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Why the fuss over mass retirement of armed forces generals

The recent appointment of new service chiefs in the Nigerian Armed Forces has generated considerable excitement among the populace...

The recent appointment of new service chiefs in the Nigerian Armed Forces has generated considerable excitement among the populace. This hubbub is not necessarily to do with the quality of those appointed but with the consequences that would befall the remaining colleagues from whose batches the appointments were made.

The quaint, and I suppose unwritten, tradition in the armed forces is that you do not salute your colleague, and therefore once your colleague is promoted ahead of you, you must commit a career hara-kiri. And even if for some reason one hesitates, then other means of administering the poisoned chalice would be explored.

When the service chiefs were appointed, the initial figure of their colleagues across the three services to be retired was thought to be about 50. Most newspapers carried that number, including the Daily Trust. However, a day or two later, with a more careful check the number doubled, and at the last count there could be 130 generals expected to put away their uniforms due to the promotion of only three among them. For the generals that would be hurriedly shown the way out, it is decidedly an untidy way to finish an otherwise brilliant and unblemished career.

The matter of the Nigerian Armed Forces being top-heavy is one for debate at another time. What galls the Nigerian public now would be the way and manner the exit of such a large number of generals from the armed forces is so flippantly treated by their bosses, without taking cognizance of their written terms and conditions of service.

It is becoming routine to mass retire generals whenever the commander-in-chief decides to appoint new service chiefs. Oddly enough, there has been quite a lot of this in the last few years, though it has been the norm ever since the military regimes of the 1980s.

Unfortunately, this malaise is a direct consequence of the entry of the military into the nation’s governance. When the military gained violent entrance into government via the January 1966 coup, the armed forces suffered some dislocation in their esprit de corps, and despite the subsequent civil war, they kept themselves, more or less, intact. However, after the 1975 coup, the new military government led by General Murtala Mohammed turned its full venom on the Nigerian civil service, sending hundreds of thousands to untimely retirement without due recourse, accusing it of the responsibility for all the ills affecting the country.

This extreme measure was applauded at the time. However, as time wore on and the heavy cost of such impetuous actions became glaring, the applause became subdued and finally died down to be replaced with condemnation. Unfortunately, the bug has caught on and another military regime in 1984 led by General Muhammadu Buhari went along the same cursed course of massive retirements in the civil service without due recourse. All parts of the civil service were affected, some even more so. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs particularly got the short thrift of the military regime.

In his book ‘Lest I Forget, Memoir of a Career Diplomat’, Ambassador Oladapo Olusola Fafowora wrote: ‘The top echelon of the public service, particularly the foreign service was virtually wiped out in an exercise that can only be described as madness, and totally misguided – – over 80 officers were retired by the Buhari regime in this particular exercise’.

Ever since then, mass retirement became embedded in the affairs of the public service as the norm and it gradually seeped into the armed forces too. This became manifest from the mid-1980s especially after the Mamman Vatsa attempted coup of December 1985. That attempted coup engendered suspicion among the military leading to frequent unnecessary retirements which continued unabated during the General Sani Abacha years. President Olusegun Obasanjo raised the bar when on assumption of office in 1999 caused mass retirements across the board in the armed forces of all officers who held political office in the past and were still in uniform.

The retirement gale affected all cadres in the top echelon of the armed forces ranging from captains and majors who were mere ADCs to colonels and generals who were former governors and ministers. It was the very height of impunity and it left a lot of bitterness all round, but none could do anything about it, as the commander-in-chief could very well do as he wished.

So, why the fuss over the mass retirement of generals now? In their own wisdom, the military had unleashed the same on the Nigerian public service for as long as many of us can remember. In effect, it is the chicken coming home to roost. But what should agitate us now should be the cost of this perennial mass retirement on the resources of the nation.

The cost of training and maintaining an officer to the rank of general is such that it cannot be imagined by ordinary Nigerians. To yank such an officer from his command before he had fulfilled his filial obligation to the nation is abominable. And it is even more so when you consider the consequential upkeep of such an officer in retirement which is another additional drain to the resources of the nation.

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