“I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide and then questions the manner in which I provide it”
That was Jack Nicholson when he starred as Col Nathan R Jessep in the blockbuster military thriller ‘A Few Good Men’. While this statement might sound offensive or even totally bizarre to democratic norms, assumptions, and sentiments, the fact is, that is how a typical soldier thinks. They all have some deeply embedded disdain for ‘civilians’, and most times for good reasons I think.
Therefore watching Governor Babagana Umara Zulum’s latest confrontation with a military field commander in Baga, Borno State, reminds me of my outburst against the Nigerian military at a National Security Council (NSC) meeting few days after the abduction of the Chibok girls in April 2014 and many more, including President Jonathan himself and other very senior military and intelligence figures
I was Nigeria’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs between 2011 and 2015. My official responsibilities included but not limited to coordinating all diplomatic, security and defense cooperations, agreements, pacts, and mutual assistance with all the countries in our immediate radius, the sub-region, and the entire African continent. I was also President Jonathan’s most frequent envoy to regional Heads of State and beyond. One reasonably hears, sees, and reads ‘a lot’ while discharging these sensitive duties.
As is expected, the military, most especially the army, was not pleased with my ‘audacity’ as they would rather call it.
It was very clear to those of us at the top in the foreign office that mobilizing the world to isolate and defeat Boko Haram was not only President Jonathan’s key foreign policy objective but his everyday obsession as well. He had committed so many resources and put in as much logistics support at our disposal to engage the world. If we insist he goes anywhere in person, he had obliged.
When our foreign intelligence service and diplomatic sources strongly believed that the instability in Northern Mali was a major Boko Haram enabler, Nigeria staked everything to stabilize the country. On one occasion, I had barely finished meeting with President Ahmad Tamanou Toure of Mali on behalf of President Jonathan at his official residence in Bamako when the Presidential palace was attacked in a successful coup few minutes after my plane had taken into the skies of the Bamako International Airport! And yet, a few months afterward we convinced the President to fly into the same Bamako himself when the crises escalated further. By this gesture, he happened to be the only foreign President who had stepped his foot on the Malian territory while the war lasted for a couple of years. I had also, among other desperate flights, flown to meet the four other Presidents in our neighboring countries and reported back to President Jonathan who was patiently waiting for me in his study the same day.
Then suddenly on the night of 14th-15th of April 2014, about 276 female students were kidnapped by Boko Haram from a Secondary School in the town of Chibok, Borno State, Nigeria. This coming at a time when there were already growing concerns and frustrations within the international community about our counter-insurgency operations only helped to add more salt to an already painful injury. We were already losing long term friends and reliable allies within the international community faster than we could either retain them or make new ones. The Obama administration too and most of our EU partners had already turned their backs on Nigeria in one of our greatest hours of need.
The foreign office was to become completely overwhelmed after the Chibok abduction. The whole world appeared as if it had erupted in a staged media frenzy. “Bring back our girls!” it shouted in unison. And days later, we, who had to speak to the outside world were to completely lose control of the narrative.
Then came a little relief. The Nigerian military announced that it had rescued all but a few of the abducted girls. There were serious doubts about the authenticity of the story and the world wanted to be sure. Within days Cable Network News (CNN) took the unprecedented step of putting a reporter in Chibok town from where the parents of the missing girls looked a skeptical world in the eyes to flatly deny the claim. This awkward contradiction was to later force the military to retract their claim and admit ‘errors’ from their sources. Predictably, the world went into an even bigger frenzy as we watched in despair; I was to become totally devastated!
With the benefits of some hindsight, I think I wouldn’t be too wrong if I begin to see myself as a once upon a time Nigeria’s wartime Foreign Minister. And war is by its very nature as much a diplomatic exertion as it is the real physical combat. Those at the diplomatic back ends can actually grow as weary and war fatigued as the actual combatants and their professional handlers.
I accordingly cut on all non-essential foreign trips to avoid both media and diplomatic interrogations. I had learned my lessons the bitter way. Once, I had to exit a certain high-level meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, through the backdoor to avoid the press waiting by the entrance. I was by then all weary, frustrated, and angry all at once. I had also become reasonably cynical of some aspects of the Nigerian Military Operations too and was just looking forward to the earliest opportunity to empty my mind where it mattered most. I had arrived at my wit end; an outburst was very imminent.
I, therefore, considered it the perfect opportunity to unburden myself when I received a notice for an urgent National Security Council meeting while I was still sufficiently frustrated to cause a stir in the Council. The President and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces chair the Council, with the Vice President, the National Security Adviser (NSA), Chief of Staff, Service Chiefs, the Attorney General, and Ministers of Defense, Interior, Police and Foreign Affairs in attendance. Anyone, who had something to do with anything Defense, Security, and Intelligence in Nigeria would be in attendance, and I was determined to make myself heard there.
