Brig. Gen. Saidu Aliyu Tijani (rtd) is a former Director of Operations, Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) and one-time Commander of Intelligence Unit 82 Division and 3 Armoured Division of the Nigerian Army. In this interview with PHILIP NYAM, he speaks on the insecurity in the country, the efforts of the military and the contributions of the Chief of Army Staff, Lt. Gen. Tukur Buratai in reforming the Nigerian Army
Recently, over 300 schoolboys were abducted in Kankara, Katsina State and were later rescued or released. As an intelligent officer, what do you make of the upsurge in the activities of Boko Haram and bandits across the country especially in the northern part of the country?
I look at the different types of kidnapping including the one you just mentioned, which happened recently as purely internal works and internal uprising. This is in the sense that these kidnappers are not from Ghana or Cameroun but these are people that live with us.
Most of these activities are carried out by insiders. It is not a force that you can define that this is where the kidnappers, bandits or Boko Haram’s area of operation is so that you can send soldiers to go and crush them.
These are people that live with us; eat with us and mingle with us. There was a case of kidnapping of a woman in Kogi State, after paying the ransom, she was kept in the bush but she eventually came out.
When she went to the bank, she saw the man that masterminded her kidnap and she told the bank manager, ‘this is the man that kidnapped me.’ The bank asked how did she know and she said the man has a mark on his thigh because each time he came in the evening, he would rape her.
The bank manager called the soldiers around who checked the man and saw the mark on his body. So, the kidnapping is an internal issue, which I think we should be able to solve if we are security conscious. If they kidnap a vehicle that is travelling, somebody has given them a clue. The kidnappers are not from the blues or from the moon; they are with us.
So, the kidnappings are very internal and we all have a role to play because security is everybody’s business. It is not just about calling the police to go and guide schools. That is why when you get to develop societies, the moment you arrive, they know but we are not like that. So, the kidnappings are our own making and we can surmount it if we all work together.
Some analysts have argued that fighting insurgency and bandits is not just about carrying guns but intelligence gathering has a role to play and that the Nigerian Army and indeed the Nigerian security apparatus don’t seem to have intelligence…
I disagree with that view because even the Boko Haram insurgency is an internal affair. I gathered reliably that like in Maiduguri, some of these Boko Haram fighters even live in the town and they are known. There was a friend who was on holiday in Maiduguri and went to the mosque to pray and suddenly two boys came in to pray too. And one of the people in the mosque was saying the two boys are Boko Haram members. So, they are well known. But like I told you, this is not a defined war.
The intelligence we are supposed to have is from the civilians because you cannot define the access of these people to be used on the population. But this is a civil affair but the military has been drafted in because the police have failed. I want to tell you that the intelligence of the military is as strong as ever but this war we are fighting is not a military war. It is a family war because the same people that are praying with you in the mosque are the same people that are been used to attack you.
Again, it is the view of some security experts that the current Service Chiefs have run out of ideas having overstayed beyond their retirement age or period. Don’t you think it is time for these set of Service Chiefs to give way for fresh blood and ideas in the military?
You see, to be a Service Chief is not a military appointment because, by the time you train and come out of NDA, you are not told you will be a Service Chief. The ambition or target of any cadet or officer is to rise to the apogee of his career and become a general. Service Chiefs are not a blockade to anybody to advance his career. But we are only looking at the political side of it.
In the Army, the condition of service does not say when you become Chief of Army Staff, you will serve for a specified period of time. The Chief of Army Staff’s position is at the will of the political leadership and I think the political leadership is satisfied with what the Service Chiefs are doing and this does not stop the career progression of officers. For example, the Chief of Army Staff, Gen. Buratai has promoted more officers than did the previous four chiefs of staff put together.
He has made sure that everybody has attained his due. The position of Chief of Army Staff is not determined by the Army Council or the rest of the Army. It is a political position. Everybody in the army should not look up to the position of Chief of Army Staff, what they should look out for is to attain the rank of general or command a division.
So, as an ex-officer, you are satisfied with the performance of the Chief of Army Staff?
So far, I am very satisfied because Gen. Buratai came in when the Army was dead. Buratai has done well and deserves a national award. The politicians on their own had seized the initiative of recruiting people into the army. Before 2015, slots were given to politicians and those who actually did the interview on the field were not taken.
I can give you a particular incident, in 2010 or 2011 when a recruitment officer went round all the states and came up with the result of successful candidates and not one of them was taken into the army. The whole slots were shared to the politicians.
That is why it is ironic that the same politicians who destroyed the army are today heaping the blame on the Chief of Army Staff and other Service Chiefs. The Chief of Army Staff is not a fighting soldier; when we were in Liberia, the Chief of Army Staff was not with us but we did creditably well.
