Edifying Elucidations By Okey Ikechukwu
Security can be easily mistaken for the positioning of gun totting (and preferably red-eyed) young men cordoning off an area and doing their best to look threatening – even menacing. But it is much more than that. It has been for a long time, too! Visible security support, where it must exist at all, is the icing on a cake that the ingredients are spread over an incredible network. General Charles De Gaulle of France made a point of always terminating the career of any security details he saw around his residence. His sighting them meant that they had already failed in their duties and he was emphatic about that. Open display mocks the real thing and makes a sniper’s job very easy; if there is need to eliminate conspicuous obstacles before reaching the real target. So let us all feel a little embarrassed about the exhibition of inferior firepower by our soldiers at the barricades on the roads. Let us also do something about it. The good news, though, is that vulnerable establishments and religious premises are being provided with bomb detectors, following the brief of the new National Security Adviser (NSA).
But, beyond the matter of bombs and bombings, there is the far more serious issue of the dangers presented by the character and layout of Abuja. This concerns what is fashionably called the Three Arms Zone within the city. This Three Arms Zone is a brilliant concept that offers logistical advantages when you think of the closeness of the major institutions of state to one another. But this epicentre, or northeast side of the epicentre of Abuja’s Central Business District, is also a security nightmare by any stretch of the imagination. It houses the Eagle Square, the Federal Secretariat, the Ministry of Justice and the Supreme Court. Aso Rock is a frog-jumping distance from all of these, yet we manage to sleep easy.
It is strange, is it not, that the National Assembly, Aso Rock and the flesh and soul of the judiciary are so close to one another that a glancing blow targeted at one will get the other two, and with impressive damage to boot? No nation with our landmass, even in ancient times, had all its powers quarantined within a one mile radius - with each threatening to announce superior vulnerability in the event of any stray mishap.
Abuja’s curious security profile became a matter of interest to me during the Sani Abacha years. I recall one of those visits, around the time of the raging controversy over M.K.O. Abiola’s planned release (arguably aborted by the then Secretary to the Federal Government, Alhaji Aminu Saleh) by the military regime. The then Minister of Internal Affairs, Mr. Alex Ibru, gave us a detailed private briefing on how Oladipo Diya presided over the meetings, because Abacha was indisposed; and of the resolve to release Abiola. He mentioned the angry reactions of Allison Madueke and Gen. Alli when they noticed Abacha’s reluctance. Abacha reportedly refused to see the team after the meeting, or even allow Diya to come up to his bedroom; but merely spoke with the latter via an intercom. He put off any discussion on the matter to 12 noon the next day, ostensibly because he had an injection and needed to recover from a fever. Alli had an early flight to Lagos the next day and of, course, the rest (including the summary firing of Alli and Allison) is history; or perhaps a matter for another day.
The entire Federal Secretariat complex was a sparsely populated place at the time, but the buildings still gave you a suffocating and cramped feeling. There were no grounds. The architecture had all the trappings of a bad set of barracks and any thought of evacuating such a building in an emergency will worry the best-trained emergency experts. It hosts nearly all the ministries, and yet it has the most atrocious rigmarole of passages and interconnected floors. The integrity of the structures themselves may well be open to question, because it all seemed somewhat hastily erected and painted. And it is around this emotionally unsettling security monstrosity that there lies, flayed out like a skirt, the three arms of government.
The concept of a Three Arms Zone was a military one and its ongoing replication in Niger State may yet yield much heart pain, especially as the residential and other facilities of the major players in the three arms of government are within spitting distance of each other. But we are digressing.
Here in Abuja, the vulnerable Federal Secretariat surrounds the national parade ground. Eight high-rise buildings and over 100 windows of controversial security integrity surround the parade ground itself. All of these are enmeshed in a cobweb of roads, which is proof of no serious concern about security. And then, as if there is a curse at work, the most important institutions of state are pitched around such an alarming configuration of danger. How could this have been considered a good idea at any time at all? The explanation, absurd as it may sound, is that the smiling general was so startled by the Okar military coup d’état that nearly took his life that he violated the Abuja master plan in order to guarantee his personal safety. The cramping of statecraft may well also be in aid of this.
Today, national attention is focused on the purely episodic phenomenon of Boko Haram’s indiscriminate bombing of innocents, as if the effort at tackling this roadside menace is pristine work in national security. It is not! Bombs and bombings are one thing, while the clear and present dangers presented by the issues raised above are another. Any untoward incident that takes out the National Assembly, the Judiciary, the National Secretariat with its truckload of ministers, as well as Aso Rock and the contiguous military settlements in one fell swoop will bring a conflagration of comic dimensions in our national political life.
Is it possible that we have so far survived by plain luck? Braggadocio and empty swagger cannot take the place of the patient, silent and resolute professional rigour needed for any meaningful security work; which fell into disrepute under the military. It was actually under progressively more degenerate military regimes that the open display of arms and ammunition, as well as orchestrated haranguing of the civilian population by the armed aides of military public office holders during official functions, was mistaken for effective security for the officers concerned. This is laughable in a world with very sophisticated espionage technology.
But, coming back quickly to the present, the tenure of the new NSA should remedy the structural and attitudinal vulnerabilities of Nigeria and Nigerians in matters of national security. We say this with special and emphatic reference to Abuja. Too much has been taken for granted; and for too long. As I write, the federal capital has lost most of its traffic lanes to illegal barricades. These are mostly concrete slabs put up by organisations that have resorted to self-help, by colonising public space in order to secure themselves against bomb mongers. Are they all authorised to do this; and by whom? Since when did balkanisation of highways by all and sundry become a solution to insecurity? Who knows, someone may well be apprehended by bystanders as he is walking down the street, on the grounds that they think his disappearance will improve security in the area.
The epidemic of military personnel, who delay traffic everywhere allegedly in order to fish out bombs from under cars and luggage trunks, persists. The gains of this measure are unclear and the loss of man-hours is palpable to the point of being outrageous. The immediate and long-term objective of the bombers has become nebulous, but the threat and dangers are still real. The absence of any clear purpose, and of even predictable targets, only accentuates the danger to all and, perhaps, explains the desperate clutching at every straw by the authorities.
One thing is clear, though: Abuja was never really designed with any serious focus on security. Going beyond the restoration of its master plan to a reconsideration of its current layout has become imperative, because looking closely at it today leads to serious palpitations of the heart.