Buratai and the Fighting Troops

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WRITTEN by Philip Paul Bliss, ‘Hold the Fort’ (Ho My Comrades) is one of the most popular Christian hymns. It is also one of my favourites. Not only because of its powerful lyrics and rich melody but also the story behind it. The hymn was inspired by ‘The Battle of Allatoona Pass’ on 5th October 1864 during the American civil war. A Union garrison stationed in Atlanta, Georgia had been invaded by a large army of Confederates. Outnumbered and outgunned, the fighting troops were on the verge of surrender when they saw a signal flag raised several kilometres away on the Kenesaw Mountain which read: “Hold the fort; I am coming. W. T. Sherman.” It was from their commander, Major General William Tecumseh Sherman.

The signal drew applause and the Union soldiers kept up the fight until reinforcement eventually arrived. Recounting the story in a Sunday School class attended by Bliss in April 1870, Major Daniel Webster Whittle uttered the words that must have nudged the songwriter: “No incident of the war illustrates more thrillingly the inspiration imparted by the knowledge of the presence of the commander; and that he is cognizant of our position; and that, doing our utmost, he will supplant our weakness by speedy reinforcements. So the message of Sherman to the soldiers of Altoona becomes the message of the Great Commander, who signals ever to all who fight life’s battle, ‘Hold the Fort’.”

Although written in spiritual context, the most instructive lesson is that victory on the battlefield depends on the commander. If he is one that can inspire hope, has earned the trust of his troops and is committed to their welfare, the battle is half-won. Regardless of how powerful the enemies might be. The converse is the case if the commander is not trusted by the troops. In the years since Nigeria has been engaged in a war against the Boko Haram insurgency that is ‘technically defeated’, we have focused on (and derided) the capacity of our fighting troops. It’s time we looked at the commanders.

Against the background of the post-retirement confession by the late Chief of Defence Staff, Air Marshall Alex Badeh that he “was head of a military that lacked the relevant equipment” to fight the Bioko Haram insurgency, available facts do not support the recent claim by the Chief of Army Staff, Lt.-General Tukur Buratai. Accusing the fighting troops of “insufficient willingness to perform assigned tasks or simply insufficient commitment to a common national and military course” is enough to dampen their fighting spirit. It is tantamount to a vote of no confidence from their commander. Yet, there are reports that these soldiers often go on for months without their meagre operational allowance and their families are almost always left to fend for themselves when they pay the supreme sacrifice.

Since the beginning of this year alone, dozens of soldiers have either been killed, wounded, are missing or have been captured mostly due to the fact that the insurgents are better equipped and more motivated. In a January 2015 story titled ‘The soldiers without enough weapons to fight jihadists’, the BBC reported that the Nigerian soldiers running away from Boko Haram militants were low on ammunition and allocated unserviceable vehicles. “Imagine me and you are fighting,” a soldier told BBC, “We both have guns but while you are wearing a bullet proof vest, I’m carrying an umbrella.” To now suggest that our troops are not committed to the cause is deplorable, especially given their enormous sacrifices on the battlefield.

Some of the challenges of our troops in the war against Boko Haram are highlighted in my book, ‘Against the Run of Play: How an incumbent president was defeated in Nigeria’. I particularly recalled how a few weeks after resuming duty at the then newly established 7th Division of the Nigerian Army, Major General Ahmadu Mohammed narrowly escaped death when his own soldiers opened fire on his vehicle at Maimalari Barracks in Maiduguri. The angry soldiers were said to be protesting the death of their colleagues who were drafted to face well-armed insurgents with inferior weapons. I also recounted how desperate wives of soldiers blocked the gates of the 21 Armoured Brigade stationed at Giwa Barracks in Maiduguri, to prevent their husbands being taken out to fight. “Our men are telling us that they go into battle with guns that cannot withstand that of Boko Haram,” one of the angry women said before she added: “Some of our friends are now widows and nobody is taking care of them and their children once their husbands are dead.”

There are several disturbing reports on the welfare of the soldiers we send to die for their country and the weapons we give them to fight. Notably, when 54 soldiers were sentenced to death in December 2014 by a military court, one of them took to his Facebook page to write: “I am a soldier and I am sentenced to death by the Nigerian Army, because we did not go to fight Boko Haram without equipment. We ask(ed) for weapon instead (they) gave (us) death sentence.” The pertinent question here is: If we send soldiers to the war front without the necessary arms and ammunition and they also know that if they die, their families will not be taken care of, why should we blame any of them for showing ‘insufficient commitment’?

Trading blames and making excuses are clear signs that those saddled with the war against insurgency have run out of ideas. On May 15 while receiving the House Committee on Army led by its Chairman, Remande Shawulu, at the Theatre Command in Maiduguri, Buratai said “the myriad of security challenges we are facing now in the North-west, North-central and other parts of the country, I want to believe and rightly so, is the fall out of the just concluded general election”. He added: “There are several political interests – politicians in particular are not happy with their defeat and therefore, trying to take revenge, sponsoring some these criminal activities.” A month earlier, the then defence minister, Mansur Dan Ali accused traditional rulers of ‘helping’ armed bandits attack communities and increase insecurity in the country. At other times, it is the communities at the receiving end of Boko Haram brutalities that are blamed. Now we are told the problem is with the fighting troops.

Unfortunately, the chief of army staff seemed to have opened a Pandora box as several images of our soldiers in pathetic conditions now flood the social media. Buratai must therefore know by now that he has a responsibility to provide for the troops and motivate them with winning words, as he did when he first assumed office. But it is also obvious that we need fresh ideas and new hands with points to prove in the next phase of the war against insurgency so as to signal a new approach. The president cannot continue to create the impression that the current service chiefs are indispensable.

Challenged on all fronts, the single most important agenda in the country today is how to restore law and order. That ordinarily is the responsibility of the police. But with the police practically prostrate, Nigerians now look up to the military for solution to the problem of insecurity. That is creating a lot of aberrations. Just two weeks ago, the Governor of Osun, Mr Gboyega Oyetola left Osogbo to keep an appointment with Buratai in Abuja on the security situation in his state. That those who should direct their request to the Commander-in-Chief now kowtow before Buratai explains why our army chief talks and behaves like a politician. More disturbing is that he and other service chiefs seem to have taken on a life role.

In a regimented service, there is no greater incentive for professional excellence than the aspiration to reach the top. Yet from 2016 to date, well over 100 Major Generals and their equivalents in both the Navy and Airforce have been retired due to a lack of vacancy at the top. After 35 years, the Chief of Defence Staff, General Abayomi Gabriel Olonisakin should have retired from the army on 18th December 2016 while the Chief of Naval Staff, Vice Admiral Ibok-Ete Ekwe Ibas should have left the Navy since 1st January 2018. Buratai of course was due for retirement on 17th December 2018 before his tenure was extended. For the Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshall Sadique Baba Abubakar, his course-mates in the three services (Air force, Army and Navy) have all since retired and he should have joined them on 15th May 2017 after serving 35 years. For how long shall we continue to recycle officers who have entered professional menopause?

The Verdict By Olusegun Adeniyi, Email: [email protected]

– June 27, 2018 @ 12:15 GMT |

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