Addressing We-Vs-Them Mentality in Civil-Military Relations Crisis By Abdullahi Aliyu Maiwada
The Armed Forces are in the community of ammunitions, and the civilian rest are in the community of talks- and no civilian likes the gun pointed around him; is this not enough to create the feeling of polarity? That was how the “We vs. Them syndrome” was born. And this syndrome is most often the cause of conflict and crisis which sometimes rise to the hottest level of “code-red”.
No doubt that the focus of a crisis manager is to build mutuality before and after a relationship degenerate; this function however falls within the purview of public relations. Particularly because of the complexities of the social system, conflicts and crises are inevitable. To this, many scholars and writers have agreed, and they have also suggested communication strategies to resolve such crises. But, there is one thing scholars and experts are yet to agree upon- the type of crises that ensue between the law enforcers and the law-breaking members of the public, can strategic communication resolve such crisis without a measure of “strategic ammunition”? We can answer that in the language of our minds.
With a close assessment, it is obvious that there are certain objectives of public relations that are structurally conflicting with the commission of the law enforcers. Primarily, the corporate objective of the Armed Forces is to enforce laws, fight crime and maintain order; while this is in sharp contrast with the habitual objectives of the law breakers, criminals and the disorderly segment of the population who profit from uncivilized behaviour and take crime as business.
What shall we say of this? The public relations practitioners of Law Enforcement are therefore between the “proverbial devil and the “deep blue sea. How do we practice Public Relations activities under such system, and how do we achieve precise objectives in relation with measurable effectiveness- douse misperceptions, attract public acceptance, secure public support, resolve public apathy and ignorance?
In the light of these, it is apt to say that we are not just faced by a single trouble water- there are many trouble waters in front of us and which we must navigate.
For clarification, it is not a trouble water of perception as spelt in this topic, but rather the trouble waters of misperceptions. In my experiences as the PRO of Ogun Customs Command, I have had to deal with recalcitrant community residents whose major livelihood is to smuggle contrabands- as bad as the forbidden rice and poultry products and as worse as illicit drugs such as cannabis sativa.
In dealing with such people, it was tough because they relied on smuggling as occupation, and more tougher because they perceived security as the enemy of their criminal progress. That is the trouble water of misperception we are talking about. They see us in Khakis while they are in Ankara. They never saw us as a part of them who is trying to enforce orderliness and public health for the benefit of all. Rather, we are perceived as enemies of the people and loyalists of the government. Hence, I have had to deal with smugglers, criminals and their sympathizers mobilizing themselves with assorted weapons against armed officers, and when such led to a death or injury of any of the criminals, the communities, their rulers, and some media had rose up calling for the heads of the officers who were doing their lawful duties.
On many other occasions, our officers have lost their lives while others sustain life-threatening injuries- on these sorrowful occasions, the communities, their rulers and some media and even the reading public never saw a reason to sympathise, report or even condole with the families of the slain officers- they die unsung and unnoticed by the public. This is the other side of the We vs. Them coin.
In essence, there is an observed public hostility against the military/paramilitary, not for any other reason but because they are usually at loggerheads with the members of the public in their bid to fight crime. Because of this, it ordinarily becomes difficult to secure public favour and support which of cause is the pillar on which organizations thrive.
Now the question remains: How do we navigate the trouble waters of these public misperceptions, hostility, ignorance and apathy?
Scholars and PR experts have suggested community relations strategies, crisis communication strategies, stick and carrot approach, media sensitization and awareness approach, community-based personnel recruitment approach, home-community deployment approach, opinion leaders approach, consultation approach, pardoning and a host of other approaches numerous to mention here.
While all these have had their uses and proven their effectiveness it appeared that the military and paramilitary forces have further sunk into the mud of public misperceptions and hostility, there is still a high level of distrust against the men in uniform and the organizations of the Armed Forces. All the aforementioned approach have not been able to save the military and paramilitary from incessant crises and reputational injuries.
While the military has maintained a position of fear-based respect in the mind of the populace as repellent of external aggression, the paramilitary and the civil police have had to battle with a rather contemptuous internal criminals, who are most often aided by the ignorant and hostile community residents.
We must therefore review and upgrade our approach of navigating through waters of misperceptions. Indeed, we have to think practically and act practically according to the dynamism of situations.
In the aspect of public relations for example, the last few years in Ogun State and the chains of crises that raised their heads serially, have shown to me that we in the military/paramilitary have not been telling our stories effectively enough, this may be because of our training which is to be decisive and active rather than talking.
