I have always wondered what condition Medicine and Law fulfill to be considered noble professions. Is it the stethoscope hanging from the car’s rearview mirror or the ward coat displayed prominently in the car? Or is it the wig, the clownish getup and carriage, or the various car-sticker exhortations?
These are not sour grapes.
I once wanted to become a lawyer, yes, and my father, a lawyer, was convinced I had to become a doctor, perhaps because he wanted some variety, or according to him, he knows what is best for me. Perhaps he does.
In the end, my father won.
I studied Microbiology (I can’t say I’m a microbiologist because in this neck of the woods, you’d have to get a genuine Ph.D. to gain what I consider a rudimentary level of microbiologic expertise). Congrats, dad.
There’s frankly nothing noble about lawyers. For doctors, you could argue that they save lives that may otherwise be beyond redemption (thereby contributing to long life and overpopulation; life was much fun when a leg wound could spell death). But every doctor you know is handsomely compensated — relatively at least — for the effort. For me then, this pecuniary compensation neutralizes nobility. Medicine is in the end service of the self. And no, don’t mention the Medicins Sans Frontieres; they belong to a different field of endeavour.
We come to soldiering.
I have written about the brutality of men in uniform before. This piece (terrible, in hindsight) from 2013 was about police brutality, and this earlier this year about the need to temper our enthusiasm to support our troops. In this second piece, I prefaced my criticism of soldiers with the recognition of nobility.
If there is any noble profession in the world it has to be soldiering. For crummy remuneration, these brave men and women have essentially sworn their lives away in service of nationhood, the whims of politicians, and everything we hold dear.
But our soldiers can be mindless brutes, and any conversation involving them must recognize this fact. As I wrote before, years and years of military dictatorship have succeeded in constituting the military into a law unto itself, unaccountable before ordinary tenets of decency and humanity. If the Nigerian soldier inspires two emotions in the ordinary citizen, they are awe and terror. And for the most part, this is peacetime Nigeria.
To thank a soldier without a prominent “but” is to legitimize brutality. In fact, the contemporary realities of peacetime Nigeria require that we foreground the “but” and background the “thanks.” This morning, I woke up to the heartwarming news that my soulmate, Wole Soyinka, author of a topical poem titled “Civilian and Soldier”, had yet again offered a cautionary intervention to the unbridled, revisionist digital euphoria engulfing a significant clique of disconnected Nigerians.
Many stories are about of soldiers visiting indignities upon the ordinary citizen. You know someone, or someone that knows someone, that has at least one story.
Tajudeen, a colleague, was once on a trip to his hometown. At a military checkpoint, something mundane — perhaps a giggle, perhaps even nothing — happened. The soldiers ordered the passengers out of the bus. A young lady, already bagged and tagged as abrasive by the commuters, hesitated in being cowed by the soldier’s misdirected machismo, as is her right. One soldier was incensed. This young lady had an ample bosom and dressed to proclaim the fact. As punishment for dissent, the oldest man in the bus was ordered to ravage the young lady’s breasts, at the threat of violence. I was horrified at the events and the obvious abandon with which Tajudeen recounted the episode. Asides the normalization of brutalization, it was too reminiscent of something I had written earlier. Just replace sex with sexual harassment where appropriate.
But schadenfreude wasn’t all Tajudeen came away with from the encounter. Since the sin of the one shall be visited on the collective, the others gained bruised hands by taking turns to clear some nearby field with a cutlass.
I was once on a bus with a man on a bus who told his own story too. He and a few others had imprudent enough to look back to see a soldier fleecing a bus driver. Incensed by their effrontery, the soldier ordered all four men out of the bus and had them stand in the sun for at least an hour. Judging from his appearance, our storyteller couldn’t be younger than 60. There was some other person who was urinated on.
I’ve been fortunate enough not to fall foul of military brutality. But I’ve been through military checkpoints too many times to not have observed brutalities. I’ve seen phones smashed.
I’ve seen drivers slapped. I’ve seen grown men asked to sit atop their cars. I’ve seen and smelt fear and anxiety. Passengers in the know frantically rush out instructions: Turn the music down. Get off that phone. Shut down your computer. Hide it. Toss it out the window even. Maintain a neutral composure. Melt into your seat. Fade into thin air.
Recently I found myself advising a woman to get off the phone as we pulled up to a military checkpoint. It had come to this. I too had become socialized in the mechanisms of terror.
The soldiers don’t approach vehicles these days, at least not on the routes I ply. Vehicles approach a single soldier somewhere in the middle of the obstacle course with which these men and women have blighted the highway. By now, spines are sitting ramrod straight, and a deathly silence reigns. Something stinks too. The soldier begins his near-sadistic superficial inspection. The soldier glories in our reeking subservience, like a pig in mud, and content, shoos us away, like irritants.
But don’t listen to me. Google “soldiers beat up Nigeria” or any other combination of relevant search terms. From soldiers beating up LASTMA officials to soldiers disrupting court proceedings, treat yourself to the stories. At least, I am not the narrator in these cases.
In 2014, the stars aligned for Anakle, a cute little digital agency led by Editi Effiòng. The agency’s Bride Price App, a humorous take on bride price culture, escaped incubation and became a global phenomenon with zero ad spend. Bride price culture became a hot topic. Effiòng appeared on several international news media. Anakle had hit the big time. I was so attracted by Anakle’s scope of work and laid-back culture that I applied for a position there (this is a story for some other day). There is a lot to admire about Anakle.
