The rapid-fire warning by the Chief of Army Staff, Tukur Buratai, that soldiers should steer clear of politics is a timely reminder that Nigerian politicians are up to their old tricks again. In an ominous statement on Tuesday, Buratai alerted the nation to the subtle machinations of politicians, who were “approaching some soldiers” for undisclosed political reasons. Obviously, the intention of these disgruntled political jobbers is to exploit the growing uncertainty in the polity by recruiting soldiers to undermine the country’s democracy. This newspaper strongly condemns any undemocratic arrangement that is outside of the 1999 Constitution in exercising the powers of government in Nigeria.
This government has a strong democratic mandate that must be defended at all costs. We acknowledge the tension in the polity, especially the uncertainty surrounding President Muhammadu Buhari’s state of health. But he has taken the right step by transmitting power to the Vice-President, Yemi Osinbajo, to act for him, in tandem with Section 145 of the Constitution.
Yet, it is not agreeable to some crooked politicians, whose only interest is unbridled power acquisition. In their desperation, they have forgotten that the notion of the military in power is now outdated, a treasonable act that modern societies abhor. Rightly, Buratai has warned: “Any officer or soldier of the Nigerian Army found to be hobnobbing with such elements or engaging in unprofessional conduct such as politicking, would have himself or herself to blame.” As he has pledged, the military should remain apolitical and respect the constitution.
It is unfortunate that there are still sizeable elements that do not accept the constitutional authority of a legitimately elected government and continue to erroneously believe it is their duty to determine the country’s political trajectory. These recklessly ambitious politicians must be told that any military misadventure will push the country into a dangerous state of flux.
Military rule has been an unmitigated disaster for Nigeria. With Decree 34 of 1966, the short-lived Thomas Aguiyi-Ironsi military regime attempted to abolish Nigeria’s four regional civil bureaucracies. Yakubu Gowon dissolved the regional structure into 12 states, ending the autonomous federal structure that subsequent regimes atomised to the present 36-state format. The nuances of the coup, the unitary system that supplanted regionalism, and the fear of domination by sections of the polity, led to the counter-coup of July 29, 1966.
The massacre in the North, mostly of the Igbo, led to a convolution of events that culminated in the 1967 to 1970 civil war. This provided a ruinous landscape from which Nigeria has never recovered. Each coup since January 15, 1966 has left legacies of its own political ruins. For instance, the Murtala Muhammed coup of 1975 destroyed the once robust federal civil service with its sweeping purge of core permanent secretaries, who inherited the bureaucracy from the British imperial government. Therefore, service –delivery – execution of government’s policies – has been difficult to achieve. Garrison state replaces dialogue with coercion; persuasion is supplanted by command and control, while regimentation usurps the place of freedom and personal liberty.
Nigeria made a stunning transition from military rule to civil rule in 1999. The military not only bestowed distorted economy to civilians in 1999, but also a worse form of corruption and impunity accompanied by a dismantling of effective checks on fiscal operations. While it lasted, the military’s dismal performance in Nigerian politics pointed to the hollowness of the armed forces’ patriotic credentials. Unlike the enlightened dictatorships that transformed the economies of South Korea and Taiwan, ours met thriving agricultural, mining and manufacturing sectors and left them in ruins. Many years after military rule has ceased, the havoc it had wreaked on the psyche of Nigerians continues to influence behaviours.
For the first time, Nigeria has been ruled by civilians for 18 years at a stretch. This is the longest ever in the 56-year history of the country. Though our politicians have been irredeemably corrupt, so also have our soldiers in or out of politics. Those who may have forgotten the brigandage of the military years have been shaken out of their cocoon by the recent revelations of how senior officers, including service chiefs, shamelessly plundered funds, including those meant for the pay and equipping of their exposed troops fighting Boko Haram Islamists in the North-East. A corrupt corps cannot lead a “corrective” regime, the usual excuse for coups.
We must remain committed to our democratic institutions and constitutional order as flawed as they may be. Even the best of democracies are run by imperfect human beings. Democracy demands military personnel to remain outside, if not above, contentious partisan politics. We have a military that can hold their own as long as they remain focused on their primary function of defending Nigeria’s territorial integrity. They, however, falter terribly when they are dragged into politics.
As the Chairman of the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joseph Dunford, argued, the military in a democratic setting must retain its place as a non-political force that offers its best military advice to whatever party the commander-in-chief belongs.
Buratai’s warning is a rallying call to the Nigerian people to defend this democracy and the institutions that serve it. The military leadership should continue to nurture discipline and professionalism. The Federal Government must, however, investigate Buratai’s claim and muster the political will to charge any indicted politician with high treason to save Nigeria from avoidable political darkness.