It is a sign of the poor administration Nigeria has been grappling with for years that common changes in service chiefs and other top appointments have become embarrassingly controversial. Such changes should ordinarily not elicit more than passing concern, but in Nigeria such personnel renovations have become causes célèbres. Few years after the last set of service chiefs were appointed, it became almost immediately controversial. Long after they had passed their usefulness, and even long after they seemed to have exceeded their efficiency point, the public began to take potshot at them, whittling down their contributions, impugning their integrity and calling to question the wisdom of the president’s appointments. All these were because both the president and the presidency refused to assume the diligence to do what was right about the replacement of the service chiefs. By allowing the issue of their appointment or dismissal become controversial, it placed the problem squarely and needlessly in public space.
After years of dithering, which did neither the country nor the outgoing service chiefs any good, the president has finally replaced his security chiefs. There is nothing to sustain the argument that the replacement was done on time. There is even nothing else to suggest that the replacement was appropriate or profound. In 2015, when he carried out the first appointments, he sold the country a pig in a poke, promising that they were meriting men. As is customary with changes, the country basked with euphoria in 2015, imbuing the appointments with unusual merit. That merit, that ardour of new changes, lasted for nearly two years. But it did not take too long, after the Boko Haram war became generally stultified, to begin to find fault in the security chiefs. The situation was worsened by the rise and upsurge in banditry and other forms of criminality in the Northeast spreading to other parts of the country, to which there was no answer. The new existential challenges required a cocktail of military, police, political, economic and social panaceas but there was no coordination at the top, there was no initiative at the bottom and there was utter dismay at the level of the populace. They yearned for action underscored by intelligence, know-how, boldness and brilliance, but all these were not forthcoming. Barely two years after the security chiefs had passed their usefulness it had become evident that a new and profound kind of paralysis had overtaken the land. A part of the paralysis could be explicable on the grounds of the president’s serial indisposition, but more crucially the presidency was simply inundated by a paralysis that seemed to make it incapable of taking the right actions.
It is not clear whether that same paralysis is still at work or not, but soon it will be found out whether the euphoria that has greeted the new security chiefs’ appointment will last or not. A part of the past paralysis of course involved the observable shift of national loyalty from the constitution to a section of the country. The president gave vent to that shift; the security chiefs luxuriated in it, even declaring once that their loyalty was to the presidency and not to the constitution, and all sorts of appointees and journeymen in the corridors of power also basked in that shift. They sweated and tried to extenuate their evident underwhelming performances, and swam in the bilge water of ethnic particularism — some call it ethnic exceptionalism — in order to prove their loyalty and to profit from the paralysing malaise that kept the country hobbled for years. Presidential aides outdid each other to prove their loyalty, new media aides ploughed the depths of abuse and cantankerousness to show what disgraceful mettle they were made of. All these were pointers to the fact that things were not functioning with precision and modernism at the very top, therefore breeding chaos and decay. That the chaos and decay manifested finally in the inefficiencies of the outgoing service chiefs showed very clearly that the problems exceeded them, entrapped the presidency itself and made the country largely unresponsive to the demands of modern governance. It became so bad at a point that it was not clear where even the president himself stood — his civil war years when he displayed some altruism and nationalism or his unsuccessful political campaigns when he began to lurch towards tribal affiliations. But whatever it was, the omens were not good by the time the president assumed office, appointed his outgoing security chiefs, and soon gave a clear hint as to what direction his presidency, which was by now regarded as hijacked, headed. Unlike other presidents, who famously changed their security chiefs until they got the right composition, the president remained perversely loyal to his own service chiefs.
They say lightning does not strike twice on the same spot; the new security chiefs’ appointments were not morphologically different from the last ones but there are hopes that the new individuals will pull their weight. Whether they are worth their weight in gold is a clearly different thing. They are tested individuals, they are tested warriors, and so far they have managed exquisitely to avoid being tainted by the morass and platitude of top appointments. To what extent they will remain unaffected by these limiting and putrefying dialectics remains to be seen. How they hope to overcome that unenviable and limiting factor of the Nigerian, which sees him kowtowing and groveling before his bosses, may not be known immediately. It is a cultural issue with many Nigerians to be wary of their benefactors and an even more cultural and existential issue to hold on perversely to appointments. So despite coming in to the office highly recommended, there is absolutely nothing to indicate that these new appointees will not yield when the quakes begin at the highest level, when their loyalties begin to be questioned, when certain existential realities in some parts of the country, particularly the south, demand they prove their loyalty to the president and his presidency.
