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Nigeria’s professional army and sustenance of democracy

By Ofemi Kolawole
08 December 2020   |   3:05 am
No matter what its critics may want to say, the Nigerian Army has been an important stakeholder and critical institution that has played a very significant and fundamental role

Buhari. Photo; TWITTER/NIGERIAGOV

No matter what its critics may want to say, the Nigerian Army has been an important stakeholder and critical institution that has played a very significant and fundamental role in the continued sustenance of democracy in our country. 

Indeed, beyond the various political parties that bestride Nigeria’s political landscape today, or the array of religious leaders, civil society activists, and other professional associations and groups, a force that continues to be extremely crucial, playing a stabilizing role in Nigeria’s democratic journey, remains the military.  And there are many valid examples to illustrate this point. 

For instance, at Nigeria’s return to democratic governance in May 1999, several challenges confronted the country. These included strengthening national unity, inspiring a sense of belonging in all parts of the country, ensuring peace and stability, and managing the economy towards reducing poverty in the country. 
Of all these challenges, achieving peace was particularly critical because progress and prosperity are only achievable in an atmosphere of peace. But at that outset of uninterrupted democratic governance, peace and stability in the country would not have been possible without the active support and buy-in of the army.

And why do I say this? 
When former President Olusegun Obasanjo unilaterally decided to retire all officers of the Armed Forces who had held political offices in the country shortly after he took office, many felt it was a dangerous decision that would have dire consequences. The former President took the action without prior notice to the public of his intentions, retiring 93 officers in the Nigerian Army, Navy and Air Force who had held political offices, all at once. It was a tense moment in the country.  

The Nigerian media speculated on how Obasanjo’s action would have dangerous repercussions. Some political watchers even suggested it was a decision that would not be allowed to stand by serving officers and men of the military. Many thought that it was only a matter of time before we’re greeted by martial music announcing a change of government. 

Sincerely, looking at our country’s past, those who thought that way might be forgiven for their position. It used to be in Nigeria that all you needed to get an unrestrained grab of political power was to have a gun of your own as a soldier, and a few for your allies and partners to kill or overpower the political leadership and take over. If it succeeds, you are made. If it fails, you’re doomed. So, efforts were made to ensure those plots succeeded at all costs. Lives, as expected, were often lost. 

But despite rumours of a possible coup then, no such thing materialized. The media and other stakeholders got it wrong. Truth was there was no such attempt. The Nigerian Army knew it was a new era in the country.

The Civilian Era. The Democratic Dispensation. And they were ready to submit to it and ensure its sustenance. 

It is also part of our national history that a serving senator in this country, Joseph Waku, in 2000, publicly called for a coup during that era. Why? Waku said Obasanjo was acting like a dictator and it was better for the military to return through a coup. But in spite of that dangerous invitation, the military kept its honour.  

In 2010 when President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua became gravely sick and power was yet to be transited to then Vice President Goodluck Jonathan as constitutionally required, the nation was almost drifting and some also feared that there would be a military takeover of power. But the Nigerian Army, again, refused to be drawn into the fray until the issue was eventually resolved. There was an adherence to the Doctrine of Necessity by the Senate, and Jonathan assumed the mantle of leadership. The leadership of the Nigerian Army was evidently committed to ensuring that democracy thrives in Nigeria, no matter what. 

Today, over 20 years since Nigeria’s return to democratic governance, the Nigerian Army, under the leadership of Lt. Gen Tukur Buratai, the Chief of Army Staff, continues to proudly submit itself to civilian authority under the leadership of President Muhammadu Buhari, and exemplarily so. 

That the officers and men of the Nigerian Army have deeply imbibed the tenets of democracy should not be discounted or taken for granted, especially in an environment on the continent where militaries still find it hard to resist the temptation of entering the political arena and forcefully taking power as we saw in 2017 when the Zimbabwean President was removed in a coup, or in Sudan where the leader was forcefully removed in 2019, or recently in Mali where soldiers ousted President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita in August on the pretext of preventing the country from falling into chaos. 

Beyond all these, however, the officers and men of the Nigerian Army also continue to pay a huge price for the stability of the country and the sustenance of our democracy. Several gallant lives have been lost in the efforts and push to bring an end to Boko Haram insurgency, kidnapping, militancy, and banditry. Many of them are away from their families and loved ones for extended periods, continuously defending the territorial integrity of their homeland.  Yet, their loyalty to their country remains unshaken while their commitment to the patriotic and democratic cause remains unwavering. 

Anytime the Police are not able to effectively maintain civil law and order, the Nigerian Army has always been the last resort for political leaders, and it has never shied away from this delicate responsibility to keep the country as one indivisible nation. 

The Nigerian Army has also been immensely supportive in the efforts to relocate internally displaced people in the Northeast back to their ancestral lands, doing all in its power to ensure that the war against terror in the North East is won and the peace sustained in active collaboration with the civilian population. 

Undoubtedly, the Nigerian Army is truly a pride to the nation. Therefore, beyond being vilified for its role in the recent #EndSARS protests, for instance, it instead ought to be appreciated and celebrated, and then encouraged to do much more in serving the country, performing better, protecting and sustaining our democracy, and continuously defending the territorial integrity of Nigeria like it has always done. 

Kolawole is a communications expert based in Lagos