By Senator Iroegbu
Time, it is said, a revealer of all things as it would help to unravel lies and perpetuate the truth. This is exactly the case with a former Chief of Army Staff (COAS), Lt-Gen. Onyeabor Azubuike Ihejirika who was at the helm of the Service from October 2010 until January 14, 2014. He was subjected to so much scrutiny, harassment, accusations and unsubstantiated allegations throughout his tenure by groups and individuals with vested interests. But like Jesus asked Mary Magdalene, after his traducers abandoned their mission of stoning her; “woman where are they accusers?” They have all disappeared!
Who could easily forget the almost daily barrage of allegations by the now muted Borno Elders Forum, Northern Elders Forum, Arewa Consultative Forum and other groups as well as individuals? Even the allegations reached some ridiculous levels that his patriotic zeal, determination and efforts then to crush Boko Haram terrorists were instead interpreted as trying to take revenge for the Nigerian civil war. And when that did not succeed to distract and detract his mission of “transforming the Nigerian Army into a force better able to tackle the emerging security challenges”, a foreigner was hired to malign him with a tag of ‘terrorist sponsor’.
But today there is no denying the fact and with the evidence of hindsight as well as the prevailing reality since he left office that he distinguished himself creditably within the confines of the situation; resources and support he was provided. In addition, Ihejirika and his time of emergence as the top dog in the Nigerian Army was both historic, symbolic and transformational in many ways, which are key legacies that could not be impeached and have even be solidified over time.
It is also gratifying for lovers of truth to know that in as much he also made some mistakes like every human being would, the reality is that the lies orchestrated against Ihejirika have been discredited overtime, especially with the current spate of insecurity across the country. All the contortions have since fallen like pack of cards and it would be worth to remind us some of the legacy events and signature projects that helped defined his tenure.
End of old guard and pioneer of modernisation
Ihejirika and his peers had the unique place in history of Nigerian Armed Forces by effectively seeing the end of era of conventional ideology of warfare and at the same time, pioneered a Nigerian military trained to better tackle the fluid nature of modern conflict.
Recall that the then President Goodluck Jonathan had just appointed Ihejirika, ex-Chief of Naval Staff (CNS) Admiral Ola Sa’ad Ibrahim, Air Marshal Mohammed Dikko Umar as Chief of Air Staff (CAS) and Air Chief Marshal Oluseyi Petinrin as Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), when the October 1, 2010 twin bombings in Abuja took place.
It was an event that greeted these service chiefs who when they assumed office inherited a military structured along old and conventional doctrine of warfare. However, credit must be given to Ihejirika and his co-Service Chiefs for successfully laying the foundation for a modern and efficient force, better and able to tackle contemporary security challenges.
Indeed, this novel development ushered in series of deadly bombings by the outlawed Boko Haram terrorists that did not only caught Nigeria and Nigerians napping but also rattled the security chiefs who were now forced to improvise and re-strategize to be able to deal with the reality of unconventional warfare and terrorism.
To this end, Ihejirika introduced various reforms, trainings and retraining, especially on counter-terrorism and Counter-Insurgency required to effectively deal with the emerging security challenges.
He laid the ground work that helped to overcome the challenge of re-tooling the military that were usually detached from the civil populace and mainly schooled on conventional warfare to properly understand their increasing role in civil conflicts and asymmetrical wars engulfing the whole country.
Accordingly, the Nigerian Army under Ihejirika created the Department of Civil-Military Relations, the new 7 Division Maiduguri, Counter-Insurgency and Counter-Terrorism (CT COIN) training, Department of Transformation and Innovation Centre (COTI), and Nigerian Army Special Operation Command (NASOC) on terrorism amongst others.
Strengthened national security
Ihejirika’s leadership of the Nigerian Army together with other members of the Military High Command during his period, while working in collaboration with other security and intelligences agencies achieved tremendous success at reducing the rate of kidnappings and assassination in the South East and South Southern part of the country, it also helped to quell the bloody Jos, Plateau crisis.
Confronted with obsolete, inadequate, unsuitable and sometimes non-existent military equipment, hardware, arms and ammunition, Nigerian Army under Ihejirika had to innovate and invent to overcome the enormous security challenges that confronted the nation at the time. One would recall that it was not until towards the end of Jonathan administration that Nigeria was able to get some of the weapons needed to prosecute counter-insurgency operations despite internal and external sabotage. But within that period, the Army were innovative in fashioning out measures to mitigate the limitations including the manufacturing of the first indigenous but utility Armoured Personnel Vehicles called ‘Igirigi’, which has been effective till today.
