By Kingsley Omonobi
Ever since the Chief of Army Staff, Lt. General Onyeabor Azubuike Ihejirika, ordered the redeployment of Major General Mohammed Isah, the former Commander, Infantry Corps and Centre, co-located with the Armed Forces Command and Staff College, Jaji that was bombed by Boko Haram terrorists, last November, the COAS has known no peace.
With the recent postings and retirements that followed last December, a section of the country allegedly instigated by some officers, have been waging media war against Ihejirika accusing him of ethnic and religious considerations in the running of the Nigerian army.
In this interview, General Ihejirika bares it all, saying the Army under his watch has been fair to all geo-political zones in the country and warning that the Nigerian army should not be politicized.
Ihejirika-I want to remark that the press is considered very vital in all our activities particularly the fight against terrorism. But as you are aware, contribution of the press could be positive, it could also be negative.
It is for the Nigerian army to have greater interaction with civil societies, to bring its practices in line with global best practices that I established the department of civil military affairs as part of my transformation efforts. Before now, we did not have such departments in existence.
I believe that every well meaning member of the press owes it a duty to contribute all the time towards nation building.
The type of allegations described by the Public Relations department (Allegation of lopsided Recruitment, Promotion, Retirement and Deployment in the Nigerian Army), are not unfamiliar to the Nigerian army.
Every nation has its faultlines and I can say it is these faultlines that are being exploited by faceless groups to cause more problems for Nigerians. I believe they would have identified the fact that the Nigerian army is one of the few institutions that will stand in defence of this country, come rain, and come sunshine. Why do I say this?
When we commenced operations in Maiduguri against the Book Haram terrorist’s sect, text messages were sent round, to the fact that the Chief of Army Staff has deployed a General of ‘Igbo’ extraction to avenge the killing of Igbos during the civil war.
But it is on record that the Boko Haram sect claimed that they were fighting to avenge the death of their leader and other members killed in various encounters. From the operations that are taking place, are people being killed as alleged?
Even though the operation being conducted is coordinated by leadership of the Defence Headquarters, but it being interpreted wrongly to whip up sentiments by making reference to civil war fought and resolved many years ago; in fact, before some of them were born.
This is also important because when they choose to orchestrate the appointment of some Igbo officers, they did not bother to talk of appointment generally. I believe that most of you here have come to find out whether the army is still intact or whether there is turmoil in the army as alleged by the faceless groups.
You have seen the hierarchy of the army and you can speak for yourself that the army is intact. I believe that while the officers were being introduced, the crème de la crème of the army, what I call the chief executives of the Nigerian army, I believe some of you were taking notes, on the number of Igbo officers.
Some of my officers have told me on a lighter note that they would start answering Igbo names soon, so that they become properly Igbonized as alleged.
I had a lot of experience before becoming the Chief of Army Staff. I happened to have served in the military secretary department; the department that handles promotions, postings and retirements. One of the things we sought to achieve while in that department was to ensure that promotions in the army are made very objective and they are merit based.
As a senior officer, I have had the privilege to handle internal security operations, and I have worked well with the press. Each time there was crisis in any part of the country, we know the consequences of such crisis. Before you know it, rumours will be awash that people of certain extraction and religion have been killed and killing will start at the other end.
These are issues we must overcome. The Nigerian army has come a long way. So when I said my vision for the Nigerian army is to turn the Nigerian Army into a force better able to meet contemporary challenges; I also took the Nigerian faultlines into consideration. I want to assure you that the Nigerian army of today is not the type that dragged the nation into war in the 1960s?
You might wish to know that in my deployments, I have General Gani Wahab in 1 division, Kaduna; I have Brigadier General M. Ibrahim in 1 Brigade and Brigadier General Iliya Abbah in 2 Brigade. And I sit here, I’m very comfortable with that posting.
When General Olayinka Oshinowo (former GOC 92 div, Enugu), who happened to have been mentioned in one write up as one of those short changed, it might interest the public to know that General Oshinowo had missed his promotion before I became the Chief of Army staff and that he was promoted to the rank of Major General under my watch.
I made reference to Major General Oshinowo who was promoted and he later became GOC 82 division. As you are aware, 82 division is the division holding the South East including my village.
While there, he had 5 very important Brigade Commanders. The brigade in Port Harcourt was commanded by Brigadier General Buratai now promoted to Major General. The one in Owerri is still being commanded as it was by Brigadier General Alkali. I believe Alkali and Buratai come from the North Eastern zone of this country.
The one at Ohafia, very close to my village is being commanded, as it has been by Brigadier General Hassan who hails from Niger state. The one in Calabar is commanded by Brigadier General Buchi who is today, a Director in Army headquarters. He is the one that will help us train the soldiers that will help us win Olympic medals.
The other formation under the division, the Army Amphibious training school which I have upgraded since I came into office is being commanded by Brigadier General MT Ibrahim. So in effect, in this whole division, the GOC, a Christian of South West zone, has his Brigade Commanders, Muslims from the North. That tells you the type of Army I run.
