Professor Jibrin Ibrahim’s hyperbole on Twitter that it took President Buhari “one million years of complaints” by Nigerians to replace the Service Chiefs last Tuesday was apt. It took thousands of lives and numerous monumental national tragedies for Buhari to finally replace what many Nigerians saw as pure failure and incompetence. It took years of outrage and protests. It took a show of unbridled indifference such as former Chief of Army Staff (COAS) playing golf in the wake of one tragic incident. It took three different motions of no-confidence on the officers concerned by the Senate and a summon to the president by the House of Representatives, both initiated by members of the ruling party. The reaction of many Nigerians to the news was: “What took you so long?”.
The answer to that question is not clear. But the abduction last month of the 344 schoolboys from the president’s own state was most likely the straw that broke the camel’s back. The incident, which occurred while Buhari was in the state, was a national embarrassment that took the gravity of the situation beyond the reach of government spin. That came a month after over 70 farmworkers were beheaded in the most brutal of ways a few kilometres from Maiduguri, showing that Boko Haram’s threat is closer to the “Green Zones” than previously thought. A month prior, the army’s crackdown on unarmed EndSARS protesters had generated international condemnation.
But even as he replaced the service chiefs, the President refused to concede that there was anything wrong. He thanked them for what he called their “overwhelming achievements in our efforts at bringing enduring peace to our dear country”. Unless the president was being heavily sarcastic, most Nigerians would disagree. Buhari prides himself as a former military general who knows better than the Nigerians that are bearing the brunt, but he’s clearly out of touch.
In all fairness, the outgoing service chiefs started off well against Boko Haram. In their first two years or so, they landed heavy blows on the group, dislodged it from the major towns it had captured and virtually contained its violence to the northeast. They, however, claimed victory prematurely, let down their guards too quickly and focused their energy on pushing the fiction that Boko Haram has been defeated, maintaining this line even when Boko Haram’s resurgence was obvious. Worse still, they presided over the unpreceded expansion of violence in the North West and the bourgeoning of the kidnapping economy. In the end, even their most vocal supporters were calling for their removal.
The new service chiefs would do better to not take Buhari’s “overwhelming achievements” remark literally. Instead, they should learn from the mistakes of their predecessors. The fact that three of the new appointees have been on the ground in the fight against Boko Haram, could be an asset or a liability. It will be an asset if they inject fresh ideas, and develop a new strategy. It will be a liability if they repeat the approach they have practiced. It is the definition of madness to repeat the same action and expect a different result; a strategy that has failed for five or ten years won’t gain efficacy by the appointment of new chiefs.
A new strategy is needed for both the counter-insurgency in the northeast and the anti-criminality operations in the northwest – and that needs to come from the top. The deteriorating situation in the North Central and across southern Nigeria also requires a holistic review. In particular, the so-called “Super Camp Strategy” by which soldiers were withdrawn from rural northeast thereby leaving communities acutely vulnerable and allowing Boko Haram more freedom of movement must be reconsidered. The army’s recent tactic of taking the fight to the terrorists and criminals should be bolstered and sustained. The new chiefs must bring transparency and accountability to their disbursement of public resources and work to improve the equipment and welfare of our troops on the ground.
We need better coordination, both between the different military branches, but also with the intelligence and law enforcement agencies – both in Nigeria, and with those of our neighbouring countries in the northeast and northwest. Unless, Nigeria finds a way of planning and executing simultaneous offensives with Cameroon, Chad and Niger, we will continue to play hide-and-seek with Boko Haram fighters – and the recent discovery of Nigerien kidnapping victims in Nigeria shows that bandits are learning their lessons.
At the same time, the new chiefs should work towards strengthening military relationships with local communities and repairing broken alliances with international humanitarian organisations working in the northeast. Communities are not only essential to helping soldiers keep safe, but also an invaluable source of human intelligence against Boko Haram. And humanitarian organisations are a partner in the fight against Boko Haram and the former chiefs’ hostility towards them only made the environment more hostile to aid workers.
Last but not the least, the new service chiefs need the support of all Nigerians. Those already casting doubt on the competence of the new appointees are, in my opinion, misguided. Some say the new COAS won’t do well because he was sacked from leading the fight against Boko Haram by the former COAS for non-performance. The only problem with this argument is that we don’t know enough of the circumstances leading to his deployment in December of 2017. Another version says he was booted by the former COAS for opposing corruption. Ironically, even those who habitually condemned the former COAS for being corrupt and inept are now using his sacking of the new COAS as evidence of the new Chief’s incompetence. So the former COAS was wrong in everything except in this singular action? Isn’t that convenient?
While I can’t personally vouch for any of the new appointees, they deserve a chance, our best wishes and support. We should root for them and hold them accountable, because if they succeed, Nigeria succeeds. If they fail, we all lose. May they succeed.