Not All Major Generals

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EDIFYING ELUCIDATIONS BY OKEY IKECHUKWU

In February 2017, the United States news industry reported the demotion of Major General, Ronald Lewis, to the rank of Brigadier General, for “…conduct unbecoming of an officer and a gentleman on multiple occasions.” The man was found to have used government credit card to pay at a strip club in Paris and Rome. We also know of a Major General who was demoted for plagiarising the work of another in order to be promoted to his new rank.

Once the discovery was made, and the relevant authorities realised that he was parading false claims to the new rank, he was promptly stripped of it. The question now is this: should anyone, reacting to this development, decides to use the tile of “Major General” derisively, as if it was synonymous with improper behaviour? Should we endorse, or encourage, such practice, on the grounds that there was once a Major General who brought both himself and the rank into disrepute?

Does it follow from the reprehensible behavior of a particular US army officer that all Major Generals in the US army are disreputable characters, or officers of questionable moral and professional standing? Does it also follow that Americans should, following from this unfortunate, and clearly embarrassing incident, use the term “Major General” as a derogatory generic designation? Will doing so not imply, unfairly, that being a Major General signifies being an examination cheat, or a pervert of sorts? Would it not imply that other, properly decorated, Major Generals should be stigmatised because a particular officer conducted himself with less than commendable ambience?

I make the foregoing observations against the background of the raging controversy over a recent editorial by The Punch newspapers. The editorial in question rightly raised issues about the human rights record of the Buhari government. This is within the ambit of the Fourth Estate of the Realm, wherein the newspaper has the undeniable watchdog. Thus drawing attention to the plethora of court orders the government has ignored, as well as its perceived high handedness in other matters of state, is nothing out of the ordinary for any respectable newspaper house.

There is also nothing unusual, or reprehensible, in The Punch calling for government rethink on several issues, especially its trajectory on matters of human rights, as it pertains to court orders. Even the fact that the newspaper went further to vent some spleen on the president himself, as intolerant, dictatorial and beholden to impunity and almost a terrorist’s approach to leadership, stands within what a leader should expect in a democracy. The important thing is for all such comments, submissions and opinions not to verge on, or actually amount to, character assassination, disturbance of public peace or defamation.

Then came the disturbing clincher in The Punch editorial: President Muhammadu Buhari will henceforth be addressed as “Major General Muhammadu Buhari” by all the titles and publications of The Punch stable, because of his current record; and also in line with his previous record as military Head of State. Now, that presents a peculiar problem. The use of a purely professional title, itself a mark of honour duly attained, in such a manner as to make it seem intrinsically derogatory is a problem. Surely “Major General” is no negative appellation on its own. Its denotative meaning does not lend it to such usage. Its connotative meaning also does not make it amenable to such unwholesome association. Thus its use by The Punch in the way it did presents subtle problems of propriety and proper form.

The danger, and objection, here is that it is not right to create the impression that whosoever bears such a title is necessarily of a particular presumed disposition; and even possibly not worthy of respect, or trust, as leader and protector of the commonwealth. That will not be true, right, or fair to all concerned. Thus we cannot, in all good conscience, presume to suggest that the real and imagined character defects of one person should be a necessary, and/or sufficient, reason for the summary stigmatisation of a species of beings.
It will not occur to us, for instance, to use the term “reverend father” derogatorily, simply because a certain reverend father was found to be a lecher of great repute.

We would not address people accused, or found guilty of, sexual harassment as “Professor” simply because a certain professor was once found to have been paying less that decent attention to the sexuality of his female students, rather the grades on their examination papers? Thus the use of “Major General” to imply a dictatorial disposition because of Buhari’s first tenure as military Head of State seems ill advised and questionable. This is particularly so when we consider that we are in a nation with many serving and retired Major Generals who are intellectually sound, professionally well groomed as soldiers, possessed of proper etiquette and well-rounded in every way.

