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?
From my reading of the situation, when you leave officers who have nothing to lose at the helm of affairs, you encourage errant behaviour. The service chiefs have not only reached the pinnacle of their careers, they have stayed beyond the normal course. The talk in town is that there is no better employer than President Buhari because he will never sack you no matter what you do, sometimes even against his own interest. However, the issue here is national security. Olonisakin, Abubakar, Ibas and Buratai have given their best in the fight against insurgency and they obviously have nothing new to offer. It’s time they took their leave.
On Sex for Grades…
Shortly before the commencement of a public policy forum, ‘Galvanising popular consensus against corruption’ organised by the Shehu Musa Yar’Adua Centre and the MacArthur Foundation on Tuesday, I had a chat with Ms Monica Osagie, the post-graduate student at the centre of the sex-for-marks scandal that brought down Professor Richard Akindele at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife. She would later share her story at the session where young people were mobilised to fight the different variants of corrupt practices in our society, including sexual harassment in Nigeria’s tertiary institutions which is the subject of my current research.
For decades, randy lecturers demanding sexual gratification from female students in exchange for marks has been a norm on most of the campuses of tertiary institutions in Nigeria. In many cases, female students who refuse to accede to such demands have had their academic careers delayed, truncated or damaged. With funding support from Ford Foundation, I have since January been working on a book on this malaise so as to deepen awareness of the drivers, risks and consequences of the culture of gender-based violence on our campuses. Tentatively titled, ‘Naked Abuse: Sex for Grades in Nigerian Universities’, I must express my appreciation to the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission (ICPC) chairman, Prof Bolaji Owasanoye whose office has been of tremendous assistance to my research efforts. I am targeting early next year for the release of the book.
‘Marked’ on Queen’s Birthday
It was a roll call of the high and the mighty last night in Abuja as the British High Commissioner to Nigeria, Mr Clive Laing and his wife hosted the 2019 edition of the annual Birthday of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. That I went was more to honour Damilola Oyedele, a former colleague at THISDAY who now works at the High Commission but I was glad I did. It turned out to be a celebration of the talent, culture and creativity of our young people.
In her welcome remark, Mrs Catriona Laing expressed excitement at what she described as her first Queen’s Birthday party in Abuja. “As I get to know Abuja and find my feet around this incredible city, I am already feeling inspired and energized by the many Abuja based residents I have met. It is in recognition of this talent and creativity, and as a celebration of diverse, dynamic and sassy youth of Nigeria, that we have chosen the theme ‘youth and creativity’ for our QBP this year.” She continued: “I hope you will find that the experience of this QBP is very different from previous ones. Our aim is to inspire you by celebrating the many different facets of youth and creativity in Nigeria.”
With each of the guests given copy of a booklet as they entered the premises, Mrs Laing explained: “You will find more information about the artists and young creatives we have worked with to design the event: from a self-taught drone maker and pilot, to a brilliant Nigerian chef whose delicious desserts we will be enjoying tonight. In many ways, this is their event and I would like to thank them and congratulate them. There is much that we can indeed celebrate across the UK and Nigeria in the creative industry—and the partnerships and bridges we are building are a testament to this.”
Some of the young people whose works were exhibited last night include Onyinye Atuanya, a project manager; Benjamin Chiedu, pilot and drone maker; Ernest Ibe, graphic and graffiti artist and Nadine Ibrahim, an award winning filmmaker. Incidentally, it was Nadine’s work, a documentary being shown in one of the lounge areas that I (and many others) found most enjoyable. Titled ‘Marked’, the documentary, according to the producer who said the work took her team two years to complete as they criss-crossed the country, “explores the reasons behind scarification in Nigeria and how they intertwine with beauty, identity and spirituality.” Nadine, by the way, is daughter of the United Nations Deputy Secretary General, Ms Amina Mohammed.
Interviewed along with several other persons for the documentary was Ms Adetutu Alabi, the lady who models with her tribal marks and is now championing a campaign to stop the marking of children, on the social media. But it’s fascinating seeing different forms of facial and body lacerations, the reasons behind them and the prejudices and shame those who bear them are made to endure in a society where discrimination is now a thriving industry.
In all, we must thank the British High Commissioner to Nigeria and his wife for using the occasion of Her Majesty’s birthday to showcase the ingenuity of our young people aside helping to highlight some of the controversial cultural practices that defined our past.