DSS: WHY WE MAY BE CAUTIOUSLY OPTIMISTIC

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Saturday comment 

 The new director general of DSS is doing a professional job, writes Suleiman Isa Abubakar

The Department of State Services (DSS) or State Security Service (SSS) as it is alternately referred to, reached its lowest point during the regime of former President Goodluck Jonathan, when its spokesperson Marylin Ogar often sounded and behaved like the PRO of the then ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). The organization that was founded on the Doctrine of discretion as its watchword, became so politically involved that it even overshadowed the Nigerian Police Force (NPF) in its public conduct and disposition. It is not certain whether the DSS under its then director general (DG) Mr. Ekpenyong Ita was a willing accomplice or it was a hapless, unwilling victim of the whims of the political leadership of the time; whatever it was, it did the service no good as it demystified it and virtually robbed it of most of its credibility. It was therefore with great expectation that Nigerians awaited the appointment of a new director general of the service when the All Progressives Congress (APC) defeated the PDP in the 2015 general elections.

Mr. Lawal Daura emerged as the new DG and Nigerians accepted his appointment without complaint: The fact that he came from the same state and the same town with President Buhari was accepted as a new normal because since 1999 every President except the late Umaru Musa Yar’Adua had appointed his “home boy” as the head of the DSS. But somehow Mr. Lawal Daura appeared to have read his script upside down. First, he sacked Marylin Ogar, a move many Nigerians welcomed; but then, he refused to appoint a new spokesperson, leaving journalists frustrated (and therefore Nigerians uninformed) whenever they needed someone to contact on matters directly related to the DSS. And there were so many of such matters, thanks to the incessant meddling into political matters by Daura. This, the Nigerian public gradually came to resent, a resentment that was fuelled by the relentless complaints from the Nigerian media establishment. As time wound on, Mr. Daura became more and more enmeshed in political intrigues and controversies until he became synonymous with both tendencies. Matters came to a frightening level when the unimaginable happened.

In late November 2017, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) sent out a team of heavily armed operatives to effect the arrest of Ekpeyong Ita, Daura’s predecessor on charges bordering on fraud allegations; only for the EFCC men to be met with equally heavily armed operatives from the DSS who prevented the EFCC men from effecting the arrest. It was a most embarrassing public display by two -sister security agencies working for the same government but behaving like mortal enemies from rival planets. Somehow, a bloody disaster was averted as the EFCC men retreated. But a public relations disasters had been consummated between the two as the entire inexplicably strange display was done in the full glare of media cameras. From that point on, the perception of the DSS, which Nigerians thought couldn’t get any worse after what it was turned into during Mr. Jonathan’s presidency, sank to a new nadir. Unable to understand what was going on, Nigerians moved on, hoping that at some point, things would improved.
But they got worse in a most spectacular manner. On August 7, 2018, Daura again sent his men, armed and hooded, to take over the National Assembly (NASS) allegedly to carry out some clandestine agenda. Again this happened in the full glare of the ever resilient Nigerian media which, with the help of the conventional and social media; and the courageous stance of some of the besieged lawmakers, quickly galvanized public opinion against the siege which eventually collapsed. Daura’s men withdrew, defeated and deflated. A few hours later the presidency fired him. You could hear the relief from Lagos to Maiduguri.

Then enter an unexpected, previously unheard of personality as the new DG; a certain Mr. Yusuf Magaji Bichi, an old timer from the days of the Nigerian Security Organization (NSO) which is the precursor to the current DSS. Though unknown outside the secret police circle, Mr. Bichi came with a rich resume: He is a trained intelligence analyst, had received training in intelligence in both Nigeria and Britain, was state  director of the DSS in many states across the country and is known among his colleagues for his quiet efficiency. Until his appointment he was living quietly in retirement. Very few  people outside the mainstream secret service organization knew what to make of Mr. Bichi. At face value he looked calm and unassuming, a deceptive demeanour, some might say, that is appropriate for the job he was entrusted to perform. Professionally, his colleagues rated him very high; but these assessments all remained within the realm of speculation, as Nigerians have learned not to judge a book by its cover.

They waited to see. Mr. Bichi’s first action however, earned him instant commendation from the media: He quickly appointed a spokesperson and released a number of detainees some of whom the Nigerian public didn’t even know existed. For those who were watching and scrutinizing the secret police, those first steps by Bichi sent strong signals that perhaps the man was serious about his promise to return the service to its professional role of operating behind the scenes, to be felt but not seen, to be perceived but not heard, and to allow its performance to speak for it; to thwart what could otherwise become a disastrous security breach and allow the government—and the police—to take the credit, in contrast to the practice under the previous leadership of the DSS where it was in constant rivalry with the police for public attention and limelight.

The first sign that Mr. Bichi was serious about this dour approach came during the unfortunate, deadly Kasuwan Magani crisis in Kaduna State which culminated with the sad and unfortunate kidnapping and murder of a paramount ruler of the town. Working quietly and in record time, the kidnappers and murderers were apprehended reportedly by DSS operatives using covert intelligence. This earned the secret police more than a few commendations. After that there had reportedly been a number of such quiet, successful operations carried out by the DSS but which the DSS never publicly took credit for. And then there is, more recently, the case of the tragi-comedy cat-and-mouse drama between the police and Dino Melaye, an opposition senator from Kogi state. Somehow the DSS had managed to stay out of the murky affair. It got involved only when it appeared the police under its former IGP Ibrahim Idris had boxed itself into a corner and didn’t know how to extricate itself from it. The DSS quietly moved in, took custody of the defiant Melaye, kept him in its facility until providence came to the aid of the police when its controversial boss attained retirement age and a High Court in Abuja granted the senator a bail. Thus what was threatening to be a huge human rights abuse disaster was averted partly by the deft intervention of the DSS. Then there was, or there is, the case of the Chief Justice of the Federation (CJN) Mr. Walter Onnoghen. It would seem that there is more than meets the eye in the battle between the CJN and the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB).

Again if the DSS was involved in that affair, it has quietly stayed out of the fray, letting appropriate agencies of government to handle the matter, in complete contrast to the crude method of raiding judges’ residences in the middle of the night, gestapo style, as was done in recent past.
These reflections are necessary at this point in time as the country enters the last lap of electioneering campaign before the next general elections a few weeks from now. With a new, and thus far, promising leadership at the Nigerian Police, and so far a reassuring, effective, unobtrusive and increasingly professionally inclined leadership at the DSS, the country can dare to hope that the elections are likely to be a reflection of the will of the people. If things continue to improve as they seem to do, we can, and we should, be optimistic. Even if cautiously so.

Suleiman Isa Abubakar is a public affairs analyst based in Abuja