by Tunde Leye
One only has to look at the sequence of causes in Mali and see the dangerous parallels with the current handling of the grumblings and growling of our gallant military officers fighting Boko Haram.
I have said this over and again but repeating it is the best manner one can reiterate the importance of this truth; the army is all that stops the insurgents in the North East from overrunning the whole country. We must always remember this in all our discussions of the Boko Haram insurgency. It is therefore with sadness that I got the news that some of the soldiers of the specially formed 7th Division in Maimilari Barracks, Borno State, shot at their commanding officer, Major General Abubakar Mohammed. I had written in an earlier piece about the government spin doctors who have discredited all reports of soldiers in the North East granting interviews to the press about their squalid conditions, inadequacy of arms and ammunition when compared with the Boko Haram insurgents and their belief of the complicity of their senior officers in their failure to route the insurgents. Rather than take action to investigate these accusations, the government chose to play ostrich and denied the possibility of the reality of the allegations whilst these troops lived with the reality of seeing the bodies of their comrades returning dead from the front in circumstances they believed were avoidable.
Civilian citizens have gotten used to the fact that the most viable method of moving this government to take necessary actions over even the most basic of issues is by resorting to sustained protesting. However, pushing military citizens to such draw such conclusions is dangerous, as is shown by the events at Maimilari Barracks. Whilst civilian protests are mostly peaceful, military protests cannot be so. By virtue of training and conditioning, military men will resort to violence to make their point if they feel unable to do so via official means and it can end up snowballing into something much bigger than the initial reasons for protesting. Worse still, because such protests from military men are mutinous, with severe consequences on them when they are tried by military tribunals, they might be forced to go all the way once they cross the Rubicon.
Some of the people I have discussed this issue have told me not to attach much importance to it. After all, they said, there was a mutiny in Akure in 2008, and it did not grow into anything disastrous. I am quick to remind them to read history well. The July 1966 coup began as a result of a mutiny by non-commissioned officers of Northern origin stationed in Abeokuta in retaliation to the January 1966 coup. According to Max Siollun is his book Oil, Politics and Violence, the mutineers didn’t expect the events in Abeokuta to escalate into a coup. But that is exactly what happened when others who had been looking for just such an opportunity seized on it and used it to rally troops from other barracks to massacre their colleagues in a bloody coup d’état. It is easy to analyze after the fact which became a coup and which came to nothing, but the truth is this; you really cannot tell which will become what. Rather than play mutiny roulette with the military, and beyond punishing mutineers, our government should take their complaints more seriously and bring anyone responsible for the conditions that lead to mutinies to book. Soldiers are amongst the most disciplined group in the country and it must take extreme frustration and anger at the system for morale to get so low that they acted as they did.
It is even more important for the government to act, seeing that these are the very soldiers fighting a rapacious insurgency in the North East. We should learn a lesson from what happened in Mali. The troops were fighting Islamist Tuareg insurgents in the North. Severally, they complained about welfare (in terms of food, sleeping conditions, boots and uniforms) and weaponry (which they felt were inferior to those of the rebels who had obtained weapons from fleeing Libyans after Ghadafi’s fall) but it fell on deaf ears in the capital, as politicians were more interested in preparing for their elections which was only three months away at that time. Many of the soldiers believed they would have easily defeated the Tuaregs if these two things were taken care of by the government. They protested and petitioned repeatedly, until on 21st March 2012, the government sent defense minister Brigadier General Sadio Gassama to defuse the protest. The soldiers turned on him but he managed to escape. By the day after, the soldiers had taken over the capital and the president had gone into hiding. The aftermath was a Tuareg takeover of the north with the imposition of harsh interpretations of Shari’a, foreign intervention to stall the civil war and a destabilized Mali.
One only has to look at the sequence of causes in Mali and see the dangerous parallels with the current handling of the grumblings and growling of our gallant military officers fighting Boko Haram. It is however not too late for the government to take necessary actions to rebuild the morale of the troops. First, their grievances must be heard and they must see that the government is actually doing something to address them. The weapons audit announced previously by the government is a good move in the right direction. This needs to be expedited. But as a priority, the 7th Division should be isolated and fast-tracked so that they have the right weaponry and ammunitions to fight Boko Haram immediately. Situations where Boko Haram fighters overwhelm our soldiers not necessarily because they are better trained but because of superior weaponry or prior information of troop movements will definitely dampen morale.
The soldiers believe that Boko Haram has people in the army deliberately leaking information on troop movements to them. It is understandable they feel so, as troops are ambushed regularly by the insurgents. The government should not take this lightly, but investigate and punish all who are found culpable of throwing the lives of our soldiers away in this manner, irrespective of whose ox is gored.
The issue of troop rotation should also be looked into. These soldiers are professionals and will not ask for rotation if they do not have good reason to believe it isn’t happening as and when due. This must be addressed.
The actual people who will #BringBackOurGirls are these soldiers. As we continue to put pressure on our government to bring back our girls, let us also join our voices with the soldiers to demand that the government rise up to its responsibility to equip them appropriately, provide proper welfare, take their complaints seriously and punish those who should be punished after investigations are done.
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