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Army backlash was predictable

By Raffique Shah

 It was only a matter of time before soldiers decided to intervene directly to protect their own, to exact justice if not revenge, against two-bit criminals who dare to attack, to murder, their comrades.

Civil society can shout till it is hoarse about the illegality of the troops imposing a measure of martial law in what have become war zones, they cannot stop the backlash. A few weeks ago I warned the populace, especially the bad boys and their family and community support bases, of this happening.

When soldiers going about their normal duties or living their normal lives are targeted by criminals who feel they own “turfs” and “territories”, and when the powers that be fail to stop such lawlessness, the army will move in and fill the vacuum. 

The madness that has descended on this society, huge swathes of urban communities reduced to fiefdoms ruled by gun-toting gangsters who arrogate unto themselves the powers of life and death, who dictate how the majority of law-abiding residents live or die, someone has to impose order.

The military is best positioned to intervene. It comprises a body of officers who have trained as leaders to take charge in crisis-situations where others buckle or succumb to fear. These officers lead soldiers who are trained to dispense violence in clinical, extreme ways. Unlike the police, soldiers are not about subduing riotous elements. They are trained to kill.

In a situation where the civilian leadership has collapsed, who or what will act decisively to restore order? Who will rid the society of the “dons” who have assumed powers that politicians believe they have but fail to exercise? 

Out of naked fear, successive political directorates have bowed to criminals, meeting and treating with them around executive conference tables, awarding them lucrative contracts, recognising them as community leaders, and worse.

When ordinary, law-abiding citizens cannot access their parliamentary representatives or ministers to pursue legitimate issues, these officials have an open-door policy towards gangsters.

Today, billions of dollars that could help alleviate the distress of the poor or the discomfort of diligent youths who seek to sustain themselves and their families through legitimate pursuits are diverted into the bloodstained hands of bandits, murderers and rapists. This travesty is all around us—from deep in rural districts to the seedy alleys of urban communities.

The pillage straddles age-old programmes such as URP and CEPEP as well as new beasts disguised in the names of sport and culture, all designed to keep the poor trapped in persistent poverty while they enrich the bold and the ugly who use guns as their bargaining chips.

We, the people, have sat and watched this descent into a living hell, powerless to do anything about it.

Well, enough is enough. The soldiers have decided to act, be it within or peripherally outside the bounds of legitimacy, to collar the beast, and if need be, kill it. The only caveat I would ask the troops to observe is to protect the innocent, to respect the rights of law-abiding citizens.

I have been mulling over this development for some time now. It seemed inevitable in the face of a virtual abdication of responsibility, of power, by those so endowed by the Constitution.

It is not the first time that the troops have had to intervene to protect their own and to punish those who see them as uniformed glamour boys, even as toy soldiers.

In May 1963, some sixteen months before I enlisted, two truckloads of soldiers invaded Carenage and beat the crap out of whatever “bad boys” they managed to corner (many of the offenders had apparently been tipped off and fled) in the night-life town where off-duty troops of the newly formed Regiment used to lime. 

Ever since the Regiment first moved into Teteron in October 1962, and nearby Carenage became the only recreation town available to them, the bad-Johns of the district would corner isolated soldiers, beat, slash, even rob them. Reports to the police went unheeded: the cops and the bad boys both disliked the sharp-looking soldiers. 

The incident that triggered the assault was the knifing of the popular Sergeant Sydney Brown, who, ironically, had left the police to join the Regiment.

In a well-executed attack, the soldiers laid waste many of the bars in Carenage, overturned cars, thrashed jukeboxes and beat civilians. Of course there was an outcry, and an inquiry followed. But no action was taken against any soldier—and Carenage was tamed.

There were other acts of retaliation in my time, always targeting the culprits, never law-abiding civilians. Invariably, they achieved their objectives. I am not here justifying these assaults, not from a legal standpoint anyway.

But there is a bond among servicemen that is incomprehensible to civilians. Here you have large numbers of young men (and now women) thrown together as recruits. They undergo harsh discipline and training. They eat, sleep, live, work together. They become family.

 Touch one, touch all. Kill one...well, brakes for your behind. I’ll return to this topic soon.

(I dedicate this column to Ma Doris Richens, mother to many soldiers, who passed on last Monday. Rest in peace, Grand Old Lady.)

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