by Cheta Nwanze
I have always been interested in the military. Heck, as a child, one of my ambitions was to join the Army, an ambition that was put paid to by my mother. However, the interest has always remained. So when I received an invitation to tour some Naval formations with the Minister of State for Defence, I could not turn it down.
On the morning of Tuesday, 26 August, I arrived at the meeting point, and, in the company of three other social media personalities, settled to have a conversation with Musiliu Obanikoro, the Minister. While we waited to depart, we talked about a lot of issues, but, he was, for that initial conversation at least, more interested in talking about his home state of Lagos.
When we left, we proceeded to the Naval Dockyard in Victoria Island. Now this is a place I have heard a lot about, especially from The Guardian’s Madu Onuorah. The Naval Dockyard was well maintained, and looked a focused environment. One of the things I noticed was repair work going on on a mid-size vessel. However, and disappointingly, I was not allowed to take a picture in VI.
The boat ride from Victoria Island to Navy Town, Ojo, took all of thirty minutes, and during that thirty minutes, we secured permission to take photographs, which was the purpose of our coming along for the trip in the first place.
A word here about the use of water transportation in Lagos. A road trip from Victoria Island to Ojo will take nothing less than two or three hours given current conditions. Less than thirty minutes says a lot about an inability on our part as a people to explore alternatives to what we already know, or worse still, to let what already exists deteriorate until it becomes redundant. When I worked in Flour Mills twelve years ago, there was a ferry service from Apapa to CMS, lasting all of fifteen minutes. That service exists no more. Try for a minute to imagine what Lagos will be like if people who work in Ojo have the option of a ferry service to Victoria Island…
On arrival at the base, our first port of call was the Underwater Warfare Training Facility. This is basically a four storey high tank that simulates the conditions underwater, in order to let naval divers learn, and perfect their craft. The tank is in use, and we were shown an example of how it is made use of. Following the tank, we were taken to see some of their workshops. The Nigerian military, since the days of Abacha, when sanctions decimated its ability to service its equipment, has been making efforts to look inwards in terms of fabrication and maintenance. Like in Victoria Island, I saw vessels under repair, and a device, outfitted for making repairs underwater. What I found most interesting was the fact that there were trainees being taught how to make those repairs. One of my hosts, who of course did not want to be identified, spoke with some pride about the NNS Andoni, a made-in-Nigeria warship of the P100 class. I did not get to see the ship though.
Following the tour of the maintenance facilities, we were ‘given’ front-row seats to a training session of the Nigerian Navy’s Special Boat Service. This training was being conducted by American Delta Force operators. For those of you who may not know, Nigeria’s Special Boat Service (SBS), is a special operations unit of our Navy. It is a male only outfit, modelled after the British Special Boat Service. It’s primary focus is riverine operations, but its scope has been expanded to include counter-terrorism. On a personal note, the constant fire from the training exercise put a lot of context as to how our fellow citizens in Borno state live their daily lives.
After watching the “train exercise”, we went on a tour of the living quarters of the ratings, and their officers. It MUST be said here, that there is a good effort to improve the standards of living of the families who live within the barracks. While most did not want to speak on the record, even military families clearly have the same culture of silence as their breadwinners, they all expressed confidence in the Naval High Command’s focus. What I sensed was that they have been seeing a steady progress, enough to give them a faith in their own system that many of us outside the walls of the barracks do not have in the wider environment. The Navy Town Hospital is of a decent standard, and very well kept, definitely better than most government hospitals I have visited in the outside world. They also had an Ebola Isolation Unit, just in case.
Following the residential tour, we went to the Aviation Wing where there were five helicopters, one of which has been outfitted for rescue operations. There was a sixth helicopter, which was being repaired on-base. I was told that some of the parts being fitted into the helicopter were fabricated in Nigeria. I was also told that a few helicopters, I was not told how many, were off base participating in surveillance missions.
The Aviation facility was the last part of the tour, following which we were treated to lunch, and in the finest traditions of seamen, some alcoholic beverages.
Clearly in recent times the Nigerian military has come under a lot of fire for its closed nature and lack of transparency. Taking some other people and I on this tour is part of an attempt to open up. The initial refusal to allow pictures to be taken is a relic of that old culture of opaqueness. For the records, there were parts of the tour that we were not allowed to go on, and I understand why civilians will not be allowed into the Navy’s armoury.
However, a lot still has to improve in terms of the military’s ability to communicate. In this case, I have to point to the communication that emanated from the Defence Headquarters after the Chibok kidnap incident. Up until now, no one has been punished for lying to the world that the girls had been rescued, when they had not, and this puts whatever the military tells us under the “doubt” column.
There is a need, for the military’s top brass to also be more transparent about what exactly is happening in the current insurgency against Boko Haram. All of the officers with whom I spoke were quite bullish about their ability to defeat the insurgents. I found this bullishness both reassuring, and disturbing at the same time. Reassuring because clearly, they know something that we don’t, some of which I was privileged to see a week ago, and disturbing because they still have not found an effective way to communicate all of this to the wider public. As an example, I am still waiting for answers to a set of questions which I put to the Minister, regarding the insurgency.