BOWING finally to public entreaties, the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), replaced the military Service Chiefs in a move expected to ramp up the flagging war against Islamist insurgency among other national security challenges. Long overdue, the changes come at a time of unprecedented insecurity and pressure on the Armed Forces as an effective fighting force. Personnel changes alone will however not reverse the situation. Buhari was economical with the truth when he told the new Service Chiefs, “We promised to secure the country, revive the economy, and fight corruption. None has been easy, but we have certainly made progress.” The reality is that Nigeria has regressed in security on Buhari’s watch. The real change must come from him, his ability to comprehend the problems and the tasks ahead and willingness to take charge, as the Commander-In-Chief, at a time of national crisis. Nothing short of this will bring bandits on their knees across the country.
When countries face serious threats, bold leadership, a firm hand on the levers of power and competence are required for survival. Buhari has to muster these qualities to give meaning to his new appointments. Analysts believe that the retiring military chiefs faltered primarily because the President simply did not take charge and give effective direction. He can now make amends. He named Lucky Irabor as new Chief of Defence Staff; Ibrahim Attahiru as Chief of Army Staff; Isiaka Amao, Chief of Air Staff and Awwal Zubairu as Chief of Naval Staff. They replace Gabriel Olonisakin, Tukur Buratai, Siddique Abubakar and Ibok Ibas respectively, whose five years and five months-long tenure featured initial successes against insurgents but later, reverses, low morale in the rank and file and increasing public disdain.
Names of the nominees should immediately be forwarded to the National Assembly for confirmation as required by the law. Next, assess the situation correctly, map out a comprehensive strategy, appoint competent field commanders and implement. Decisive, intelligent political leadership is essential to ending the 11-year-old terrorism nightmare.
Currently deployed in 33 states, the security situation has stretched the resources and capabilities of the Armed Forces. Though denied of the extensive territories they once held in the North-East region by early 2015, Boko Haram Islamist terrorists and their spin-offs “retain control over some villages and pockets of territory,” reports the Council on Foreign Relations’ Global Conflict Tracker. From there, they continue to launch attacks on towns and villages, military camps and schools. They abduct civilians, mostly women and young girls, as well boys.
Lately, Boko Haram and ISWAP are said to have penetrated far afield, primarily into the North-West where religious fanaticism, banditry, joblessness, illiteracy and weak governance offer them a fertile ground, but also southwards into the North-Central states and the fringes of the southern states. Every day, there are reports of the influx of armed Fulani herders into all parts of the country. The Benue State Government has just raised the alarm of massive deployment of cows into the state by armed herders. In Niger State and the North-Western states, well-armed bandits engage in mass kidnapping and cattle-rustling. They control ungoverned territory, ambush police and military convoys, rob and rape. Ominously, they have forged alliances with terrorists. Highways are unsafe, kidnappers, armed robbers, cult groups and criminal gangs have rendered every part of the country unsafe.
A top priority should be defeating the terrorist insurgency. Buhari admitted, “We’re in a state of emergency.” True, but the change must start with him: he needs to recognise Islamist terrorism as an ideology with apocalyptic and global dimensions. You do not negotiate with terrorists; you defeat them by deploying all the instruments and resources of the state to neutralise them. Apart from military action, you need to apply the criminal justice system; terrorist acts are crimes, so criminals should be apprehended and prosecuted. Unlike other countries battling terrorism, Nigeria is tardy in punishing terrorists. Apart from hundreds sentenced since the defeat of ISIS in 2017, Iraq executed 21 convicted terrorists in November. A US Library of Congress report said Algeria, Morocco and Saudi Arabia tightened investigative laws and punishment for terrorism.
Dubious amnesty to terrorists should stop; so-called “repentant” terrorists often return to kill. Instead, priority should be accorded to equipping, rewarding and motivating the demoralised troops. The victims, rather than villains of terrorism, require government assistance.
The new chiefs should follow up on Buhari’s charge to them to cater to their welfare. Restoring their morale, battered by years of battlefield reverses and ignored complaints of neglect, poor feeding, reinforcement support, poor intelligence and loss of trust in commanders, should be addressed. An army where troops burst into rapturous celebration at their commander’s exit needs urgent confidence-rebuilding.
Fighting terrorism needs a multi-faceted approach; to cut off their sources of funding, disrupt their logistics and support networks and decapitate the leadership as the United States war on terror has proved. Most terrorist plots are foiled before they can ever be carried out based on undercover work, technological and financial surveillance, said America’s Federal Bureau of Investigation. Intelligence must lead Nigeria’s counter-terrorism war. Drone technology was crucial in defeating ISIS in Iraq and Syria, electronic surveillance helped to track down Osama bin Laden and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi for commandos to move in and take them out. The deranged Abubakar Shekau and other commanders of Boko Haram, Ansaru and ISWAP should be similarly tracked and eliminated.
No country on its own can defeat terrorism. It requires an international effort. NATO’s counter-terrorism policy paper describes it as “persistent global threat that knows no border, nationality or religion and is a challenge that the international community must tackle together.” It recommends developing new capabilities and technologies to tackle the threat and offers cooperation to all countries confronted with terror. Additionally, INTERPOL stands ready to help its 194-member countries with its “five action streams”: these include identification of transnational terrorist groups and their facilitators; disrupting their travels and cross-border networks; cyber warfare; disrupting their supply of weapons, and tracing and disruption of financial streams funding terrorist activity. Experts say the government should move in with social services and jobs to win hearts and minds in the ungoverned or loosely governed areas and deny local sympathy for insurgents.
Buhari and the security chiefs must secure full external assistance, including troops, commandos, drones, intelligence, air bases and air strikes. Buhari has to overthrow the inter-service rivalry and ensure coordination of all intelligence, air, land and supporting civilian assets and agencies. Led by the US, many countries have institutionalised the concept of the Unified Combatant Command, where all the army, air force, navy and intelligence units in the theatre of operations are placed under an umbrella command. This facilitates quick battlefield decision making and optimal utilisation of all personnel and material assets.
The new chiefs should restore confidence in the services, investigate and address complaints of frontline troops about their welfare, pay and allowances and Intelligence lapses. New strategies should be adopted to interdict and reduce the high casualty rate among Nigerian troops.
All efforts should urgently be put in place to decentralise policing, equip, fund and motivate federal, state and local security forces and withdraw the military from law enforcement to free them to concentrate on their core mandate.
The President should eschew ethnic and religious considerations in fighting violent crimes in the country. The buck stops with him.
All rights reserved. This material, and other digital content on this website, may not be reproduced, published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed in whole or in part without prior express written permission from PUNCH.