Sanwo-Olu: Are Nigerian soldiers above Nigerian laws? By Bolanle BOLAWOLE

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There are two professional groups in Nigeria that need, so to say, re-orientation in their attitude to other Nigerians; the first are lawyers and the other are soldiers. Lawyers call themselves “learned gentlemen”; the inference, to many, is that anyone who is not a lawyer is neither learned nor a gentleman. Then I began to search for the meaning and origin of the term ‘learned gentlemen” and ‘learned colleague” that lawyers employ in the courtroom and outside of it. Could the latter be sarcasm, a way of politely ridiculing a colleague displaying crass ignorance of the law? Is “learned gentleman” simply an abbreviation of “gentleman learned in law or the legal profession”?

I asked questions: One answer said: “Gentleman is not a well-defined title. In its traditional sense, a gentleman is one who derives his living from the land, and not his labour. It was also applied to members of the professions. These were of higher rank than those who made their living from trade or labour. The professions are traditionally architecture, the clergy, engineering, the law and medicine. A member of any one of these would be a gentleman” That definition must be English.

Why do lawyers call themselves “learned”? I got this answer: “The term ‘learned’ is often used to refer to lawyers due to their extensive education and expertise in the field of law. However, the term ‘learned’ can be used to describe any individual who has a high knowledge of education and expertise in a particular subject through study and experience. So, in a broader sense, any educated person who has demonstrated deep knowledge and expertise in their field can be referred to as ‘learned’’’

So, lawyers should not exclusively arrogate to themselves the term “learned gentlemen” The way some of them carry themselves or interpret the term gives the impression that it is coined exclusively for their use and that it confers on them a special status and advantage over others who are not lawyers. It does not! Any sense of superiority complex by any lawyer is, therefore, misplaced!


The second professional group that looks down, so to say, on others are soldiers. This, again, is demonstrated in the way they address non-soldiers or civilians as “bloody civilians” So full of themselves, even the other ranks or the ones we refer to as “ordinary or common recruits” see themselves as superior to any civilian. In and out of uniforms, especially so when they are in it, they see and carry themselves as untouchables; as above the law; and as a special species that can commit blue murder in broad daylight and walk away majestically without any fear of being called to question.

I again asked questions and got this answer: “The Nigerian Armed Forces Act grants the military justice system primary authority over offences committed by soldiers while on active duty or within the purview of their service. This means that for purely military infractions, like desertion or disobeying orders, the police have no power to intervene” This is the Act that soldiers with little education or those power drunk or deliberately intent on mischief, interpret out of context to say that they are not within the jurisdiction of the laws of the land. They are! Everyone is!

The 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended) is the country’s grundnorm (ground rule or basic norm) and everyone, from the President to the lowest-ranking Nigerian (and who is that?), is subject to its provisions. Grundnorm is a concept in the Pure Theory of Law created by Hans Kelson, a German jurist and legal philosopher, to denote the basic norm, order or rule that forms an underlying basis for a legal system. The Nigerian Armed Forces Act itself is a creation of the Constitution and derives its powers from it.

In exercising those powers, the Act must stay strictly within its provisions and the confines imposed by the Constitution. Indeed, soldiers, after travelling the whole gamut of the military’s justice system and are still not satisfied that they have received justice, can, and have been known to approach civil courts for redress. Examples of such are as old as they are recent and need not detain us here.

A careful study of Samuel E. Finer’s “The man on horseback”, which refers to soldiers, teaches that whereas military incursion in politics could have advantages (such as touted accelerated development), it also comes with its drawbacks, making Samuel Huntington to posit that professionalism would suppose that military intervention in politics be reduced to the barest minimal. There is no denying the fact that the military’s intervention in politics in Nigeria greatly affected its professionalism; it also bastardized, if I may call it that, military-civil relations in that the military, which was confined to barracks and were subject to civil authority, suddenly became, unprepared, both military and civil authority rolled into one.

The military that took orders from civilians became the ones giving orders to the same civilians. The tail wags the dog and this started very early in the life of Nigeria as a nation (1966) and continued for years (1966 to 1979 and 1983 – 1999) longer than the period the country has known civil rule. The military purportedly came to clean the mess of “bloody civilians” – corruption, maladministration, and political crisis that practically brought an end to the First Republic (1960 – 1966). Could this, then, be the origin of the “bloody civilians” toga that soldiers have bedecked civilians with? The shenanigans of the First Republic politicians not only truncated democracy, it also led to civil war (1967 – 1970) as it was badly managed by the supposedly messianic men on horseback.

