BY REUBEN ABATI
Many Nigerians were understandably shocked, surprised, if not alarmed last week, when they suddenly heard the news that the President of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari had finally decided to relieve the service chiefs appointed in 2015 of their appointments. The popular response was couched in such phrases as “oh… at last… finally”, “better late than never” – general expressions of relief about a security team that many Nigerians concluded could not deliver on the President’s promise to make Nigeria a safer and better place for all or at best, tackle the menace of insurgency, terrorism and banditry. The Service Chiefs led by General Abayomi Olonisakin (Chief of Defence Staff) – Lt. General Tukur Ibrahim as Chief of Army Staff, Chief of Naval Staff, Vice Admiral Ibok Ekwe Ibas and Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshal Sadique Abubakar were generally considered inefficient and incompetent by many Nigerians. This has to be put in context.
When President Muhammadu Buhari assumed office in 2015, and during the Presidential elections that preceded his emergence, his managers sold him to the Nigerian electorate as a man who would put an end to Nigeria’s security woes especially in the North Eastern corridor where the Boko Haram and the Islamic State held sway. Buhari had been an Army General, a civil war veteran, a soldier. He talked about fighting corruption and fixing the economy, but his unique and strongest selling point was the proposition that he would address the country’s security challenges. Even his most ardent critics had great expectations in that regard. He appointed Olonisakin and co. and gave them the assignment of stamping out terrorism and insurgency. But this would soon turn out to be a major source of frustration for Nigerians. Rather than abate, insecurity worsened.
It became cancerous. Every measure that was introduced only brought more problems, and the cancer of terrorism assumed new forms, mestasizing, mutating like corona virus, from terrorism to banditry, worsening insurgency, kidnapping, communal strife, and open madness on the part of criminals who were determined to sabotage the country. The government and the service chiefs adopted the strategy of telling Nigerians that the Boko Haram had been “technically defeated”. Later, the narrative was that they had been “degraded” or “decimated”. This was sustained by unending public perception management schemes that amounted to nothing more than motion without movement, empty rhetoric and the overt politicization of military strategy. More military operations were launched in the last five years than at any other time in Nigerian history, including the Nigerian civil war: These include Operation Lafiya Dole, Operation Crocodile Smile I and II, Operation Python Dance I and II, Operation Sharan Daji, Operation Harbin Kunama I and II, Operation Dokaji, Operation Egwu Eke, Operation Karamin Goro, Operation Ayem Akpatuma, Operation Last Hold, Operation Ugwu Eke, I – III, Operation Cat Race, Operation Positive Identification, Operation Atilogwu, Operation Rattle Snake, Operation Ruwan Wuta I- III… In all, there were over 40 such Operations under the watch of General Abayomi Gabriel Olonisakin and his team. Whoever was in charge of the naming of the Operations enjoyed himself so much, there was nearly no animal in the forest that he didn’t blackmail as part of the government’s attempt to find a solution to the crisis of insurgency in the country. I must say this though: they cleverly managed to avoid naming an Operation after the Tortoise! The Nigerian military even set up what it called “Super Camps”. The truth is that there was nothing “Super” about those camps.
Nigerians saw through it all. They saw images of killings and insecurity, and waste and wanton destruction. They saw Governors like Professor Babagana Zulum of Borno State openly challenging the Nigerian Army for adding to the people’s woes. In the Middle Belt, the Governors cried out for help. In other parts of the country, herdsmen wreaked havoc as they destroyed farms, lives and livelihoods. In the South East, the Nigerian Army was labelled an army of terrorists. Within the military itself, the stories were sordid. In the course of five years, many soldiers deserted the war-front. In one famous case, a soldier said he was tired of service and he would rather go and take up a traditional rulership position! At the war front, soldiers reportedly fled in the face of superior Boko Haram fire-power. Generals complained about the realization that terrorists fighting the Nigerian state had better equipment and appeared more motivated than Nigerian troops. The rank and file recorded videos in which they abused their Commanders and Generals. In another notable video, a General was recorded complaining about the weakness of the Nigerian Army. Nobody is even sure how many soldiers Nigeria has.
For five years, the same Nigerian military that had issues at the battle-front, was very vocal on social media. At a point, I was tempted to think that the Nigerian military was more of a social media army rather than a critical force on the battle-field. You only needed to make a critical comment and their trolls would descend on you, with lies and blackmail. As a form of military strategy, that was a terrible demonstration of sloppiness and I hope the first thing that the new Army Chiefs would do is to get rid of the loafers in charge of military communications who have reduced anti-insurgency operations to Twitter tittle-tattle. The Nigerian Army’s comeuppance came with the #EndSARS protest of October 2020, and the abduction of the Kankara Boys.
Before then, Nigerians, stupefied, overwhelmed, and bewildered, had called on President Muhammadu Buhari to change his security team. From the groundnut seller by the roadside, to leaders of socio-political and cultural groups, and the two Houses of the National Assembly, Nigerians demanded that the security chiefs should be sacked. The people wanted new ideas. They talked about a new security architecture – in fact that phrase became a cliché as every Nigerian became a security sector bricklayer. It was up to the President to listen and act. He alone has the power to hire and fire. The Constitution gives him broad powers to choose his own team as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. Now and then, the President would invite the Security Chiefs and give them “marching orders”. Now and then, the Presidency assured Nigerians of the determination of the government to put an end to terrorism and impunity. The statements were so frequent, so formulaic, the people no longer thought anything of them. I have been accused of putting in place a Rapid Response, automatic answer Robot in the Presidency when I led the Presidency’s Communications team. My critics say so. I plead not guilty.
