There is a lot that Nigerians do not know about their army. Would you believe, for instance, that the Nigerian army actually conducts world-class training on how to avoid civilian “collateral” casualties during its operations? Have you ever imagined how tough it could be to fight an enemy that doesn’t wear uniforms; has no easily-identifiable command and control headquarters; no easily-delineable territory; that has blended with the civilian population in our towns and villages…how easy it is to employ the appropriate level of force in the right place and at the right time of the day to neutralize such an enemy?
Have you ever thought of that as a Nigerian living in Lagos or Ibadan where you don’t have to worry (yet) so much? During its operations against the asymmetric warfare unleashed on the country by the hydra-headed Boko Haram monster, would you believe that the Nigerian military goes to great lengths, often at huge, mortal risks to its members, to put their training to practice in order to avoid harming non-combatants caught in the crossfires?
Senior military officers from over 40 Africa countries (many of them Generals and Chiefs of their respective armies), along with senior officers from the United States, Brazil and NATO who attended the 6th African Land Forces Summit (ALFS) in Abuja recently were treated to one such demonstration of the capability of the Nigerian military to carry out a complex and deadly operation while avoiding harm to civilians. The demonstration, which took place at the General Owoeye Andrew Azazi Barracks in Gwagwalada, Abuja, featured a Special Operations assault with the objective of capturing the leader of an insurgency in a residential area. Obviously a multi-spectrum, intelligence-driven assault, the operation was carried out with textbook precision just like it is taught in some of the most advanced military training institutions in the world.
You had the initial “shock and awe” of explosions that heralded the surprise attack, confusing the target; you had the roar of transport helicopters that flew dexterously around the objective providing close air support, and from which armed soldiers who would surgically neutralize the target were inserted by rappelling under the screening of smoke while nearby soldiers laid down suppressive fires to keep the enemy from fighting back. And above, a drone flew precariously beneath the choppers providing real-time update to the troops about enemy activities. The infiltration and exfiltration (by dirt bikes) of the troops were textbook operation anywhere in the world.
And would you believe that among the soldiers that rappelled from one of the helicopters was a young female Special Operations soldier (yes, a FEMALE!) – PVT Shelly Blessing – who performed just as good as her male counterparts…just as good as she was trained? Rappelling down a rope that is dangling from a stationary, 10-foot wall is hard enough. But try doing it from a helicopter hovering at 60 feet in a blinding smoke mixed with dust, 90 degrees blazing heat and the threat of enemy fire and you’ll have a new-found respect for the Nigerian soldier.
And if that soldier is a young female, you should be proud as a Nigerian that people like PVT Blessing are putting their lives on the line everyday so you can sleep tight at night and go about your business in the morning without hindrance or fear. The Nigerian soldiers, when properly-kitted and remunerated, are second to none in putting the fear of God in the enemy.
At the end of that demonstration, Lt. General Tukur Buratai who was in attendance, and under whose leadership the Nigerian army has returned to building on the reorientation and professionalization foundation laid by former President Olusegun Obasanjo and his first Defense Minister, TY Danjuma, led a proud standing ovation for the Special Forces team. Several members of the delegation sought out those troops for photographs.
But conspicuously missing at the event were journalists. Although the NTA and Channels television stations were accredited to cover the event, none of them was at the Azazi Barracks event that could definitely have served to enhance the image of the army. The media missed golden opportunities to tell stories of how the army painstakingly and often perilously avoids civilian casualties while conducting complex operations against enemies waging unconventional warfare from within the populace.
There is indeed a lot that Nigerians do not know about their military. Would you believe, for instance, that the military now routinely metes out severe punishments ranging from reduction in pay and rank to outright dismissal from service and incarceration of its members found guilty by assaulting civilians? Would you believe that the Nigerian Army now assembles whole trucks in Nigeria; that it now manufactures in Nigeria some vehicle spare parts, body armour (bullet-proof vests), combat helmet, combat boots, service shoes and, of course, uniforms?
You wouldn’t see these laudable efforts and more unless you visit the Nigerian Army Resource Center in Abuja where they were on display for the ALFS delegation. Many of the ALFS military leaders were openly in awe of what they saw. A few of them were heard wondering why Nigeria did not advertise its resourcefulness and expertise in the production of some of these hardware to other African countries so that she can earn foreign exchange and at the same time save other African countries the higher cost of buying from outside the continent. Almost everybody took out their phones and started taking pictures.
Inside the Resource Center building was a mini museum adorned with mock-ups and actual light infantry weapons used in the two World Wars. There were several pictures that had hardly ever been published, of past and present Nigerian military officers – Maimalari, Ogundipe, Ironsi, Fajuyi, Ademulegun, Ojukwu, Babangida, Effiong, Gowon, Obasanjo, Danjuma, and a host of others. There was a picture of a young, tall and lanky officer clearing a high jump bar that was taller than him. It was Buratai!
Again, what were conspicuously absent were members of the Nigerian media. The Nigerian army trains hard; very hard. And it fights just as hard as it trains. It engages in numerous humanitarian activities, especially in rural communities. It does these things as good as (or even better than) many armies around the world. These are acts that will humanize them and endear them to Nigerians, instead of the derision (borne out of fear) that they face from Nigerians most of the time. The rest of the world also needs to see that the Nigerian army is no longer a large band of thuggish, coup-prone junta, but more as a world-class, professional, disciplined and dedicated outfit that it has now become.
The army must start telling and showing the world how it patriotically and honourably conducts the business of defending the territorial integrity of Nigeria; how it provides the enabling condition that fosters security which is the bedrock of the growth of democracy and economic prosperity for any nation. The army, and indeed the military as a whole, must bring its good activities closer to the people or bring the people closer to its services.
The American military opens most of its activities to the general public, including videos of combat operations and even funerals of fallen members. That’s why it is common in the US to see civilians hug random military personnel in the malls, offer them choice seats on airplanes and even pick up their bills at restaurants and supermarkets. The narrative needs to change from stories that earn the army blame and opprobrium – images such as that of soldiers that harm civilians and burn down villages and of soldiers rolling armored personnel carriers down the street of “innocent” civilian Nnamdi Kanu of IPOB.
The Nigerian military personnel are no longer the monsters that people used to think they were. The job of changing that perception is mainly that of the military. And it is almost as important as winning on the battlefield against Boko Haram or ISIS.
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