By Tunji Ajibade
The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara, made an observation recently. It was about national security and the military. Dogara was at an event organised by his fellow lawmakers in collaboration with another entity. There he expressed his worries that Nigeria was permanently in a state of emergency. This was because our Armed Forces were deployed in more than 28 states (out of 36) in peacetime. The military had taken over routine police work. It was no longer acting in aid of civil authorities. The military had become the civil authorities, the Speaker stated, reminding us also of what Section 217 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) specifies as the role of the officers in khaki.
I’ve always thought the leader of the House of Reps is circumspect in his comments. I had watched him, and concluded that he was a composed and organised person, thoughtfully careful. He appears intelligent to me, too, and more than qualified to manage the seat he occupies. Each time any of our leaders comments on the challenges that confront us, it gives me an opportunity to ponder. One reason is that comments from such high profile individuals get public attention, even when they comment on issues that we are all aware of. Two, one gets to know that the high official notices what the rest of us have already noticed. Why is this second point significant?
What the Speaker said had occurred to me rather shockingly back in late 2015. I was on the road, undertaking a night journey from Kaduna to Lagos. There were states where soldiers erected roadblocks on highways at about five to 10-kilometre interval, causing motorists to form long queues. Motorists must pay before soldiers allowed them to drive past. Drivers of minibuses loaded with commodity had more trouble. Soldiers mentioned the amount they wanted and issued threats when they were not given. If the motorist said he did not have a certain naira denomination, he would be asked to hand over the money and soldiers would go around in search of “change”. Their conduct that time was that of uncontrolled rascals at a motor park. I felt our soldiers were embarrassing me as a Nigerian. I had noticed from my subsequent trips on this same route that it was only in the night soldiers engaged in this embarrassing act. They neither checked vehicles, the persons in the vehicle nor the load they carried; they were simply on extortion duty. The driver of a minibus with load said he spent about N3,000 in the course of the trip on these soldiers. By the time he was in Ibadan, he was making calls to his fellow drivers asking for money to refuel.
I was to regret that I didn’t have an appropriate recording device on me that night. I wished I had secretly recorded these soldiers who had put on display such a show of shame. I would have uploaded the recording on the internet, for the world to judge. Two weeks after this incident, I had an encounter with a soldier in the public space during which he seemed to expect that I should automatically give him respected treatment because he was in uniform. I conducted the entire affair in a way that should inform him that if he wanted elevated treatment, he should go to his barracks and get it from his subordinates. Everyone is equal in the public place where respect can neither be automatic nor commanded. Respect is earned. Of course, on that particular occasion, I was still smarting from the disgraceful conduct of his fellow soldiers that I had witnessed in the course of my night journey. Talk of transferred anger.
There was also another time I was on the Bauchi-Potiskum-Kano road at midday. These soldiers set up a roadblock. The vehicle that had stopped and which one of the soldiers was attending to was a mass transit mini-bus owned by a state government. The soldier asked the driver for money. Were these drivers given money by the government to settle soldiers on the road? That time, the driver said he had no money. The soldier said the driver should park, and he issued threats. The driver gave the soldier money, and moved on. I had tried to see the name of the soldier on his uniform. But he wore a bulletproof vest, so the name was hidden. I assumed he deliberately hid his name because of the disgraceful thing he was engaged in on the road. In both cases, some Nigerian soldiers used the cover of darkness to extort money, while others hid identities as they engaged in the same illegality.
On both occasions, one thought that had occurred to me was how the presence of the military had become so prominent across our states. The military isn’t in power, but it acts as though it is in power. Nigeria effectively runs a military state supervised by civilians, if civilians indeed do supervise. For as the Speaker had further noted in his observation, past experience which saw a powerful military exercise absolute control and authority over the machinery of government had translated to the current challenge of getting these (military) institutions to subject themselves to legislative scrutiny. The consequence of this, as Dogara stated, was inadequate and inefficient delivery of security to citizens, as well as lack of accountability and transparency with regard to security expenditure. He however pointed out that the House of Reps had amended the Public Procurement Act to make the Armed Forces more accountable in at least procurement matters.
It was good the Speaker and fellow lawmakers had taken a step regarding how to get the military to abide by rules of financial probity. What he was silent about was what his House wished to do to get the military back to their barracks. This is important, and it leads me to the question of how our current structure hinders our political and economic development. What I refer to here has come to be better known in the call for restructuring. Any politician who professes not to see the correlation between our present retarded condition and political structure commits a fallacy. He’s either being mischievous, or has a narrow, selfish and sectional interest to protect. Everyone knows that the powers in the hand of the central government and the resources it controls hinder the effectiveness of the sub-structures.
Yes, a claim may be made that inefficiency and corruption in the use of both power and resources contribute to the current state. But the structure contributes more. What the states are willing to do as their contribution to national development, the current power structures prevents them from doing it. For instance, states can generate electricity and distribute to their citizens thus assisting industries to thrive in their domain which leads to better revenue to run government. But the current power configuration stipulates that states cannot generate electricity and also distribute to their people. They must send it to the national grid and it may not fully benefit their people. We know this has made some states to “sit-down” look. They do not have any incentive to harness the potential power in their territory and put it to use. How does this affect our development? Big factories close down and relocate due to inadequate and epileptic power supply. Small scale businesses suffer and have to close. Unemployment worsens. Higher level of poverty is another outcome Crime rate soars. Kidnapping. Highway robbery. The grand effect is that the military is called to duty. This is the origin of the observation that Dogara made, and it’s here he has more role to play than acknowledge that indeed we have a serious challenge.
The Speaker and his fellow lawmakers should think of solutions. It’s how his observation counts for something. We know for instance that some of the issues that lead to more deployment of soldiers have to be addressed through the lawmaking process. Thanks to the states that are bold enough to stare the central government in the face and exercise their authority in those areas where the constitution currently permits them. Now, it’s the contribution of lawmakers to the legal-related hindrances to our development that I wish to see. This should form a huge chunk of the marks Nigerians allot to the current National Assembly. Punch