Talking Drums

The West African News Magazine

Soldiers - Trained To Rule?

Elizabeth Ohene

As far as integrity goes, the wearing of uniforms and the bearing of arms have never been known to enhance the prospects of a person becoming a better human being, and past experiences, not only in Africa but all around the world, show conclusively that military people are as corruptible as the civilians.
At the end of the day, the only surprising thing of the toppling of the government of Alhaji Shehu Shagari on December 31st, 1983 is the apparent ease with which the entire government went without a whimper. The story of the coup will most probably take some time to emerge and will definitely be edited and polished by the actors in the drama depending on how things shape up within the next few weeks.

One sad fact emerges, however, there are very few believers in constitutional rule on the African continent and even fewer of the professed believers who are committed to the concept.

But maybe it has always been a naive position to take that there will be any- body willing to defend the cause of democratic process.

There were many things going wrong in Nigeria - there are many things going wrong in every country in the world. What is it that sets the not more than 140,000 people that constitute the Nigerian military over and above the other 100,000,000 population of Nigeria? The military definitely does not have among its ranks the best brains in the country - the best brains never go to the military in Africa. They are not renowned for any economic wizardry, the very training they are given is designed to crush any show of ingenuity or individualism - lives I might be endangered by such traits when the military is engaged in its recognised job of fighting wars.


Regulations are what keep life on a military camp orderly rising up bells, polish your shoes at this hour, the lines in the trousers of the uniform to be a certain standard length, left foot before the right foot, free periods to be spent doing this and that, the fear of punishment keeps everybody in line and the reality of the arms and ammunition that constitutes the raw materials ensures that there is a rigid adherence to the rules. Hair cuts are by regulation and so are beards.

Real life is not that way, and shouldn't be that way. Civilisation has progressed in the world because indivi- duals have dared to be different and to question rules and regulations. It is a measure of civilisation when people behave in a particular way because they have persuaded themselves it is the proper thing to do and not because of fear of retribution.

It is a forlorn hope that any society can be made to work on the concept of fear of retribution - the only chance of that working is to put 50 per cent of the population under arms to police the other 50 percent, a thought which is as ridiculous as it is unworkable.

As far as integrity goes, the wearing of uniforms and the bearing of arms have never been known to enhance the prospects of a person becoming a better human being, and past experiences, not only in Africa but all around the world, show conclusively that military people are as corruptible as the civilians they accuse of corruption every time they overthrow a civilian months. government..


There are other identifiable groups of Nigerians - teachers, for example - with greater numbers and a better proven track record of achievement, if indeed Nigeria needed redemption because the political leaders were inept, why would the task not be undertaken by the teachers or the farmers, or the nurses, or the doctors or the journalists or the artists or the traders or the lawyers or by whatever other identifiable group of Nigerians?

The only answer to this is that the only thing that puts the military over and above everybody else is that they possess arms and people tend not to argue with those that carry arms. The military are as individual Nigerians as corrupt, inept, insensitive and as everything else that the civilian administration stands accused of today and there is no reason to cloud a naked seizure of power in the fancy language that is the stock in trade of all usurpers of power.

There is a tendency among the British in particular, to imagine that the military establishments they left around Africa resemble their own set up in Britain, this illusion is further heightened by the fact that many members of the officer corps in the African armed forces have had some training in the famous officer training camps in Britain like Sandhurst and the one in the news currently, Aldershot.

What nobody seems to consider is that while the selection of candidates for the British officer corps goes far beyond the possession of an 'O' level, and family backgrounds and character form an important ingredient, no such considerations come into the making of an officer in the armies in Africa.


Part of the problem has to do with the general shortage of trained personnel in many African countries and part of the problem is attributable to the independence granting phenomenon.

Twenty years ago and slightly more when many African countries got their independence, the officer corps was mostly British, their departure meant that rapid promotions had to take place, while nobody thought of hurrying up the third year medical student into a full surgeon in 18 months, it was normal and regular practice for Captains to become Generals in 12 months.

The military intervention in the political process in many countries also has meant that there has never been time for the military to pay enough attention to their training needs for their own job.

The result has been that many of the young recruits to the cadet training centres saw their commissions as a short-cut to political power and military training itself an irritating hurdle to play around with while they await their turn.

What is particularly unintelligible about Western praises for "Sandhurst trained" and "Aldershot-trained" military officers who seize power in African countries is if they think Sandhurst trained officers are such great leaders and political wizards, why don't they call on their own home grown Aldershot and Sandhurst-trained army officer.

For every Sandhurst trained Nigerian Army officer or Ghana Army officer, there must be a thousand Sandhurst trained British Army officers. What criminal waste of talent! Why does the United Kingdom put up with the Margaret Thatchers, Michael Foots, David Owens, David Steels, Tony Benns, Harold Willsons etc, when there are ready made rulers of the country being churned out of the leadership factories at Sandhurst and Aldershot every day?

Nobody would want to make an apologia for the political leaders in Nigeria even if it ought never to be forgotten that there is a world of difference between the 2.4 million barrels of oil the country was producing when President Shagari came to power in 1979 and the 1.3 million barrels being produced a day today.

It is so much easier for a government to look impressive if there is money to spend. The fly-overs and expressways that were built during Nigeria's 13 years of military rule were not built because there were soldiers in power. The pity is that there are many people in Africa aspiring to power who are unwilling or unable to use the force of arguments of reason to realise their ambitions and would rather hide behind the guns being wielded by military adventurers and power hungry soldiers.

It is looking increasingly as though the courses offered at Sandhurst and Aldershot and their imitations around Africa will have to be expanded to include the running of government.

Every time there are coups, all political parties are banned and with it all political activities. When the soldiers return to the barracks, the in coming civilians are then accused of ineptitude and inaction, but then very few countries in Africa who have had military interventions have had the time to develop the institutions that go to support constitutional rule, the civilians have not had the opportunity to develop the skills even at the local and district levels, the result is always that come civilian rule, everything has to be started all over again.


The other difficulty that faces civilian governments is that they have to operate under constitutions and obey the courts. Obviously if President Shagari had had it in his power to rule by radio announcements and decrees, he would have been seen as a man of action, but then he had to respect a constitution and as is usual, all brave people discover their nerves when civilians are in power. It is not for nothing that the first thing that soldiers do once they seize power is to throw out constitutions. If they could operate under the supreme law of the country and achieve the rapid results they promise, then they could lay claims to competence. As things stand the advantage is weighted overwhelmingly in the favour of soldiers.

If the military are such a hallowed group set apart, they might want to throw away their guns and then try ruling Nigeria, they might discover that their record would be a million times worse.

There is in public affairs, no state so bad provided it has age and stability on its side, that it is not preferable to change and disturbance.

— Michel de Montaigne

talking drums 1984-01-09 coup in Nigeria Africa's day of shame