In the recent instances where some officers of the Nigerian Army have brought the institution to some disrepute, the defence in their official statements tends to emphasise the military ethos of ‘discipline.’ For instance, when the Chief of Army Staff, Lt. Gen. Lagbaja, commented on the soldier(s) who insulted the Lagos State Governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, for ordering the arrest of one of their colleagues, he reminded us—several times, in fact—that the army was about ‘discipline.’
Again, in the press release issued to refute Ruth Ogunleye, one of their officers who also made a video alleging sexual abuse and maltreatment by her named senior officers, they restated that they were a “disciplined force” —a tautology. Their having to reiterate an essence about them that should otherwise be taken for granted betrays their anxieties about their public image. Some of the emphasis is likely an overreaction to the repeated invocation of the term in the flurry of comments that attended the Sanwo-Olu incident. Almost every observer, understandably shocked by the development, wondered what happened to army ‘discipline.’
But once you remove the novelty of soldiers making videos to insult a sitting governor, there is no new revelation there. Nigerian soldiers are renowned for various acts of physical abuse and general misconduct. The soldiers in those videos did not say anything out of how we understand their character. The only people who probably believe that the Army represents ‘discipline’ in the public imagination must be the crafters of those press releases. Yes, I am aware that COAS Lagbaja said only one of those whose videos made the rounds was their officer; the rest were impostors.
But that assertion itself is rather curious. Why would some ordinary civilians (if that is what they are) care so much about the fate of a random soldier that they would take the risk to impersonate an officer, make videos—without hiding their faces—and insult a governor? If they are not your officers, who are they? And what do they have at stake in the matter that they would go that far?
For me, the conceit in those videos is not that those soldiers despise civilian rule but that they assume they are exceptional. Several of them repeated each other’s arrogant claims that since they fight terrorists on behalf of the nation, they have also earned the privilege of being excepted from the rules that bind the rest of society. That mindset is terrifying. We thank them for their services to the nation, but that does not exempt them from following basic rules.
Beyond what is gradually becoming a pattern of beating the public on the head with the information that the order of their nature is ‘discipline,’ maybe the military should rethink how it defines the term. Is there anything in their mode of instilling it that makes some of these soldiers presume they are above the rest of society? That said, while there has been a ton of ink spilled over the case of soldiers running loose mouths against a public officer, I do not think I came across any analyst pointing out that the indiscipline that also underwrote the public arrest that precipitated those insults was not just about the soldier or even the other Okada riders.
Virtually all the op-eds I have read have either justified the governor’s actions (and in almost exaggerated terms) or refused to even acknowledge the overreach. This is by no means justifying the offensive comments, but there was also everything wrong with a civilian governor standing on the road and yelling orders at his security aides to arrest those driving against traffic. When one of them identified himself as a soldier, he shouted “Put him there; let your father come and rescue you. You’re telling me you are a soldier; that is the reason I am going to lock you up!” He also confronted two of the Okada passengers being driven one way and said something to the effect that he could arrest them and put them in the guardroom.
What gives a civilian governor such a right? People have talked a lot about the soldiers lacking discipline, but Sanwo-Olu himself could have done with some self-restraint in that circumstance. The governor is not supposed to usurp the role of a traffic police or the judge. What is the point of the various agencies managing traffic in the state if the governor still stops on the road and asks his security officers to chase down traffic offenders? I also thought that scene of Sanwo-Olu arresting a soldier was the classic irony: a civilian governor arrogating to himself the power to lock someone up—and that was exactly what happened—as if he is a military authority and an actual soldier asking for special treatment for an act bordering on indiscipline.
Both parties represent the slip in our collective standards of administration and public conduct. For those of us who even grew up during the military era, the scene of a governor stopping on the road to enforce rules is familiar. We spent many years pushing back against the military’s excesses only for a civilian governor to be threatening to lock people up in a guard room. Look how far we have come. We later learnt that the soldier arrested by the governor was released based on the intervention of his superior officers. So, what was the public drama all about if he had not committed an offence for which he could be tried? Did he even commit a punishable offence, or did the governor just want to flex his executive might?
Look, I understand the governor’s frustration with pig-headed Lagosians who are so used to doing things the wrong way that they cannot bring themselves to do the right thing. I get a sense of rage that could have driven a governor who would expect that people should—especially in the little things—support government efforts by not trampling on public infrastructure provided to make life a little more bearable. That road where Sanwo-Olu stopped is one of those relatively rare places in our urban centres where a proper sidewalk exists. Yes, it is enraging to watch Okada drivers abuse it.
By subjecting it to unintended uses, they will damage the structure and ultimately roll back the little gains made by building it. I totally understand all of that. Those who drive against traffic are wrong and should be condemned. They should also be punished appropriately. But if there is something that Sanwo-Olu of all people should know, it is the futility of trying to nitpick processes. As hard as it may be, you must look away and let the agencies created to tackle traffic offenders do their jobs.
If there is any intervention that you should make, it is to summon the stakeholders and question why your methods are not working. Think about it, Lagos State has one of the harshest traffic laws in the country. From the humungous amount of money Lagos State charges for traffic offences to the impounding of vehicles, the state is unsparing of traffic offenders. If despite all of that, people are still driving against traffic in broad daylight, then there is a more fundamental problem to be resolved. You are not going to achieve anything significant by chasing people on the streets and locking them up in the guard room.
At best, the effort will merely exhaust you. Look at the military, for instance. When they were in power, they pummelled and punished people to instil ‘discipline’ in them. As soon as they left power, things fell apart. None of their efforts at making model citizens of us stood the test of time because they fundamentally misunderstood the basics of social engineering.
•Abimbola A. Adelakun is an Assistant Professor in the Department of African/African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.