By Tunji Ajibade
The President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), held a meeting with his service chiefs not long ago. Nigerians learnt thereafter that the men were retaining their posts. The Presidency has since accused a group of planning to organise a protest. It was against the service chiefs whom they felt the President should have sacked over the war against insurgency in the North-East. Between both events, a doctoral candidate asked me what I thought the President had in mind when he retained the service chiefs. It was a question I had thought about earlier the same day. What I state here is what I had initially thought and what occurred to me while I responded to the question.
Meanwhile, the question reminded me of a comment I made in the early 1990s. It’s the backdrop to my views here. I was the guest of a friend. He and his dad had to go somewhere. In those days when NITEL’s table-top phones were in vogue, the phone rang and because I was the only person in the house, I picked it. The caller was my friend’s elder sister who was overseas. She knew me so we engaged in discussions during which she asked to know about her mum’s efforts to get a new homehelp. I informed her and she wondered why her mum employed the new person she did. She was concerned because of her mum’s experience with a previous homehelp. I said maybe the new homehelp was the kind of person her mum felt comfortable with. My friend’s sister agreed; her mum was the one who worked with the homehelp after all.
I return to the matter of the service chiefs. We’re all aware of the situation in the North-East as well as the state of insecurity across the nation. Some have called for the removal of the current service chiefs. It isn’t an option I attach importance to myself. But I listened to what Nigerians had to say. Their argument is founded on the natural human inclination to remove one person and try another. With this as the main argument, I’m not persuaded. I have my reasons. But first I state what I told the doctoral candidate the Commander-in-Chief might have had in mind, reminding him that I spoke as a neutral person rather than someone who was either anti or pro-government.
An objective observer must have established this about Buhari: he prefers to work with people who neither generate controversy nor attract negative attention. Governments everywhere don’t like such characters within their structure. They’re a liability rather than an asset, taking attention away as they do from the positives that the government scores. The current service chiefs have in the main not brought embarrassment to their Commander-in-chief. We know that cabinet ministers involved in one controversy or the other during Buhari’s first term didn’t return with him. When the Petroleum resources ministry had issues in the course of his first term, Buhari invited the Minister of State and the NNPC’s GMD and told them to find a way to work together. Both of them have lost their seats. The immediate past Minister of Health had the Director-General of the Health Insurance Scheme suspended. The Presidency had him restored, got a committee to investigate the matter, and the DG was eventually relieved of his post. But the minister too didn’t return for second term. I wasn’t impressed that the health minister provided the Presidency the room to act the way it did. Yes, the minister had the power to make the DG step aside until investigations were concluded. But first, he should have used back channels to bring the facts of the matter to the President’s attention and have his backing. A former minister of the FCT under the Olusegun Obasanjo administration wanted to demolish illegal structures. He got the backing of his principal first. That’s wisdom.
Moreover, Nigerians have heard the President say he abhors corruption. I assume Buhari didn’t sniff it that any of his service chiefs pocketed the dollars meant for the procurement of arms to fight insurgents, as some past service chiefs did. If he had, I imagine that would have been enough reason for him to send them packing. Does any Nigerian feel embarrassed that some past service chiefs are taken to court over diversion of public funds and anti-graft agencies have had properties acquired with such funds seized? I prefer to retain workers who don’t steal from my organisation. I would find a means of assisting their weak spots, rather than retain a thief who’s a maverick at his job. The maverick worker who’s a thief would ultimately do greater harm; it’s a matter of time. Added to this is the issue of loyalty. It matters. Trust matters too. If the current service chiefs are the people that their Commander-in-Chief trusts, there’s little anyone can do about it. Yet, there’s the other angle about the information that Buhari may have which Nigerians don’t. Based on such information, it seems he has concluded that his service chiefs aren’t doing badly. He’s a former military officer himself. I guess that makes him recognise occurrences regarding insecurity that could be blamed on soldiers and their officers and those that are beyond solders’ control.
Still on things that are beyond soldiers’ control, there’s the aspect of procurement of arms needed to combat insurgents. Many of such are imported. Some can’t arrive our shores a year after they’ve been ordered. There’s also the matter of training our soldiers how to use such arms, as well as understand the dynamics of how insurgents operate. Also, terror groups have been scattered in Syria and Iraq and their members have spread to different continents. For instance, Philippine citizens who fought along with ISIS have since left Syria with the determination to establish a caliphate at home. Now Philippines’ government has bigger problems of insurgency than what obtained before ISIS was defeated in the Middle East. We know escalation in attacks by insurgents in Nigeria corresponds with the defeat of ISIS in the Middle East. There’s equally the battle in Libya from where arms continue to flow to whoever has the money in West Africa. My focus here isn’t to defend Nigeria’s service chiefs, but I think the foregoing are practical issues that aren’t determined solely by what the service chiefs do or don’t do in curbing the incidence of insecurity.
For me, government is limited so I don’t expect much, and our people don’t ask for much either from the government. If government would do just that little to make life a bit more comfortable for citizens, Nigerians can live off their hard work and enterprising spirit. I said this one day to poet and Director of International Institute of Journalism, Dr Emman Usman Shehu. He agreed. But he subsequently wrote a poem on how Nigerians didn’t ask for much from the government which he dedicated to me in one of his published poetry collections. My general disposition towards any government is that if ensuring that no one loots our treasury is all that it does, and it recovers also what is looted, it has done excellently well. We know what Buhari says his position is regarding thieves in public offices. I know the secret service must have been informing him what his service chiefs are doing with public funds. It reminds me of a former minister who said former President Olusegun Obasanjo had the secret service spy on him at least three times. They wanted to find out whether or not he was looting. Obasanjo only informed the minister about this towards the end of his tenure.
Now, I turn to what I personally think of the situation where the service chiefs retain their posts. Sometimes, success isn’t about the individual but the system under which they operate. There are systemic or institutional constraints. There’s a structure, and the current service chiefs work within it. If new service chiefs are appointed, they face the same constraints especially with regard to battle strategy permissible under the existing structure. For instance, in other climes, technologies such as unmanned drones are proactively deployed to monitor given trouble spots 24/7, exterminating insurgents before they strike. Maybe, tomorrow, the current system in Nigeria will officially approve sensible superior technology for our soldiers to use.
Tunji Ajibade is a Public Affairs Analyst.