*Says we have not learnt any lessons from serial abductions of schoolchildren
*‘The Big Five deficits of the military in the war against Boko Haram’
By Chris Onuoha
Hassan Stan-Labo, a retired colonel, as Chief of Staff, 9 Brigade, Nigeria Army Cantonment, Ikeja, superintended over OP MESA as its first Operations Officer.
He has wealth of operational exposure in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Darfur (Sudan) and Bakassi Peninsula. He is also the Convener of ‘Fix Nigeria Now!’.
In this interview, Stan-Labo diagnoses insecurity in the country, blaming, in part, northern governors for the ugly turn the challenge has taken. Excerpts:
Insecurity suddenly escalated. Boko Haram terrorism took the turn for the worse in the North-East. Banditry hit the roof top in the North-West. Kidnapping appears to be getting out of hand in the South-West and the South-South while herders are the rampage in the South-East. Are you surprised about the dimension insecurity has taken of late?
I am not surprised because we have all lost focus. We have failed to do all the right things and rather become distracted. We have transited from insurgency to brisk business in which all stakeholders have become beneficiaries, from relevant ministries to the military, paramilitary, CSO, NGOs, etc. Boko Haram has become a cash cow from where some government officials are smiling to the bank every month. It is this level of distraction and trajectory that partly informs the dimension insecurity has assumed today. I am not surprised because like ENDSARS, I also saw this coming. The Kankara schoolboys’ abduction, like several others, was only waiting to occur.
The ease with which the abduction took place, was it avoidable?
The ease with which it took place speaks volumes of our state of insecurity. We’ve not learnt our lessons from Chibok to Dapchi and now Kankara. Could it have been avoided? Yes! If only government had listened to expert advice and taken the required steps. How come till date the Safe School Program we discussed with the Bill Gates Foundation is not being implemented?
Inherent in the Safe School Program is the Terrorism Protection Initiative (TPI) Component for Schools and Worship put together by Hakes Security Consulting. We made a submission on this to government pro bono. What has come of it? Not even an acknowledgement, no implementation and you want to avoid Kankara from happening? In other climes, the presence of the President in Katsina State would have been enough deterrence to bandits. In our own case it boosted their effrontery for action.
It is now public knowledge that the authorities decided to negotiate the release of the boys. Nobody even knows the terms of the release. But before the dust of the release could settle, another mass abduction nearly took place in Katsina Meanwhile some people say Americans don’t negotiate with criminals. Israelis don’t negotiate. They say negotiating with criminals has the tendency to boomerang on the long run. How do you see the trend whereby the Nigerian authorities now negotiate with criminals?
Disabuse your minds about the erroneous impression created that “you do not negotiate with terrorists, bandits or criminals.” This is not absolutely true.
There are desperate situations under which you are compelled to negotiate the extrication of your men or valued equipment from an opposing force. To a greater extent, it is the amount of ‘value’ placed on the subject matter that informs the decision as to either negotiate or let the captives pay the ‘supreme price’ in the national interest. In Afghanistan in 2014, the US government negotiated the release of Sgt Bowe US Army (Special Forces) in exchange for five notorious Taliban commanders on US wanted list.
As for Israel, in 1967, during the Six-Day Yomkipor War between Israel and its Arab neighbours, Israel negotiated the release of a soldier and the corpse of another in exchange for the following: Egypt, 4, 338 soldiers, Jordan, 553 soldiers and Syria, 367 soldiers. In 2011, Israel negotiated the release of Soldier Gilad Shalit in exchange for 1, 027 Hamas’ terrorists from Egypt. So, it is not completely wrong to negotiate with terrorists. It is rather the level of value placed on the subject held captive and if negotiation would serve the national interest at that point in time. However, no government will openly tell you it negotiated or it parted with this much.
Negotiation is an art of war carried out in hush tones. In most cases, it is facilitated through third parties within or outside the battle space or theater of war. In view of our pathetic realities on ground and the seeming state of helplessness we have found ourselves, we are bound to negotiate with the belligerent forces in our midst.
Do you think our military are doing the best they can to contain insecurity?
The best way I can put it is to say we are overwhelmed because the military and paramilitary agencies are over-stretched. The military is currently fighting on several fronts, a multiplicity of fronts and scenarios it had not anticipated or factored into the initial grand plan. In addition to this is the deficit it suffers from the ‘Big Five’: Manpower, Funding, Logistics/Equipment, Training and Welfare. Do we need assistance? Yes, we sure do need some by way of intelligence, equipment and boots on ground.