But since we have to relate with the talking public, it can only be wise especially for the PROs to speak out in volume- telling the stories to the public rather than allowing the media and the public to report their own misperceptions of things. What I advocate in this regard, is that we have to be proactive and be in charge of the information that circulate in the public, we have to write the details of facts and tell the media, before the media go ahead telling the people the non-facts.
Similarly, we have been too silent about the many woes that we face in our duty of protecting the public, the deaths of our many colleagues in the line of duty, the gory experience of having to sacrifice our peace in order to ensure public peace, the injuries and the various hazards- we must find a very subtle way of telling it to the public and especially those who have always see the criminals as the victim and security officer as the villain.
In the early days of April a criminal was involved in a weapon challenge with our officers in Ogun which led to his death, by the bias reportage of the media, the public roared against our officers, without the full knowledge of what led to the death. In the last week of the same April, our officers were attacked again and one ASC was badly wounded- having narrowly escaped death. It took extra efforts to push the story and gained public attention and the media on that very incident. Such extra efforts are what we must take- since ordinarily the public rarely care when officers die but they roar when criminals die. It is pertinent that we make them watch as we swim in the trouble waters made by criminals, while we solicit their supports to help win the war. By this, we would have appealed to their conscience and secure their sympathy.
I have also observed that many times when we try to manage crises, we create more crises; and this often happen through denial. It is a bad PR to deny an accident, the easiest way is to acknowledge whatever had happened, accept responsibility where applicable and explain to the public in their emotional language. We may not always tell the whole truth because of regimentation and sensitivity of issues, but we must never lie. If we can’t tell all the truths, at least, let us tell all the facts.
Another strategy that has proven effective is to recruit those I will refer to as “civilian lieutenants”. These are civilian friends, colleagues, associates and neighbours to whom we can share non-classified information and who can be a loyal ally to defend our course and our messages among their own network of friends and family. Personally, I have kept a close contact of such friends, some of them in the media, some are opinion leaders some are academics, and I must confess that our closeness have helped them to understand the challenges of being a military/paramilitary in Nigeria and they have as well helped to clear similar misperceptions in other people. In short, they help promote our good stories and give us quick warning tips when bad rumours start to spread. We must also be careful with them, if they are not good people, they may compromise.
In a recent research I conducted, I found out that our community relations work and gift items to our immediate community- Idiroko, Ogun State- have not been as effective. The reason was because those who we call community leaders have been sabotaging our efforts, they take the gifts and receive our messages but they never shared neither the gifts nor the messages to their people, hence the general populace had no means of getting to know our contributions to the development of the community.
Early this year, I found that it is better to maintain a closer touch with the people, and not only with their traditional rulers. Around March, the youths initiated a sensitization programme by themselves after we revealed to them the facts that their community leaders have failed to tell them. They felt a need to be part of our activities, the programme they initiated later became bigger as our headquarter office in Abuja grew interest in it, though it was later postponed due to Covid-19. The lesson is that, if we keep a personal touch and reason with the reasonable ones in the community, they will become loyal disciples and indeed help us to navigate the trouble waters of public misperceptions.
Meanwhile, let us not forget as well: New media is our new instrument. Major social media today have their specific strengths on which we can leverage to launch emotional campaigns that will touch the public mind. I believe we know more about it than I can ever explain since we have all become producers of messages on Social media.
However, we cannot relent on our traditional approaches of public sensitization, campaigns, consultations, courtesy visit and dialogue with influential stakeholders to join hands in fighting crime. We must adopt all the subtle languages of persuasion, that the law enforcers meant no hostility and that we are all the same people with unique roles; and most especially that the military/paramilitary purely exists to protect the civility of the civilians and specifically to uphold safety and growth.
We must keep explaining that the “We vs. Them” is a divisive misconception and that we are all of one social system, working harmoniously to have lives and livelihoods. Let us pull the public to our side, reduce the tension in our relationship with them, and seek their support in expunging criminals. Let us remember though that this may be hard if we fail to expunge the bad eggs among us as well. It must be an inside-out approach.
I must reiterate that though in military/paramilitary, our major tool is ammunition, but we must remind ourselves- the instrumentality of communication. If we use it very effectively we would not have to use ammunitions where simple communication would have suffice. By this, we would have already navigated through and have a good embrace at the other side of the trouble waters.
Abdullahi Aliyu Maiwada, a Public Relations Officer with the Nigeria Customs Service delivered this paper at Virtual School of Impactful Communication on May 30, 2020