TARKAA DAVID x-rays the role of the military 6o years after Nigeria’s independence
Though Nigeria’s Independence was not obtained by violence, the military remains a strong force in maintaining the country’s unity, following the amalgamation of North and South with different cultural, religious and ethnic backgrounds.
The Nigerian Military though not directly responsible for internal security has been deployed in almost every part of the country to maintain peace, following a high level of gun violence.
With a population of over 200 million people, Nigeria is considered to be the most populous black nation and the giant of Africa. The British had colonised the nation for the first 60 years of the 20th century, ruled over some 250 tribes.
Nigeria gained its Independence from the colonial masters in October 1960. The founding fathers formed a common front to fight against the colonial masters, harmonising the tribal cleavages to attainment independence.
However, Nigerians who took over at independence were faced with the challenge of trying to form a sense of identity.
This implies that most people could only relate to their ethnic groupings.
These divisions have remained within the Nigerian society, intermittently causing outbreaks of violence which has necessitated military intervention.
And as the various groups vied for supremacy in Nigeria’s immediate post-colonial period, the military intervened, just as they had done in other African nations.
“Independence at a time when the whole of Africa, the whole third world, were also changing to another phenomenon, and that is the military. In 1952 there was a military coup in Egypt for example, in the 50s then it came to Ghana, and so on, so we came within that environment when the military was the ‘in’-thing,” Gen Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, a former Nigerian military president, said in an interview.
The first military coup in Nigeria took place in January 1966. It was cautiously welcomed by a population who hoped it would bring equality among the major ethnic groups. But such hopes were quickly dashed when it became clear that the majority of the coup leaders were of Igbo descent and the casualties mostly Hausa. This fueled the bad blood that already existed.
“There was this feeling that the coup was ethnically imbalanced. One side of the country was spared, the other side of the country had greater casualties in this, and immediately there was agitation for ‘revenge’,” Babangida said.
A nobel Laureate Prof Wole Soyinka said, “So there were reprisals in the north and certain parts of the south and the first wave of reprisals and second wave and the third wave were more brutal than anything.”
During the unrest, records say at least 30,000 Igbos were killed in fighting with Hausas, and around one million Igbo were internally displaced.
“People were just butchered, there was nothing more than an act of genocide,” he said. A counter coup happened by July of 1966.
Following a breakdown of peace-talk, on May 30, 1967, Nigeria was embroiled in a civil war that claimed millions of lives and destroyed properties. The people from the old eastern region declared secession. They called their country Biafra. But Nigeria’s other ethnic groups would not let this region go without a fight.
Hence “Those of us who fought the civil war, believe Nigeria is worth dying for in unity, better than living in division and destruction,” Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigeria’s former president, says.
The struggle for unity would come at a devastating price.
“Now I thought the war was very immoral and I still think so to today. These were people who had been really really brutalised and dehumanised, and it was bad tactics for them at the time to declare independence. But as far political morality was concerned I felt they had every right,” Soyinka said.
The war ended in 1970, with the south-east once again part of Nigeria. But divisions persisted and, in some places, remain to this day.
Yet these disparate ethnic groups continued to live side by side, competing for ever-fewer resources which most times result in clashes.
Several decades after the war, many separatists groups such as IPOB, MASSOB, Niger Delta Republic, Oduduwa Republic and the Middle belt groups are seeking to exit the marriage officiated by the British colonial masters.
However, the Nigerian Military who bore the brunt of the war has consistently insisted on keeping the nation united. Despite predictions of the nation’s collapse in the build-up of the 2015 general election, the prophets of doom were proved wrong. The same applied in the 2019 general election following the unwavering commitment of the military.
The Chief of Defence Staff, General Gabriel Olonisakin reacting to threats by separatist groups to scuttle the election warned that the Armed Forces of Nigeria and other security agencies will deal decisively with those planning to cause security breaches before, during and after the 2019 general elections.
These warnings came following the intelligence of some individuals importing military uniforms and arms to disrupt the peaceful election.
He noted that the security agencies were aware of plans by mischief makers to illegally use military/paramilitary uniforms to impersonate law enforcement agencies to intimidate and harass members of the public.
“We are not unaware of plans to illegally use uniforms of military/paramilitary agencies to impersonate security and law enforcement agencies, illegal possession and use of firearms to intimidate and harass members of the public and other acts likely to cause security breaches.
“Let me warn that the Armed Forces of Nigeria and other security agencies will not tolerate any act that is likely to cause security breaches before, during and after the elections and will deal decisively with these acts irrespective of those involved,” he said.
Olonisakin reaffirmed that the law enforcement agencies will remain apolitical as the Armed Forces code of conduct for the election has been issued to personnel deployed for election duties, this stand was closely observed as many Nigerians applauded the military for its neutrality though few eyebrows were raised in Rivers. But on the general note, the dooms day prophecies were aborted.
The Defence Headquarters while taking its stand against fraternising with any party, said the Nigerian military is not a government military but that of the Nigerian nation and would remain neutral, impartial and strictly adhere to the professional code of conduct before, during and after the general elections.
Contrary to fears expressed by some Nigerians, he said the military was on the ground when the opposition won in 2015 and assured all of a level playground.
“The Defence Headquarters has warned that all officers, soldiers, ratings, airmen and women of the Nigerian Armed Forces must remain neutral and exhibit exceptional professionalism before, during and after the upcoming elections
“To this end, with the exception of those on essential duties, no military personnel should be found wearing military uniform on election days,” he said.
Several political gladiators have applauded the military for their impartial role in the elections which many saw as a threat to the nation. The military has in the last decade been fighting a series of security threats that threaten the unity of the country. The senseless killings of helpless Nigerians.
However as the nation marks its 60th anniversary otherwise referred to as the Diamond jubilee, east and western agitators gave the President ultimatum to allow for a referendum or face force exit but when contacted, the Defence Media Operations which is in charge of coordinating military operations declined to comment.
However from all indications, the military is poised to resist any unrest or separation even though it is currently faced with a myriad of security challenges ranging from Boko Haram Terrorists, armed banditry and other sundry crimes that have bedeviled the country.