During the civil war, the Chief of Army Staff, Gen. Hassan Katsina was not in the war front. It is the foundation that the politicians have destroyed that has brought us to this level. They have destroyed the foundation thinking that their children can become officers: captains, majors in the army.
They ask for slots for people who are not even qualified; people who are not qualified to be hand washers in the army. How do you expect them to fight? Some of them were just in their houses and were asked to come and collect uniforms and join the army. But they reluctantly went because their fathers asked them to do so.
So, it is the politicians who have destroyed the army and not Gen. Buratai. Buratai has even done well and he deserves a national award. At some time, he personally had to muster soldiers from the headquarters with the hope that they were going to the United Nations and they headed to Borno. That was how bad the army was. If the Chief of Army Staff can come down to go and muster soldiers. By even asking the Chief of Army Staff to remain on the war front was unmilitary.
I have never seen a war where the Chief of Army Staff is within the range of firing. We were in Liberia, Gen. Isaya Bamaiyi, Gen. Salihu Ibrahim were Chief of Army Staff and they never came there. It was actually one of the politicisation to ask the COAS to go and stay on the war front. Although they complied, that is not the rule. Yes, when they were there, there was some improvement but that is not how it should be done.
When Buhari ordered the Service Chiefs to relocate to the North-East at the early stages of his first term, there was some remarkable improvement in the security situation. What would you say was responsible for this?
I can say it was the initial process of rebuilding the army and his presence there, sort of help. So, it was one of the roadmaps to reawaken the army. Before then, remember in Maiduguri, you could see soldiers running over the walls and Boko Haram just walking in and destroying our barracks. It has never happened anywhere in the world.
This was because the people they recruited were candidates of politicians who were brought in without due process. So, how can they stay and fight? So, when the COAS was asked to relocate with other Service Chiefs, of course, you should expect a change because of their physical presence. But that does not mean they should stay there forever.
There are different levels of command up to the battlefield. So, there was some improvement because there was the urge. Those of them who wanted to run must have changed their minds. But these boys that came before 2015 were merely candidates of politicians.
We are even lucky that we have an internal conflict. If it were a conventional war, it would have been a different story. This is just an eye-opener to what damage they have done to the army.
They destroyed an army that was built over 100 years. And once you have subverted the recruitment process, you kill the army. There is nowhere in the world you give slots to people to go and join the army. You go through the process- interview, physical test, medical test, etc.
As an intelligence officer, don’t you think there is also sabotage within the army because of the long stay of the COAS?
Like I told you, nobody in the army who was rightly recruited and went through training at the NDA would feel cheated by the continuous stay of the COAS. The only way an officer can feel cheated is when he is not being promoted.
Like I told you, Gen. Buratai promoted more major generals than four of his predecessors put together and this is the biggest glory you can do in the army. So, there is no room for discontent or disgruntlement.
The COAS is a political appointment by the political leadership. No officer, (except they are been prompted by their civilian sponsors), does not look up to the position of COAS. Once you attain the rank of general, you are ok. I do not think there is sabotage anywhere because I have been interacting with them and I know that the officers in the corps are quite happy. The office of COAS is a different entity from their career. Nobody joins the army to be the COAS.
There is this narrative that the Boko Haram insurgents are better equipped than the army and we have seen some videos of personnel singing the same song. Do you think this is true?
That is what I call political gimmick. The army is far better equipped than the insurgents. In 2015, when this COAS came in, they had bought sophisticated weapons. And is the man behind the weapon that does the fighting and not the weapon. Haven’t you seen where the police complained that there were not wellequipped and were given armoured tanks? They abandoned them. But I can assure you that Boko Haram does not have up to one-third of the equipment we have in the army.
It is the boys that are behind the weapons that we should think of molding them. When we went to Liberia, we were barely fighting with rifles. We didn’t have even tanks to use and Charles Taylor’s people were well-equipped. But because of the motivation, we were able to overcome them.
What we need is the changing and molding process, which Buratai is doing. The recruitment policy we have now is purely for people who genuinely want to join the army and not recruitment by slots from politicians. There is nowhere in the world where you give notes to people who want to go and die for the country.
But insurgency is the most difficult war to fight because it is an internal war. You don’t expect the army to go and shell Maiduguri because these insurgents live with us in towns and villages. Look at Afghanistan, with all the American troops on the ground, you still experience bomb blasts here and there.
The general impression now is that Boko Haram seems to be having an upper hand because of the series of attacks, abductions and now the clo-sure of schools. How do we come out of this unfortunate development?
