I HAD a heated verbal brawl with a classmate of mine a few months after I was enrolled in a boarding primary school on the northern fringes of old Kano State. I was only six years old, and was in a boarding primary school belonging
to Christian missionaries. The experience was weird, and I was sulking most of the time. I was missing the close attention and love of my dot- ing mother and here I was all alone, practically forced to learn to be a man at a very young age.
Our housemaster, an old pastor of blessed memory, called the two of us to a peace meeting. It was there that he preached to us about the virtues of love for one another, saying it was an integral part of the teachings of the predominant religions of Islam and Christianity. It was also the first time I knew some Christians knew Islam, perhaps more than most Muslims.
Apart from the love that a child naturally experiences and learns from the tender hands of his mother, that was my first major lesson in the virtues of love and in the need not to be envious of each other, to support and protect each other, and that doing so is like attracting blessings to one’s self.
Earlier in life, in the Islamiyya school I at- tended from age two, the cleric taught us about some of these virtues, but it was the pastor who clearly drove the message home, perhaps be- cause he was settling a fight between two young boys as a practical example. I grew up becoming the best of friends with that friend of mine, and we are very close friends till date. That word, LOVE, defines our relationship, and it is a lesson we have passed on to our respective families.
Fast-forward to 1999 when democracy was restored in Nigeria. I was too young to have full grasp of the politics of the Second Republic, but by 1998 when the then military head of state General Sani Abacha died, I was big enough
to even play a role in setting an agenda for the country. I was one of those who wrote a series of articles calling for General Olusegun Obasanjo to be released from prison and made to contest the presidential election holding the following year. Somehow, I later became a member of his presidential campaign even though earlier in life, in the ill-fated Third Republic, I also played some role in campaigning for Chief MKO Abiola, though our neighbour and fellow Hausa Muslim, Alhaji Bashir Tofa, was contesting against
Abiola for the hot seat of President of the Federal Republic. As young men then, we were so elated when Abiola, a Yoruba from the South-West, defeated our kinsman, Tofa, in what eventually led to the June 12 imbroglio.
I grew up in a country said to be the most religious in the world, not by the depth of faith of its citizens in God but by the number of places of worship. Sadly, with the advent of the Fourth Republic in 1999, I started witnessing firsthand, the hatred, envy and name-calling that define virtually every feature of our politics in Nigeria.
I started wondering where those merchants of hate threw away the virtue of love emphasized by God, as encapsulated in our two major reli- gions. Whereas other democracies have opposi- tion, with those who lost in an election leading it more often than not without bitterness, what we have here is outright hatred, exhibited once you donotsubscribetothesamereligionor political leaning or ideology with the next person.
Over time, some desperate politicians introduced the dangerous politics of religion into the mix. And so, during each election cycle in Nigeria, it has become commonplace to hear imams and pastors preaching against candidates of the other religion. It took its shape from
the Obasanjo years when northerners felt the then President was favouring Christians and southerners. Then it started taking a turn for the worse when Goodluck Jonathan became Presi- dent, especially when, after finishing the tenure of his late boss, Umaru Yar’Adua, in 2011, he decided to contest for a full term of office, rather
than allow a northerner to do so.
Sadly, that came about at a time the war
against terror was becoming really ferocious. Unfortunately, Boko Haram was allowed to take a firm footing, owing to the politics of ethnic-
ity and religion. President Jonathan was misled into thinking he was being entangled by Muslim northerners, who he was made to believe did not like him (forgetting that millions of them voted him into office). His actions and inactions, rightly and wrongly, were being ferociously sup- ported by the Christian Association of Nigeria, led at that time by its president, Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor.
And so, when hundreds of young schoolgirls were kidnapped by Boko Haram terrorists in 2014, President Jonathan thought it was just another ploy to distract his administration by the northern opposition. He virtually took no action to save the situation, until it was too late. About half of those girls are still in captivity, perhaps you can say by their own choice, as over 100 of them have vowed to remain with their captors, having been married to them, illegally as it is, with many children to show for it.
But the time Muhammadu Buhari defeated Jonathan to become Nigeria’s President in 2015, the gulf between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria had seriously widened. The Muslims saw it as an opportunity to take a kind of revenge for the many acts of injustice they perceived to have been done against them by Jonathan. And from then onwards, every action of the govern- ment was seen as having a religious undertone or coloration.
It was against this background that, in July 2015, President Buhari appointed four military generals that he carefully vetted and selected to man the four key components of the Nigerian military. The appointment was evenly balanced between two Christians and two Muslims, with two from the south and two from the north. But many Christian groups would have none of it. And so a campaign of calumny started against those appointed.
For the first time since the Civil War, politics of religion started permeating our military, with many soldiers encouraged to record videos to portray the leadership of their chiefs as inca- pable, and doing all sorts of things just to portray them in bad light. To many discerning Nigerians, there were genuine fears that the military, or some sections of it, could strike and effect a coup to sweep away the government of the day.
God so kind, the service chiefs did their very best to protect democracy by ensuring that those perceived as being overly-ambitious or planning evil against the nation were either retired or posted to offices that would make their devilish plans difficult to realize. The one general who had a rough time in his unprecedented efforts to sustain our democracy was Lt. General Tukur Yusufu Buratai, the Chief of Army Staff, for the reason that the branch of the military he headed was the largest, and he was facing opposition even from some sections of his own home state
of Borno, owing to the same tribal and primor- dial reasons involving the Kanuris and minority tribes in the state.
