A little known event occurred in Maiduguri last year which suggests that the allegation against the authorities of the neglect of the welfare, safety and security of staff was probably truer of the army than of the police. This was an incident in which a senior officer reportedly slapped a regimental sergeant major (RSM) for asking too many awkward questions about the welfare of his troops. He again reportedly slapped a junior officer for remonstrating on the RSM’s behalf. The soldiers apparently could not stand this anymore and took matters into their own hands, resulting into the officer being admitted into the National Hospital for weeks.
Fortunately the affair did not degenerate into a far more serious breakdown of discipline.
At the time of the incident the offending officer was shortly due for retirement. It is not certain whether he has since been retired or not. What is certain is that no one was ever court marshalled over the incident as they should have been because in the military one of the worst offenses a soldier can commit is to assault a fellow soldier no matter the provocation.
However even more telling about the poor morale of our troops in coping with the Boko Haram insurgency than this incidence and The Guardian’s story of November 21 last year which I referred to last week, was an online media report last April about how both then Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), Admiral Ola Sa’ad Ibrahim, and then Chief of Army Staff, Lt.General Azubuike Ihejirika, separately threatened their civilian bosses for what the CDS described as a “pile of mess” he said the civilians had created in recent times in running the affairs of the Ministry of Defence. This was on the day they variously received Alhaji Aliyu Ismaila as then new permanent secretary of the ministry.
Both military chiefs said they had lost patience with the way the procurement of arms and equipment were being presided over by civilians in the ministry without reference to the relevant service chiefs. Lt-General Ihejirika reportedly added that the Nigerian Army lacked adequate operations vehicles, accommodation, arms and ammunitions, amongst others, because of the existing bureaucratic bottlenecks.
It is doubtful that those bottlenecks have been removed, given the legendary corruption and snail speed that has characterized our bureaucracy, both civilian and military.
However, long before Admiral Ibrahim and Lt-Gen Ihejirika read their riot acts to their civilian bosses in April 2012, Ihejirika’s better regarded previous army chief, Lt-General Victor Malu, had complained bitterly in an interview in the Sunday Sun (July 31, 2005) that under him the army never procured even a pin as far as arms and equipment were concerned.
“We did not,” he said in the interview, “procure anything…I served the army for 22 months as Chief of Army Staff. I did not get a kobo from the government for any project.”
Malu had been fired in March 2002 for, among other things, his outspokenness against the decision by President Olusegun Obasanjo to embed American military officers and men in our barracks – a decision which was probably unprecedented anywhere in the world – ostensibly to train our troops for peacekeeping.
Between Malu’s sack in 2002 and the appointment of Ihejirika as army chief, a special investigation panel of the army had, according to the report of the panel published in Saharareporters website several years ago, established that there had been a massive theft of arms and ammunition from the army’s armoury in Kaduna at the time one of Malu’s successors as army chief, the late Lt-General Andrew Owoye Azazi, was the General Officer Commanding of the 1st Division headquartered in Kaduna. Those arms and ammunition were reportedly sold to militants in the Niger Delta in a deal allegedly financed by some leading politicians from the region.
It is doubtful if the gap created by that treasonable arms deal was ever sufficiently plugged in spite of the huge annual budgets for the military since 2006, given the fact alone that, consistent with our national budgets in the last 15 years or so, the ratio of the military’s recurrent expenditure to the capital has been in the region of 70% to 30.
It would be grossly unfair and demoralizing, even unpatriotic, to accuse our soldiers of not doing their best to end the Boko Haram insurgency when there is only so much a soldier can do in the face of the superior numbers and arms of the enemy, a superiority which is inexplicable in the face of the hundreds of billions of Naira voted annually for our country’s security and territorial integrity. As the late legendary Afrobeat musician, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, sang in one of his more memorable numbers, “uniform na cloth na tailor de sowam.” In other words military uniform alone does not make its wearer any more special or superhuman than someone wearing mufti.
Clearly Governor Shettima’s frustration at the wanton killings in his state was not with the soldiers as such but with the fact that they appeared helpless to stop or contain the killings because they lacked sufficient arms and equipment and enough motivation to do so even though trillions of Naira have been spent in the fight against Boko Haram terror.
Nothing better illustrates the lack of correlation between the huge spending on the military and its effectiveness than the fact that the immediate past army chief whose over three-year extended tenure was unprecedented, spent a lot more in building the most modern, expensive and expansive army barracks in the country for an arm of its language school which he hived off from its headquarters in Ilorin, Kwara State, in his native village of Ovim, Isuikwuato Local Government Area in Abia State, than he did in procuring arms and equipment for his troops fighting Boko Haram. In the process of building the barracks which is big enough to accommodate a battalion, he built himself one of the most grandiose country homes – one shocked colleague of his reportedly described it as “madness” – by any public officer anywhere in the country.
It is also noteworthy that he wilfully abandoned the expansion of the country’s premier military hospital in Kaduna started by his predecessor, Lt-General Lawal Dambazau, which would’ve transformed it into a world class hospital for the treatment of our troops wounded in battles at home and abroad.
Not least of all, it was under the erstwhile service chiefs that the military changed its policy of using relatively modest locally assembled Peugeot 407 saloons as official vehicles for its very senior officers to the use of imported top of the line BMWs and Toyota and Range Rover jeeps. The symbolism of such immodesty among senior army officers for the troops’ morale could hardly have been lost on its rank and file.
In his assessment of the military operation against Boko Haram in The Guardian of London on January 3, 2013, Gwynne Dyer, the well regarded London-based independent journalist, said our military has been “corrupt, incompetent and brutal” in its conduct as a result of which, he said, the military had turned itself into Boko Haram’s “best recruiting sergeants”.
You do not have to share this view to agree with him that in spite of the existence of some honest men and women among our civilian and military leaders, as a group, they have been “spectacularly cynical and self-serving” in their handling of their public trusts.
In taking over the Ministry of Defence from Mr Labaran Maku as the supervising minister, its new boss, Lt-General Aliyu Mohammed, himself a former army chief and the longest serving intelligence czar in the country, said he will do his best to return the country to its more secure and stable past. “With the help of the Almighty Allah and our collective resolve and determination,” he said, “we will get to the destination that will give Nigerians the confidence that the country is a safe place for everyone.”
Those cautious remarks, in sharp contrast to the past bombast of some of the erstwhile military chiefs, shows his appreciation of the fact that relying on force alone, as has largely been the case so far, will never work.
However, even the more judicious mix of sticks and carrots the minister’s caution suggests, will work only if it is accompanied by a determination of the new defence minister to end the cynicism and self-aggrandizement that has so far characterised our war against Boko Haram, and for that matter, against all other forms of terrorism, criminality and venality in the country.
More specifically, his hope will only be realized if the military refrains from its past scorched earth response to Boko Haram attacks which has all too often resulted in more innocent civilians being killed than Boko Haram terrorists.
Hopefully President Jonathan will have a rethink of his view of Shettima’s lamentation and give his new defence minister all the support he needs to change the popular perception that the war on Boko Haram has been determined more by politics than by any concern for public safety and for the unity and territorial integrity of the country.
On his part the new army chief should know that if, along with the National Security Adviser to the president, Colonel Sambo Dasuki, a scion of the Sokoto Caliphate, he cannot solve the, admittedly complex, riddle of Boko Haram which has done so much damage to Nigeria generally but more specifically to the North and to Muslims and to the image of their religion, then the Muslim North will have no one else to blame but its leaders, both secular and religious.