Agnes, a petty trader in Nyanya, a suburb of the FCT had taken ill and found herself at the Military Hospital in Mogadishu Cantonment, popularly known as “Abacha Barracks”.
To her astonishment, doctors who attended to her – military men at that hospital were very friendly. That singular experience completely changed her perceptions about soldiers – persons she had viewed as brutal people, who should be avoided at all costs. “Before now, I saw soldiers as a very hostile human beings” she says.
Political analysts note that the military has been a prominent part of the nation’s political history. The soldiers quit the nation’s political stage in 1999 when the nation returned to democratic rule.
Many citizens recall that over the years, there had been cases of soldiers’ brushes with civilians, which resulted in dire consequences. This unhealthy trend posed great concern to various authorities, which felt that a healthier relationship ought to be fostered between civilians and military men.
Air Chief Marshal Paul Dike, the Chief of Defence Staff, acknowledges the importance of a harmonious civilian-military relationship and says that it cannot be overemphasized.
Many high-ranking officers stress that military men ought not to be seen, under any circumstances, as combating the very citizens, from whose taxes they are paid.
It was not surprising therefore, that the Defence Headquarters, commissioned a team of consultants to sensitise military personnel on the importance of cordial relationship with the larger society.
The effort culminated in a Plan of Action, contained in a document entitled – “Winning Hearts and Minds: A Community Relations Approach for the Nigerian Military”.
The document, which was publicly presented in Abuja recently, is expected to be a reference for the nation’s armed forces on civilian-military relations. Perceptive observers view with satisfaction, the military hierarchy’s desire to change the negative mindset of the civil populace about soldiers. They say that an armed force that is pro-people, citizen-friendly, responsive and professional, is sine qua non for the nation.
At the presentation ceremony, ex-Minister of Defence, retired Maj.-Gen. Godwin Abbe, said that a virile civilian-military relationship was crucial to good governance. According to him, “any nation that has undergone the type of political history that we had, will need a dedicated programme which is focused on viable civilian-military relations”.
Democracy cannot thrive without support from a strong and properly led military, hence civilian-military relations should be strengthened.
Abbe added: “ The military, as an integral part of the larger society, has a duty to defend the society, while the society in turn should reciprocate by ensuring that the military had adequate tools to perform its sacred duties.” He saw the plan of action as timely, considering the challenges confronting the country’s nascent democracy.
Dike, on his part, lamented about the rigid mindset and perceptions, which made it difficult for some civilians to appreciate the noble role of the military.
According to the defence chief, the community relations programme was initiated “to expand, complement and strengthen the existing civilian-military strategies.’’ He, however, warned that efforts at a harmonious relationship between civilians and soldiers should not be a “one-way traffic” for officers alone.
“It will be misleading to think that community relations are a one-way traffic. Indeed it takes two to tango. “In effect, civil-military relations are complementary, reciprocal, and depend as much on the military as on civilians, “ he stressed.
He described the document, facilitated by Professors Ebere Onwudiwe and Eghosa Osaghae, as a “cardinal point” of the armed forces’ community relations programme, which will involve sustained engagements and interactions.
The hierarchy says that the action plan is the first phase of a comprehensive community relations programme, which focused on military officers and men. According to Dike, the next stage of the programme will be directed at civilian constituencies, which include stakeholders as legislators, civil society groups, traditional rulers and the media.
Prof. Atahiru Jega, the Vice Chancellor of the Bayero University, Kano, who reviewed the 113-page document, said that issues raised in it covered human rights, conflict management, communication skills and the rule of law. Said he: “ The introduction of this document is a giant step in the right direction, as it brings new perspectives to civilian-military relations.”
To many Nigerians, the effort by the military to re-define their relationship with civilians is a welcome development.
The Chairman of Nigeria Union of Journalists (FCT Chapter), Mr Jacob Edi, says he is impressed that relations between civilians and the military are now better than ever.
“It is interesting to note that the military people now know that they need to defer to civil authorities. “If all of us are not above the law, it means that they are ready to submit themselves to the laws of the land, which are managed by civil operators. “I think that both the civilians and military are now ready to work together,” he says.
Police spokesman at Force headquarters in Abuja, ACP Emmanuel Ojukwu, points out that civilian-military relations are improving by the day. “The public is getting to better understand the military and their role in safeguarding the country,” he says. He adds: “The military are also learning how to subordinate themselves to civil authority; it is part of the democratic experience and it is a learning process.”
The Chairman of the Nigerian Institute of Public Relations (NIPR), Mr Emma Okoro also notices remarkable improvement in civilian-military relations. Okoro gives great credit to media practitioners, who he says “brought the military to the people”.
“Before, they were aloof but journalists in Nigeria have done a lot. The military is also adjusting itself to standard practices in the world.
Many citizens see the developing trend as good and healthy for the durability of the nation’s nascent democracy.