Countering Coups: The Military Serves the People
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
ABUJA, Nigeria, April 3, 2000 Mention the possibility of a military coup d’etat in the United States and people laugh.
But mention the possibility of a military coup in Nigeria, and it is taken very seriously. In 40 years of independence, Nigeria has been ruled by its military for 30. Many experts on the region see current democratically elected President Olusegun Obasanjo, inaugurated in May 1999, as the last hope for democracy in the country.
This is why Defense Secretary William S. Cohen visited the country and pledged money not only to rebuild the military, but, more important, place it under strict civilian control.
During a press conference here April 1, Nigerian reporters asked Cohen point-blank how Nigeria could avoid another coup. Cohen used the United States as an example of what Nigeria must do if it hopes to become a permanent democracy.
“What we have in the United States is strict civilian control over the military,” he said. “We have a department of defense, we have oversight by our committees in both the House of Representatives and the Senate and, ultimately, we have the trust of the American people.”
He said U.S. service members understand they serve the people of the United States. “They are ingrained with that ethic and ideal, and the very notion that there would be a military takeover in the United States is simply inconceivable,” he said.
U.S. history, American military traditions and the country’s conspire against the idea of a military coup. “We constantly remind everybody that this is a military that serves the people and not the other way around,” Cohen said.
Democracy cannot be imposed, and the sort of tradition against a coup that has grown up in the United States takes time to grow. But America can help nurture the tree of democracy once it has taken root. “It’s up to the people of a country to insist on this, that the military always be subject to the elected civilian leadership,” Cohen said. “It may take time to do that.”
Cohen said programs that increase exposure of foreign militaries to the military culture of the U.S. armed forces can speed the process of civilian control. “We think through greater interaction with the United States and others that we can help promote that ideal,” he said.
The bonds with other countries also serve to help stabilize countries and regions. When there are difficulties in countries, Cohen said, U.S. officers can contact their counterparts.
“They’ve been to seminars and training and understand the role of the military in a democracy,” he said. “We are able to pick up the phone and talk to them and remind them that the military must exercise restraint. Yes, there’s turmoil, but you must deal with it in a respectful and prudent way.”
And that means not staging coups.