Our Army and the Uses of Restraint over Force

The south-south city Warri has recorded its first death connected to the coronavirus pandemic. Unfortunately, the death had nothing to do with an infection.

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Or maybe it does. But rather than target a person’s immunity, it goes for his tendency to exercise restraint. It is an infection of cultural dimensions that is common to both sides of what hopefully doesn’t become a huge conflict.

Every city has volatile characters, people whose first impulse is violence. In Warri, it sometimes seems the street’s creed is to never back away from fights. This often violent obstinacy, along with a gift for comedy, is what the city is known for. Perhaps this perception is common to cities in the south-south. I recall parents in middle-belt Nigeria refusing to allow their kids go to university in the south-south because of this perception.

So far the reports are not uniform and may all be apocryphal. One of these accounts has it that the deceased civilian had disobeyed the restriction of movement in the state and tried to run over the soldiers who forced the victim to park his vehicle and then shot him when he tried to flee. If this account is to believed, then there were at least two points at which the tragedy could have been averted.

Clearly, the occupant of the vehicle could have stopped and perhaps explained himself. He then could have been turned back or asked to proceed if the story of his needing to purchase drugs or get his father to a hospital is true.

In other words, at this point, the burden of restraint was to be exercised by the deceased. This changed when he decided to continue driving. At the point when he managed to park his vehicle and then was apprehended, it was the turn of the army officer to show restraint. That didn’t happen, presumably because in the popular imagination, the Nigerian Army isn’t well-known for forgiving or tolerating perceived disrespect. In fact, every citizen of this country that has seen officers meting out harsh punishment to adults for some trifling traffic offence would find it difficult disbelieving this version of events.

In any case, since then a video that implies that the youths of Warri mounted a reprisal attack has gone viral. In the video, two soldiers say unprintable things they would do to Warri women. That the video exists is yet another instance of the lack of restraint demonstrated by some elements in the Nigerian army. The temerity to make a video of their threats by those soldiers is probably connected to the army’s place as an elite group and its state-backed propensity for violence.

The years spent at the top position in the land by members of the military have empowered the army and, simultaneously, weakened a public which has never quite understood its own powers and rights. Whatever gap may have existed between the military and the citizens of the country has thus been expanded. This is the basis of those humiliating incidents between citizens and army officers you see on social media. The gap between citizens and the uniformed usually means that the former are unwilling to put up any resistance when oppressed by the latter. (That gap doesn’t really exist between the police and the populace even if they, too, can carry arms legally. The elite part of the equation has never been theirs to own. For one, they have never occupied the country’s highest office.)

With powers such as this, the military never really has to demonstrate the full extent of its might. This, unfortunately, means that, every slight is met with tremendous might. So when Pessu refused to stop his vehicle at the army’s command, the unfolding narrative moved closer to a bloody denouement.

Sad as it is to say, the narrative has moved on to a new chapter. If the death of a soldier is true and the embarrassing video from the soldiers is to be taken strongly, then this is another chance for the army to exercise restraint.

“The video is being talked about in Warri and casuing panic,” said a Warri resident quoted by Sahara Reporters. “We cannot abandon our homes because of people who are supposed to be proetcting us but now threatening us. Young men are discussing already, we will find every means to protect our community and women from rapists and murderers.”

The state has had trouble with the federal government in the past. And if both sides give free rein to their impulses, it might be another troubling incident. As it is, restraint has come with difficulty to both sides involved but now is the time to demonstrate it.

Fortunately, The Nigerian Army has said it has arrested the erring soldiers. While it is hoped that nothing untoward happens from her on, it must be said that the army’s response is commendable at this time.

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