Confessions of a Soldier: ‘Why We Hate the Police’ By Bayo Olopohunda
A few weeks ago, precisely in the closing weeks of 2013, a rather disturbing but not entirely surprising piece of news almost went unnoticed: A group of soldiers numbering about 100 from the 31st Artillery Brigade, Minna, Niger State had stormed a police station in the town and held the officers hostage. Their mission of course was not to pay a courtesy visit in the spirit of ‘espirit de corps. The soldiers were on a revenge mission. They were in the station to demand an explanation for the arrest of an army officer who had been held in the cell. They forced their way into the station in a commando style, seized the armoury and disarmed the policemen on duty. They demanded to see the Divisional Police Officer. The officer at the counter demanded to know why.
The soldiers were enraged. With AK47 dangling on their shoulders, they forced their way into the DPO’s office. They then asked him to hand over a soldier who had earlier been arrested by the police from the station. The DPO had explained that the soldier who was in mufti had been arrested for assaulting a police officer on duty injuring him in the process. They refused to listen and attempted to force their way into the cell. Then, all hell broke loose as other officers of the Mobile Police Unit drew their guns to resist the brazen encroachment on their territory. A fight broke out, punches were thrown. Outside, bullets were fired into the air. People ran in different directions. But the situation was soon brought under control through the intervention of senior officers.
That incident is nothing new. In this country, skirmishes among the men of the armed forces have claimed casualties. It however, symbolises the cat and mouse relationship that exists between the police and army.
A day after the incident, I found myself sharing a ride with a swash-buckling and loquacious middle-aged army officer. He was not shy to voice his opinion about the cat and mouse police-army relationship that had led to bloody clashes in the past. My acquaintance was obviously proud of the army. He spoke of force discipline (which he said is lacking in the police). His voice grew emotional when he reminisced on some of the missions he had been sent. He said he was not even 20 years old when he was drafted as part of the ECOMOG peacekeeping mission in the Liberian Civil war of the 1990s. He was a brash, tough-talking man with a face that looked carved out of stone. His expression bore the tell tale signs of a veteran that had seen many wars. He snapped at every act of indiscipline exhibited by drivers as we rode in the heavy Lagos traffic. He barked at the driver to reduce his loud music.
At another time, he poked his head out to caution a conductor in a bus close by for hanging precariously in a moving bus. The man yearned for the days when the War Against Indiscipline forced Nigerians to imbibe orderliness in public. “You civilians are not disciplined”, he intoned. He regretted not having his “koboko” (horsewhip) which he would have used on the conductor who had the effrontery to tell him off. As we journeyed in the car, he frowned on all forms of excesses displayed by Lagos drivers which, according to him, are the cause of the chaotic transport situation. He credited the KAI Brigade for bringing about sanity to places like Oshodi, but blamed the police for working with area boys to perpetuate indiscipline. He yearned for the return of the old regime of Idiagbon-Buhari regime. Once, as we got to a police checkpoint he let out a loud hiss. The checkpoint which had been hurriedly and illegally set up by some renegade police officers, had caused a long traffic. He instructed the driver to ignore them. The driver, who seemed buoyed by the presence of the army officer in his bus, poked his head out. He then gave the one word that would ordinarily have let him through. He informed them of the presence of a “staff”. The police officer raised his eyebrow. He scrutinised all the passengers until his eyes rested on the army officer. The army officer turned and looked at him disdainfully. He seemed disgusted. He beckoned on the police officer. He introduced himself.
The police officer ignored him. Then, the army officer reached into his pocket and brought out his Identity Card. He whispered “Espirit de corps”. The police officer did not seem impressed. He ignored him still. He barked on the driver to come down. The driver hesitated. He seemed torn between obeying the orders of the police and counting on the perceived superiority and protection of the army officer. I was looking at him. He must have calculated his risk for he quickly came down and went behind the bus to meet the police officer. The officer warned the driver never to try that with him again. He insisted on collecting “something” staff or no staff. We were delayed for several minutes. He said the driver will still have to pay dearly for disrespecting his uniform. He shouted as we moved on “na war soldier dey fight. Na we dey road dey protect una”. We were eventually left off the hook to proceed but not after the officer had collected the usual “egunje” or “roger”.
I turned to look at the soldier; I could feel the anger coursing through his veins. The atmosphere of tension was palpable. We could feel it in the confines of the bus. We could almost touch it. It was not funny at all. A soldier had just been disrespected by the men in black. “War” could have broken loose if there were other soldiers around. I had imagined then. What if a contingent of soldiers had chanced by at that material time? Our army officer would have obviously sought for reinforcement. Only God knows what could have happened. I later confirmed my fears. In the bus, the army officer was furious. Then, suppressing a rage, he spoke through gritted teeth, “You see, that is why we and these police people can never be friends. Imagine introducing myself as a fellow officer and see how he just ignored me. See how he just disgraced me. Ha! Me, a Warrant Officer of the Nigerian Army with a common police”.
He turned to look at us. His eyes were bloodshot, his gaze, murderous. It appeared that if he had been in possession of a gun he could have used it and damned the consequences. A babble of “Sorry sir” went out in chorus from the bewildered passengers. ‘’Sorry for yourselves, you bloody civilians. This can never happen in the army. We respect our selves. No soldier can ever disgrace another soldier like that.” He was fuming now. I dodged his wild gesticulations. At a point, he folded his fingers mimicking the shape of a gun. Then, he blurted out. “Go to their barracks, they can’t even keep it clean? They will refuse to pay in public buses. Useless people, we can never be friends. There should be feeling of espirit de corps among the forces. They harass everybody on the streets including soldiers. Wetin happen for Minna na small thing. We will show them.”
He kept ranting until we arrived Obalende. I watched him disappear into the crowd still furious. Can the police and soldiers ever be friends?
-Follow me on twitter: @bayoolupohunda
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