Nevertheless, Boko Haram also exploited this period which could be best be described as transitional phase of the security and military structure built under the old order of the conventional warfare towards an emerging force drilled in unconventional and asymmetric conflicts. But the state of emergency campaign declared and championed by the ground and air operations, enjoyed tremendous success in smoking out and dislodging the insurgents from their strongholds, while recovering the areas that was hitherto under the control of the Boko Haram Sect.
Buoyed by this rapid victory, Ihejirika established the Nigerian Army 7Division Maiduguri to ensure a more permanent presence of the Armed Forces in the area even though this decision, which was received with some misgivings by some sections of the military hierarchy has since then been embraced, expanded and by his successors. Nevertheless, Boko Haram were roundly beaten and wiped off from the towns and villages they were occupying and confined only at the Sambisa forest with Abubakar Shekau fatally wounded. This was the situation of a Nigerian Army under ascendancy until he was retired in January 14, 2014.
Ihejirika also recently disclosed that the military was able to tackle insecurity, especially the Boko Haram terrorists during his tenure by increasing the strength of the Nigerian Army in the span of three years. While speaking at the 2019 Reunion and Gala Night of 18 Regular Course of the Nigerian Army, he said with the strategy employed, the problem of insecurity was rapidly detected, which led to the prevention of a major problem that would have increased the challenges of insecurity that the country is currently being confronted with.
“We were able to identify the nature and complexity of the problem. We went ahead to quickly increase the strength of the army by 25 percent in the span of three years. Without that, it would have been a major issue because of several commitment both internally and externally when Nigerian Army was involved in foreign operations,” he said.
Ihejirika being the first Igbo man to head the Nigerian Army since 1966 after the first military Head of State, Major-General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi and following the civil war. This as noted earlier, was historic and symbolic in many ways and recognising this fact propelled him into a reform drive that would help modernise the Service. Therefore, the mission, aims and objectives of the former COAS who was described by many as a ‘gentleman officer’ and a thorough bred professional whose watchword is discipline and hard work, were to transform the Nigerian army in order to meet the contemporary security challenges.
According to a security Analyst , Mr. Okechukwu Iheduru, the first in the series of efforts that Ihejirika sought to transform, re- professionalize, and reinvent the military as a political actor for democratic stability culminated in the adoption and implementation of a Nigerian Army Transformation Agenda (NATA). NATA was anchored on a new vision, “To transform the Nigerian Army into a force better able to meet contemporary challenges”, which coincided with the escalation of the Boko Haram terrorist group whose battlefield successes have cast serious doubt on the organizational effectiveness and combat readiness of the hitherto conventionally trained Nigerian armed forces as they tried to adjust to the changed asymmetric war environment.
Like earlier highlighted, Ihejirika who never witnessed mutiny under his belt created the Department of Civil-Military Relations, the new 7 Division Maiduguri, Counter-Insurgency and Counter-Terrorism (CT COIN) training, Department of Transformation and Innovation Centre (COTI), and Nigerian Army Special Operation Command (NASOC) on terrorism amongst others.
He went further to establish the K-9 or Dog Department, rapid response reserve force, and Nigerian Army Language School, improved the military intelligence, and refurbished communication vehicles at the Nigerian Army Corps of Artillery (NACA) amongst others.
Also important under his leadership was the welfare of the officers and soldiers especially with the regular payments of their incomes and salaries but more importantly, the renovation of Army Barracks.
One of the iconic symbols of that project was reopening of the abandoned Ohafia barracks in Abia state. The refurbishment of the Barracks was to accommodate 14 Brigade troops along with its garrison and other service supporting elements, which effectively tamed the criminals terrorising the people of Abia State and the neighbouring states, with kidnapping gangs and their kingpins ran out of town for good. The Barracks also had on board newly created units of 145 Battalion at Ikot Umoh Essien, Akwa Ibom State; and 144 Battalion, Umuma along Aba-Port Harcourt Road in Rivers State while an artillery regiment that would support the brigade during operations in Ebonyi State. Up till today the South East and parts of South South are better secured because of that singular action.