I have already mentioned that it is an internal crisis. One, those following Boko Haram have received serious indoctrination by the Boko Haram hierarchy. This is because, they are easily accessible to them, and they are living within society. That Boko Haram is having an upper hand; I don’t think it is true.
We may have some bombings here and there, it is common. Even in Afghanistan with the American soldiers on the ground, we still have people killed. A deputy governor was killed recently in Afghanistan.
The only way forward is for the people in the affected areas to cooperate in eliminating this abnormally. If you bring soldiers from the US, it will not end the war, but the people on the ground- the chiefs, the Emirs, the villagers are the ones that can bring this thing to a sweet end. They know these people and they give them information and also give our boys. But this is not a defined territory where you have Boko Haram on one side and the Nigerian army on one side.
If it were like that it won’t even take the army one hour to crush them. Even the Air Force can do the job. But Boko Haram members are within the societies, communities, and villages. But we need to appeal to their sense of patriotism and psyche them that these people are not doing any good to them. But if you rely only on military force, it cannot end this insurgency overnight. It is the people that should decide.
But we have been told, they are in Sambisa Forest. So, why is it so difficult for the army to crush them?
If you look at the map, you see that the Sambisa Forest extends from Borno to Adamawa area into Central and East Africa. But within our own range, if you look at the forest from the air, it is not something you will just bomb and go away. It is a vast expanse of forest and unless you’re asking us to use the bomb that was used in Nagasaki and Hiroshima during the Second World War. I don’t think the government is willing to do that because there are people living there. They are using Sambisa Forest as a hideout and that is why whenever they are cut off they cannot come out. The only thing you can do is to ensure that they don’t come out and any of their point that is identified is easily neutralised. But I want to tell you that it is not easy to defeat them even if you bring the US army to come and flatten the place. They are going to use unconventional means and this is not acceptable. Remember Hiroshima is still a case study. And if you use that kind of bomb in Sambisa, the whole world will not allow us to rest. So, it is not a designated area like Akure or Benin forests. It is a vast area. But I think the military is doing its best but if they decide to use unconventional means, people like us will not be happy with ourselves.
There are instances where some governors have been negotiating with these insurgents and criminals whereas the army insists that they are not a party to any negotiation. In this case, how do we get out of this crisis?
It is an internal problem. This is not an international war. The governors are the ultimate authority and if they decide to negotiate with the criminals and it brings good results, fine and good. The military’s own is to come in when the issue is beyond the police. We are not even supposed to be there. At the end of the day, the governors have the final say. Assuming we are fighting a conventional war, the military will dictate. In Liberia, there was no negotiation until Taylor was driven to the wall. But this is a crisis where even the criminals are sitting and dining with us. If the governors feel they can achieve peace with negotiation, fine and good. But the army cannot tell the governors not to talk with the criminals because it is not a conventional military engagement.
A governor in the North-West has been accused of promoting banditry in his state and some people are said to be benefitting from this crisis. With this scenario, can we ever come out of this?
I don’t want to doubt it and I don’t want to accept it because this is purely an internal problem, and the governors know everybody and if at the end someone is pointing accusing fingers that somebody is promoting this somewhere, I wouldn’t want to doubt it. But if there is anybody doing it, such a person is not fit to be governor or a leader. On the attack on the governor of Borno State, as I said severally, these criminal elements are in the society, in towns, and in Maiduguri, they eat and dine with people. It is not like an army coming from outside to attack the governor, it is some of the roadside boys indoctrinated by the sect that are attacking.
Part of the Boko Haram ideology is that Western education is evil. But with the government in some northern states closing down schools for fear of being attacked, don’t you think this is dangerous?
You see, indoctrination is a very dangerous weapon. And when you bring in religious indoctrination, you worsen issues and there are some people who are very myopic and can take anything to the bank. Indoctrination is not a weapon you should allow the enemy to use. They are using it because they have access to them. I don’t want to say the population is docile, that is why they are using them. Boko Haram teachings are very strange to Koran because such teachings are not anywhere in the Koran. In fact, one of my friends who went to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj told me while there, he waited if he could hear anything on Boko Haram and there was no such thing. So, it is religious and traditional rulers that can end this crisis. They should enlighten and educate the people that Boko Haram is a farce. They should carry the message to towns and villages. We also need community-based intelligence to deal decisively with the Boko Haram insurgents. We also have to step up our machinery to counter Boko Haram propaganda through pamphlets, radio jingles, etc, to win the hearts and minds of the populace that are already indoctrinated by the insurgents. The National Orientation Agency should be more active in the region and should relocate to the area for better performance.