Recently, Nigeria’s President, Muhammadu Buhari, finally decided to service his major instruments of war. He took the first step by changing his service chiefs after over five years in the saddle. Nigerians expect thorough overhauling of the other parts of the war instruments. But if for any reason the President slacks along the way, it will amount to sending the service chiefs on a fool’s errand.
Hopefully, he has assured everyone that this will not happen. In his 2021 New Year message, he had hinted that he would reorganise and re-energise the security apparatus to enhance the capacity of the personnel of the armed forces and the police to dismantle the operations of extremist and criminal groups waging war against Nigerians. He also promised to give support in terms of logistics and equipment to those in whose hands the security of Nigerians is entrusted.
This is cheery news for the new security chiefs. It is now left for the Chief of Defence Staff, Major-General Lucky Irabor; Chief of Army Staff, Major-General Ibrahim Attahiru; Chief of Air Staff, Air Vice-Marshal Isiaka Amao; and the Chief of Naval Staff, Rear Admiral Awwal Gambo, to live up to expectations.
No doubt, the expectations of Nigerians are quite high. They have been under siege for a very long time. In the North-East, Boko Haram terrorists hold sway. They have killed thousands of people and rendered millions of others homeless. In the North-West and North-Central, bandits, kidnappers and sundry criminals reign. Almost on a daily basis, their exploits scare life out of many Nigerians. In the South-West, South-East and South-South, criminals masquerading as herdsmen are the major headache. The furore generated by the eviction notice recently handed down to the unregistered herdsmen occupying Ondo forest reserves by Governor Rotimi Akeredolu is still fresh in our memories.
The immediate past security chiefs did their best to contain some of these crimes. Under them, we heard that Boko Haram had been technically defeated. But we knew that all was not well. There was serious grumbling in the military. Some soldiers in the warfront felt the military authorities were playing with their welfare. They lamented that they were equipped with obsolete weapons.
Also, there were suspicions of sabotage in the prosecution of the war against insurgency. At some point, funds meant for the purchase of military hardware were allegedly diverted. There were allegations that some of the weapons the terrorists were using were stolen from the Nigerian military. Consequently, many soldiers lost their lives to terrorists.
Thus, it was not surprising when the then United States Under-Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights, Sarah Sewall, said in 2014 that despite Nigeria’s $5.8bn security budget for that year, supplies as basic as bullets and transport vehicles did not reach the frontlines of the struggle against Boko Haram. Even the American officers who came to help rescue the Chibok schoolgirls abducted on April 14, 2014, said they would not share intelligence information with their Nigerian counterparts. The fear was that the insurgents had some sympathisers in the barracks and that secret information on military movements was allegedly leaked to them.
Little wonder, the morale of soldiers fighting insurgents was very low. At some point in 2014, some angry soldiers who felt betrayed by some of their superior officers almost mutinied when the then General Officer Commanding the 7 Division of the Nigerian Army, Major-General Ahmadu Mohammed, was addressing them in Maiduguri, the Borno State capital.
The first task of the service chiefs, therefore, is to boost the morale of these soldiers in different warfronts. The best way to do this is to ensure that they get all the entitlements due to them. It is also necessary to equip them with sophisticated weapons to enable them to contain terrorists and bandits.
Besides, intelligence gathering is imperative here. Without it, one can have the best weapons in the world and still not do much with them. With effective intelligence, those sabotaging the counter-insurgency efforts will be detected and neutralised.
To achieve this, the security chiefs must work as a team. In the previous dispensation, we were regaled with tales of the quarrel between the National Security Adviser (NSA), Babagana Monguno, and the late Chief of Staff to the President, Abba Kyari. Monguno had, in a memo to the President dated December 9, 2019, accused Kyari of acting beyond his brief by directly intervening on security issues without his input. The immediate past Chief of Army Staff, Tukur Buratai, reportedly sided with Kyari. Soldiers became confused. Even the President appeared confused and ignorant of what was happening. It is hoped that such will not recur this time.
It is also hoped that soldiers will strictly face the bandits and terrorists troubling our lives and leave civilian areas alone. Lekki Toll Plaza in Lagos, Oyigbo in Rivers State and Orlu in Imo State are in my mind here. Lekki was the epicentre of the EndSARS protests that rocked some parts of the country last year. On October 20, 2020, a day now referred to as Black Tuesday, soldiers allegedly stormed the area and opened fire on unarmed protesters. I reserve my comments here as this is still a subject of investigation by a judicial panel of enquiry.
The alleged Lekki episode was re-enacted in Oyigbo, Rivers State, soon after. There were different accounts of what happened. But the fact remains that the intervention of soldiers in the wake of the EndSARS protests in the area led to the killing of scores of civilians.
Currently, Orlu in Imo State is the latest theatre of war. Also, there are variegated accounts of what is happening in that area. Some say members of the Eastern Security Network (ESN) set up by the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) clashed with soldiers. This resulted in some deaths. But no matter the accounts of what triggered the crisis, the fact remains that there was collateral damage. Soldiers cannot intervene in any crisis and not record harvest of deaths or injuries.
The new service chiefs should warn their subordinates to exercise extreme caution when dealing with civilians. In fact, soldiers are supposed to be either in their barracks or in the warfront. Inviting them to intervene in civil matters worsens situations. Let us learn to invite them sparingly and only when the situation has gone beyond the mobile police.
I don’t want to go into the ethnic connotations of some of these military interventions nor is it necessary to interrogate the geographical origin of the service chiefs. Yes, South-East, as usual, is left out of the appointments. But, to me, it is time to stop complaining. The most important thing is to get the job done. And the most important job for the service chiefs is to decimate bandits and terrorists.
It is when they fail to do this that we begin to interrogate their competence. We hope they shame Boko Haram leader, Abubakar Shekau, who boasted in a recent video that they wouldn’t match him and his men. Definitely, the service chiefs can’t perform magic. But, if after a certain period, there is no significant improvement in the war against terrorism and banditry, we will begin to look elsewhere for salvation.