Last week, Goodluck Jonathan set tongues wagging when he removed – or reassigned – all the service chiefs in one sweep. Sparing only Air Marshal Oluseyi Petirin, who is now elevated to the post of Chief of Defense Staff, Mr. Jonathan replaced Chief of Army Staff General Abdulrahman Danbazzau with Major General A.O. Ihejirika. He also appointed Hafiz Ringim as Ogbonna Onovo’s replacement as Inspector-General of Police. The State Security Service (SSS) got a new Director-General in the person of Ita Ekpenyong. Rear Admiral O.S. Ibrahim and Air Vice Marshal M.D Umar became the heads of the Navy and Air Force respectively.
Why this mini-tsunami of changes, and why now?
The presidential statement that accompanied the new appointments offered little help. It merely stated what could have gone without saying: that the appointments needed legislative ratification. In keeping with protocol, Mr. Jonathan also lauded the sacked chiefs for their “loyalty and selfless service to the country.”
Nobody doubts that Jonathan has the prerogative to make the appointments. After all, he occupies the conjoined office of president and commander in chief of the Nigerian armed forces. And not even his most inveterate critic would deny that there was a stroke of (political and strategic) genius in his choice of Ihejirika as the new army chief. Since the end of the Biafran War, no Igbo officer had risen to pedestal of the army. In breaking that unfortunate and dubious streak, Jonathan has taken a remarkable symbolic step in the direction of assuring the Igbo that they are not perpetual pariahs when it comes to leading the army.
In addition, Jonathan deserves kudos for – rather belatedly – firing Danbazzau. The former army chief should have been relieved of his post last February for his role in the saga of Umaru Yar’Adua’s sneaky return to Nigeria. Yar’Adua, his wife Turai, and a small retinue of loyalists, had spent three months in near-total seclusion in a Saudi Arabian hospital where the terminally ill former “president” received treatment.
From their hideout, the cabal around Yar’Adua had launched weekly schemes of deception to the effect that the man was bouncing back to health, and that – from his remote location – he had a firm handle on every aspect of governance. The scheming coterie even produced the farce that Yar’Adua had signed a supplementary budget.
That whole scandalous production from Saudi Arabia lost steam when it became clear – thanks to a series of demonstrations that Wole Soyinka launched – that Nigerians were far from deceived. In a last desperate move, Yar’Adua’s cabal arranged to smuggle back their physically ravaged principal in the anonymity of darkness.
Without seeking authorization from Jonathan, Danbazzau deployed troops to secure the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport in Abuja to enable a comatose Yar’Adua and his entourage to slip into Nigeria under the cover of darkness. Danbazzau’s ignominious act amounted to usurpation of the commander-in-chief’s powers. It left the impression that the Nigerian army was a thorough, undisciplined mess, subject to hire by the friends of the man overseeing its day-to-day running.
It was a low point for the army, and Danbazzau should have been sent packing immediately. Sadly, he wasn’t until last week.
Yet, allowing for Danbazzau’s eminently justifiable rustication, the timing of Jonathan’s removal of the other service honchos invites serious questions.
This is one occasion where context cannot be minimized much less discounted. And the context is as follows: Nigeria is four months away from its next set of elections, and one in which – it’s now universally acknowledged – Jonathan is bent on being a presidential candidate.
Here’s another disturbing aspect of the context: to their discredit, Nigeria’s police, military and security apparatus have historically lent themselves to the rigging designs of the ruling party, particularly the incumbent president.
Given this awful history, Jonathan might have proceeded with a measure of prudence as he contemplated the removal of the service chiefs. If, after evaluating the performance of the men who headed the various services, he had convinced himself of their ineptitude and the wisdom of axing them, he should then have come forward to tell Nigerians, one, why he wanted to make changes and, two, why his new appointees are the right fit for the jobs.
In failing to do this, he has encouraged the speculations that the narrow interests of Candidate Jonathan informed these personnel changes. Some commentators have, for example, remarked the facts that Mr. Ringim served as commissioner of police in Bayelsa when Jonathan was the state governor. Many pundits have also noted that Ringim was promoted over several seniors colleagues.
Even if these speculations are unfair, Mr. Jonathan must recognize his culpability in fostering them.
In the aftermath of the mindlessly rigged 2007 polls, some Nigerians consoled themselves by looking forward to the 2011 elections as providing an occasion to get it right. These optimists have woken up on the cusp of 2011 to the dispiriting realization that the promise of sound elections is still uncertain.
Yar’Adua, beneficiary-in-chief of the 2007 electoral heist, had used the ruse of electoral reform to beguile the gullible. Yet, once the Supreme Court shamelessly stamped its imprimatur in authentication of Yar’Adua’s (s)election, the rhetoric of electoral reform became just words, no action.
With elections looming, many Nigerians seem to be shambling towards that familiar place where their hopes die. At best, some are holding out hope for elections that are attended by a measure of credibility. Others voice the certitude that the PDP – whoever its candidate turns out to be – is bound to unveil a stunning rig fest. Jonathan’s wholesale tinkering with the leadership of the armed forces, law enforcement and security agency adds to the perception that the first stages of the rigging may well be underway.
At the very least, a fog of doubt envelopes the timetable released recently by Attahiru Jega’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). Mr. Jega’s greatest foe may not be the daunting task of pulling off voter registration in two weeks, or finding the technology to forestall manipulation of the process, but precisely a contagious crisis of confidence. Many fear that – Jega’s vaunted personal integrity and good intentions notwithstanding – his commission may end up handing Nigerians their most expensive sham polls to date.
Jonathan’s new picks for the helms of the various services must realize that the timing of their appointment helps feed the perception that they are being positioned to facilitate rigging. It’s up to each man to recognize that there’s a price to pay these days – ask Maurice Iwu or Michael Aondoakaa – when one undermines the collective interests of Nigeria. When they appear before the Senate, each man should affirm that his deepest loyalty lies with the Nigerian people.