You were among security experts who visited the North-East sometime ago to see how our soldiers were doing in the battle against Boko Haram. Can you tell us your assessment of the situation at that time? What were the challenges? Did you, experts who went on the trip, avail the authorities of your findings and the way forward?
Yes, a team of security experts and military strategists did visit the North-East to see things for ourselves. It was more of an ‘espionage’ visit so we could have an objective assessment of the true picture on ground devoid of the usual cover ups that come with formal visits. Deliberately, no formal permission was sought or clearance issued, so we were often embedded with the public at scenes of occurrence looking very much like the locals.
The essence of the visit was not to come out with a score sheet but have first-hand information and bird’s eye view of the operations unhindered and outside official statements. However, our opinions, comments frowned at the super-camp arrangement that availed so much unprotected space within ungoverned land mass.
It deepens the vulnerability level of the community. Secondly, the absence of Multi-Modal Weather & Terrain, Transport assets was a big minus. Tremendous improvement on take-home daily operational allowance was observed and commended. Yes, our remarks and comments were forwarded to the appropriate quarters without even an acknowledgement as usual with the style of operation seen in this government.
A retired general, specifically General Ishola Williams, in an interview with Sunday Vanguard recently, said northern governors are not serious about the fight against insecurity. Do you share his perspective?
I share the same perspective with Gen Ishola Williams and it is not just the governors, but the entire elite class up North isn’t showing enough leadership. The absence of good governance delivery up North has remained a recurring decimal due to lack of capacity as seen in poor visioning, prioritization, incompetence, and ineptitude.
Once an idea does not advance their individual interest it, cannot see the light of day. Take for instance the Almajarai issue, early marriage of the girl-child, religious radicalicism, violent-extremism, out of school children, unemployment and population explosion, for how long can we live with these problems up North?
It’s already haunting us. The absence of Schools and Vocational Training Centers has led to the presence of wild looking unemployed army of youths in every nook and cranny of the North constituting severe threat to the questionable wealth of the rich.
What has been the contribution of the elite and political class in addressing these problems in the past and presently? Recently, we’ve seen some sparks of action from Governor Zulum of Zamfara State and one or two others but these are mere drops in the ocean. Why are we not exploiting the inherent potentials of our economic fundamentals in such areas as agriculture, mining and leisure?
An aggregation of all the deficits mentioned here creates a fertile ground for insurgency to get planted, germinate and thrive into full blown confrontation with society.
Paying of ransom to kidnappers has now become the rule rather than the exception. What do you think? Is it the right thing to do in our circumstance?
Paying of ransom to kidnappers could actually encourage the art of kidnapping. However, in the absence of a better option, as is always the case, relations are compelled to do the needful. Payment of such ransom could save the lives of victims. Continuous payment of ransom could also raise the bar in financial demands and other conditions to be met.
Let’s talk about the proliferation of small arms which many people have blamed for the insecurity challenge in the country. How bad is the situation, especially with the arms being in wrong arms?
Proliferation of Small Arms Light Weapons (SALW) within our shores is fast militarizing the society. The influx of these lethal weapons has brought about violent crimes and promoted extremism at all fronts. How bad is the situation you asked? It is a terrible situation with an estimated 30m SALW in wrong hands within the country. And the consequences include stiffer challenges to law enforcement agencies, destabilization of the polity and availability of weapons for freshly recruited insurgents. To redress the anomaly, we need nationwide SALW mop up with irresistible, mouth-watering incentives to the public for every weapon submitted.
If we are to start resolving the insecurity challenge, tell us the long, medium and short term measures to take?
In resolving our insecurity challenges, very thin lines may separate short, medium and long term measures with overlapping effects. So the categorization here may not really be of relevance. The short term measures include a complete review of our national security and defense architecture in such a way to determine what sort of armed forces and police we desire; determine their manpower, role, capabilities, firepower, equipment holding, funding requirements, training and welfare imperatives; do a strategic-level review of ongoing operations nationwide and come up with a higher commander’s directive on the way forward, in line with our national security imperatives; disengage the current Service Chiefs and replace them with a set of fresh hands and brains with requisite attributes for consolidation, and spell out to them the strategic commander’s intent, their job descriptions, timelines, milestones, key performance index, etc.
Medium term measures include aggressive recruitment to meet manpower deficits in the field; aggressive procurement to meet equipment and logistics requirements in the field; aggressive search for external assistance to complement the efforts of our own forces on ground; and rigorous training programs both locally and abroad in line with own training needs objective. On long term measures, we need aggressive expansion on military and police infrastructure to include training facilities and institutions, office and barracks accommodation.