General Alani Akinrinade (retd.)
A former Chief of Army Staff and Chief of Defence Staff, General Alani Akinrinade (retd.), tells GBENGA ADENIJI and BAYO AKINLOYE that Nigeria may be headed for crisis if the elections are not well managed
You are one of the finest soldiers Nigeria has ever produced. You also fought in the civil war to keep the country as one. Do you have any regrets?
When you have a duty, especially if it is a professional duty, you should be happy each time you are able to discharge your responsibilities creditably. Therefore, to that extent, yes (I feel fulfilled.) We fought a civil war. I will say to the best of my ability, I discharged my duties. But if you look at the reasons why we fought the war, I will say it was an unnecessary war. If I knew at that time what I now know after many years of going around the world, studying history and reading biographies, I just feel it was an unnecessary war. But, unfortunately today, we’re faced with fighting terrorism. That phenomenon is going to dominate the world for the next 50 years, like I said in 2001 in one of my lectures. We are going to be chasing terrorists for the next 50 years if we are not careful. The reason is simply because we ignore why people do the things they do. We dismiss them instead of examining the message carefully and finding answers to it. I think it is rooted in injustice — injustice that breeds poverty in such a big way; that is overwhelming that people become desperate to use any means to vent their frustration and religion is an instrument they use.
Going back to the civil war, we have not attained the peace we were looking for; we have not achieved that unity we sought. We wanted to keep Nigeria united for a purpose. We have not achieved the purpose from what we see now many years after the war — and that is the source of my regret. There is too much of a class struggle in Nigeria. The centre of power in Nigeria is so narrow and they make all the decisions.
How will you assess the state of insecurity in the country and do you think the Multinational Joint Task Force is the solution to the insurgency in the North-East?
The insurgency we are facing in this country is getting more sophisticated and aggravated by the day. The insurgents are beginning to have high morale as if they are achieving something. The state of insecurity in Nigeria is very bad; it is frightening. When Nigeria on the northern border has such countries like Cameroon, Niger and Chad, I don’t think the insurgency we have on our hand now is going to recognise any boundary at all. Boko Haram is looking for territories they can capture; it doesn’t matter whether it is in Nigeria or Cameroon. That’s certainly a reason for everyone to be sitting up and lend a hand to the Nigerian troops. If you remember, the September 11 plot was hatched not in the United States but in a foreign land. Therefore, there is a possibility that if neighbouring countries allow the insurgents to establish an Islamic caliphate, the whole world has a problem to deal with. Evidently, there is a reason for the international community to get really worried. Unfortunately, despite having some combined international forces fighting in Iraq many years ago, that country still remains an unsafe place for people to live. A similar thing is being experienced in Afghanistan; America is still battling with the Taliban. Multinational Joint Task Force is okay but I am not really sure that is the sole solution to the insurgency. I am not sure the MNJTF alone will solve the problem but we need to have all the neighbouring countries in the northern border to wake up and start doing something. I think it’s a very good idea but there are still limitations to such endeavours.
Nigeria boasts of probably the best troops in sub-Saharan Africa but the troops seem incapable of dislodging Boko Haram insurgents. Where does the problem lie?
Perhaps, it is rooted in the trend of development in the Army itself when they went into governance and coups started happening. Even within the coups, there were coups and there were people shot and murdered trying to attempt a coup. With a situation like that, the esprit de corps of the military has been eroded. I think we lost that esprit de corps gradually since the day the military started engaging in coups. That’s one aspect. Second, our governments didn’t have proper ministers of defence, who represent the political class, the political system and the professional soldiers. They are removed in quick successions, thereby destroying the military institution. There were periods when no development really took place.
In the case of arms, ammunitions and equipment to match what is happening in the world, we didn’t pay enough attention to that. I also think that soldiers are humans; they live with us and they have the same kind of connections that all of us have within the society. They need to be encouraged. I heard an officer say that all over the world soldiers buy uniforms for themselves. That is not true. There is no country in the world that will send its soldiers to war and be expecting them to buy uniforms with their own money. If it gets to that point, then we are beginning to lose the grip on our soldiers.
Do you see anything wrong in the use of the Civilian Joint Task Force in military operations against Boko Haram?
