De-Militarising The Nigerian Mind, By Eddie Iroh
Some long time ago, I asked my friend Professor Pat Utomi what, if anything, in his opinion, should we hold culpable for Nigeria’s descent into the abyss of moral, social, political and economic morass. The cerebral political economist did not hesitate before answering in one short phrase: “the convergence of oil boom and military rule,” he replied confidently. I did not ask him and he did not need to elucidate and elaborate. The picture was clear enough. After all, as Zebrudaya would put it, ‘we were an eye-saw to the events of the era”. We had lived the nightmare in real time and experienced the era as living witnesses. We were only seeking a rational explanation why, not whether it happened. But before Utomi I cannot say that I had actually reasoned it out in the same sequence or indeed the same context. Also in putting the same question to a number of other scholars and intellectuals, none had quite given his answer in the same vein. Indeed many had given their opinion in a different context, ascribing the state of the nation over the years to the roles that various leading actors and personalities played in bringing about the sad state of a once promising nation.
In real terms, there is perhaps little difference between the Utomi theorem and that of those who directly blame our leaders, inasmuch as a situation exists not in abstraction, or merely by its very essence but by the actions of those who shape the events that shape a situation, just as those events in turn shape history. It then occurred to me that we have perhaps concentrated far too much on the damage that cumulative 30 years of military rule had done to our political development and democratic progress, and to our economic advancement, but we had paid scant attention to the equally destructive impact that military rule has had on our psyche, our mind and our outlook on and attitude to life well beyond politics and democracy, important as these are. As a result of this negligence, we had not realised that Nigerians needed the moral equivalent of collective counselling, a de-militarisation of a mind that had been suffused and suffocated by three decades of military methods and madness, an era that changed the way we looked at ourselves, at politics and society and our roles in them. We appeared to be far too eager to retrieve power from the military and in our hurry we ignored the need to examine the aberrant logic of tyranny and the lessons therefrom. We did not appear to realise how the relationship between the state and the citizen had dramatically and drastically altered under successive military regimes, especially draconian variants like the junta of General Sani Abacha. We did not fully examine the consequence of the military ethos of command, control and obey, coupled with a contemptuous disregard for the citizens who were denigrated as “idle civilians.” We were relentlessly cowed, intimidated and emotionally and physically bruised.
I remember coming in from the United Kingdom in 1994, from a country where in nearly 10 years of continuous residence, I had never seen a soldier in uniform except on ceremonial occasions like the Trooping of the Colours on Queen’s Birthday and Changing of the Guards at Buckingham Palace. And here I was in my own country and soldiers with horsewhips and loaded assault rifles were brazenly assaulting citizens whose only offence was trying to get a jerry can of scarce petroleum products. The impossibility of such a thing happening in the UK left me reeling with shock. The Nigerian police were not left out of having fun at the expense of the citizen. Nigerians would be made to lie down on hot tarmac or be frog-marched on the street for such minor infractions as failing to stop when ordered to. Then I had to consider that in a country like France the police was required to salute you, the citizen, before they could even ask you a simple question; and the usually un-armed British police would traditionally fold their hands behind their back should they have any reason to stop you on the street. All these gestures were meant to emphasise the supremacy of the citizen over those in uniform who are employed to serve and protect him. Under military rule in Nigeria these roles were reversed. The men in uniform became the lords and masters and the citizens were their servants; at their beck and call for 30 odd years.
And we have to consider that we are still living with the generation that was so traumatised by this experience. More sadly, the legacy of militarism of the mind has persisted to a large extent till today, as I will demonstrate presently.
But what the civilian administration of Shehu Shagari failed to do on assuming power in 1979 was to first carry out an impact assessment of what military rule had done to the Nigerian mind. I believe there was no recognition of this phenomenon as a factor that would affect the future of Nigeria. We carried on as if the previous government was the same in character and philosophy as its successor. Indeed whether consciously or not we continued some of the practices of the military regimes. Some of their decrees, anti-democratic and totalitarian in concept and content, were simply re-titled as Acts and Laws and retained in the statute books! More importantly the mentality, characterised by that illiterate phrase with immediate effect, persisted, even till today. Thus you still see actions of government and government agencies being implemented with immediate effect, without sufficient time to consult, without rigour or reflection before being rolled out. To the consternation of many, one of the pronouncements of the new Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), Godwin Emefiele, just last week, was to be implemented with immediate effect. This was a directive on the scrapping of bank charges on deposits, something which would affect the procedure of the entire banking industry in the land. They were given no room or time to adjust their operations and effect the directive in a seamless fashion. Rather they were to comply with immediate effect! One other prime example of this military mentality was demonstrated some years ago when Dr. Mohammed Modibo, the then FCT Minister, decided to ban smoking in public places in Abuja. Modibo allowed a total of three weeks for the ban to take effect. His idea of public enlightenment on the ban was a few billboards placed in a few strategic sites in the capital. Not surprisingly, when the ban supposedly came into effect no one noticed and no one gave a hoot; smokers lit up and symbolically puffed their smoke into the face of the minister. Again I have to cite the example of the United Kingdom, one of the countries from whom we borrowed our democratic practices, to illustrate how not to do democratic things undemocratically. When the government of Tony Blair introduced a ban on smoking in public nearly 10 years ago, it took almost three years to enlighten the public: assessing the impact of the policy on the economic activities of the small business – bars, restaurants etc – that would be affected by the ban, and consulting with their owners and listening to their views. Above all, the government took a great deal of time to explain to the citizens what constitutes public place which will be affected by the law. That was democracy in action, because democracy is best served when there is consultation, consideration and consensus, not a unilateral fiat of immediate effect.
On the other hand, the CBN’s cashless policy, which did not carry the tag of immediate effect, appears to have worked reasonably smoothly, even though the programme could have been allowed a bit more time. The CBN has had to extend the period for the operation in a number of states and cities which would suggest that such a major introduction, in a country where the necessary infrastructure of power, communication and data security are at best fragile, could have been allowed more time if the planning had been sufficiently rigorous. One more example is the ongoing National Conference. I recall that soon after its inauguration by the president the dialogue had to adjourn for one week to enable the organisers fine-tune the logistics for the smooth operation of the exercise! The suggestion of the absence of rigorous planning here speaks for itself. Not to mention the fact that the conference has had to be extended for an extra month. In other spheres of our national life, we still hear about governors and other top government officials acting with impunity in very high handed manner especially in their dealings with the public and the press. One governor was reported to have ordered his orderly to beat up a journalist who wrote a report he did not like. And notice how the police commissioner of the FCT unilaterally and with immediate effect banned the peaceful protest of women over the Chibok girls.
When you put all these pattern of events together, one gets the impression that the military may have left our system of governance, but our governance system has not left the military mentality. Part of the reason we missed the boat here is that we never stopped to examine the logic or illogicality of military rule, the dictatorship of a class of people who were not often the brightest and the best the nation produced, and who were not really equipped to subject their ideas and policies to intellectual rigour. My prime example of the failure of the military approach to solving problems is the War Against Indiscipline (WAI). Generals Muhammadu Buhari and Tunde Idiagbon elected to foist, indeed force a new way of life on the general population, many of whom were already set in their ways. Ossified old folks were corralled into line to learn a new queue culture. In the end, WAI died without a whimper, following the end of the regime of the duo. But consider if the regime had taken their campaign to the primary schools, with a new, carefully crafted curriculum of civic studies and etiquettes. The average five-year-old of 1983 would be 36 years old today, old enough to vote and be voted for. Perhaps, just perhaps, a new Nigerian person might have emerged, and with him a new character, discipline and ethos. Perhaps…just perhaps!
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