One thing that is certain is that there will be no new definition of loyalty to the constitution from the president. Yes, he has finally grappled with a matter that he had left in abeyance for years, but there is neither honour in the delay in handling it, not exemplariness in the manner in which he had handled it. There is nothing to show in the appointments that he is going to have a hands-on management of the country’s security challenges. All things seemed to point to the fact that that the Defence Minister and the National Security adviser may play more prominent roles together with the Chief of Defence Staff, but how this will play out is yet unknown. Hopefully for the sake of the country, this supposed new system will play out well. But, even if it plays out well, neither the security chiefs themselves nor their supervisors, to wit the Defence minister and National Security Adviser, have any overarching political roles to play. The president, good or ill, was elected to play that role. He was elected to understand the country’s political ideals, political undercurrents and political vision. He has not always shown any iota of that understanding, a factor that brought his last security appointments to grief. If the new security chiefs and the system of supervision are to succeed, the president will simply have to summon that elusive political impetus to give the necessary overarching cover to Nigeria’s security issues. The country may rejoice all it can but the security challenges it faces go beyond the competence or expertise of the security chiefs or their supervisors. They even go it seems beyond the competence and understanding of the president himself.
If the president cannot get the right quality of minds to help him rejig the presidency and engraft it with the brilliance needed to function at the highest level of statesmanship, then all the optimism about the new security chiefs, just as it happened to the old security chiefs, will be completely misplaced. It is all well to blame the outgoing or former security chiefs. They merely capitalized on the abysmal and horrendous fiasco they met on ground without the president providing the right kind of leadership, altruism, nationalism, and futurism. Any new appointees will be tilting at windmills if the right ideals are not espoused by the presidency. The outgoing security chiefs even went nearly rogue, to the point of building universities and think tanks without appropriation instead of prosecuting wars and fighting insecurity. The outgoing Chief of Army Staff believes he left the army better than he met it. Is it by building universities or by contributing to the signs of war? Indeed, he once stated that insurgency would not end in 20 years, only to do a volte-face and declaim that it will end in shortest possible time. It was because of what they met on ground and because lack of supervision made the laxity possible. There is nothing to suggest that the new security chiefs are benumbed by such ambitions, but one never can tell. It is far wiser to keep them on their toes and not allow them to develop such vaulting and unrestrainable ambitions, especially in the face of a presidency that is often curiously detached, permissive and inattentive.
Overall, while the country is a little leery, hoping the presidency has got a handle on the country’s security challenges, they nevertheless hope that the new security chiefs’ appointments will create a new impetus in the fight against banditry. The country hopes that an end can be brought to the wars and banditry. Their expectations may not be misplaced but it is doubtful whether they are aware of the major components of the insecurity that has blighted the country. While the shape of the Boko Haram war has morphed in fairly discernible ways, that of banditry has not been as precise. Counterinsurgency may lend itself whether as guerilla warfare or so-called soft targets, and the new chiefs may not disappoint in summoning the tactical know-how to respond aggressively and efficiently, at least in the short run. Banditry is, however, a different kettle of fish; it is a potpourri of factors, many of which were spawned over years of alienation and poverty. These factors will not respond as quickly or as admirably as officers or the security chiefs will like so a lot of ingenuity is required. The presidency must not tempt itself to think that once these appointments have been made, that is the end of the catastrophe that was well on its way. That catastrophe had been long in coming. It had become an ogre that was well-fed by the presidency, its ethnic jingoists, political bandits, influence wielders and 2023 plotters. That catastrophe will not respond to just one magic bullet. If the president cannot summon the right caliber and group of people to deal this final onslaught together with the new security chiefs and a recalibrated presidency then the country may end up returning to square one.
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