By Dr. Hakeem Baba-Ahmed
When crossing a stream, use the leader to know its depth –Nigerian proverb
It must be difficult being one of our current military Service Chiefs. Imagine being in the eye of storms well past your service’s expiry date, with all and sundry asking that you be sacked. Imagine being in a situation where you may want to leave but cannot, and staying on is entirely at the pleasure of a president who says publicly he is displeased with your performance.
But many will not shed tears for them. After all, they were not plucked from the air. They were part of the military that Nigerians punished President Jonathan for, and trusted a former military general and Commander-In-Chief (C-in-C) to do better with. These Service Chiefs held senior positions when the war against Boko Haram was a tiny speck that was bungled into a huge monster by the ‘YarAdua/Jonathan administration, and they witnessed it grow into a new and difficult enemy.
They were part of a military under whose nose the Chibok girls were abducted. They could not have been entirely isolated from, or oblivious of the reported scams and sleaze around defence contracts. They were part of the military that was chased out of vast tracts of Nigerian territory under the Jonathan administration.
They rose through the ranks of a Nigerian military that was (except for those moments when they overthrew democratic regimes and each other) strong, with a proud tradition. So our current Service Chiefs were part of a mixed past that President Buhari charged with responsibility for creating a new future.
It was assumed that he had searched deep and wide, and his selection of NSA, Chief of Defence Staff, Chiefs of Army, Navy and Air Force, even given our national creed for geographical spread, had to be the best from what was available.
What reasons would the nation have for doubting that a former general now president will not lead a military with new leadership to raise its levels of professionalism, effectiveness, morale and integrity? If, therefore, six years after the nation’s hopes were raised, the chorus now is that we are less secure, and the nation is baying for the heads of Service Chiefs, serious questions need to be asked.
First, what is it about our military that has made major improvements in capacities and effectiveness virtually impossible to achieve under the new leadership? My thinking here is that our military has been fighting two major wars for longer than a decade, and losing both. The more damaging war the military has been losing is against itself. It is very likely that exposure to power and corruption in the past have made major inroads into the military, and hallowed values like professionalism, integrity, honour and good leadership have eroded discipline, morale and institutional integrity. No military can win a war of any type if its foundational values have been emptied by corruption and loss of morale created by nepotism, politicisation and discredited leadership.
The second war the military has been losing is one that pitches it against every threat or security challenge in a nation that grows more insecure almost by the day. The virtual collapse of policing institutions and the dramatic erosion of social structures that had worked to reduce the incursion of violent criminal activities in the past have created huge vacuums around the security of citizens and growth of large numbers and varieties of internal security challenges.
Poor political leadership at all levels, unread in the complexities of governing a rapidly-changing country, have consistently adopted a single-track approach to solving all security challenges and conflicts: use force, and more force. Unfortunately, that force is only the military, and there is not enough of it, or even reasons for its involvement in the first place.
Even if its strength, funding, standards of professionalism and quality of leadership have been consistently addressed and improved in the last two decades, it might just have been able to defeat Boko Haram and consign restiveness in the Niger Delta as a permanent feature of our national life. Now it engages these security challenges with mixed results, and is then spread thin all over the country with orders to separate many fights between communities, fight bandits and rustlers and kidnappers and perform a dozen other duties that are responsibilities of policing institutions and communities themselves. The military loses all its battles against old and new enemies, not just because it does not know how to fight them, but because its rank and file understands that politicians create problems, which they want the military to solve with lives, limbs and poor motivation.
A second question that has to be answered is related to the role of the President and C-in-C. How, and at what stage does a former general and military head of state realise the weaknesses of the military he is commander of? What yardstick does he apply in judging effectiveness? What manner of C-in-C leaves a military engaged in fights on many fronts virtually unchanged and its leaders sitting tight over subordinates who should assume more responsibility? The sad fact is that as C-in-C, President Buhari has failed the military, and the military is failing the nation under its current leadership.
When the Senate recently joined ranks with the House of representatives to demand the removal of Service Chiefs, a presidential spokesman made a comment that has more truth in it than any he has not made. He said the fate of the Service Chiefs was entirely at the discretion of President Buhari. In a sense, he reminded the nation that the military may be failing the nation because President Buhari cannot, or will not fix it. He recently gave its leadership a slap on the wrist with a public rebuke and a demand for improvement. This has not worked, because reports suggest that more soldiers are dying at the hands of insurgents and bandits, and communities are as exposed to armed criminals as they have been in the last year.
The answer to the second question therefore is that the military is poorly led not just by Service Chiefs, but by President Buhari, and it is difficult to see how it can win any of its multiple wars with this type of leadership.
A third question that needs an answer has to do with the type of leadership the nation needs in the face of its many political and security challenges. The first answer that comes to mind is that at the very worst, it must do a lot better than President Buhari’s leadership. It must have a vision of a secure and peaceful nation with growing opportunities. It must be willing to take tough and informed decisions, develop an effective sense of timing and hold all persons with responsibility to account. It must operate with high intelligence and a sense of purpose. It must build and sustain strong institutions, including defence, security and law and order institutions and public service that are run by competence, integrity and accountability. It must be a leadership willing to take an informed view about the state of the Nigerian political and administrative structures, with the goals of addressing key issues that represent developing and existential threats.
In the meantime, it will be important for President Buhari to realise that Service Chiefs are not aides he can retain or fire at his personal pleasure. They are public servants who are accountable to him, as he is accountable to the nation. The bottom line is, he has not improved national security under their leadership. Keeping them in place suggests either of two things. One, he alone is satisfied with their performance, and the nation does need to know why. Even making allowance for the need for secrecy, this is unacceptable. Two, he does not care enough for all opinions to replace current Service Chiefs with others who may do better. That is intolerable contempt from an elected President.
President Buhari needs to do a lot more than replace Service Chiefs. He needs to look deeply at our defence, security and law and order assets and liabilities and address them before the end of his term. The nation will not survive its current challenges unless he accepts to affect major improvements in the management of national security.
The replacement of current leadership of the military and security and policing agencies should only be a part of this.
Dr. Hakeem Baba-Ahmed is a retired federal permanent secretary