? Wole Soyinka has defined tigritude as the nature of a tiger.

The political map of the origin of Nigeria’s presidents should be instructive. A similar map of the Governors places of origin will be more interesting.

The skewered dominance of the military on the second level power in Nigeria – the Governors – is even more interesting. Lets take 3 states randomly. Sokoto has had 18 Governors; 10 military, 8 civilians. Anambra, 20 Governors; 11 military, 9 civilians. Rivers, 16 Governors; 10 military, 6 civilians.

Come to think of it, what are Nigeria’s values? We know the values of Germany, France, Scandinavia, the UK – even other countries in Europe. Again, what are Nigeria’s values? Would we go to war to protect those values even if we knew what they are? Should Nigerians not be sitting down to enunciate these values and to build a society that accepts them and are willing to sacrifice for them?

It would seem that in the United States, European countries, China, Russia and Israel the people know their own values and have resolved to defend them.

What plagues Nigeria as to values, plagues the Middle East and most of Asia, with the exception of North Korea, Japan, and China. I do not believe that the military in India, Pakistan, Philippines, Vietnam, South Korea, Afghanistan etc could point either to central military values or indeed national values worth fighting for. By values, I exclude religion as one such unifying value: religion divides more than it unites. Israel has the same respect for its military as the United States. They hold values that are existentialist to its survival under a democratic system with a large dose of freedom.

When a US soldier dies in combat, his coffin, draped in the US flag, is buried in Arlington cemetery in Washington. The cemetery of fallen Nigerian soldiers are unkempt and in a lot of places over grown with weeds and encroached upon. Can anyone encroach on Arlington?

Moreover a large number of the US political class are children of these venerated veterans. Perhaps if Nigeria has a military national service like Switzerland, Israel etc we may begin a culture of building respect and formulating values for an important segment of our country-the need to serve, impart discipline, learn order and truth, learn how to live with each other etc.

We had enough money to have built up a super army, raise the training to be good as Sandhurst, Fort Bragg or the IDF. Such a force may have been better prepared to deal with Boko Haram and other insurgencies. If Nigeria had military conscription they would be more disciplined. Instead money was voted to the military which systematically looted the money to the detriment of its services. As corruption galloped in the military, a system of scrupulous transparent promotion through hard work gave way to skewered recruitment and promotion – just as the US army once had but they worked hard to first reduce the incidence of favouritism and came up with a system that all are proud of. Even if this is not universally true, the optics is that in the military this was the right way to do things, while scrupulously remaining outside politics. If you want to join politics, you resigned and contested the election. No American politician makes a speech without saluting the military.

The US has a Veteran Administration, Veteran Hospitals, Veteran Social Support Institutions and Veteran Scholarships to the university.

I remember some tentative steps in Nigeria in setting up the ex- soldiers, ex-servicemen as we called them, ex-military offices, institutions and rehabilitation centres etc. Very little of these institutions have survived, not for lack of budget allocations but for the money to unavoidably escape to where it was not meant to go.

I wish the Nigeria military to pick itself up by the boot straps and establish something that all Nigerians can be proud of, that gives
us that good time feeling that at last, there are things which become part of the foundation of Nigerian values.

The Nigerian Army brought freedom to Congo, Angola, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Uganda, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and South Africa.It was a Nigerian military general who, at the world stage, declared discrimination as anathema and brought the lesson personally home when he declared that everywhere there was discrimination, it was personally against him, that his country will rather die than tolerate it anywhere, anytime.

The veneration of the US military was in spite of its decidedly ignoble treatment of black Americans. The military was segregated, the towns were segregated, education was segregated yet African Americans fought all American wars under this barbaric segregation. To be black and want to fight you had to go to the Tuskegee Air Academy. The graduates of this academy proved their worth to themselves but America continued to be segregationist. Black officers were not served in restaurants where white prisoners of war were served. The US military had a disastrous outing in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, nevertheless the acclamation had continued not merely as an act of faith but as a demonstrable belief that America is great and its military has made it great. An important characteristic of the US military was the knowledge and awareness that its failings could not define it. Where it failed it was ready and able to reform itself for the better and thus continued to hold the love of American citizens. The US military was not perfect, but achieving perfection was its commitment.Is there any hope that Nigeria would ever come to regard its military as great as the epicentre of its values a venerable institution?