Secondly, there is no way a coup could be successful without the Army. So, apart from the immediate challenge of winning the difficult war against terror, Buratai had to also contend with another massive challenge of watching over his officers and soldiers and making sure none of them truncated our democracy. Sadly, not many Nigerians knew how he suffered for all of us.
Buratai used every opportunity, during media interviews or public speeches, to emphasize to our officers and men that the era of military rule was gone forever, and the system would deal decisively with anyone caught trying anything funny. It was one hell of a task which he was able to handle professionally, and with the very best interest of Nigeria in mind.
And so when, years later, I saw some members of the National Assembly and mostly opposition politicians raising fingers against this same man, I wondered whether they did not know that it was largely courtesy of him that Nigeria still enjoys democracy, without which those politicians could either be in jail or cooling their heels awaiting the military guys to return us to democracy.
Here, I want to make a clarification: it was not that Christian generals or senior officers were all against the then service chiefs. Far from it. Many of them were fiercely loyal to the Constitu-
tion and, individually, played their parts in the defence of our democracy. One is only talking about the orchestrated mood of the nation at that time. Some of the officers the intelligence services caught red-handed were even Muslims, many of whom were aligning with politicians of the same faith but different political persuasions from those in power.
In spite of all the divisions, which the military did its best not to allow Nigerians to see openly, our soldiers started recording unprecedented victories, so much so that, within a few months of the appointment of those service chiefs, Borno, a state whose two-thirds was being controlled by the terrorists, was largely freed. By the end of 2015, no part of that state was being controlled by non-state actors.
Strangely, however, the war started experienc- ing a downwards spiral by 2016. Many media reports have suggested the possibility of sabotage as being responsible, but the military would always deny this because it did not want to admit to its ranks being infiltrated by the terrorists as well as merchants of hate, fearing its implication to the psychology of the military.
Our troops started getting killed as a result of some troops passing information about move- ments of their colleagues to the enemies. The intelligence services deepened work and a few of those saboteurs were arrested, though a large chunk of them were left without being noticed. And you know the sad news? Many of these are still very much in service.
Still, owing to our terrible brand of politics, political leaders in Borno, some of them the very people who brought about Boko Haram in the first place or were benefitting from it, ensured that the locals regarded and treated the military as an enemy, rather than a friend they should cooperate with. And so it became an open secret that many people in Borno, in the cities and in the hinterlands, would rather cooperate with the terrorists by giving them shelter, while at the same time being very vociferous in their condemnation of the military as being incapable of routing the terrorists.
There is nowhere in the world where a war against terror was ever won without the deep cooperation of the locals. The locals drive intel- ligence and, without intelligence, there is no way the military could win such a war, since the troops are not magicians. The security services of America and other countries that we admire
became successful only because of the depth of intelligence they get from the locals.
An American, an European, will never allow political or religious differences to make him give shelter to ordinary criminals, not to talk of terrorists, as is common in Nigeria. It is only in this country that some compatriots would rather support the terrorists by hailing them in the social media, while deriding our troops at every turn.
War also requires large doses of patience, which is in short supply here. America, as I had cause to point out quite a number of times, has been fighting the Taliban for well over 20 years now. That war is still ongoing, with over $3 tril- lion of American public money spent, with no decisive result.
But nobody among the opposition politicians of that country has ever derided their troops,
or called for a change in the leadership of its military. If it was about killings, tens of people get killed in America almost every day. But hardly would you hear it because the media in that country is mindful of the implication to its security and economy. At a stage, one started wondering how the just retired service chiefs were contending with so much misinformation against them, which one was sure was distract- ing them, while also handling the main task of expunging terrorism from our lexicon.
These generals were in their barracks when irresponsible politicians in our midst created Boko Haram and banditry. They were doing their very best even against the backdrop of inadequate funding and equipment. General Butatai, for example, was in the trenches with our troops when his beloved mother died last year. But he remained in the trenches, until so much pressure made Abubakar Shekau release an audio in which he was heard profusely crying and begging his troops to remain faithful to the terrorismcause.Hespecificallybemoaned the onslaught by Butatai’s army, but Nigeria did not even celebrate that victory.
Even in the mainstream media, very few gave it any deserving attention. Others would rather prominently publish about the dastardly activities of the terrorists on the front pages of their newspapers, while casting doubts about any statement released by the military by using the words: the military CLAIMS this or that, while being definitive and categorical about statements of most often false victories released by the terrorists.
Sadly, inadvertently or otherwise, we played a part in helping the terrorists, giving them victory in a key aspect of any war, the psychological part. This we have achieved by relentlessly portraying our service chiefs as being incapable, by allowing ethnicity or religion to determine how we report their activities, without gauging or realizing the implication of such nasty comments to the mo- rale of our troops, who were looking up to them, as is the tradition in the military.
It was against this background that the nation woke up three days ago with the news that President Muhammadu Buhari had received the resignation from service of the four service chiefs. Their replacements were immediately named.
Since its debut in August 2019, this column has done its very best to educate as many Ni- gerians as possible about the dangers of mixing religion or ethnicity with security, and now that a new set of service chiefs has been named, we would be taking a look at the years during which General Buratai held sway at the helm as Chief of Army Staff, to serve as compass for those that succeed him to see areas needing improvement or consolidation. The assessment would also help us assess whether the man was truly a na- tional hero needing our appreciation, or a villain