No country should entertain any unguarded public censorship of its military operations.
In what might now look like a suicide note, I had told my wife to be ready for the worst. I made her and myself reasonably comfortable with the possibility that I might at least not remain a Minister after that NSC meeting. She got the message and I left.
The floor of the National Security Council isn’t new to outbursts. I had earlier seen the President in a fit of his own outbursts in the security council meetings. On one particular occasion, the Commander-in-Chief wanted to know who finances Boko Haram and was almost banging his table at his Service Chiefs. And when Boko Haram bombed a church in Kaduna and the entire city got engulfed in a reprisal orgy, the President had to cut short a foreign trip in Brazil. He later chaired an emergency security council meeting the same day where he poured his raw mind on it’s the floor. Boko Haram, he had compellingly barked at his service chiefs was the cause of his growing unpopularity. There was no consoling him!
I was also up close the day an NSA and a defense Minister were both sacked as an aftermath of an explosive outburst from a retiring Chief of Defense Staff. I heard the President lament loudly to himself too, and a few days later, the entire Service Chiefs were sacked! And in about two previous meetings, I was forced to listen to my own outburst too
President Goodluck Jonathan is a good listener who had probably already grown accustomed to some of my frank views. And starkly frank I was that day. I told the Council that no matter the circumstances of the abduction, the fact was that kids were indeed abducted. I also drew the attention of members to the glaring inconsistencies from the Defence Headquarters while communicating to the world and how that might have portrayed the whole government as unserious and not effectively in charge. I also squarely deconstructed the growing sentiment even within the Council that the President, and by extension, the entire government could be a target of some global media conspiracy. As a global citizen at that time, I knew we just offered the world a damn good story. It simply devoured.
As is expected, the military, most especially the army were not pleased with my ‘audacity’ as they would rather call it. They found channels to register their displeasures afterward. But some of my colleagues in the Council approached me after the meeting to confess that what I had said was the truth. When I asked why they would rather leave the President uninformed, their response was all the same; they had concerns that the President could misinterpret their intentions. I was clearly the only foolish fellow around.
I was never a President. The truth is one hardly knows what they know sitting behind that table. But whatever it is that I said that day, I think at least a portion of it did make a lot of sense to President Jonathan. Because a few months after that encounter, far from sacking me or even ‘misinterpreting’ my intentions, the President gave me his Information Ministry to manage in addition to my Foreign Affairs portfolio.
The National Security Council meetings are not like any of your typical high-level government meetings. I wouldn’t call it a very frank one either. There are very strategic reasons behind why such meetings are highly discrete, very confidential, and unusually classified. But I feel it is also the perfect place to direct our ‘outbursts’ for those who have both the access and courage to do so. But those who aren’t members but have the passion and the courage to shout must do so not only at the top but discreetly too.
No country should entertain any unguarded public censorship of its military operations. A soldier or even an officer in the theatre of operations could, in certain circumstances be as helpless as anyone of us. He may also reasonably be as much a victim of our systematic failures as we all think we are.
Public outbursts targeted at such officers and their soldiers only help ridicule their sacrifices and sense of pride. The Military especially is a very proud establishment that thrives on the time tested traditions of strict regimentation, absolute loyalty, self-worth and discipline. Public officials must show deference to these facts even while the military MUST remain accountable to all of us.
I must confess that Gov Zulum, the Executive Governor of Borno State has checked most of the right boxes in responsible and responsive leadership. I am in fact his distant admirer. He is both intelligent, bold, fearless, and proactive. He is also clearly charismatic, passionate, empathic, and compassionate. But I think it is also about time he applies more wisdom, some tact, and a robust emotional intelligence into his approach to especially those issues that are of direct and serious national security concerns.
It is possible that His Excellency had come across quite enough human misery and devastation in his line of duty as the Chief Security Officer of his state, and previously its commissioner of Reconstruction, Rehabilitation and Resettlement. He is also most likely war fatigued or possibly perhaps even bearing some measure of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I wouldn’t be surprised if Zulum is occasionally even outrightly exasperated. But so are some of the soldiers and their officers in the field. The fact is that Governor Zulum wouldn’t be of much use to us if he is not available with us in flesh. He can be a hero, a winner and alive all at once. While the military can also (if done discreetly) respond to the harshest of our criticisms and still win the war for us. All of us except Boko Haram can win.
The Professor Governor must discipline himself more to exercise the highest level of restraint under such extreme emotional states. He should perhaps learn to direct his fury to the very top. The top is not only where our outbursts are most appropriate but where they are naturally most productive too. Because no matter the provocations, those who literally die so that we may live should never be our objects of public ridicule. Yes, NEVER!