Hobbled by jihadists, the herdsmen grazing crisis and rampant bloodletting like Nigeria, Mali sacked two of its army chiefs last week after gunmen massacred 134 people. The gruesome attack compelled the authorities to hold an emergency cabinet meeting, where other crucial decisions were taken. Such a swift response demonstrates the government’s awareness of its responsibility to the people and the fact that incompetence by the military high command during an emergency is never tolerated.
President Ibrahim Keita fired the Army Chief of Staff, M’Bemba Keita, and replaced him with Abdoulaye Coulibaly, while Chief of Land Forces, Abdrahamane Baby, gave way for Keba Sangare. The Fulani and Dogon ethnic groups have been embroiled in attacks and reprisals resulting in widespread killings in many villages. After the emergency meeting, the Prime Minister, Soumeylou Maiga, unequivocally said, “The protection of the population remains and will remain the monopoly of the state,” adding that the military would disarm illegal bearers of arms and ammunition.
Such indignation over military chiefs’ ineptitude was in evidence in Chad a week earlier, when President Idriss Deby, sacked his Chief of Army Staff, Brahim Mahamat, and his two deputies in response to Boko Haram’s killing of 23 soldiers. The affected officers had been in the saddle for six years. Deby’s intolerance of the fundamentalists’ senseless massacre is a trend established in August 2015, when 10 of the jihadists who had caused a similar havoc were rounded up, put on trial, and within just three days, convicted and executed by firing squad. They had killed 38 people that June. The country reintroduced the death penalty because of their bestial activities.
Interestingly, the rage and rapid response of the Malian and Chadian authorities to barbarities that the world has roundly condemned present contrasting parallels in Nigeria. President Muhammadu Buhari has overseen the counter-Islamic insurgency for almost four years. He appears to have been inured to repeated carnage by Boko Haram and Fulani herdsmen. Repeated public calls for him to replace the service chiefs who seem not to have any new strategies to offer have not been heeded. Nor have we seen significant prosecution of perpetrators.
In January 2018, the Minister of Defence, Mansur Dan-Ali, got away with his partisan and inflammatory comment justifying the mindless Fulani herdsmen massacre in Benue State: “If those (grazing) routes are blocked, what do you expect will happen?” In just one incident, they massacred 73 people on New Year’s Day 2018. A few weeks on, they slaughtered early morning Christian Catholic worshippers, including a priest, in Benue State. The herders markedly display their AK 47 rifles while grazing their cattle in farmlands without consequences for the criminality. It is a clear challenge to the authority of the Nigerian state. There is an anti-open grazing law in the state, which they vowed not to obey, encouraged by biased and parochial outbursts like Dan-Ali’s.
Well-coordinated assaults on military barracks, killing of soldiers and carting away of their arms and ammunition, including Armoured Personnel Carriers, have become a recurring decimal. This embarrassing anomaly has tarred our military with the brush of ill-trained cohorts. The jihadists had in November attacked the 157 Task Force Battalion in Metele, Borno State. News reports indicated that about 100 troops were massacred. The 81 Division Forward Brigade at Jilli, Geidam in Yobe State, was once overwhelmed and scores of soldiers lost. It is a bitter pill that the 145 Battalion, Gashigar, Borno State, had also tasted. The terrorists on Tuesday posted a video online purporting to show the execution of five Nigerian soldiers.
The civilian casualty figure of the war is difficult to imagine. But Governor Kashim Shettima of Borno State said two years ago that it was about 100,000 people, just as about 2.2 million citizens have been rendered internally displaced, says United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Those whose villages have been liberated are afraid to return home. Apparently, lethargy seems to have taken over the combat readiness of our troops, which the insurgents have exploited to mount their present resurgence.
When such happens in warfare, it is a clear invitation to creativity: new ideas and strategies should flow in by replacing the old guard. The war against Boko Haram needs just that now. The President had acknowledged in January that “…their performances may be disappointing,” but accepted the responsibility for not changing the service chiefs. Thomas Ricks, a journalist and twice winner of the Pulitzer Prize, writing in The Atlantic on the US Generals’ failure, argued that America’s failure to descend on its underperforming military chiefs, save a few field commanding officers, was “an important factor in the failure of our (her) wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.” This is a big lesson for Nigeria.
Admittedly, the Chief of Army Staff, Tukur Buratai, and his colleagues have done a lot to defang Boko Haram, end its rash of soft target bombings that have resulted in the loss of thousands of lives and pushed them to the northern fringes of Borno, Adamawa and Yobe states. But the war needs new energy, fresh intelligence, high-tech equipment and, more than ever before, stronger international support from the US, Europe and our neighbours — Chad, Niger and Cameroon — for Nigeria to put this dark epoch behind her. The forays of Boko Haram into Chad draw attention to the fact that the conundrum is no more Nigeria’s concern alone.
Underscoring the need for the injection of new ideas when a war goes awry, Stanley McChrystal, a US General at the peak of the war in Afghanistan in 2009, asked his subordinate units: “What would you do differently if you had to stay until we won?” Buhari, this is a message for a new awakening.