A Culture of Violence

by Bayo Olupohunda

The capacity of the Nigerian soldier for reckless display of brute and barbaric force has long been established. A typical soldier is a reflection of the arbitrariness of the military institution – swashbuckling, above-the-law and arrogant. Even in peace time, their mannerisms invoke the image of war-grim looking, fingers always on the trigger of AK47. Horse whip dangles outside from windows of military trucks ready to command lesser mortals into a frog-jump.

This reckless show of power we have seen many times. It has become the stuff of legend and folklores. Fela, the revolutionary musician sang about it. He was also a victim of soldiers’ murderous rage and disdain for “bloody civilians”. His Kalakuta Republic was attacked, raided and burnt to the ground. It was never rebuilt. His aged mother, Olufunmilayo, the activist and a Nigerian heroine was thrown down from the burning building. She died of the trauma. Fela’s offence was his ‘impudence’ to exercise his freedom of speech through his music. His fiery lyrics in Zombie, lampooned the military government of Obasanjo for corruption and abuse of power. The track offended the military establishment. They thus resolved to teach him a lesson he will never forget.

That attack, in the years Nigeria was under the vice-like grip of the military was a metaphor of the brutality the army is capable of. The fact is, the army as an oppressive agent of the state suffers from the victim mentality. An injury to one is an injury to all. The situation is surreal, always the same. A “soldier man” gets into an argument with just anybody- a civilian, a driver or conductor, outside the barrack. Minutes later, he calls for reinforcement and a battalion of robot-like soldiers storm out of the base to unleash mayhem on the offending faction(s) who dared to engage one of their own. No arbitration, no attempt to find out who is in the wrong or right. That person must be taught the lesson of this life. This victim mentality and the urge to shun civility when protecting their own is as old as Nigeria’s independence, it happened recently in Lagos and it will happen again as long as we have the soldiers in the barracks and bloody civilians outside the confines of the caged garrisons.

With the coming of democracy, the relationship between soldiers and the rest of us shifted a gear-albeit for the worse. The entire force, still suffering denial syndrome after being shoved out of power and from all the “juices’ and perks of office were on edge. They considered themselves above of the law made by bloody civilians. On the streets of Lagos and other volatile Nigerian cities, frequent skirmishes involving soldiers and civilians’ institutions broke out, dominating the headlines. The Lagos State Traffic Management Agency (LASTMA), saddled with managing the chaotic traffic and its insane drivers were often at the receiving end of soldiers’ rage when they flout traffic regulations. In Victoria Island, an attempt to arrest a military van driven against the traffic turned violent. The soldier-offender resisted arrest, he called his colleagues in near-by Bonny Camp barracks. The LASTMA officers were brutalized. The Nigerian Armed forces have also turned the rage on themselves. Like mad dogs in a fierce battle for bones, air force, navy, custom and other para-military personnel have engaged themselves in bloody combats over the mundane matters. It may be a fight over who is the “original armed force” or an argument over a girlfriend. In Lagos, conductors have been shot for daring to ask for bus fare from soldiers or anybody who wears the khaki. This brings me to the recent encounter by the Lagos State Governor, Mr. Babatunde Raji Fashola (SAN) who accosted a Nigerian Army Colonel using the prohibited Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) Lane. But this has also happened many times. It is another example of disregard for law and order. The governor, riding surreptitiously in his convoy has had cause to caution erring motorists who flout traffic laws, the armed forces inclusive. But what got me riled is the reaction of soldiers to the incident a few days later. Reports had it that some soldiers who felt humiliated that the governor had the effrontery to caution a colonel assaulted Lagos traffic officers as revenge.

How sad! After more than a decade of democracy and reforms carried out in the military, the typical Nigerian soldier from the rank and file continue to display crass disregard for laid down rules. When the news of Fasgola encounter with the colonel broke and the picture trended like wild bush fire on the social media. What Nigerians expected was that the military would issue an apology and deal with the erring officer. That a revenge mission by soldiers could break out within days of the first one conforms that the Nigerian army is still peopled by out-of-control and undisciplined officers who see the laws of a civilized society as alien. The military authority should investigate and punish the officers’ involved in the skirmish in Lagos. And they have to be reminded that the power they wield derives from the people. Their weapons of brutality are also bought from our taxes. Their action is a throw back into those dark years of military adventurism. We need not be reminded.

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