And so, in the statement announcing the exit of General Olonisakin as Chief of Defence Staff along with other Service Chiefs, we were told that the President had accepted their offer of resignation and retirement. Truth is they were fired. Sacked! As recently as November 2020, the President had expressed confidence in their abilities. For 5 years, he kept them beyond their retirement, exit date. And he didn’t disgrace them out of office though. He talked about their “overwhelming achievements”. “Overwhelming” is a two-sided word. It can be positive or negative. Was the President “overwhelmed” by the performance of the service chiefs in a positive sense? Were the people of Nigeria, overwhelmed by their under-performance? We have it on record that during the handing-over ceremonies last week, former Chief of Defence Staff, Abayomi Gabriel Olonisakin said that under his watch, the Nigerian military rescued 20 out of 26 Local Governments that had been taken over by the Boko Haram. The then Chief of Army Staff, Lt. Gen. Tukur Buratai was also quoted as saying he transformed military operations and improved professionalism in the military. I think the former Service Chiefs are in a hurry to assess themselves and control the narrative. They should relax. They should learn to enjoy their retirement. They have been to the war-front and back. Many who started the journey with them died at the battle-field, but they got to the very top and have been pulled out of service alive. They are going home in one piece. Not every soldier enjoys such grace. Concerning their performance, they should leave that to us, the Nigerian people, history and posterity to judge.
They have the option of writing their memoirs, of course, when public service rules permit, and they can tell us all the stories on earth, including that undisclosed story about how Lt. Gen. Tukur Buratai was almost sacked by President Olusegun Obasanjo 21 years ago, when he was just a Major in the Army. Buratai made it to the very top, spent 40 years in the Army, but as he handed over the flag to his successor – Major Gen. Ibrahim Attahiru, the true irony of the moment was lost on him. He talked about Obasanjo. He missed the irony of the moment. In 2017, he had also tried to push Major General Ibrahim Attahiru out of the Nigerian Army. The guy survived. He took the flag from him. How truly ironic!
But it is not enough to move the flag from one pair of hands to another. Nigerians have very strong expectations. They expect that the change of personnel will bring new dynamism and better results. There is now a new team in place: Maj. Gen. Lucky Irabor as Chief of Defence Staff, Maj. Gen. Ibrahim Attahiru as Chief of Army Staff, Rear Admiral Awwal Gambo as Chief of Navy Staff, and Air Vice Marshal Isiaka Amao as Chief of Air Staff. I am told that some rigour went into the selection of this new team. Okay. I am also told they are tested hands within the system. We can all see that. They are also friends who may not have any problem working together. I hope so. When they met with the President last week, Lucky Irabor was reported as having said that he and his team are determined to “add value”.
And as it happened, on Sunday, January 31, Irabor and his team went on a visit to Borno State and they engaged with stakeholder-communities. Irabor must have been watching Western movies, and what it means to “hit the ground running”. Good James Bond move! Except that in this matter, Nigerians are not looking for actors and movie addicts. They want action and real performance. This is an important assignment and I assume we do not need to give Irabor and co a tutorial on the politics of power seeing that they have paid their own dues in their chosen line of work. President Buhari says they must pay attention to the welfare of the rank and file. We have seen videos of Navy and Army rank and file celebrating the exit of former Service Chiefs. Those videos may have been isolated, sponsored, video-shopped attempts at blackmail. But the new Service Chiefs must be attentive to their environment. They cannot make any difference if they are leading a demoralized, trigger-happy, undisciplined and unprofessional military that is likely to take to its heels in the face of Boko Haram only to escape to the nearest pepper-soup joint or short-time joint! Nigeria deserves a disciplined military, that is well-motivated, well equipped and energized to deliver on its constitutional mandate.
The public perception of the Nigerian Army has been created by the Army itself: Do you expect anyone to respect soldiers who discredit their own institution? Soldiers who lie openly to the people? Generals who run away from the war-front? Military commands that spend more time on twitter, wasting resources on mentally challenged trolls, fighting ghost enemies? Major-General Irabor needs to change the orientation of the Nigerian Army. We also need to know the actual capability of the Nigerian military? If we were to put up a fighting machine tomorrow to confront any form of external aggression, do we have the wherewithal? Irabor and his team must start with a very honest audit.
The military must also withdraw from police work. This was a shameful legacy from the recent past. It got so bad Nigerian soldiers joined the police at checkpoints to extort money and oppress citizens, especially vulnerable women. If the Nigerian Police is weak, and yes it is, the Nigerian government must address that challenge and make the institution more credible and useful. For General Irabor and his team, there is also the unresolved matter of the military’s refusal to appear henceforth before the judicial panel of inquiry on the #EndSARS protests in Lagos. Justice Doris Okuwobi, Chairperson of the panel, has given the Nigerian Army a new date of February 27 to respond to already served summons. Maj. Gen. Irabor should look into that and make it clear that the Nigerian military is not above the laws of Nigeria! Finally, President Muhammadu Buhari has one more Service Chief to appoint: the Inspector General of Police as the incumbent IGP Muhammed Adamu ended his tenure on Monday, February 1. He must choose wisely. We wait. We watch.