Port Harcourt — It was the most sought for and anticipated announcement and it came with a small bang. By the stroke of the pen in a press statement, the Presidency announced the replacement of the defence chief and the three service chiefs. Some people said the President sacked them, others swore they resigned. But we will allow semanticists to scratch their heads over how the change of guards happened. For most Nigerians the “immediate resignation” as the Presidency put it, or the “sacking” as some clairvoyant media streams described it, meant the Chief of Defence Staff, Gen. Abayomi Olonisakin, Chief of Army Staff, Lt. Gen. Tukur Buratai, Chief of Naval Staff, Vice Admiral Ibok Ekwe Ibas and Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshal Sadique Abubakar, had joined the ranks of military top brass who have been “rested.” In their places, we had Maj. Gen. Leo Irabor, Chief of Defence Staff, Maj. Gen. Ibrahim Attahiru, Chief of Army Staff, Rear Admiral Auwal Gambo, Chief of Naval Staff and Air Vice Marshal Isiaka Amao, Chief of Air Staff.
Gen. Olonisakin and the three service chiefs assumed office on the confirmation of their nomination by the Senate on August 4, 2015. They quickly became the symbols of the security architecture in the Buhari administration, which came into power with a promise to contain the insecurity in Nigeria, especially the Boko Haram insurgency in the North East. Keen watchers of Nigerian politics will recall that candidate Buhari had campaigned and brandished his credentials as an officer who rose to the apex of his career in the Nigerian Army, as proof of his ability and willingness to wipe out the insurgency.
In the early years of his rule, the army made gains and dislocated the terrorists from the Sambisa forest which straddles Borno, Yobe, Gombe, Bachi, Jigawa and Kano states. The mountainous parts of the forest near Gwoza at the border with Cameroun became a hiding place for Boko Haram, who reportedly also kept the secondary school girls they kidnapped from Chibok, Borno State in April 2014. The army launched a land and air offensive and succeeded in dislodging the militants from the forest. However, the Chibok girls have never been found, except for one who was reportedly seen in the forest by local militia men.
As if this disappointment was not enough, Boko Haram grew bolder with audacious hit-and-run operations, attacking military camps, and ambushing military convoys with telling consequences. Not only this, bandits held sway in the Northern parts of the country. No person was safe and no territory, not even the President’s home state of Katsina, was off limit. On 28 November 2020, Nigerians recoiled in horror as the bodies of more than 49 rice farmers were displayed on television after terrorists attacked locals who were harvesting rice at Kantakarim village in Borno State. Earlier in September 2020 Boko Haram operatives killed 22 farmers in Borno State in two separate incidents. These fatalities added to the agonizing fallout of the Boko Haram conflict which had seen the death of nearly 40,000 people and the displacement of 2 million Nigerians from their homes since 2009.
Without much fanfare, the erstwhile service chiefs became the poster boys for the unachieved security recovery pledged by the Buhari Presidency which remained what it was: a promise. Nigerians blamed them for the situation and cried out for their removal. The National Assembly (Senate and House of Representatives) passed resolutions asking the President to fire the service chiefs. The service chiefs had been due to retire anyway, and critics could not understand the President’s argument that changing them in the midst of the operations against insurgency would be counter-productive. There is no denying the fact that the calls for the removal of the service chiefs were understandable. They bore direct responsibility for the war against Boko Haram and should take the blame for lapses, as they will get the accolades for success. At the same time, the President’s argument of continuity would have been more acceptable if Boko Haram was being beaten black and blue.
So, what happens now that we have new service chiefs? Nothing pretty much. Yes, you heard me, nothing pretty much. There are many reasons but I will give two. Like everything in Nigeria, the appointment of the service chiefs is being analsyed through an ethnic lens. When the announcements were made, we were more interested to know where the new appointees came from, rather than what they can do. That is why our Igbo brethren are angry – because no Igbo officer has been named a service chief. The Ijaws will also issue an angry press release, lambasting President Buhari for being insensitive to the plight of the Niger Delta. Make no mistake about it, having a diverse team at the military top brass better reflects our make-up, but when we become prisoners of tribalism in assessing every appointment, then we are sacrificing competence on the altar of ethnic balancing. For me, I don’t care where the Chief of Army Staff comes from. I just want Boko Haram exterminated. If it will take an angel from outer space to do it, he has my vote.
The second reason why things may not change is because, given the strident calls for the removal of Olonisakin and co, Nigerians have been misled to believe that, just removing them, will solve the increased acts of violence by Boko Haram and others in one fell swoop. Not at all. Nigeria is hard pressed in the fight against Boko Haram, because this kind of asymmetrical warfare wears out even the best manned and equipped army. Boko Haram is not a regular army and takes no prisoners literally or figuratively. While a regular army has to contend with the Geneva Convention of 1949 and the possibility of war crimes, these uniform-less terrorists have no scruples on the pain and suffering they inflict on anyone and everyone – Muslims, Christians, animists, and even cows and goats which they rustle for food!
Superior air power will not allow them to hold territory, so they hit and run. You have to stop them before they attack. If, say, 100 terrorists set out to attack, and you neutralise (to borrow a favourite terminology of the Nigerian Army) 97, and if the remaining three slip through and lob a half-effective grenade at an army post, the ways of instant media will report it as a successful attack. There is no animosity here; this is the way the media work. Bad news is good business! The army then faces an uphill task to ensure that no terrorist mounts a successful attack, and this is beyond the brief of warfare as we know it. Intelligence is the key and Nigerians and our neighbours have a great role to play. I have seen the images of Irabor, Attahiru, Gambo and Amao smiling as they took over the reins of office from their predecessors. I did not see any magic wand in their hands. I pray that the smiles and the cheer which welcomed them into office will not sour out so very quickly.