Usually, wars are fought under state of emergency rules where the Constitution is suspended and the military rule by martial laws. Fundamental rights and liberties are suspended and soldiers are laws unto themselves. They ride roughshod over the nation; anyone not in uniforms is subject to their whims and caprices not just in the war zones but also all over the place. It is worse, however, in the war zones.

Now, the mentality acquired in the decades of military rule will be hard to shed, especially if no deliberate and sustained effort is made to debrief and retrain soldiers. To make matters worse is the fact that low grade wars continue in different theatres across the country. Soldiers are deployed everywhere and if they must operate, it has to be on their own terms. Yes, there are rules of engagement and international conventions but these, everywhere and not in Nigeria alone, are observed more often in their breach than in compliance. Horrendous stories of human rights violations keep escaping from the insurgency-ravaged areas.

Besides, we keep calling soldiers out on civil duties that, ordinarily, should be handled by the police and civil defence outfits. We use soldiers to ‘police’ our elections. We use them to quell demonstrations and disturbances as in #ENDSARS. We draft them even into campuses to quell student protests. We see them everyday and everywhere at road blocks and in the city centres where they treat ‘bloody civilians’ as they fancy. Soldiers are meant, in the main, to defend the country’s territorial integrity against external aggression. Internal security ought to be the duty of the police and civil defence. Soldiers must be kept within their barracks or at troubled border posts.

Now to the January 3rd incident in which Gov. Babajide Sanwo-Olu of Lagos State ordered the arrest of some errant “Okada” riders riding against traffic. Is the governor right to have ordered the arrest? Yes. He is the governor of the state and the area in question covers his jurisdiction. He did not go inside the barracks to arrest the culprits. The incident happened outside the barracks, even if within its precincts. Number two is that the governor is the chief security officer of the state and the action of the culprits endangers the life of other road users. Each time I see drivers drive against traffic or anytime I drive past the Moro junction at Ife, my mind goes to an accident years back when boys and girls returning after writing their Post-UTME at OAU were crushed by a driver driving against traffic. Destinies destroyed! The joy of families ruined irrevocably and irreparably!

But in case the governor does not know, driving against traffic is commonplace in Lagos, especially by uniformed men and women (yes, even women!). LASTMA officials under the direct control of the governor are not spared. So, something more comprehensive, and not a one-off, has to be done to arrest the menace.

We need to also ask the 1999 Constitution to make up its mind and stop being ambivalent and unsure: We cannot designate governors as Chief Security Officer of their state and not give them the tools to function. No Federal security outfits take orders from governors. Embarrassing situations involving them and Federally-controlled security agents occur all over the country again and again. The latest is not even the first that Sanwo-Olu will suffer. Yet, cries for restructuring of the country and the creation of State police have gone unheeded.

One of the arrested offenders shouted at the governor that he was a soldier and the governor appropriately responded that, for that very reason, he should be made an object lesson. That soldier should have buried his head in shame and should never have let anyone know he was a soldier because his action dragged the Army in the mud. It is sign of the impunity and lack of discipline that struts the place that he could gleefully unveil himself and expect to be let off the hook. If the Army has arrested him and all the others of his ilk pouring expletives on the governor, as the Army chief, Lt. Gen. Taoreed Lagbaja, announced, they should be made to face the music.

Having said that, let us be careful not to throw the baby away with the bath water. Yes, some of those taking advantage of the incident to pillory Sanwo-Olu still ache from losing the presidential election. Yes, they also lost their bid for Lagos. Still, Sanwo-Olu must be told that there is hunger in the land. The people of Lagos chanted that to President Bola Ahmed Tinubu on New Year eve. There is genuine anger in the land.

As Bob Marley crooned, a hungry man is an angry man. It is, therefore, understandable if the governor, being an important member of the ruling class, is seen as a fair target of aggression by suffering Nigerians. It is the ruling class of which he is a member that has mismanaged the country and brought it on its knees. Ordering the arrest of poor people struggling to eke out a living in these hard times, even if they are doing so the wrong way, is certain to touch the raw nerves of many.

The protests that followed the arrest are not necessarily against the governor as a person but against the government he represents and the oppressive and repressive system he symbolises. Let Sanwo-Olu understand this. And let him pass the message across to his fellow ruling class members. The masses are stirring! The time-bomb is ticking! There is not much time left to fiddle like King Nero!

* Former Editor of PUNCH newspapers, Chairman of its Editorial Board and Deputy Editor-in-chief, BOLAWOLE was also the Managing Director/Editor-in-chief of THE WESTERNER newsmagazine. He writes the ON THE LORD’S DAY column in the Sunday Tribune and TREASURES column in New Telegraph newspaper on Wednesdays. He is also a public affairs analyst on radio and television.

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