Of all the arguments advanced by the Nigerian Army for punishing Private Hannah Sofiat Akinlabi, the soldier who accepted a marriage proposal from her boyfriend while at the NYSC camp, only one is sufficient. But first, let us do away with the ones that do not hold water.
One, and according to director of Army Public Relations Brigadier General Onyema Nwachukwu, a soldier must have served for three years before they qualify for marriage. Per Nigerian laws, people already “qualify for marriage” from 18 years old. Nwachukwu must have raised this point only because he could not properly distinguish between accepting a marriage proposal and actually getting married. Although connected, these two things are quite different. A proposal and subsequent acceptance are just promises of a future marriage. Merely saying yes to a man does not make you his wife. In that respect, Akinlabi did not flout the rules barring a soldier from being married unless they had already served for three years.
The second point that she flouted social media use guidelines for soldiers does not obtain if she did not post the videos online herself. We live in a world where anyone can share images with the world without permission. Thus, it is unfair to punish her for what she could not control. We can argue that she knew she was being recorded, but what could she have done otherwise? Once her suitor proposed in public, everything that followed was almost out of her hands. Even if she had rejected his hand in marriage and walked away, she would still have gone viral. Their third item on the Army’s list of sins was that she “indulged in romance” while in uniform. This point has been serially debunked by social media users who shared images of male soldiers who also proposed to their girlfriends while wearing their uniforms. Come on, nothing is entirely wrong with indulging in romance while wearing a professional uniform. It was not like she was caught making out with a corper in Mammy market.
Besides, showing off one’s romantic side is quite a human thing to do. For the Army to denounce it shows they do not quite think of their officers as humans. Proposing to one’s partner while wearing uniforms also shows pride in one’s profession. Asking them to remove the official outfit before asking someone’s hand in marriage is demanding they dubiously separate who they are from the future they want to build with those partners. Of course, a male soldier vs. civilian female is quite different from this case where a male civilian proposes to a female soldier, particularly while he was under her professional care. Still, saying Akinlabi should not have indulged in romance while wearing her uniform is needlessly harsh. Officers should not be restrained from publicly displaying affection, whether to their lovers, or parents, or children. In fact, pretending that military officers are too disciplined to have a human side is ultimately counterproductive. You are better off showing them off as nuanced people with nuanced lives like anybody else.
As for the last point about her conduct being, “prejudicial to good order and military discipline,” the scope of that offense is so wide and so ambiguous that almost any action can be maliciously categorized that way.
All of which brings me to the last—and the strongest—point standing: fraternisation while on official duty at the NYSC camp… indulging in an amorous relationship with a trainee. On that score, Akinlabi’s superiors are quite right. Anything to the contrary is mere politically correct twaddle. She should have known better. Her fiancé too should have been more sensible and not made the dick move of showing fellow corpers he dates his superior. Rather than undermine themselves with a public proposal, they could have kept their relationship private until the three-week orientation period was over. Getting engaged to a subordinate in the NYSC camp potentially jeopardizes Akinlabi’s professional relationship with other corpers. People should always steer clear of situations where relationships can descend into abuse of power. In instances where the intentions are noble—for instance where two consenting adults have marriage plans—the couple should at least be discreet and not give room to interpretations of ethical violations. That utter lack of discretion is clearly the problem in this case.
That said, the Nigerian Army is overreacting by slamming Akinlabi in detention as if she committed a capital offense. In fact, they are exploiting a case of a lowly soldier ambushed by an overeager suitor to establish their virtues publicly. If only we lived in a world where the worst atrocity a Nigerian soldier has ever committed in uniform was accepting a marriage proposal. If only! Are we talking about the same Nigerian Army whose officials massacred about 350—possibly more—Shiites in Kaduna? Their soldiers manifested that much evil while fully kitted, but a marriage proposal while in the same attire is their idea of an intolerable offense? The same Nigerian Army that used President Donald Trump’s words to justify a disproportionate use of force on civilians? Please! They cannot blame the sceptics who find it reasonably suspect that it took a marriage proposal for the Army to re-discover their moral core. Until a female officer accepted a marriage proposal while in her uniform and on official duty, who knew they had such lofty standards of public conduct?
Some of those justifying Akinlabi’s punishment have mostly regurgitated the official lines about how the military as an institution has separate disciplinary codes that bind its officers. We should be careful about echoing the dangerous argument of the exceptionalism of the military as an institution. The military might have their own in-house codes, but their values cannot be autonomous of the society they serve. History should make us circumspect enough to interrogate the ideology that underwrote the offenses they listed against Akinlabi.
Part of the issue at stake is that we are dealing with a military institution still hungover from the good old days when they were at the helms of political leadership in Nigeria. Their fetish about what is allowable while wearing their military fatigues hacks back to an era when they inspired terror by merely showing up in those outfits. Wearing their uniform while doing non-lethal things like an “amorous relationship” irks her ogas at the top because such actions banalise the symbolic force of that attire. Having over-invested in the uniform as an emblem of their patrimonial power and authority, they censure the wearers’ public conduct. It did not help in this case that the uniform being demystified was on the body of a female soldier.
Fetishising uniform is an attitude that pervades both military and paramilitary organisations where ideas of what constitutes “discipline” and public conduct intensely connect to Nigeria’s history of military leadership. For instance, last year, some female officials of the Nigeria Immigration Service shot a video to participate in a social media dance trend. According to the query, these women were later issued, their appearance in the video was a “desecration of service uniform/beret…sabotaging the values upheld by the service.” One wonders what exactly about a professional uniform is so sacralised in their organisational imagination that wearing it while dancing was tantamount to a “desecration”? That language implies they have elevated their own uniform to a religious artefact, and they expect it to be accorded (un)due honour.
Ultimately, a uniform is just a piece of cloth strewn with insignias. As Fela Anikulapo-Kuti once sang, “Nothing special about uniform. Uniform na cloth. Na tailor dey sew am like my dress.” Yes, uniforms only have a symbolic meaning because the public accords it, not because the apparel is venerated to the point where doing regular things while wearing it is considered sacrilegious. For instance, US marines make all kinds of videos while wearing their uniforms and then post them on social media. Their superiors do not meltdown. There are gazillion photos of soldiers from countries worldwide engaging in public displays of affection online; their top brass too does not respond with similar heavy-handedness. In Akinlabi’s case, the only justifiable argument is that an officer crossed an ethical boundary by fraternising with a subordinate. Racking up multiple offenses just to lengthen the list is an overreaction, a betrayal of the Army’s anxiety about their status within Nigerian society.