Soldiering on for peace education — a conversation with retired Nigerian major general Ishaku Danladi Pennap

Major General Pennap at Ramstein Air Base in Germany as part of a visit to U.S. Africa Command in 2009. Photo via U.S. Air Force.

With a curfew imposed throughout the northeastern Nigerian province of Plateau following the July 7 massacre of over 20 civilians, and then a subsequent attack killing prominent politicians, the issues of security, democracy and peaceful change in that West African country ring through all parts of its dense population. Violent acts of terror on the part of Islamic group Boko Harem and others contrast strongly with the massive nonviolent civilian movement of Occupy Nigeria, which started the year off with a promising sense of the power of community resistance. A leading question facing civilian society, as voiced in the pages of Sahara Reporters — founded by Nigerian student leader Omoyele Sowore — is the role played by the military in supporting or blocking efforts for positive social change.

Recently retired Nigerian Major General Ishaku Danladi Pennap, a current board member of the Society for Peace Studies and Practice, is in a unique position to weigh the problems and possibilities of standing armies in contemporary African societies. In this interview with Waging Nonviolence, Pennap spoke of the complex challenges facing the long-beleaguered resource-rich nation, and his views on the role of the army in fostering security and democracy. One must understand when reviewing Pennap’s commentary that this articulate peace activist spent the vast majority of his adult life in the upper echelons of the Nigerian armed forces — in a country whose history is rife with institutional violence. His perspective, on the role of the military in particular, comes from a substantially different point of view than most U.S.-based anti-militarists. Nevertheless, Pennap’s insights bear careful consideration. His insider’s view reveals important shifts of thinking taking place within some high-level African command structures and their potential relations to civilian organization.

What were the pivotal moments from your time as Major General when you began to see the military as more than just part of a security force?

My experience in the handling of the recurring ethno-religious crisis in Jos Plateau State influenced my views on the effectiveness of the conflict handling styles that were being employed by the military [in the 1990s and early 2000s]. Though the typical soldiers pride themselves on being mangers of violence, what we tried to do was to find ways of bringing together people that have deep-seated animosities toward each other. That approach involved organizing community roundtables where participants were encouraged to voice their concerns.

And in areas of the town where public utilities had broken down, the troops supplied water to the inhabitants. Mobile clinics were also deployed to care for the sick, especially those who were displaced. Although the crisis in Jos still remains unresolved, there is hope hope that the process of engagement that was introduced in the past could be revived with greater participation by the civil society. The deployment of a civilian component alongside the military has a higher possibility of promoting activities that will contribute to the restoration of peace and harmony. And the use of force, if at all, should always be — at most — very temporary.

Did these events influence or transform your thinking about military life?

I recall many instances during my active duty period that have shaped the way I feel conflicts should be managed in order to achieve sustainable peace. The outcome of the military operations in Odi in 1999 and Zaki Biam in 2001 — both of which resulted in the loss of many civilian lives — made me rethink the effectiveness of current methods and techniques employed during Internal Security operations. The fact that such practices bring at best only temporary ends to violence suggested to me that our approach was either inadequate or inappropriate or both. What we have always seen is that when the military deploys to a conflict area, the conflict calms down as if normalcy has been restored. When the military withdraws, the crisis erupts again — often with an intensity that far surpasses what had occurred previously.

One cause for concern is that peace training is not emphasized in the curriculum of our military institutions. The limited exposure that the military gets in conflict management is the crisis management procedure, which is considered grossly inadequate in content. For instance, the crisis management package provides mainly the procedure for taking over from the police during crisis situations and the lines of command spanning from the President to the commanders in the field. Little or nothing is taught of the causes of conflict and the conflict-handling styles that could be deployed to manage conflict situations.

Some of this training, and plans for future efforts, have come from the Society for Peace Studies and Practice, on whose leadership bodies you now serve. Though it formed in 2005 in Abuja, please describe your work with it across the country.

The Society for Peace Studies and Practice (SPSP) was founded to address the lack of coherence in the way conflicts were being handled in the country. At some point it became an all-comers game, given the fact that donors no longer had confidence in partnering with the government. There was a proliferation of NGOs that engaged in peace work even when they did not have the requisite knowledge and expertise to do so. There was this growing need to have a body that would regulate and at the same time integrate both formal and informal peace education throughout Nigeria.

Moreover, the security challenges in the country demanded that practitioners should have the requisite skill sets with which to intervene in current and future conflicts. SPSP therefore called for a platform which would facilitate the interaction between scholars and practitioners in peace and conflict. With the establishment of the SPSP, it has become possible to streamline the training of peace workers through seminars, workshops and conferences.

