NIGERIAN ARMED FORCES PLACES CIVIL-MILITARY RELATIONS IN FRONT BURNER
By Chidi Omeje
The concept of Civil – Military Relations evokes varying interpretations from people depending on which side of the divide the person belongs. To some people, Civil – Military Relations connotes the allegiance of the military class to the political authorities, while to others, the concept involves the interaction which attends the multi – faceted relationship that exist between the civil society and the military class. Similarly, what constitutes civil – Military Relations in a particular country could be an absurdity in another. Therefore, while there could be a near universality of meaning across nations, its manifestation and application has been a function of the history, politics, economy and sociology of each nation. Consequently, in Nigeria, Civil – Military Relations has had its peculiar manifestation and could have its unique application.
As a matter of constitutional obligation, the Nigerian military is constantly involved in internal security operation in aid of civil authority, and this has been a recurring engagement given the harvest of internal conflicts that have bedeviled the country since independence. It therefore means that it must also be challenged by how it can effectively manage its relationship and interactions with the civilian population particularly the communities where it is based or deployed for internal security operation (ISO).
While exercising its statutory responsibilities, it is obvious that a certain level of interaction must take place between members of the armed forces and the civil populace and this is in spite of the fact that both of them possess characteristics that are quite different from each other. For instance, the military is hierarchical in command and control, based on discipline, regimentation, based on obedience tenet, etc. The civil society by contrast is democratic, has a mix of disciplined and undisciplined people, not regimented, human rights-crazy, and does a lot argument, and questioning of authority.
It is also important to note that the military is controlled by the political authority and is often deployed to perform roles that involve use of force and coercion in order to achieve a set objective, like conflict resolution or restoration of peace and security in the society. In the course of doing this, a section of the public might kick against their presence for different reasons which might include a failure on the part of some personnel, being subject to human imperfections, may be accused of bias or excessive use of force. On the other hand, cases abound where there are obvious provocation of military personnel in operation by the civilian community. Suffice it to say that the source of friction, mutual distrust and suspicion that occur in the course of this inevitable interaction between the civilians and the military in a particular milieu of operation, could be located in either side of the divide.
There is therefore the need for restraint on both sides, military and civilian alike, and most especially on the part of the military which is known as a disciplined body of officers and men. Moreover, in democracies, legal violence or the power of coercion is not to be used often, as the misuse of military power can alienate citizens from both the governments and the military. Both government and the military need the citizens especially for support in war time, internal security operations or peace support missions. These obvious needs call for positive civil-military relations in the country.
It is in the clear realization of this imperative that the Nigerian military has mainstreamed civil-military relations in its strategic plans, knowing that the success or otherwise of its operations, depends to a large extent on the quality of its relationship with the civilian populace. In fact, rigid and fixed mindsets and perceptions have made it difficult for many civilians and civilian groups to appreciate the noble roles of the military. From the Defence Headquarters to the Services, measures have been taken to give fresh impetus towards the improvement of civil-military relations. To this end, full-fledged departments or directorates had been created for civil-military relations, from Headquarters level down to Division, Brigade and Battalion levels (for NA – and equivalent formations in NN and NAF), to operationalize the strategic relationship with the civil populace.
The whole essence is to collapse the wall of mutual distrust and build bridges of understanding, solidarity and partnership between the people and their military; and more importantly, to win the hearts and minds of the people. The task of obtaining, growing and sustaining cooperation and support is however, a difficult one that requires members of the armed forces to proactively respect and be subject to the imperatives of the rule of law, allegiance to civil authority, transparency and accountability of operations, and respect for human rights. In addition, they need the skills of effective communication, negotiation and conflict management to be able to earn the trust, confidence and respect of the civil populace.
At the Defence Headquarters, the Chief of Defence Staff, General Gabriel Abayomi Olonisakin, since assumption of office has placed civil-military relations in the front burner. As an accomplished military strategist, he understands the indispensability of a healthy civil-military relationship, especially in times like these when the Nigerian military, apart from the war against the Boko Haram terrorists it is prosecuting in the north east, is engaged in multiplicity of internal security operations through the instrumentality of Joint Task Forces, in various parts of the country. Gen Olonisakin believes that civil-military relations transcends information management, and that it demands the highest level of community relations’ competencies and actions that involve effective communication, respect for human rights, rule of law, negotiation and conflict management skills, accountability as well as responsiveness. According to him, “You can win the war but how do you win the peace if not by winning the hearts and minds of the people”.