Even during the civil war, we needed the help of the civilians because they knew the terrains better than what the map was telling us. They also knew some of idiosyncrasies of the population there, helping us to know how to handle them. But we didn’t organise them into a force. If you arm a man and afterwards he is hungry, he will use the weapon to find something to eat. Boko Haram also was supposed to have started that way except that religion was part of it — where a governor was alleged to have used some people as thugs, though organised, and he abandoned them. They also abandoned him and turned on the people, the police and the nation. Though that danger is there for the civilian JTF to become a menace, it is not unusual to use civilians to help the military in terms of intelligence gathering. It is easier to send someone who is not a soldier around the enemy line, who is part of the population whom they know.
Nobody knew the depth to which they could go simply because we don’t have a police force within the people. That’s one problem and that’s why the military now need an organised civilian JTF. But if the soldiers cannot face the guns of the insurgents, how do you expect people carrying bows, arrows and some dane guns to be effective? Beyond using them for gathering information, and assisting the military in carrying out some logistic duties, they can’t be any more effective. We are on dangerous grounds, more so when we now have elections around the corner; they may be available to unscrupulous politicians.
The court marshalling of soldiers accused of mutiny in the current fight against Boko Haram has been described by some people as ill-timed. Some say it should have been done secretly not to demoralise other soldiers on the war front. What do you think?
We have to be very careful. We are in a democracy and there is freedom of information. Democracy thrives on information being freely available; it will be difficult to defend in the future if the military went into the barracks and secretly court marshal people on matters of life and death — in which case they can be sentenced to death. That can be very dangerous. Maybe in military era, you can do that. But in this democracy, all of us have the responsibility to demand for an open book so that we know exactly what is going on. It’s a lesson for all of us. Be that as it may, there is no good time or bad time of disciplining soldiers. I think what we should worry about is the frequency and the magnitude of it. When the country has a hundred soldiers, including officers, being court -marshalled at the same time, we should start asking ourselves questions. Are we really going down slope to the extent that we will not able to retrieve these things if we just apply the simple law? It’s unlawful to demonstrate in the army. Yet, I don’t think it is enough to rely on the law to discipline erring soldiers in this case. We need to ask why. I tell myself that if these (mutinies by soldiers) happened under my watch, I will court marshal all the officers. I will disband the units because soldiers cannot under these circumstances do anything on their own. Therefore, the senior officers must have done something wrong. We should find out exactly what it is. The soldiers gave all sorts of reasons — that they were badly equipped and that they didn’t have food. We suggest to the armed forces to look deeper into the reasons these things are happening. Using ordinary complaints about equipment not being good enough to fight the war does not entail discipline. The military authorities, particularly the civilian authorities, have a primary responsibility to critically consider this issue and find out exactly why the soldiers acted the way they did.
Some people are agitating for the postponement of the general elections. How do you see the call for poll shift or otherwise?
Those using the security situation as a reason for poll shift owe us answers on when it will be conducive to conduct the general elections. When is the situation going to be better than now? Before we can debate this, they must advance what will happen if the elections are held at the scheduled time. I haven’t seen or heard anyone oblige us with those arguments. I have a feeling that this situation that we are in is not going to change for a very long time. If elections could be held in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, we will have to think again; if really we want democracy or we want something else. I know there are cases in court concerning the election. I think the most annoying one is the case about (Muhammadu) Buhari not having a certificate.
Why is it annoying?
It is an insult to the armed forces — a terrible insult to the armed forces. If they are so embedded in the system and they have lost their souls, then they can go ahead and join everybody else in castigating a General of Buhari’s calibre. They are now talking about a school certificate. What is that? By the time he joined the army, in those days, there were no cutting corners. It is later when these same civilians took over from the army that admission into it became less transparent. I can give you an instance. There was Course Five around 1964: if one did not have a school certificate one couldn’t apply to join the army. And I know up to 1963 when the last General Officer Commanding left Nigeria, there were no corners to be cut. There was no such thing. Everything was on merit. And, that was how it was till Buhari’s time. Buhari attended the Mons (Officer Cadet School in Aldershot in England) and the Staff College; I don’t want to think they have an idea what they teach in those places. And the rest of us pretend as if we don’t know what they do there. You send a man to America for one and a half years in a military school. Do they think he just went there to learn how to fire a rifle? No.
But why is it difficult for Buhari to produce the original copy of the certificate?
