By Dele Sobowale
“In a sick country, every step to health is an insult to those who live on its sickness.” Bernard Malamud in THE FIXER.
Napoleon Bonaparte, 1769-1821, once Emperor of Europe, at one time suggested that the word “impossible” does not or should not exist after he had experienced too many surprises – positive and negative. Perhaps the world would oblige Nigeria by publishing a dictionary with the word “soon” deleted. With respect to one of our Presidents, the word had been so bastardized that it has lost all its usual meaning. Led by the same top government official who turned “hale and hearty” into a message saying “Let us fast and pray”, Nigerian government officials have changed soon to mean any time from several months to for ever – and perhaps never.
As you are reading this column we are probably still expecting one of our two presidents or he arrived a few days ago. Nothing is ever definite with these people. This country had also rendered useless the old saying that “two heads are better than one.” With two Presidents operating at once, we have found ourselves in a situation in which two heads are infinitely worse than one. Despite all the attempts to paper over the cracks in government and the political leadership by heaping encomiums on Acting President Osinbajo, mainly because he is the only one in town, we fail to acknowledge that all the poor fellow, who has limited command, is doing, is just warming the seat. He takes and can take no bold actions on important matters.
Take for instance the recent setback suffered in Borno State by the nation in the war with Boko Haram long after they were reported to “have been degraded” by the Minister for Information and Culture whose utterances have once again been “degraded” by Boko Haram. Once more we are learning afresh that “the most obstinate illusions are ultimately broken by facts”, according to Professor Trevor Roper. That devastating attack came a few days when the commanders of the war effort were given a deadline to produce Shekau – dead or alive. A young man asked me a few days after the announcement and before the deadly attack if it was wise to be so definite. I told him “No!” and gave him an example of such promise of victory which backfired against an American President.
President Lyndon Johnson, 1908-1973, based on advice by the military commanders of the Viet Nam war in 1965 had promised Americans that the US would finish the war in Viet Namm and the troops would return home for Christmas. Instead of victory and return, the Viet Cong mounted their fiercest offensive and several American soldiers were killed. The war that was supposed to be winding down in 1966 escalated in 1966 and eventually claimed President Johnson as one of its victims. His quest for re-election in 1968 was abruptly terminated when the youths of America took to the streets. Government’s credibility had hit an all-time low and blind patriotism was no longer fashionable.
As I told the young man, there are two major lessons to be learnt from that experience as well as others including our own civil war from 1967 to 1970. First, the end of any guerilla war is always difficult to predict. Called asymmetrical wars by the military, they share at least two characteristics in common. There are no battle fronts; no trenches; everywhere is war front. Second, the enemy has no uniforms; they are indistinguishable from ordinary citizens. So, irrespective of how vigilant the government troops can be, they are at perpetual disadvantage all the time. So, what happened to the oil exploration team could – and has happened – anywhere where there has been this sort of conflict. It can happen again. Our armed forces deserve support not condemnation.
That is why the absence of one President, a former Army General and the presence of a civilian president is a distinct liability to the conduct of the war effort by our troops. A healthy former General in Aso Rock can very quickly understand the situation and together with the field commanders take effective action. A “bloody civilian”, even if a genius in other aspects of life, needs to have things explained to him for weeks which the professional soldier will grasp in an hour. That is when the civilian is even in full control. When he is not, as we now experience in Nigeria, the results can be catastrophic on the war effort. Time is precious. The response time of government troops could determine whether the insurgents get away after their attack or are made to pay a heavy price for it – turning absolute to Pyrrhic victory for them.
The military has my sympathy because they are being forced to make political promises about the likely end to a war whose end nobody can predict. The order to get Shekau makes no sense in this sort of war. If accomplished, it might simply break up Boko Haram into smaller units led by different people and each cell creating havoc anywhere and everywhere. At any rate, if Obama had announced that the US was going after Osama bin Laden personally, they might still be searching for him now. Nigeria is not fighting Shekau; we are fighting terrorism.
Personalising the issue returns us to where we started. This war started with the mistaken belief that it will end if their former leader, Yusuf, was killed. He died and instead of ending, the war escalated. Once Boko Haram is wiped out, Shekau might choose his own end. After all, the Allied Powers never caught Hitler alive. He reportedly ended his own life. Indeed, by fixing a date to get Shekau, the Army and government have provided their critics and political opponents opportunity for attack in the future. Failure to get Shekau would be added to the list of failures to demoralize the troops. That is the lesson of history.
From matters concerning guns and soldiers to issues of gari and soup is but one step in Nigeria. As the war seems to be picking up instead of winding down, the Federal Government is increasingly faced with mounting expenditure for it – perhaps far above budget. Already, we are faced with oil revenue for the first seven months well below the 2.2 million barrels a day used in the budget. Right now, we are averaging 1.7 million barrels a day – or twenty-three per cent less per day. The negative variance between budget and actual result so far has vitiated the 2017 budget beyond repairs. Like it or not, the nation faces serious choices of priorities. We cannot abandon the war. But, it is becoming clear that we don’t have the money for both guns and gari.
Faced with this sort of tough choice a leader’s decisive action and his ability to carry the people along become paramount. That calls for unified leadership – which we lack at the moment with two Presidents.
One obvious consequence of these is paralysis on the two fronts and likely disaster all around. It is no “fake news” that the Executive branch is a house divided against itself at a time when absolute unity might still not guarantee victory anywhere. Disunity is disaster waiting to occur.
That is why the issue of presidential leadership must be resolved soon. Personally, I honestly pray that Buhari will actually be hale and hearty to return to office because that will restore the unity of leadership. Osinbajo can return to his duties as head of the Economic Management Team, EMT, which by itself is a full time job – now quietly left undone. He is also sitting on the report of the needless probe into the money found in the Ikoyi apartment. Circumstances beyond his control have placed the Acting President in the awkward situation of writing and presenting a report to himself. It is unprecedented anywhere. At any rate, that is one probe which should never have been announced publicly. No nation probes its intelligence agencies openly just to appear transparent. All public discussions should have ended once the National Intelligence Agency, NIA, claimed the money.
Publicly probing our NIA is worse than washing our dirty linen in public; it amounts to stripping our nation naked in the street – including the dirty underwear which all nations wear. It is the wrong probe, at the wrong time and for absolutely the wrong reason.
It is imperative that we have a President by the end of this month of August. When late British Prime Minister proclaimed that “A week in politics is a long time”, he must have in mind a situation such as the one in which we find ourselves here. Our two “heads” are worse than one.