Anywhere in the world, the military is dreaded by the civil populace. Rightly or wrongly, the army as an institution particularly is more dreaded than the other arms of the military on the assumption that it is peopled by personnel who are craggy and rough in interactions with the civil society. Ask most civilians their impression of soldiers; they would reply without hesitation that soldiers are crazily brutish, wicked and inhuman.
Whatever negative impressions the people might have on the army, it is understandable based on the nature of the job they are confined to perform. But an increasingly civilized and democratic world with its attendant shortcomings, ironically crave for a decent and civilized army.
The civil society is not satisfied to be dismissed by soldiers as “bloody civilians,” but craves for a breed of the army that is civil, friendly and professionally responsible. Agreed, it is no easy task, taming a people whose training and language is tied to artillery. And in nations where the leadership of the army is weak or simply forgets its foibles soldiers could quite be hated for their abrasiveness. Soldiers could be wild and go berserk at the slightest provocation by venting their spleen on civilians.
That is precisely the portrait of the Nigerian Army (NA) the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) Lt. Gen. Tukur Yusufu Buratai inherited in the country. It is common knowledge that Gen. Buratai met an army that was thoroughly disoriented, devoid of professional splendor and very antagonistic to the civil populace.
However, ennobled by the circumstances of the culture of change as propagated by President Muhammedu Buhari, the Army Chief was convinced of the necessity to give Nigerians the finest breed of soldiers they would proudly embrace. Gen. Buratai knew that under proper leadership guidance, Nigeria could parade the best breed of soldiers in the world who would be professionally competent in military assignments and exhibit a seamless army/civil relations.
And in just more than a year of his leadership of the Nigerian Army, the Army Chief has accomplished what seemed impossible very amazingly. Nigerian soldiers no longer garb the image of personnel that abuse and disrespect the laws of the land; stir humanitarian crises and recklessly violate the human rights of Nigerians.
Yet, this breather is coming at a time Nigerian Army is facing series civil-oriented in most parts of the country. It is undeniable that the army passing through one of its toughest times in the recent history of the country. With an increasing presence in performing special assignments that should ordinarily remain in the purview of civil security agents, Nigerians would have had a truck load of cases on human rights abuses by soldiers.
It is facing the anti-terrorism campaigns in Nigeria’s Northeast; armed banditry and cattle rustling in the Northwest; militancy in the Niger Delta and herders/farmers clashes in the North central among others. It has made the presence of soldiers in many communities in Nigeria.
The COAS disclosed recently during the 2017 defence of Army budget before the National Assembly that Nigerian soldiers have been deployed to 32 out of the 36 states of the federation. But in spite of this overwhelming engagement of soldiers on special assignments, the narrative has changed for the better in a changed government and a changed army under the supervision of Gen. Buratai.
Coming this far to grab excellence was not a tea party for the Army Chief. But as a soldier good for achieving his targets, the Army Chief immediately introduced reforms and innovations in the art of soldering especially on internal insurrections. He preached strict adherence to the ethics of professionalism, respect for civil authorities, transparency and accountability. He made it clear that he would not spare erring soldiers who violate the rules of engagement during special assignments or abuse the rights of civilians.
To demonstrate seriousness and commitment to this cause, Gen. Buratai established the Human Rights Desk at the Army Headquarters in Abuja and replicated it in major divisions of the Nigerian Army. By implication, aside beckoning the civil society to approach the army over unlawful abuses of their human rights; soldiers too knew they could not easily get away with such crimes as done in the past.
The effect has the near zero-level incidence of human rights violations and abuses. Nigerian soldiers have perfectly mixed and domesticated with all civil communities where they are deployed on special duties. While on special assignments, they make friends with civilians and traditional rulers of the host communities, a trick which dissolves the phobia about soldiers and strengthens support to soldiers to execute their assignments splendidly.
In the Northeast where they defeated rampaging terrorists, soldiers have thereafter made the states at the heart of terrorism their second home. They have voluntarily engaged in the construction of roads and provision of other social amenities in communities to facilitate the return of internally Displaced Persons to their ancestral abodes. While on special assignments to checkmate militancy in the Niger Delta, soldiers would usually mix up with host communities and strike mutual understanding and support. Free medical services would also be rendered to host communities. And soldiers would sometimes stray into the task of rescuing victims of kidnapping, whom they reunite with their families at no cost. All these projects are funded from the army budget as a humanitarian gesture to Nigerians.
And soldiers are determined to sustain this cordial civil/army relations and humanitarian gestures. Just recently, events preceding the launch of “Operation Harbin Kunama II” (scorpion bite) by the Nigerian Army headquarters Division 3 Jos, Major Gen. Peter Dauke led soldiers to conduct a one-day free medical treatment in Burra town and communities in Ningi LGA of Bauchi State. And hundreds of locals trooped out and benefitted from the free medicare.
Again erring officers were not spared. For the first time, soldiers respect and respond to court summons. The NA instantly punished some officers who physically assaulted a cripple. Such instances are many and have continued to this moment. Even yesterday, the Nigerian Army’s 23rd Amoured Brigade based in Yola, Adamawa instantly probed the incidence of an attack on the headquarters of the Assemblies of God’s Church in Luggere Ward , alleged to have been committed by some men in military uniform. The Brigade spokesman, Major Adamu Ngulde explained that the Army never sent out any of its personnel to the church; but nevertheless probed the incident to unearth the truth.
The repackaged and re-indoctrinated Nigerian Army under Gen. Buratai has earned it applauses far and near. Nigerian soldiers are now taunted as the best soldiers in respect for human rights, humanitarian gestures and cordial civil relations.
Country Representative of Global Amnesty Watch Foundation, Mrs. Helen Adesola led a team of professionals to Maiduguri to inspect facilities of the Army and the foundation came out with a sound verdict. It applauded the Nigerian Army as superfluous, as it poured endless accolades and encomiums. The foundation was excited that the Nigerian Army had gone beyond the scope of their normal official duties to render various forms of assistance such as provision of electricity and construction of roads to host communities. It was happier to discover that in spite of the delicate nature of the terrorism war in the region, Nigerian soldiers had no cases of human rights violations.
No society or institution is devoid of deviants, who have a penchant for breaking rules. But that Gen. Buratai has demonstrated yawningly his unpreparedness to shield erring officers from discipline; Nigerian soldiers have learnt to exhibit the highest standards of respect for the human rights of Nigerians. Therefore Nigerian Army seems to have reinvented the slogan that if the police is your friend; they are unarguably everyone’s friend at the moment. May they sustain this spirit. It is the wonders of the Army’s Human Rights Desk.
*Abutu Esq is a human rights monitor and contributed this piece from Asokoro, Abuja.