No matter how the men and officers of the Nigerian Army spin it, our soldiers are facing a crisis in their reputation management. The army’s image has taken a battering in the last few weeks that, perhaps, only the dictatorial era of Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha compared to what ails “the largest component of the Nigerian Armed Forces” as the army describes itself.
Too often, the army expects us to overlook its excesses and infractions on the basis of the work soldiers do fighting wars and protecting Nigeria’s territorial integrity. To a large extent though, the Nigerian Army is acquitting itself seemingly well on that front. The war against Boko Haram, even though with the attendant propaganda, a legitimate weapon in war, is gaining traction compared to what we have in the recent past.
But I write of the various internal operations, which our soldiers are engaged in, across our country. Clearly, those operations are contributing in no little measure to the reputational crisis the Nigerian Army is faced with presently. If those operations are named with a view of intimidating citizens of the operational areas, the army is succeeding beyond measure in not only intimidating but in losing the support of the very citizens the operations were designed to help.
The slapdash way the army tried to ingratiate itself in the minds of those citizens where it is carrying out its operations is a classic lesson for reputation managers on crisis management. At a basic level, it reminds me of my mother, a classic Nigerian mother, who canes her child and still prevents the child from crying. Even when some of the pictures circulated might be doctored, our soldiers have not acquitted themselves creditably in those areas. Accusations of rapes, farmland destructions and serial harassments have trailed the army from the Niger delta to the eastern parts of Nigeria.
Of course it’s an aberration for soldiers to be involved in internal security but the fact of their involvement does not give permission for what some soldiers engage in during deployment. Critics of communities that rejected soldiers’ medical care missed the point by failing to look at the deep feelings of those communities, which have been under the jackboot of military occupation. People that have been harassed and subjected to indignity of all forms cannot accept ordinary vitamin c tablets from their oppressors. And even while the claim of vaccination against monkey pox which by the way has no vaccine, seems farfetched, nobody should blame parents and guardians who stormed the schools to withdraw their children.
Watching the health minister last week after the federal executive council meeting rhapsodizing about the military excellent medical competence and facilities shows that our government is still missing the point. Military hospitals globally are among the most efficient and the ones in Nigeria are no exception, but our soldiers cannot force citizens to like or appreciate them without seeking to understand those communities more deeply. Five states, at the last count, have rejected military medical missions. Rivers, Bayelsa, Anambra, Ondo and Kwara have all shunned free medical interventions and this should make not only the Directorate of Army Public Relations (DAPL) worried, but also the top echelon of the Nigerian Army. It feeds further the stereotype of “Their Army versus Our Army” where some still do not see the army as all embracing and all encompassing for all citizens. This dichotomy did not start today and so we cannot blame the present government totally for the aberration.
Failure to mitigate it or tackling it is the issue we should all be more concerned with. We should be further concerned that appointments of Nigerians from different nationalities as chief of army staff have not led to more acceptance of the army. Reading Honour for Sale, a book by Debo Basorun, left me depressed that the army has been the way it is presently for more than five decades. Granted that the book is a personal recollection, the feeling of ‘superiority’ persists till date among our soldiers and this shows in their interaction with non-soldiers just as soldiers from certain parts of the country feel they are more important than other soldiers.
The Nigerian Army has a lot to do to win back the hearts of Nigerians. Social media’s ubiquitousness, however, is not helping our soldiers as most of their excesses hardly escape citizens’ scrutiny. Seven years ago, I was a guest speaker at the annual DAPL’s conference held at the 1 Division in Kaduna. The lieutenant assigned to pick me from the airport was the epitome of civility and he told me of how proud he is to wear the uniform. He shared stories of his missions outside the country and how our soldiers are well respected on such missions. The traffic that afternoon was hellish from the airport to my hotel in central Kaduna, but this soldier resisted the temptation to do anything silly on the wheels even as I was observing him. We stayed the course and I commended him for his conduct, a point I also made before my lecture the next day.
We need to see more of such soldiers in the army so that eventually we can all say “our army”.