He did. As I speak to you, I don’t know where my original certificate is because we gave the original to the Military Board. They took it from us when we applied to join the Army. You give the original copy of credential to the board. They take it and keep it in your file, that’s what happened. How many years ago? 50 years. And Nigeria with our (poor) record-keeping and filing things into an archive -if we have an archive at all; an archive inhabited by rats and cockroaches. I think it’s an insult. I take it as a personal insult.
You feel the general elections should go ahead?
Yes. That is what the constitution says. Let the election hold and let’s see in how many places people cannot vote before we start this hue and cry. We’re back to 1993. They took us back all the way to 1993. We have seen this before. I am unhappy that (Pastor Tunde) Bakare was ever part of it (call for poll shift) because he is a great fellow of mine. They see a difficult situation instead of going head on to confront it, Nigeria wants to take a path that leads to nowhere to only perdition. We have been on this route before and we know the result. Why do we think this current situation is going to end up differently? The danger in this one is that we have been hearing of a possible disintegration in Nigeria; not from outside the country but within. It was a subject (disintegration) at the National Conference. I was there. We are driving ourselves towards that route. The result may not be very palatable. What is more, we have created so many warlords all over Nigeria. There are private armies around the whole place.
Will you encourage the call for the international community like the European Union, African Union, and the United Kingdom to prevail on the Federal Government not to postpone the February 14 elections just as the United States recently did?
For people who are democrats, exactly what America said is what they are going to say. We did this (presidential election) four years ago where they swore in President Jonathan and four years after we are going to have another election. This is not the time to start swaying about like lilies in the wind. They can’t do much more than they have done; to warn us and also to send election observers. I hear a lot of them already have observers in the country, which should be at a great cost to them. Therefore, what else do we want from these people? We must think of ourselves as being very much devalued and we earned it — we deserve it. The international community has done its bit. It is also disturbing that up till now we still need policemen to be standing by polling booths before we can even be sure we can vote. If we are expecting much more from the developed world, we are wasting our time. A few things have changed since 1993 that can make the situation worse now, if we are stupid enough not to have an election. We might realise that the world is not so enamoured with us. Perhaps, they are angry with us because we have made a very bad specimen of a country in a developing world. We’re not even developing because we’re still very backward.
Buhari has been portrayed as being an honest man. Do you think being an honest man is enough for someone to rule Nigeria?
It is not enough but it is the first thing in the order in which I would put the qualities of a Nigerian leader. Considering where we find ourselves today, honesty is the first quality a man should have. The people should trust a leader to the point that his words are taken as a bond. If it is your worry that is honesty enough, I will say yes it is enough. The next one is wisdom so that the leader is able to get people who will do the work for him.
Jonathan seems to be the most criticised President the country has ever produced. Do you think he deserves the criticisms?
I will just say he earned the criticisms. There is no smoke without fire. If fish wants to rot, it starts from the head. The market, women know that when they go to the market they open the gill. If it is green inside, the fish is rotten. Even if he didn’t personally commit all the offences levelled against him, he’s still responsible. He is the President. He can ensure that justice is done where there are infractions committed by people under his watch. He shouldn’t allow impunity to thrive.
Recently, Niger Delta militants threatened to go to war if Jonathan loses his re-election bid. What do you make of that?
I know only one of the militants but I don’t think he was old enough to really talk about what happened during the civil war. They must also remember, especially the ethnic militias in the Niger Delta area, that the war went through their places too. They got away very lightly then simply because it was the area we wanted to carve out of the jurisdiction of (Emeka) Ojukwu. First, they were the minorities and they didn’t sign an agreement that said they wanted to form part of Biafra. As a result, the rest of us were under obligation to protect the minorities. The war was also fought in their territories. If they were old enough they would see the misery even though they didn’t suffer ten per cent of what the East-Central, the present South-East went through. They are giving wrong reasons to keep their son in the Presidency. It’s a filthy reason. It doesn’t show they understand what democracy is all about. Nigerians are not going to vote under duress. Politics is a game of numbers. The one we refused to do in 1993, we have not come out of it. We’re going through the same cycle. I don’t think they lived at that time. I don’t think even the politicians today were old enough at that time to see exactly the drama that unfolded. It seems to me: we learn very little from our past. What we are risking is a complete disintegration of our country. Thereafter, we will blame America for predicting the doom staring us in the face. In 2010, John Campbell wrote in his book what could lead Nigeria into a bigger trouble. Is that not what is happening now?