How using the military in Nigeria is causing, not solving problems

Soldiers patrol the Nigerian city of Jos, in the central Plateu State, in a bid to quell religious violence. EPA/George Esiri

Governments have a responsibility to protect their citizens against external aggression and internal violence. The first is usually the responsibility of the military. The second duty falls on the police.

But in Nigeria, the government often deploys the military to restore order and to keep the peace. This is largely due to the inability of the police to contain violent conflicts, particularly in areas where armed groups are active.

This is the situation in Jos, the capital of Plateau State in the centre of Nigeria, just north of the administrative capital Abuja. The military has been used to maintain security since violence broke out between Christians and Muslims in September 2001.

The violence has evolved into one of the most enduring conflicts in Nigeria. Initially, angry young people used crude implements such as axes, sticks and machetes. Now various organised ethnic and religious militias wield small arms and light weapons. The conflict has spilled over into most parts of the state, with a pattern of hit-and-run attacks developing.

Several studies have indicated support the use of the military as a “necessary evil” to ensure the return to peace in the region.

But my study found that using the military to quell internal conflicts and restore order causes several problems. These included undermining the legitimacy of the military mission, as well as failing to quell the violence. In my PhD thesis I concluded that the conduct of soldiers only worsens the security situation for ordinary people.

I identified two factors as responsible for the problems. The first was a lack of military professionalism. Soldiers often intimidate and coerce civilians. They also engage in corruption and extortion, especially at military checkpoints. Some soldiers also subject civilians to psychological and emotional abuse. Yet others engage in blatant and flagrant acts of sexual and gender-based violence.

The second factor I identified was the fact that the command-and-control structure of the military is at odds with the way society operates.

These problems could be addressed with effective civil control of the military. But the study argues that civil control is weak in the country.

The use of the military

The response of the Nigerian government to growing levels of insecurity has increasingly been to use the military. Several peace and security conferences and commissions of inquiry have been instituted. But these yielded little or no result due to the lack of political will by the government to implement the recommendations.

The military has been deployed because of the weaknesses and inadequacies of the Nigerian police. Inadequate training, shortage of manpower as well as policing equipment, coupled with excesses have added to the erosion of public trust in the police and their legitimacy.

But the use of the military has introduced a host of new problems.

In my study I set out to understand whether the Nigerian state is exercising adequate civil control of the military to ensure that it doesn’t become a threat to the citizenry and exacerbate insecurity. I conducted 55 one-on-one interviews with civilians in six local government areas in Plateau State.

The study found that civilians see the military as exacerbating insecurity. For example, increased militarisation has led to people’s movements and activities being severely restricted. And several emergency rules have been declared. These have involved suspending civilian government and replacing it with military administrators.

Another finding was that dereliction of duty is rife among soldiers, with some choosing which distress calls from citizens to respond to or not.

On top of this, there’s tension between military culture and civilian values. The military operates a culture which follows an authoritarian leadership style, and is combat-focused. For their part, civilians are more likely to seek resolution to issues and to use the criminal justice system to adjudicate problems.

This has led to relations between civilians and the military becoming severely strained.

Lack of civil control

A bigger problem is the weak civil control over the Nigerian military. This has led to a lack of accountability and compliance with rules of engagement.

Nigerian law subordinates the military to civil control and parliamentary oversight. Ideally, this should ensure that the military acts within its mission and mandate. But, the problem lies with implementation. The culture of civilian supremacy over the military is not as yet well institutionalised.

The result is that citizens counteract abuse by the military in various ways. One way is to simply comply with the demands and orders of the soldiers, even when they are illegitimate. Another entails non-violent resistance or non-compliance. For example, it’s common for civilians to refuse to cooperate and share information with the military.

A third way is to collaborate with compromised soldiers. The fourth is to use various forms of violent resistance. This involves people either aligning with armed groups, or forming their own. This proliferation of armed groups worsens insecurity.

My study also showed a sharp difference of opinions between people of different religions. Christians contended that the military was biased in favour of Muslims. For their part, Muslims didn’t share this view.

What needs to happen

The use of the military is not an effective intervention against internal armed conflict. This is especially so in states with weak institutional control over the military as is the case in Nigeria.

The more recent setting up of a peace building agency is a more plausible alternative towards bringing the violent conflict to an end through effective mediation and peace education. The use of the military needs to be reconsidered and the peace building agency should focus on reuniting people and bridging the gap between the reactive security measures with proactive conflict prevention strategies. This is the only way in which trust and relative peace can be restored in this once peaceful Nigerian state.