While the SPSP advocates the use of modern techniques in tackling conflicts, it also emphasizes the adoption of traditional African conflict-handling style in solving some of the peculiar problems in Africa. This will be achieved through the training of a pool of experts with contextual knowledge of African problems which could be deployed by governments and communities for the resolution of local and international conflicts. At a conference in Jaji, Kaduna in March 2012, SPSP decided to establish an Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies, to be located in Minna Niger State. This is a step towards actualizing the vision of an Africa-based school for developing African solutions to the problems we face.

The African diaspora has a significant role to play in ensuring that Africa’s problems receive the necessary attention in international conferences. And in order to institutionalize the SPSP further, it was agreed at the last conference that the government should be encouraged to come up with a national peace policy. This will provide a framework for engaging similar organizations in Africa and beyond, while also developing guidelines for enlisting the services of the African diaspora as we strive to propagate the culture of peace.

One issue which many throughout the continent and in the diaspora are quite concerned with is the issues of the U.S. military presence in Africa, mainly through the command structure known as AFRICOM. President Obama recently stated that Africa was “more important than ever” to the security of the United States. What were your experiences with AFRICOM and what are your thoughts on its role?

When I was still a general in Nigeria’s armed forces, our 2009 visit with AFRICOM was a worthwhile experience because it opened our eyes to what it really meant to be equipped for mission accomplishment. Even though AFRICOM was not stationed in Africa, it still had the capability to respond to any security challenges that may arise in the continent. Its flexible organization also makes it capable of scoping its operations to fit any type of challenge that could emerge. The impression one gets, however, is that AFRICOM is an outfit that was established to address the security challenges of the continent without the responsibility to take on humanitarian issues. The general perception is that AFRICOM was primarily established to protect the economic interests of the U.S. in Africa.

The other issue concerns the way AFRICOM operates in Africa. We are increasingly witnessing the development of bilateral cooperation arrangements between individual African countries and AFRICOM. This gives the impression that it is an attempt to resurrect the divide-and-rule strategy employed to exploit the African countries by the colonial masters. Although AFRICOM was meant to partner with African countries in the maintenance of a secure environment, we have seen very little in terms of constructive engagement with regional and continental organizations, like the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States.

What are your thoughts about the emerging resistance movements in the country, which Occupy Nigeria so dramatically symbolized in January 2012, when Nigerian President Goodluck Johnson announced the end of longstanding governmental control of oil prices that enabled much of the population to buy the petrol they needed for basic transportation?

Frustration over unemployment, unfulfilled promises and poverty in the society may have led to the reaction that was witnessed during the demonstrations against the removal of fuel subsidy. The reason is not farfetched because there is this widely-held view that the politicians and civil servants in charge of governance have become self-serving in the performance of their jobs. This has gotten to a point where service delivery to the citizens is considered a privilege and not a right by the civil servants and the politicians alike. The lack of well-structured avenues for the citizens to vent their anger often results in violent protests.

Recently it does appear that the civil society has woken up from its slumber, buoyed perhaps by what happened in the Arab world. The mass action that visited the removal of subsidy in the country proved that with a vibrant civil society, Nigeria was likely to halt the culture of impunity by the politicians. The emergence of Occupy Nigeria and other civil society groups brought a new dimension to the way protests were organized in the country. And this was made a lot easier by the use of social media and electronic communication, which served as great tools for mobilization. The speed with which the government took steps to address the problem speaks volumes about the influence of the civil society in Nigeria.

I foresee a growing influence of groups such as Occupy Nigeria that will serve as platforms for the common person to vent anger in a manner that will make their views count towards future policy formulation. I do believe that we shall witness the end of the inglorious era of impunity by politicians and civil servants. Elected officials will be kept under constant surveillance by the civil society and hopefully a culture of transparency and accountability will be instituted in Nigeria.

What about the role of the Nigerian military in political affairs, and the long history of coup-d’etats?

The transformation process, which began in the Nigerian Army in 2004, has laid a very good foundation for the sustenance of a coup-free regime in the country. We are very confident that, all things being equal, it would be safe to say Nigeria will not experience a military coup again. The Nigerian military, in fact, has fared a lot better under the current democratic dispensation than at any time during past military regimes. However, the way the contest for power is carried out in Nigeria casts a lot of doubt on whether violence can ever be discounted from the electoral process.

Even though the civil disobedience that visited the removal of fuel subsidy might have demonstrated the possibility of having nonviolent protests, certain developments also indicate otherwise. Under the guise of youth empowerment, some politicians have resorted to forming youth organizations that they employ as thugs during elections. And in most cases these youths are armed with illegally acquired weapons. Those who want to maintain the culture of impunity that has characterized our electoral process since the return to civil rule in 1999 are still crafting ways of remaining in power by all means possible.

This story was made possible by our members. Become one today.