Buratai’s vote of no confidence in his troops

LAST week, the Chief of Army Staff, Lieutenant-General Tukur Buratai, lamented that the attitude of officers and men under his command was having a negative impact on the counter-terrorism operations in the country. Speaking at the opening of the Army Headquarters Transformational Leadership Workshop for mid-level officers and soldiers in Abuja,  Buratai said: “The truth is that almost every setback the Nigerian Army has had in our operations in recent times can be traced to insufficient willingness to perform assigned tasks or simply insufficient commitment to a common national and military cause by those at the front lines. Many of those on whom the responsibility for physical actions against the adversary squarely falls are yet to fully take ownership of our common national or service cause. And this is the reason I have always ensured that the promotion of army personnel is essentially based on professional considerations only. But we all know that professional capacity is not a sufficient condition to succeed in a task; willingness to perform the task is equally necessary.”

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Buratai was speaking against the backdrop of attacks by Boko Haram on Nigerian Army bases in Mobbar, Damasak, Monguno and Gajiram areas of Borno State where the terrorists reportedly carted away ammunition worth millions of naira, causing consternation among troops of the Operation Lafiya Dole. However, speaking during a visit to Governor Babagana Zulum of Borno State in Maiduguri, the state capital, on Monday, the army boss denied indicting his troops, claiming that he was quoted out of context. Buratai said: “Let me categorically say that I never said that the troops lack commitment. I want to believe that somehow, I was quoted out of context and probably with an element of mischief. If you read that remark which was published on our website, you will see that there is nothing like lack of commitment. Some have even gone beyond that and quoted me as saying that the troops are cowards. This is so far from the truth.” Buratai then blamed some journalists and newspaper houses for distorting facts.

To all intents and purposes, Buratai’s rebuttal is nothing but an afterthought. Taken in context, Buratai’s initial statement amounted quite simply to accusing his troops of treason. Pray what did Buratai mean when he posited that “almost every setback the Nigerian Army has had in our operations in recent times can be traced to insufficient willingness to perform assigned tasks or simply insufficient commitment to a common national and military cause by those at the front lines”? Indeed, speaking during the closing of the workshop under reference, Buratai said: “The NA will do all that is necessary to fish out any bad eggs whose willingness to lead or follow as required has waned. Transformational leaders should not wait for them to get out of the way; you must kick them out of your way.”

Although Buratai’s closing remarks were less sweeping than his opening remarks, the fact is incontrovertible that he did incalculable damage to the military and  national psyche with his unguarded utterances. If insurgency had in fact thrived because soldiers on the front lines had “insufficient commitment”, how and why did the military authorities fail to flush them out before now? What kind of leadership is Buratai providing in an army whose officers and men on the front lines demonstrate “insufficient willingness”? If those expected to battle terror are less than stellar in their resolve, is that not an indictment on Buratai’s own leadership? Nigerians are familiar with the sad tales of battle-weary, ill-equipped and in fact abandoned soldiers on the front lines. Some of these soldiers, at grave risk to life and limb, have uploaded videos on social media sites such as Youtube, detailing the atrocities of their commanders and the detachment of the military high command from their pains. In a heart-rending video made just after a terror attack, one of such soldiers said: “Boko Haram is killing us, the weapons  here are not working.  This is a wrong idea. Enough is enough. We are fighting to defend our country.” Another said: “Federal Government please interfere on us (intervene in our situation). These people are killing us too much; they say we are zombies, we are animals, we don’t know our rights. Federal Government, interfere (intervene) in all these things, interfere, interfere!”

Left to Buratai, though, the government and the military high command have done everything right and the troops facing Boko Haram are the ones to blame when things go wrong, as they indeed frequently do. That is why, speaking on Monday, he continued the blame game, accusing the people of the affected zones of withholding vital information from the army and giving terrorists an easy ride. Hear him: “If the people don’t bring them (Boko Haram) out at the critical time that they are needed, then we’ll continue to have this challenge and everybody will continue to suffer. Boko Haram terrorists sneak into towns and villages and members of the community see them, especially where troops are deployed: they do surveillance, they look at the troops—how they are deployed, their activities and these people in the community see the strange faces—the people hardly report until they (Boko Haram) now go back and call their members and ransack and attack troops in their location and cart away food and other items from the communities.” The war, Buratai urged, should be seen as a collective responsibility rather than the exclusive preserve of the military.

Pray, why pass the buck to the hapless soldiers whose bases are being overrun by terrorists and the people of the affected zones? Although he may not have meant to, Buratai belittled his officers and men, as well as the soldiers who paid the supreme price fighting terror. He belittled the country and he belittled himself. He must apologise to the army as an institution and to the nation, and be more circumspect in his utterances next time.