By Edward Gabkwet
A nation’s national power comes in both tangible and intangible components. A strong and virile military force is a credible and tangible addition to a nation’s power, and when combined with intangible components like a strong economy and national will, a nation’s national power becomes effective. The place of the Armed Forces of Nigeria (AFN) as a key instrument of national power is cast in stone and cannot be overemphasized. At the international and regional level, it stands tall through its numerous award-winning escapades in enforcing peace and security.
In the past 60 years, the AFN has committed well-over 200,000 troops to various peacekeeping commitments around the world. Back home in Nigeria, it continues to confront the threats posed by terrorists operating in the North as well as other non-state actors operating in other parts of the country. Through its efforts, several terrorists have been neutralized with over 130,000 surrendering en masse alongside their families. No wonder then that Global Firepower, a statistics-based website tracking defence-related information of countries worldwide, rated the AFN as the 4th most powerful military in Africa and 35th in the world.
Despite these efforts and recognition, its abysmal treatment back home by some Nigerians can aptly be described as sad and unfortunate. The support and encouragement it deserve from the Nigerian public after successful operations or whenever it faces fatalities or mishaps is well below expectation unlike what obtains in other climes. In other countries, public support is a key factor considered before committing troops to combat. Ample evidence also exists to buttress the fact that the public opinion environment shapes the way military operations are justified and, in some cases, the way they are conducted.
This is because the support of the public vis-à-vis the stakes involved as well as the prospects of operational success peaches the ends against the means. The United States of America learnt this the hard way during the Vietnam War as well as in Lebanon and Somalia after unfavourable public support constrained the range of politically acceptable policies for successfully concluding the military operations in these countries. Similarly, In a report by RAND titled, ‘American Public Support for U.S. Military Operations from Mogadishu to Baghdad,’ written for The Arroyo Centre by Eric V. Larson and Bogdan Savych, it was observed that following the change of United States’ objectives in Somalia in May 1993 (from providing a secure environment for humanitarian relief operations to engaging in nation building) and the subsequent deterioration in the situation, the importance of the objectives and the prospects for success declined for most, even as the costs increased. The result was very high sensitivity to costs in Somalia, and a general desire by the American public to abandon the mission and return home. At the end, it was one of America’s worst expeditionary escapades.
The lack of empathy and support for the AFN is further compounded by the enemy’s skilled utilization of the social media to its advantage, with unsuspecting Nigeria’s social media buffs serving as willing tools for the spread of their ideologies. A case in point is the recent video uploaded and circulated on social media platforms which depicted the wreckage of the crashed MI-171 Nigerian Air Force (NAF) helicopter and bodies of the victims at Chukuba Village in Shiroro Local Government Area of Niger State. Sadly, the video has so far received nearly a million views and over 50,000 shares on both X (formerly Twitter) and YouTube combined, after social media buffs aided and abetted the uncontrolled sharing and spreading of the propaganda orchestrated by the terrorists.
Indeed, the social media, once a medium of personal connection, commerce and trade, has since morphed into a battlefield where information has become weaponized. Gone were the days when winning wars was a matter of finding and neutralizing an adversary’s centre of gravity through aerial bombardments of critical infrastructures and propagandas using radios and leaflets drops. The social media has since changed that narrative and all it takes is a smart phone and some idle seconds, and anybody can do it. In their book, LikeWar: The Weaponization of the Social Media, Peter Singer and Emerson Brooking aptly captured the existential threat that social media poses to national security when they noted thus, “Social media has created a new environment for conflict. It has transformed the speed, spread, and accessibility of information, changing the very nature of secrecy. Yet, while the truth is more widely available than ever before, it can be buried in a sea of “likes” and lies.” This is why its influence over the Nigerian internet space has become a matter of national concern. As ragtag as they may appear, the ability of terrorist groups operating in Northeast and Northwest Nigeria to weaponize the social media to their advantage calls for concern by all Nigerians. Even more disturbing is the unfortunate enabling attitude of some Nigerians who swallow the bait of propagating their propagandist strategies, knowingly and unknowingly, without recourse to Nigeria’s overall national security imperatives.
But why is public support such a big deal to the AFN? Here are a few crucial reasons: In their everyday lives, members of the AFN make sacrifices that can often go unnoticed by the public–be it the challenges of routine duties; the struggles of their spouses looking for another job after relocating to a new unit; or even a child adjusting to a new school and new friends. Members of the AFN and their families selflessly do whatever it takes to serve and protect the nation, including months or years spent apart from loved ones, families divided by distance and deployment to conflict zones; spouses giving birth alone in a hospital room, with no spouse there to support them; and most importantly, making the ultimate sacrifice like laying down their lives on the frontlines for the safety of all Nigerians.
Members of the AFN are also ordinary people doing extraordinary things. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, NAF aircraft were used to ferry drugs and relief materials within Nigeria and to other West African Countries. NAF aircraft also came in handy in transporting relief materials to flooded areas in Enugu and Bayelsa States in 2022. Military doctors were also on hand as recent as last week to fill the void left by striking health workers. Additionally, members of the AFN are often the first to respond to conflicts overseas, leaving behind their loved ones at a moment’s notice to head into harm’s way. So, it’s only right to be there for them as well.
Members of the AFN are a force for good in the world, which is why it is crucial for all Nigerians to stand behind them. From the battlefields of the Congo and Burma (now Myanmar) to the front lines of Liberia and Sierra Leone, members of the AFN have been contributing to world peace for decades. In recent memory, they have been at the forefront of ensuring regional stability in The Gambia as well as the fight against terrorism and insurgency in Nigeria.
Military life can take its toll on members of the AFN and their families. For example, their spouses can often struggle to find their place in a new unit because they have moved so frequently and are isolated from their support networks-in addition to perhaps having difficulty finding a new job. And if a soldier or an airman is weighed down by stress at the front lines or concerned about their struggling family back home, it can be more difficult for them to concentrate on the assigned task. With mental health being a serious issue among troops these days, addressing these morale and mental wellness issues through the show of love and care by others is imperative.
Something as easy as thanking members of the AFN for their services or acknowledging the immense challenges of life as a military spouse can have a positive impact on the military community. By bridging that divide between civilians and the AFN, Nigerians can show members of the AFN that the sacrifices they make on their behalf is valued and appreciated, thus boosting their morale and preparing them for yet another day in the battle front.
In the USA, an organization known as the United Service Organization (USO) stands at the forefront of strengthening America’s military service members by keeping them connected to their families, home and Country. The USO is a private organization established in 1941 and funded through the generosity of individuals, organizations and corporations and powered by volunteers to accomplish its mission of connecting military families. Till date, the USO continuously adapts to the needs of U.S military personnel, while enabling them to focus on their assigned roles. A similar organization in Nigeria with comparable functions would no doubt go a long way in enhancing the support to the AFN as they face, frontally, the task of keeping Nigerians safe. Imagine such an organization reaching out to the families of the 23 soldiers and airmen that died in the ill-fated MI-171E aircraft at Chukuba in Niger State. Imagine such an organization offering educational scholarships to the widows and children of the deceased soldiers and airmen. Just imagine.
It is however heartwarming to see State Governors like Professor Babagana Zulum of Borno State donating the sum of N10 Million Naira to troops of Operation Hadin Kai recently injured during an operation. At the presentation of the Cheque, Professor Zulum expressed his commitment towards supporting and complementing the efforts of the Federal Government in providing logistics support and improving the welfare of soldiers. That is the way to go.
Gabkwet, an Air Commodore, is the Director of Public Relations and Information of the Nigerian Air Force.