The Chief of Army Staff, Lt. Gen. Tukur Burutai, is a great guy. A quintessential officer. He’s a man of few words; wears a wry smile. He’s a tall officer and his peers would quickly tell you he’s a rugged military man, unfazed by the freaks of fiery storms. I like him.
I noticed a reassuring bit of his character when he addressed the press upon his appointment as Chief of Army Staff by President Muhammadu Buhari in July 2015. He told the audience that the military has no idea where the Chibok Girls were being kept by their Boko Haram captors. He said it without giving away any clue. No change in his facial expression; no smile, no sudden demure. His facial expression remained the same as the words spluttered out of his mouth. Only, he looked away from the paper in front of him as he dropped the bombshell. And he paused to let the import of his disclosure sink. And it did sink.
Anybody familiar with the rhetoric around the Chibok Girls would notice a departure by Buratai from the old order. Before his appointment, the military hierarchy had consistently told Nigerians that they knew where the Chibok Girls were being held by the insurgents in the surreal Sambisa forest. They claimed they were being meticulous not to strike down the terrorists with the girls. But it turned out they did not know. They were as clueless as anybody. It was the most unintelligent thing to say.
In the business of Intelligence, feigning ignorance of the enemy’s strategy is the first step to victory. Whether Buratai and his men knew the whereabouts of the Chibok Girls or not, it was more intelligent to claim ‘we do not know’. That is far more intelligent than claiming you know when you are totally in the dark. Buratai’s admission of ‘we do not know’ was more reassuring than the creed of his predecessor who claimed he and his men knew even when their lame actions suggested otherwise. For that, Buratai earned my support and won me over.
When the United States Intelligence was hotly on the heels of Osama bin Laden, the dreaded leader of the Al Qaeda, they gave the impression that bin Laden was hiding in an underground rocky cave in Afghanistan. Unbeknownst to the rest of the world, the US SEAL Team Six alongside other US intelligence groups under a stealth operation codenamed Operation Neptune Spear, had trailed bin Laden to his new home in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The operation was kept under top-level secrecy. The US Intelligence authorities succeeded in riveting global attention to Afghanistan when the actual operation was being painstakingly executed in Pakistan. The endpoint was mission accomplished. Bin Laden was killed on May 2, 2011, about a decade after the Al Qaeda-executed 9/11 Twin Tower bombing in America that claimed thousands of lives. At the end, it was vintage SEAL operation: clean, clinical and precise.
The SEAL Team Six success and other such reconnaissance in the past inspire confidence. They make you dread the officer who claims ‘I don’t know the whereabouts of the enemy’ rather than the one who vacuously claims ‘I know where the enemy is’. Thus when Buratai claimed he and his officers did not know where the Chibok Girls were, it was more reassuring to me. It gives a false sense of hope and victory to the enemy and makes them more likely to drop their guard. In the art of war, you don’t tell all.
But recently, Buratai, not the enemy, seemed to have dropped his guard. He was quoted to have alluded to a lack of commitment among soldiers on the frontline hence Nigeria appears to be losing the war against Boko Haram. He strongly denies this. Buratai insists he was wrongly quoted. I would give him benefit of the doubt. I wish he was misquoted by the media present at the event including the unabashedly pro-establishment News Agency of Nigeria (NAN).
My worry here is not whether Buratai was misquoted or not. The real issue is that Boko Haram is yet to be caged. The maniacal rage of the insurgents is still reverberating across the country. The impudence of the insurgents is yet to abate. Yes, there is decline in the audacity of the insurgents to attack Nigerians, overrun and annex villages, even local governments but the terrorists are still unhinged in their quest for murderous plunder.
This battle has dragged on for over a decade. The officers and soldiers are battle-weary; almost. They deserve our kindest words of encouragement. They deserve the best emoluments because it is for our sake that they are in the frontline. Some die just so we might live. They take the bullets for our sake. They stay awake so we can sleep. Every soldier and officer on the frontline is a patriot. We must never forget that it’s for you and I that they fight; in the rain, under the scorching sun, in the treacherous heat of the day and the darkling darkness of night they toil. They deserve our kind words, not debates on their commitment. They, sure, are committed. The non-committed ones have since deserted the Army. They have absconded to Canada, to Dubai, Saudi Arabia, America with their families. The war against Boko Haram is not a battle between the Army and the insurgents. It is a battle between Nigeria and the insurgents, between our nation and those who want to destroy us, most of whom are not Nigerians.
And at moments like these, Winston S. Churchill’s famous line should echo interminably in our minds. He once said: “We sleep safely at night because rough men stand ready to visit violence on those who would harm us.”
The real issues that should engage us is whether our troops are well equipped. Are they emotionally mobilised? Are their allowances and entitlements paid regularly and on time? Why would men of the Nigerian Army appear to be failing at home when the same breed of men go outside the country, fight other people’s battles and excel? In rebutting the statement credited to him, Buratai had praised the soldiers, vouching for their unrelenting commitment. This is good, but it’s not the best thing to do in the circumstance.
Buratai should ponder this: Why have our soldiers not been able to obliterate Boko Haram; why are the insurgents still bold enough to attack military bases despite huge sums of money appropriated to execute the war and the much advertised purchase of sophisticated weapons? Obviously, there is something wrong. There could be many things wrong. Before Buratai, cases of military top echelon stealing money meant for soldiers and officers on the frontline were rife. Upon investigation, millions of dollars were found in the homes of some military men, some have amassed estates and obscene wealth they could never justify their legitimate ownership.
This is what should engage Buratai at these times. Are there cases of misappropriation of funds under my watch? He, alone, can ask and answer this question before history takes its place in judgment of his tenure. He should avoid the gravy train which consumed his predecessors.