On promotions, it might interest you to note in 2011, we promoted 25 officers to the rank of Major General. Three out of this 25, all came from Kano State .
The promotion was based on merit. That will explain to you that under my watch, I could not stand any of the officers being dropped because they clearly deserve it.
With these few remarks, I hope you have realized that when people talk about religious and ethnic considerations, these are issues that must be downplayed. It should not be brought into the army at all. Political scores should be settled elsewhere because the army is apolitical.
Whoever becomes the president of the country becomes the Commander in Chief. So the military institution, particularly the army, needs to be protected. I spoke of my experience. As I sit here, I want to inform you that once in my career, I missed promotion. That was in 1998, promotion from the rank of Lt. Colonel to Colonel.
At that particular time, I had PSc+, having taught in Staff College . I had commanded a unit 12 Field Engineer Regiment at Ijebu Ode. Among all the engineering officers promoted, I was the only officer that has held such command. That same year I missed the promotion, I had received commendation from the Chief of Army staff for the performance of my unit in an exercise called ‘Exercise Eagle Ring’. And that was the very first time that exercise was being held.
During the exercise, several bridges were declared blown by the enemy and under my supervision, we launched a medium cadre bridge that took heavy tanks across the bridge, hence I earned commendation by the Chief. In spite of all these, I missed my promotion. But what did I do, I went to the Military Secretary and asked, I said sir, was there anything I was not doing right? He said no, I should go back and just remain steadfast. The following year, I got promoted to Colonel. Today, I am Chief of Army Staff.
My experience is not unique. General Samuel Victor Leo Malu who later became Chief of Army Staff had missed promotion once. General Luka N Yusuf who later became Chief of Army Staff had missed promotion.
I want to draw your attention that military service is a service of sacrifice. I would have wished that every Nigerian had the opportunity to render one year selfless military service to his nation so that we begin to appreciate our job better. If an officer misses a promotion and he believes that is the end of the world, would such an officer give his life in the defence of his country? The army is not another civil service. This is the point I want to make.
Now, talking about postings, at the rank of Major General, having been a GOC 81 division, having served as the Chief of Standards and Evaluation, I was posted as Director in Defence Headquarters. I was among the first to have such posting and accidentally my boss was an officer running lower seniority as myself. In other words, that position and posting was odd.
What did I do? I came to the Chief of Army Staff and being a Major General, I saluted. I said sir; but before I could say more, he said, you must have seen your posting; I needed a capable army officer/engineer to hold the office of director engineering services at DHQ. For one year, I served under somebody that was my junior. I did not go to my governor, I did not talk to the media, I did not talk to anybody and today I am the Chief of Army Staff.
If any officer or soldier complains to a civilian that he was not promoted, such a human being is not supposed to be in service. This is a service of sacrifice. How many soldiers have we lost in the last few years of counter terrorism? If I ask members of the press to tell me the General we lost as a result of bombing in Jaji, I am sure many of you will not know. But many of you will readily remember that I redeployed one Major General Isah.
Our service is a service of sacrifice, which is the uniqueness of the military. There are so many writings about the military. There is one by Charles De Gaul where he says that the ‘Military is not a democratic outfit’. He said in the military, you do not decide the dress to wear, if you want to marry, you take permission from your commander. That is military service.
Postings could be likened to selecting your ‘first eleven’ and you don’t take an officer that is disloyal or who has shown that he lacks the comportment of a General and give him the position, just to satisfy spread. Coincidentally, for the first time in our postings, we are able to have a GOC representing each zone of the country. And it is also after we have done this, that these attacks are coming.
I want to assure you that we remain undaunted about counter terrorism efforts and I want to thank you and assure you that the army will not rest on its oars as long as any part of this country is undergoing issues of insecurity.
On General Isah
Maj. Gen. Isah was himself the military secretary of the Nigerian Army. He gave notices of retirement to officers, he prepared memorandum that sought their retirement at the army council, he signed retirement letters, those ones are in the record and he cannot deny. All he did was to apply for extension, in which he said that he had so much to contribute towards counter terrorism if his service was extended. But it is the COAS or the Service Chiefs that have the prerogative to recommend an officer for extension. It is not for an officer to apply for such. I believe that has answered the issues on retirement.
Incidentally, all these campaign which he spearheaded started with his redeployment initially. Based on the board of inquiry findings; we asked military police to investigate further. And I can tell you that the report available to me showed he did not take an action expected of an officer in his position.
The same intelligence report that got to him about the impending attack on Jaji also got to the GOC 1 division a day before the attack. The GOC 1 division had to cancel his engagements which included coming to Asaba for our annual conference.
Isah did not give instruction to subordinates, he simply traveled for the conference and when I saw him, I asked what are you doing here when your house is on fire. Investigation is still on to determine whether his attitude was just born out of carelessness or whether there was much more issues to it. It is important for you to know this because, there was a situation and we have an idea of those involved. One of them went to the National Assembly to make complaints and he was told to put his complaints into writing but he never went down there again.