Role of military in civil conflict

The media was recently awash with calls for service chiefs to quit as requested by some senators over the increasing rate of banditry and other crimes in the North-West.  Interestingly, the President and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces has rightly ignored the call for their sack. I agree with the president on this as it appears the Senate does not seem to understand the difference between the role of the military and that of the police in the maintenance of law and order. A better analysis of the constitutional role of the police and army will provide the answer on who is culpable.

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.

Soldiers have been deployed to keep the peace across Nigeria even though the constitutional role of the military is to defend the country against external aggression. The increasing deployment of military forces for internal security operations across the country underscores the profoundly dysfunctional state of Nigeria’s public safety institutions, particularly the ineffectiveness of the police force.

Boko Haram has been waging a brutal war against the Nigerian State with sophisticated weapons since 2009. That has left the nation’s police stretched and running scared. The military is finding it difficult doing the job of the police, but it has been left with no other choice. The kind of criminality and the kinds of weapons being used have reached a level of sophistication to a point that the police don’t have the capacity to handle it and the military has to come in.

Nigerians should rather call for the re-organisation of the police for more effectiveness rather than expect the army to do police work. Nigeria is badly under-policed with a police to citizen ratio of 1:600; far below what the United Nations recommends, because police personnel are watching the backs of so-called ‘big men’ instead. The United Nations recommends one police officer for every 450 citizens. Nigeria has about 370,000 police officers.

For the moment, army can’t continue doing the job of the police because they aren’t trained to deal with internal security challenges which are civil in nature. Episodic deployment of military forces will not solve Nigeria’s internal security challenges. What we need is constitutional, political and administrative responses to grievances and demands in various parts of the country. However, what drafting soldiers to the streets for law enforcement – a duty for which they are not trained for– has done is to reinforce the knee-jerk approach to fighting crimes which, more than anything else, defines our lack of serious approach to basic issues.

As we have always argued, the surest way to fighting crimes remains equipping the police for the discharge of their onerous responsibility. But to do so effectively, the authorities must also sit up to the challenges of a global security system where high-tech fighting techniques as well as intelligence sourcing of information provide a basket of reliable and result-oriented strategies.

The Nigeria Police Force has abdicated its vital role in the society. But the blame goes round because when someone commits an offence in Nigeria today, there is no certainty of punishment and this has encouraged the impunity that now pervades the land. To therefore readdress the threat posed by the swelling militarisation of the country and the long-term effects, we need to strengthen the Nigeria police to be effective and efficient both in terms of professionalism and structure, so that it sustains the capacity to carry out its constitutional responsibility of maintaining law and order.

Several recent studies by respected institutions over public confidence in the Nigeria police and satisfaction with their services have made damning conclusions. Therefore, the militarisation of the country becomes a ready option, especially when armed robbers, kidnappers and terrorists choose when, where and how to carry out their nefarious activities.

There have also been incessant clashes between police personnel and soldiers on civilian duties. Even during elections and due to lack of confidence in the police, the Nigerian military is usually called upon to play a prominent role at election centres to ensure law and order. This must stop. We must not over-stretch and abuse our military. The military has successfully dealt with external aggression, if any; what we have now is an internal criminality by local bandits and kidnappers.

Suffice to submit that the Senate is mistaking the constitutional role of police for that of the military. Issues of internal breakdown of law and order is not the job of the military but police. Section 214 of the 1999 Constitution and Section 4 Police Act applies here.  The military role is found in Section 217(2) 1999 constitution.

People should learn to know the difference between the military and the police. I believe the president knows the difference hence his refusal to heed the Senate call to sack service chiefs. Let us all be guided and do the needful. As the situation stands today, what the polity can boast of is a police force that is easy game for a more sophisticated world of crime. Even at the risk of sounding repetitive, we state that the best approach to fighting crimes remains effective intelligence gathering that helps not only in preempting and disrupting criminal activity but is also indispensable for the investigations of crimes. But only a well equipped and professional police can gather the close-to-the-ground information that is necessary for such exercise.


  •  Ugochukwu, a civil rights lawyer, writes from Abuja



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