Should they all, collectively, be constrained to squirm at the mention of their duly attained military ranks, just because a former colleague of theirs was deemed to have conducted, or is conducting, himself in less than commendable ways?
If the impressions is that all Major Generals are necessarily dictatorial, or at least that the military rank of Major General is synonymous with tyranny and dictatorship, what do we make of General Abdulsalami Abubakar? He was once a military Head of State. So were Obasanjo and Gowon. If some of us choose to address Obasanjo as “General” because of his track record of having handed over to a civilian government in 1979, what shall we say about Abacha who was on a desperate bid for transmutation into a civilian president before his vehicle ran out of gas? There lies the dilemma. Unless we add a qualifier like, “dictatorial,” or some other adjective, the chosen, presumably deprecatory title for Mr. President is open to question.

As for calling the Buhari government “a regime” instead of a government, that is neither here nor there. Check the meaning of “regimen.” What does it imply, beyond a set of rules, guiding principles, methods, devices or approaches to doing something? It could involve policies, procedures, laws, strategies, tactics, etc. deployed by a government or a war commander. It could also refer to a cocktail of drugs and procedures adopted by a doctor in the line of duty. It is in the same way that it could boil down to what an authority does to ensure the continued success of its orientation. That is why the “Margaret Thatcher regime” in the UK was totally at variance with those of many former Prime Ministers before her.

I suspect that The Punch may have overshot the mark a bit, even if it made very good points about the Buhari government’s need to pay some attention to its evolving profile in the area of obedience to court orders, at least. The finer points of whether a regime is necessarily designative of tyranny is a matter of analytical, and etymological, perspective. In the case under reference, the debate is not won by pointing to the fact that the connotative global usage predominantly refers to military governments as dictatorships, or dictatorial regimes.

All said, let us spare our many respected, and self-respecting, Major Generals the inconvenience and indignity of undeserved opprobrium. This is without prejudice to the justified feeling of outrage evinced by The Punch establishment over the Buhari government’s perceived high handedness in certain matters. The editorial should also not be an excuse for an assault on the news medium by the Federal Government.

Ibrahim Magu’s Predicament

The Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and his predecessors became the subject of a somewhat hilarious exchange at a recent gathering. They were said to be men who had the unviable task of “thief catching” in a polity where public service has been turned into a platform for “stealing in turns;” and where the leadership and followership culture deems whoever does not “give a good account of himself/herself” by stealing copiously while in public office is a failed son, or daughter. The speaker said that the appointment of Lamorde as EFCC chairman was a mistake because of the man’s size, general ambience and what she called an enjoyment-of-life aspect to his general self-presentation. No one saw that coming. “The man looked too comfortable and happy,” compared to Ribadu, who was lean, and at least looked a little hungry.

From there she went on to argue that it would be easier to believe Ribadu, or Magu, than Lamorde, whose physical presence and aspect may direct public sympathy towards the thieves he is presenting for prosecution. The predicament of people like Ibrahim Magu, his predecessors and others in the sister corruption fighting agency, she said, is that they take their job seriously, amidst institutional challenges, insinuations of one-sidedness and the antics of a political environment that could even make people to look at an angel with misgivings. She observed that the target and potential victims of the anti-corruption crusade do not seem to be on his side. Many of the people who should be the primary beneficiaries of his efforts, too are suspected not to be on his side.

She concluded by saying that people like Ibrahim Magu must have their unpleasant moments. But that since every duty has its challenges, the man must follow his rather lonely road, fraught with anguish and solitude. Sounding reflective and cautionary, she pointed out that life was a frolicsome picnic and that Nigerians in public office should be careful in the choices they make when they are given public funds to manage. But, all said, she got a standing ovation. The audience couldn’t stop clapping after the lady’s totally off-the-mainstream contribution on an otherwise perfectly serious matter.

Choose wisely, especially with recent wake-up calls to those who are coming face to face with the fact that temporary triumphs cannot last forever – and, perhaps, even a few days longer.