In December 2015, Anakle launched the #ThankASoldier campaign under a broader Military Appreciation Week, a campaign which seems to have taken the underlying idea of the dastardly #SupportOurTroops and given it an Anakle makeover. The social public – including of course companies keen for some social leverage – latched on to the hashtag and fanned it into prominence, tweeting soldier or saluting selfies, and spreading goodwill messages. Later, Effiòng tweeted:
Wait, what? Teaching children what? Children? In Nigeria?
This is self-aggrandizement bordering on Goebbels. If I was going to let this piece lapse in my head, this tweet was all the motivation I needed to fire up my laptop to write.
No one teaches children to respect soldiers. I have been a child once and no one ever sat me down to teach me how to respect soldiers. I suspect no one sat you down too. As children, we somehow understood that a soldier is an embodiment of power, what with our childhood being smack at the height of ruthless military dictatorship. We did not learn that the soldier should be required to treat power with responsibility, and no one sat us down to teach us.
I held soldiers in awe. After all, did I not watch Commando and The Expendables? My friends and I made elaborate wooden guns, constituted militaries and went incredible lengths in trying to militarily outwit ourselves. I maintained a battery of crown corks who were footballers most of the time but when paired with sawed-off broomsticks became part-time soldiers. For the Lockheed C-130 Hercules, my Crown Cork Army had to make do with bathroom slippers propelled by me (complete with helicopter voice-over). I had to be content with transport aircraft; I hadn’t found a way to mimic fighter jets till I outgrew Crown Cork Wars. My mother still recalls that period with some amusement and plenty of consternation.
I have family members and friends who belong to all manner of uniformed services (I know, my best friend is black). In secondary school, I joined the military cadet corps, more for the fascinating parades than any inclination to violence or altruism. At the NYSC Orientation Camp at Asaya Kabba, I chose parading over football (even if there are other reasons implicated in that choice).
I do not write this piece with levity. My best friend really is black. Give any Nigerian a uniform today and watch him transform into a beast. Give him an assault rifle and herald the birth of a monster. These are the issues.
We are currently trying to dethrone impunity from its pride of place in our countryhood. The current drive may be limited and reactionary, but there is at least the recognition that many of the ills plaguing Nigeria arise from the brazen disregard for the humanity of the other. This explains Diezani-gate. This explains Dasuki-gate. This explains Patience Jonathan. This explains police and military brutality. This explains infrastructural neglect. This explains our politicians. This explains caustic student politics. This explains everything. This explains us.
If we must teach children anything, it must be to value the humanity of the other. And so whether they become soldiers, carpenters, physicists, politicians, teachers, singers, footballers, biochemists, writers, designers, coders, lawyers, accountants, messengers or whatever, a certain sensitivity, responsibility and respect will govern their dealings with other human beings. As the perennially resurrected Uncle Ben would say, “with great power comes great responsibility.” Also, “respect begets respect.”
The Yorubas have a saying. They say a dog doomed to disappearance will stubbornly resist the allure of its owner’s whistle. From its title, Hadassah Egbedi’s topical piece for Ventures Africa was doomed to be farcical. And despite the frantic whistling of the evidence which Egbedi herself parades against the military, she trots off farther and farther into farce, and this because she strives, suspiciously, to stay on the Anakle message.
Egbedi recognizes the reasons the civilian treats the soldier as something to be avoided, sometimes at all costs. Yet, she attempts — and it’s an ingenious if transparent attempt — to lay the responsibility for this turn of events at the feet of the civilian, never for once suggesting that the military needs to make a genuine effort at redeeming its public image and pursuing a more cordial relationship with the civilian populace. It is the battered civilian who needs a reorientation, not the oppressive military. This narrative is as insidious as an uncritical appreciation of the military.
“In the war-ravaged regions of Nigeria, soldiers are accorded respect,” Hadassah Egbedi contends, and goes on to offer the views of a Lieutenant she spoke to as proof-positive of this statement. The sentiment may contain some measure of truth but I think the soldier mistakes relief and gratitude for respect. Amnesty International’s report of course stands counterpoint to this monocular view and President Buhari, a little less trusting of military authorities than Goodluck Jonathan, has not wasted any time in instituting an inquiry into allegations of human rights abuses by the military in the North East.
A lot is worrying, alarming even, about Egbedi’s tone, motivations and what she seems to be suggesting, but I’m not going to spend a third paragraph on her piece. If I have any piece of advice for Egbedi, it is that she might consider employing her journalistic privilege to give voice to the truly voiceless. She should note that Anakle, all said, is a concern in the business of publicizing its chops in the “story telling” business. Anakle can be excused its tunnel vision. The bottom line and a sophisticated social vision do not often mix. A journalist does not have the privilege of this pretext.
But perhaps Anakle has hit on something brilliant. If the military does not accept that it has a problem and so is unable to reform itself into a more socially acceptable outfit, perhaps us civilians should accept the challenge and seize the initiative. We should stop skirting around soldiers like they are IEDs, prone to explosion at the slightest irritation. We should do something crazy, something radical.
And here is the potential value of #ThankASoldier. Let’s overwhelm brutality with love. Let’s smother these needy babies with love. Let’s embarrass them with love. Let’s kiss them so lovingly sloppily that next time a soldier is moved to compel a hapless civilian to roll in mud, or beat Kunle within metres of his life, our awesome show of love will make him pause. If that fails, print out your #ThankASoldier exertions, laminate them and carry them around with you. It could come in handy.
Anakle would approve.