Saturday, July 6, was a celebration and commemoration of Army day in Nigeria. And of course this event was conspicuous in both electronic and print media coverage. The Sunday, July 7, online edition of both the Vanguard and Guardian had president Goodluck Jonathan in full military uniform, beaming with smiles.
Our country hopes in the fullest of time, to join the ranks of countries of the world where the practice of the ideals of democracy has taken hold, and is for all practical purposes , a way of life. Symbols and perceptions serve to reinforce reality. Regrettably, perceptions are often times more important than reality. And in the case of this nation, where our country’s armed forces, had acted in the regrettable past, more in defining our polity than defending the interests of our nation, symbols of a democratizing Nigeria, even if only in fits and starts, are powerful. They are powerful reminders that we are making progress.
It is a throw back to the old, better- forgotten days, where assorted soldiers of fortune assaulted our sensibilities in gaudy, starched uniform when an elected president shows up in any public event attired in military uniform. All practicing democracies, emerging democracies, hold as a fundamental canon , the principle of civilian supremacy and control over the society’s armed forces.
This principle is reinforced both publicly and privately. One is loath see a president Mandela in military uniform, to cite an example on our continent. And there is no point in citing examples of countries where the principle of civilian control and supremacy over the armed forces is well entrenched and popularly understood.
The combined armed forces is an important societal institution, primarily to defend the sovereignty and territorial integrity of a particular nation. It does not exist to upstage the civilian authority and neither is the civilian authority to pander or kowtow to its interest or that of any social formation for that matter. Ideally, the chief political authority in a democracy , in this case the president of Nigeria, does not owe his office to anyone or group except the good people of Nigeria. Symbolically and in practice, that principle ought to be reinforced over and over again, moving forward, as we grow Nigeria’s democracy project.
In emerging democracies tinged with a dose of militarism, autocracy and extra-judicial tendencies are a fact of life, and our society is an example. This is a reminder of the many years our nation labored under military rule. There is no military autonomy in a democracy and all social forces and formations are subordinate to civilian authority and supremacy.In growing the Nigerian democracy project, this principle must permeate public activities of government functionaries.
The sartorial adornment of our government officials, particularly the president and governors, must reinforce that principle symbolically. This is the practice in all democracies, settled or emergent. With our country’s long and bitter memories of arbitrary and capricious rule, our country should do no less.
This is not to say that ‘the cloth make the monk’. Practices and symbols are important in building a democratic Nigeria. Free and fair election, popular consent, freedom of speech and assembly go hand in hand with symbolic gestures.