Known as one of the most passionate apostle of transformation agenda of ex-President Jonathan, the former COAS generously translated that mission statement in driving the army. He embarked on transformation of the service, modification and modernisation of the military training.
He indeed repositioned the army to be better placed to face contemporary security challenges and fit into the democratic setting, which today has been firmly entrenched in the country despite few setbacks along the way.
Speaking on his major achievement during his tenure, Ihejirika said the Nigerian Army Language Institute (NALI) was aimed at facilitating the integration of the Nigerian Army with other neighbouring countries. He added that he also established the institute to help Nigerian soldiers on peace keeping mission to fluently communicate after observing the poor nature of communication between the Nigerian soldiers and their colleagues from neighbouring non-English-speaking countries. The former COAS said the Nigerian Army as part of his mandate, has set different languages as parts of the criteria for junior officers to be promoted.
“The idea was to give Nigerian Army the capacity to collaborate with other countries. Nigerian being a nation surrounded by francophone countries and with time, other languages will be taught. With time, other languages of interest will be taught but it is important to note that since the army has gone further to make different languages parts of the requirements for the promotion of junior officers,” he explained on this key legacy project which has stood the test of time.
Encouraged civil led, peoples’ owned internal security operations
If there is one key limitation of the Nigerian Army under Ihejirika’s tenure, it was lack of effective support from the civil populace and crucial stakeholders, especially from the most affected regions of the Northern part of the country in the prosecution of the war. It is true that some of their grievances at the time were not misplaced but most of the attacks against the Army were demoralizingly directed at the person of Ihejirika.
In fact, several groups and individuals made statements that looked like they were against the killing of Boko Haram terrorists and fiercely opposed the move by the Nigerian Army under Ihejirika to crush them at the onset. Whenever you hear the then Army Chief speak, you could feel a sense of betrayal by the very people who should be backing him and he made it clear that there is no how the war would be won without the support of the people and all the stakeholders including the religious, civil society groups and particularly, the elite cum political class from the region.
Things became so heated with constant threats of dragging him to the International Criminal Courts (ICC) that on January 24, 2012,he formally called on the members of the society to reject terrorism in its entirety, saying that the fight against terrorist groups would be futile without commensurate public support.
Speaking at 2nd Annual Seminar on National Security organized by the Alumni Association of the National Defence College (AANDEC), on: ‘Nation building and National Orientation imperatives for National Security’, he regretted lack of public support, awareness and buy-in into the efforts of the military against Boko Haram terrorists, which some prominent political figures termed as “war against the north”.
He emphasised that no matter the measures put in place by the military to fight the dreaded Boko Haram Islamist Sect and other terrorist groups in the country, they could not guarantee the required level of result unless there is outright rejection of terrorists and terrorism.
The then COAS disclosed that since the insurgency, the military had put several measures in place, which were sufficient to curb the excesses of the terrorist groups, but regretted that the required level of result could not be achieved because the society was yet to reject and expose these terrorists.
He said: “Whatever measures we put in place, we would not get the best result and fast enough unless the society as a whole reject terrorism without any justification. Those who try to justify acts of terrorism inadvertently sway terrorists and some do so only to discover later that terrorism is not a matter to be negotiated and win”.
“It is rather inconceivable that some members of the society would harbour criminals only for them to wake up strike at targets who live also within the society. I want to emphasise again that the Nigerian Army is not resting on its oasis, we are transforming, retraining…but no matter whatever measure we put in place we could not get the best result and fast enough, unless the society as a whole reject terrorism without any justification.”
Fortunately, those groups and individuals at the forefront of such verbal assaults have ceased fire in the last five years, some of whom are even today key elements of government and national security architecture. They now have the ample opportunity to see things clearly and compare notes how easy and effective Ihejirika was in steering the affairs of the Nigerian Army despite such vociferous and spirited opposition and limited resources. They will in their sincere conscience admit that he indeed deserves an apology, though it is given that he is not looking for one more than being exonerated from the allegations of the hirelings like the Australian Steve Davis who was recruited to tarnish his image and reputation with ‘Boko Haram’ sponsor tag, which was ridiculous then but even more now. Experience and time they say, ‘is the best teacher’.
Iroegbu is a journalist and security analyst