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Keep military strictly out of politics | MHNG Editorial Pick of the Week

Source: Punch

Keep military strictly out of politics

The country’s most senior generals stumbled into an avoidable political storm recently by appearing at the public launch of President Muhammadu Buhari’s 2019 re-election bid. Reactions to media photographs of the military service chiefs were fast and furious: the presence of the chiefs of Defence Staff, Air Force and Navy at the partisan jamboree rightly drew the ire of opposition parties and candidates and sent danger signals to Nigerians.

The images were vivid and scary: newspapers published photographs of three of the four most senior generals – Abayomi Olonisakin, the Chief of Defence Staff; Abubakar Sadique, the Chief of Air Staff; and Ibok-Ete Ibas, the Chief of Naval Staff. They were among senior government appointees and the All Progressives Congress party members at the inauguration of Buhari’s campaign tagged, “Next Level,” in Abuja. This is reckless. It violates a cardinal principle of democratic rule that security personnel should always be insulated from politics. It becomes even more ominous when the country’s most senior officers, who command thousands of troops, appear at political events. For a population that endured 28 of its 58 years as an independent nation under military rule, the faux pas should not be repeated.

As usual, the Presidency’s response has been pathetic and unconvincing. The explanation by the President’s Senior Special Assistant on Media, Garba Shehu, that the Service Chiefs “were mistaken in their assumption that this was a non-political event to showcase the achievements of the administration, the success of which they are a part,” cannot stand scrutiny. His admission that they left “quickly even before the arrival of the President” after the Defence Minister, Mansur Dan-Ali, asked them to leave “as this was a political gathering,” exposes the government and the military hierarchy as bumbling and careless.

The Presidency’s assertion that the “fuss over this is therefore absolutely unnecessary,” is wrong. Actually, its insensitivity is a serious cause for concern and the opposition and ordinary Nigerians should fret. There is plenty of blame to go round: the Presidency is not well grounded in democratic norms to understand the importance of insulating the military from politics; the APC, which, a few years ago in opposition, protested the partisanship of the military over Buhari’s School Certificate and in elections in Ekiti and Osun states, is also culpable. The military bosses cannot claim ignorance of the nature of the event they were attending: it was widely publicised and they should have exercised discretion to have politely declined the invitation.

For democracy to thrive in Nigeria, there must be an attitudinal change by career public servants and the heads of security agencies. Yes, they must be loyal to the Commander-in-Chief in the performance of their lawful duties; but loyalty to the country must triumph when the two collide. Olonisakin, Sadique and Ibas would have lost nothing if they had pointed out the inappropriateness of their invitations to the event. Such principled conduct is the standard in mature democracies. Though its independence was obtained by war and its first president was its chief general, America’s founding fathers went to great lengths to enshrine the doctrine of separating the military from politics.

The migrant wave at the United States border offers some clues to how professionals walk the tight rope between loyalty to the C-in-C and to conscience. While President Donald Trump has authorised US troops sent to turn back the immigrants “with lethal force,” the country’s defence chiefs have wisely chosen to arm troops with nothing more lethal than batons, for now. Subordination of the military to civil authority also underpins the United Kingdom’s public policy.

Nigerians have reasons to be concerned. They have witnessed how, over the years, police, the State Security Service and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, have inserted themselves into the political arena: from harassment of opposition figures to collusion in electoral fraud and intimidation, our political leaders and security chiefs have often failed the test of neutrality. Many owe personal allegiance to whoever is president rather than to the country. Jeff Sessions, recently sacked as the US attorney-general, refused to compromise his office at the bidding of Trump, who appointed him, re-asserting a tradition of principled neutrality and national service in public office that underpins that country’s success.

We should imbibe the tradition of an apolitical military. Countries emerging from military rule that fail to euthanise the institution from politics suffer instability, repression and stunted growth. In Burma (Myanmmar), the departing military junta, under the 2008 constitution, reserved a quarter of parliamentary seats to itself, made the C-in-C separate from, and independent of, the political leadership. Because of this, the civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi is powerless to stop the military’s pogrom against the Rohingya minority.  Pakistan’s military runs a “deep state,” pursues an independent foreign policy and topples governments; its feared Inter-Services Intelligence Unit is said to have facilitated the recent ascension to power of Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party. Between 1960 and 1997, Turkey’s pro-secular military removed four governments, three by coups and one by behind-the-scenes intrigue, until being recently curbed by current president, Recep Erdogran. Zimbabwe’s former president, Robert Mugabe, deliberately incorporated the military into politics to sustain his rule that ended in 2017 only when the generals turned against him. In the process, the economy was ruined, the polity divided and the democracy failed to grow deep roots.

Buhari and the Service Chiefs should aspire to global best practices. The military, like the judiciary and other security forces, should be completely insulated from partisan politics. As 2019 elections draw nearer, the military must not be deployed for partisan political purposes. Olonisakin, Ibas and Sadique should do the honourable thing by admitting they were wrong: they and their successors should never fall into the same morass in future.


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