In several parts of Nigeria, the Army is treated with suspicion and fear – for good reasons. There are several cases of abuse and rights violations by officers of the Army in localities where they have been posted to secure lives and property. Recent examples in Zaria and the South East, while more prominent, are just a fraction of the many documented instances.
Learn three languages: The Army this week announced a policy that could go a long way towards fostering trust and understanding between the Army and citizens. Soldiers have been given one year to learn and be proficient in the three major Nigerian languages – Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa.
“Invariably, by December 2018, all Nigerian Army personnel are expected to learn the three major Nigerian languages,” said the Army Spokesman, Brig.-Gen Sani Usman, in a statement. “The standard of proficiency to be attained is the basic level. Certificated proficiency level will attract Language Allowance.”
Usman also said that for those applying for recruitment or commissioning into the army, the ability to speak the three major languages would be an added advantage.
The American example
At the peak of the United States military presence in Afghanistan, that country’s ground commanders argued that learning local languages “is as valuable as a soldier’s skill with a rifle.”
Morgan Smiley, a then active-duty US Army officer said, “Learning the language will not only help one learn about that culture but be able to operate more effectively once immersed in it. Improving our language skills may lead to more effective and efficient techniques for building the capacity of our current and future partners and reduce the need for deployments of robust US forces.”
It is easy to see how knowledge of Igbo language and culture could have been useful, for instance, in the South East when the Army’s announcement of Operation Crocodile Smile (II) two months ago was the cause of much apprehension. The work of soldiers cannot just be to weed out the bad eggs, but to win the hearts and minds of the locals.
Learning local languages and cultures by soldiers will help reduce misunderstanding, create better rapport and make soldiers more effective in keeping the peace. It helps the military achieve more by avoiding conflict and staying away from the types of behaviour that displease the locals of an area.
Former US Defence Secreatry, Leon Panetta, once said, “Languages are the key to understanding that world. If we are going to advance stability in some of the countries we are fighting in today, we have to be able to understand what motivates those countries, what motivates their people, and to understand their culture, beliefs, faiths, ideologies, hatreds and loves. A strong language ability is necessary to do that.”
Nigerian Army spokesman Usman said the language policy was newly-introduced as the study of foreign and local languages was a worldwide practice among armies, in which officers and soldiers were encouraged to be multi-lingual.
“The Policy will foster esprit-de-corps and better communication with the populace to enhance information gathering, civil-military relations, increase understanding between militaries when operating abroad and assist officers and soldiers to perform their duties professionally,’’ he said.
The army spokesman noted that English remained the official language in the army, while Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa languages could be used during Civil-Military Cooperation (CIMIC) activities or interrogation.