For the Governor of Borno State, Kashim Shettima, February 17 last year was probably one of the most unforgettable days in his life. On that day he went to Aso Villa, Abuja, the country’s presidential residence, to brief President Goodluck Jonathan about, and seek succour, from the Boko Haram insurrection in his North-East region which had turned his state in particular into the main theatre of the war. He briefed the president alright but instead of succour he suffered excoriation not only from the president himself but also from some of the president’s men who tried to sound angrier than their principal.
Shettima’s offence was to have spoken truth to power when he told the Aso Villa correspondents shortly after briefing the president that our soldiers were losing the war against Boko Haram not because they lacked courage but because they were under-armed and poorly motivated.
“In fairness to the officers and men of the Nigerian army and the police,” he told the journalists, “they are doing their best given the circumstance they have found themselves. But honestly Boko Haram are better armed and better motivated than our own troops.”
The following day, Dr Doyin Okupe, a senior presidential spokesman, apparently unimpressed by Shettima’s careful choice of words, countered the governor by describing him as an “illiterate” in military matters who wouldn’t understand the mysterious ways in which soldiers moved to defeat the enemy.
Not to be outdone, the Minister of Information who at the time happened to be the acting defence minister, Mr. Labaran Maku, also said Shettima committed “serious indiscretion” by apparently denigrating the military. He, along with the military top hierarchy, barely stopped short of dismissing Shettima as unpatriotic.
The boss himself was more measured in his choice of words but he was apparently no less angry with Shettima than his men. “If we pull out the military from Borno State,” he said seemingly jokingly, “let us see if he will be able to stay in Government House.” He was never really likely to have carried out his threat. But that he issued it at all spoke volumes about how he felt about the governor.
Shettima was not the only person to have spoken out about his concern with the effectiveness of our soldiers in fighting Boko Haram. Indeed, in doing so he merely echoed widespread public worry with the slow speed of the war against the sect. Definitely his words were less harsh than those of a military officer whose letter to his commander-in-chief was published by Saharareporters on December 15, 2004. “The fact about NE (North-East) operation,” the officer said, “is that we are poorly equipped, understaffed, high corruption from Army Headquarters down to battalion level. Commanders see it as opportunity to make money.”
The Governor of Adamawa State, retired Admiral Murtala Nyako, said even worse things about the prosecution of the war. The ostensible war against Boko Haram, he said in effect at a three-day symposium in America, was “a nurtured war against the people in Northern Nigeria.” This was at a symposium on “Current Economic, Social and Security Challenges Facing Northern Nigeria” organised by US Institute of Peace between March 17 and 19, 2014.
On his return home, the governor repeated the same accusation in an open letter to his 19 Northern colleagues. He paid a price with his office when he was impeached, ostensibly for corruption, and even went on self-exile for his dear life.
Yet, Shettima’s much more cautious criticism of the conduct of the war last year barely saved him from being declared persona non grata from Aso Villa.
Events since July 30 when the erstwhile Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), Air Marshal Alex Badeh, was pulled out of service following his recent retirement along with the other service chiefs, must have since made Shettima both happy and sad at the same time – happy that he has at last been personally vindicated and sad that his vindication is hardly a thing any sensible person should celebrate, given the prolonged suffering of Nigerians from the Boko Haram insurrection, especially those in its main theatre.
For Shettima, personal vindication couldn’t have come better than the say-so of Air Marshal Badeh as CDS. “The last time any piece of equipment was bought for the army,” he said during an interview with Channels TV several days after his pulling out parade, “was some APCs (armoured personnel carriers) that were bought in 2006 and how many were they?” The Air Force, he said, flew “the oldest airplanes in the whole world.” He had made similar remarks in his valedictory speech during the parade.
As if to counter Badeh’s damaging admission that the military has long suffered neglect, PR Nigeria, a controversial media consultant to some of our security services including the DSS and the military, said in a statement it issued on August 6, that in its twilight the administration of President Jonathan did acquire sophisticated weapons to fight Boko Haram in spite of the obstacle thrown in its path by Western nations. The weapons, PR Nigeria said, “were acquired in the last one year after years of frustration by Western powers…We utilised some of these equipment to recover more than 22 local governments under Boko Haram terrorists and ensured that (Abubakar) Shekau (its leader) did not disrupt the 2015 elections as he had threatened.”
However, far from debunking Badeh’s admission that the military had suffered neglect for too long, PR Nigeria only succeeded in buttressing his point. The war against Boko Haram has been on since 2009 when the military first moved against it and routed the sect from its Maiduguri stronghold. Or so we thought. For, the sect returned in 2010 with vengeance, kidnapping girls, destroying property, maiming and killing people, civilians and uniformed men alike, with greater ferocity than it did before 2009.
By PR Nigeria’s own admission, the military was only properly equipped to fight the insurrectionists only a year ago. The excuse was that the West had refused to cooperate with Nigeria in acquiring weapons because it said it had ample evidence that the military used them indiscriminately against civilians. PR Nigeria’s excuse is plausible. Even then it does not answer the obvious question of what happened to the tens of billions of Naira that were budgeted year in year out for the weapons and for the welfare of the security forces.
If the authorities had regarded Shettima’s cautious criticism of the operation against Boko Haram last year as food for thought rather than cause for anger, they would probably have realized that the answer to what happened to the billions lied partly in their decision to shift the procurement of weapons from the Ministry of Defence (MOD) where it rightly belonged to the office of the National Security Agency under the favoured late General Andrew Owoye Azazi, who, as a General Officer Commanding, 1 Division, Kaduna, between January 2005 and July 2006, was implicated in, but was never charged with, the massive stealing of arms under his division and selling them to Niger Delta militants.
The shift of the procurement of weapons from MOD to NSA was ostensibly to make it more efficient and corruption-proof. Instead it made matters far worse on both counts because the checks and balances that limited the scale of corruption at MOD were completely absent at NSA.
If, as is obvious, corruption was part of the answer to the poor capacity of our armed forces in fighting Boko Haram, another answer came to the surface in the valedictory speech by the Chief of Army Staff, Lt-General Kenneth Minimah, during his pulling out parade on August 5.
Like Badeh along with whom he was retired, he correctly observed that the army had suffered neglect for a long time. “I was,” he said, “confronted with the decay in the service due to long periods of neglect the army had suffered.” However, like Badeh, he conveniently forgot to identify those who, for about fifteen years after the civilians took over power in 1999, hardly did anything to end the self-neglect by the previous military regimes. Instead he chose, implausibly in my view, to blame some faceless people for using the insurrection to advance what he said were their sectional, tribal, religious and personal interests.
“Because,” he said, “if we had all stood against the terrorists at the onset through public condemnation of their activities and active collaboration with the military to confront them rather than use it as a tool to advance sectional, tribal, religious and political interests, we would not have been where we are today.”
Even without naming names it is pretty obvious that Minimah’s accusation was directed at the erstwhile opposition which is now in power. But if the general cared for the truth he would have been the first to admit that those in power until May – and that includes himself – were even more guilty of his charge as they tried to use everything they could to retain power.
The lesson in all this is obvious: we cannot neglect our armed forces by stealing their budgets and expect them to stand up to an enemy of the State while at the same time we cannot expect public support for any war against the enemy of the State if our armed forces indiscriminately attack civilians under the guise of ending the war.