For at least a year in his professional career, President Muhammadu Buhari served as military secretary at the Army Headquarters. So, he knows a thing or two about the inner workings and how to manage an army. But it was exactly forty years ago when he served in that position and in any profession, there are basic things that don’t change. Yet, the nature of the country the army was built to defend and the security challenges it faces has changed dramatically over the last forty years.
Today, officers in Nigeria’s armed forces are some of the best educated in society and are trained to lead. But as soldiers, some decisions are just not theirs to make. Only political leaders can decide when military force should be deployed, who to fight, what kind of war to fight and most importantly, what kind of army to build in the first place.
Because of Nigeria’s history of military rule and the fact that two of the last four elected presidents are products of the armed forces, no real attempt has been made to make clear distinctions between the roles of civilian leaders and their military counterparts in shaping the objectives of the armed forces. Primarily, the task of making that distinction lies with the President and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces.
On May 14, 2014, some 18 soldiers of the 7 Division, Nigerian Army in Maiduguri, Maimalari Barracks, in what was later described as a mutiny, fired gun shots aimed at the car conveying their GOC, Maj. Gen. Ahmed Mohammed. The soldiers blamed the GOC for the ambush and killing of some of their colleagues by Boko Haram earlier that day in Kalabalge Local Government Area.
They all later faced a court martial and 12 of them were sentenced to death for mutiny and attempted murder. It was inevitable that military authorities would court martial the soldiers in question. But what was curious is that no meaningful attempt was made by political authorities to investigate what happened, why it happened and who should take the blame. And so it happened again.
On December 16, 2016, soldiers of 21 Brigade, Bama in Borno who were deployed to Bula Bello near Sambisa were, this time around, the mutineers. And again on August 12, 2018 special forces of the 7 Division shut down Maiduguri Airport with sporadic shooting in protest of their redeployment to the frontline. On the face of it, actions of the soldiers appear to be a response to pressure and the occupational hazards of serving in the military. But then, just last week, Lt. Gen. Tukur Burutai dropped a bombshell.
Gen. Burutai, the Chief of Army Staff, blamed all the operational failures of the military in defeating Boko Haram on a lack of commitment from his troops. In his own words, “It is unfortunate, but the truth is that almost every setback the Nigerian Army has had in our operations in recent times can be traced to insufficient willingness to perform assigned tasks or simply insufficient commitment to a common national and military cause by those on the frontline.” This is a damning verdict by the military chief himself.
Although he has since claimed to be quoted out of context, what he expressed in those words were in exasperation from present realities and most significantly, a loss of faith in his troops. And with the reoccurring mutinies, it is fair to say that there are troops who are losing faith in the leadership of the army. But the larger picture is not of an army facing operational difficulties in the front lines.
Borno today is dotted with military formations, yet Boko Haram repeatedly manages to isolate one formation from all the rest, attack it and make away with military equipment. This isn’t simply a breakdown in communications within the army, failures in intelligence gathering or one too many incidents of operational failures. It calls into question, the entire administrative structure of Nigeria’s armed forces.
Israel is a country that prides itself in building one of the most efficient military forces in the world. That efficiency extends to infiltrating and fighting terrorist organizations. Every counter with its enemies highlights the strengths of the Israeli Defence Forces and occasionally, its weaknesses. One just occasion was the inability of the IDF to decisively defeat Hezbollah in the 2006 second Lebanon war and the feelings of disappointment from the Israeli public that followed.
In response, the government set up a commission headed by a retired judge, Eliyahu Winograd, to investigate what went wrong. And what the commission found were failings in the decision making processes in the political and military echelons and their interface. It described failings and flaws in the lack of strategic thinking in both the political and military echelons. And part of the failings was how and when the decision to go to war was made by both political and military leaders.
Both failed to identify what kind of war they wanted and plan for an exit strategy. Even the prime minister who had final decision to go to war had his motives questioned to be sure it wasn’t for political reasons. But what is relevant from all of this is the level of accountability that required the setting up of the commission and the level of political oversight on the IDF even in the planning and execution of the war.
But the problems of the armed forces in Nigeria go beyond how the war against insurgents is being executed or the day-to-day decision making process of the military’s top command. It has come down to whether the Nigerian Army as presently structured and administered is fit for purpose. This is one for the commander in chief of the armed forces. And it’s about times he stepped in. The president needs to rein in the military.
Even in military spending, Nigeria needs to get more value for its money. A first step would be to create and strengthen structures that make the military more accountable to his office. The law setting up the National Defence Council might need to be amended to change its composition and make it a functional institution with more political oversight.
It’s not enough to have meetings of the Defence Council as briefing sessions for the president. An option for the president would be merging the National Defence Council and the National Security Council to create a policy-oriented council where all of the country’s security agencies and political leaders sit to forge a common purpose.
We have been told over and over again that there are foreign elements to some of the security challenges Nigeria is facing. Yet, the country has made no changes to how it approaches these problems. In that regard, it might not be a bad idea to design the Defence Council in the model of the United States’ NSC, which is part of the office of the president. It is the US president’s principal arm for coordinating policy among agencies.
It would take a lot of courage to shake things up in how Nigeria’s security agencies are managed. What is certain is that something needs to be done. And at the rate the military is being pushed to the wall by emerging challenges, it will not be enough for the president to simply replace his Defence Chiefs and hope they can salvage the situation. It’s an entirely new administrative system that needs to be evolved.
It’sunderstandable that the presidency cannot make such sweeping changes overnight. But an acknowledgment that there is a spiraling problem would be a major step. Setting up a commission to review what has gone wrong and what Nigeria expects from its military would go a long way.
Only there is a war against insurgency, banditry, kidnappings and murders which the current security architecture is failing to address. While everyone is screaming about state police, there is far more urgent danger with the army and its ability to keep Nigeria safe and united.
By Shuaib I. Shuaib
Shuaib, a former editor of Leadership newspaper, writes from Abuja