In effort to always win the hearts and minds of the Nigerian people, especially people in the communities where the military are deployed for internal security operations, the Defence Headquarters and indeed the Services, have had cause to embark on a number of quick impact projects and humanitarian services aimed at ameliorating their sufferings and hardships occasioned by the crisis in their area. The Nigerian military is known to have built clinics and provided medical services, constructed schools, roads and bridges and sunk boreholes and cleared gutters, and so on, for various communities across the country where they were either deployed or domiciled. And to assure the public of its determination to stamp out incidences of human right abuses by overzealousness military personnel, Human Right Desks have been established in the Services to investigate reported cases of such infractions. A case in point was the vexatious mistreatment of a crippled man in Onitsha by a couple of soldiers for wearing military camouflage. On receiving the report, the military authority promptly arrested the erring soldiers, court marshaled them and sentenced them for their gross misconduct. The prompt action of the military authority in such matters underscores its determination to match words with action in matters that has the capacity to strain the cherished relationship with the civil populace.
A critical dimension in the whole gamut of civil-military relations is the relationship between the military and the media. The media acting as the watchdog of the society and all the institutions in it, including the military, see it as a constitutional obligation to report every activity of the military. In carrying out such responsibility, the media often come into direct confrontation with the military who as a fighting force, most definitely do not like to put every of its activity or operation into public domain. Therein in lies the point of disagreement between the two groups, because each believes in its own modus operandi and sees the actions of the other as meddlesomeness or imperiousness.
Without any doubt, the relationship between the military and the media is one of the pillars of civil-military relations. This supposition is underpinned by the fact that both institutions – media and the military- are significantly indispensable in the progressive running of any society. They indeed play different roles and might see things from different point of view but in the matters of national security, peace and progress, they must understand, promote, protect and appreciate each other as partners in progress and co-stakeholders in the overriding task of nation building.
It becomes therefore most imperative to seek ways that will bridge the communication gap between the two critical institutions, to push further the search for enduring partnership and by extension, civil-military relations. The Directorate of Defence Information at the Defence Headquarters and the of course the public relations and information departments of the Services were created not only to inform the public of the activities, developments and operations of the Nigerian military, most often via the media, but to also to serve as the go-between for the military and the general public. Suffice it to say that it is these public relation departments that directly interface with media practitioners who in turn disseminates the information to the general public.
The Director of Defence Information (DDI), Major General John Enenche believes strongly in establishing a very cordial relationship with the media. This he demonstrated by embarking on familiarization visits to a number of media houses across the county as soon as he assumed office. Apart from regular press briefing he conducts at the DHQ and press statements he issues as soon as any development occurs, his Directorate organizes bi-annual capacity building workshop for Defence correspondents with the aim of improving the understanding of reporting sensitive defence/security information.
Gen Enenche who also doubles as the Chairman of the Forum of Spokespersons of Security and Response Agencies (FOSSRA), is convinced of the place of the media as a major stakeholder in the business of defending and securing our dear country and as such, the military will at all times seek the understanding, support and partnership of the ‘Fourth Estate of the Realm’. In his maiden press briefing, the DDI made it clear to the Defence correspondents that his doors will open to them at any time they wish to seek clarification or make enquiries about the activities of the Nigerian Armed Forces in general and the Defence Headquarters in particular.
The same is true at the Services level where the activities of each of the various Services are disseminated to the public through the instrumentality of the mass media.
Without doubt, instances abound when the relationship between the media and the military was strained, due to some lacuna or communication gap or even overzealousness on the part of either of the parties, or arising from the nature of their jobs; but the good thing is that at the end of the day, there is always a deliberate and conscious effort of the military to want to amend the relationship knowing that it can only reach the civil populace better and more effectively through the media.
Overall, the civil-military relations in Nigeria today is improving and daily gaining traction as the leadership of the military are not leaving any stone unturned to ensure that its personnel adhere strictly to their rules of engagement. The military also recognizes the importance of corporate social responsibility to host communities and is always ready to deepen its relationship with the people through community relations approach. The people on the other hands, are always appreciative of the efforts of the military to make life better for them either through infrastructural developments of humanitarian services. The people also do not shy away to call out the military when any of its personnel acts unprofessionally.
Yes, there has been occasional reports of misuse of power or overzealousness of military personnel, especially at the lower cadre level, the conscious effort of the authorities to reassure the public of its commitment to professionalism by prompt sanctioning of erring personnel, are not lost on the public. There are still a lot of rooms for improvement in this all important relationship but surely it is waxing stronger.