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Nigeria is at war. So why are so many generals potentially heading for retirement?

By Akin Irede
Posted on Friday, 18 June 2021 19:50

Soldiers stand in a parade at the military arcade during a ceremony marking the army Remembrance Day in Lagos, Nigeria January 15, 2017. REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye

Nigeria is currently facing an asymmetrical war. There are battles against Islamist terrorists, bandits, militants, pirates and separatists, a situation which has placed the most populous African country as number three on the Institute for Economics and Peace's Global Terrorism Index. But policy and personnel changes mean that a large number of senior officials could be forced into retirement. With activists and analysts already sounding the alarm about the rise in insecurity, will those personnel changes have a major impact on how the country responds to these threats?

About 80 major generals and their equivalents – air vice marshals in the air force and rear admirals in the navy – could be be systematically eased out of the military.

Why would this happen?

In January, military authorities introduced a new policy that states that no serving military official – who is not a service chief – should be senior to any of the service chiefs. Also in January, President Muhammadu Buhari appointed new service chiefs.

With those appointments and based on the new policy, all members of the Regular Course 35 (as Nigeria calls its promotions) in the navy, the air force and the army who were not service chiefs, were forced to retire even though they still had about a year left to retire. They were about 25 in number while about three were retained in the army based on a special concession.

But the biggest jolt took place on on 21 May, when Chief of Army Staff Lieutenant General Ibrahim Attahiru died in a plane crash along with 10 other officers in Kaduna, northern Nigeria. With Attahiru’s sudden demise, Buhari had to appoint another army chief. The seniority list of the Nigerian army that was made available to The Africa Report showed that Buhari skipped 29 major generals to appoint Major General Farouk Yahaya, a member of the Regular Course 37, as the new army chief.

The most junior of the new service chiefs is Chief of Naval Staff Vice Admiral Awwal Gambo, who is a member of the Regular Course 36. In the past, once a new head of a military branch is appointed, all people senior to him in that particular branch were retired in order to prevent insubordination. A few others who were retained would be deployed to the Defence Headquarters for administrative work, where they would not have any interactions with their branches.

Policy and practice

Based on the new policy, all members of the Regular Course 36 across the three branches of the military should have to retire, along with the remaining Regular Course 35 officers that were given a special concession. They are estimated to be about 60 in the three branches of the military. Should they all retire, it means at least 80 generals would have exited within about six months; an unprecedented move in Nigeria’s history.

Ideally, there shouldn’t be too many generals in the system because of the wage bill. Besides, as it stands, many of these generals don’t even hold any significant appointments in the military.

In a bid to calm frayed nerves, the Nigerian military issued a statement, saying the generals had not been retired.

“You are all aware of the appointment of the new Chief of Army Staff, Major General Farouk Yahaya. This has stirred up lot of rumours in the media about mass retirements in the military. I wish to use this medium to dispel such unfounded rumours. Retirement is only on a voluntary basis for senior officers who desire to do so. At this point, no retirements have been authorised by the Military High command,” a statement by the acting director of defence media operations, Brigadier General Bernard Onyeuko, read.

Go study!

But sources say that the military was not being completely honest. A confidential letter dated 10 June that was signed by Rear Admiral AB Adamu on behalf of the Chief of Defence Staff conveyed an invitation to all the affected generals.

A general who attended the meeting said they were told to go on courses of their choice, a move to keep them on the sidelines for the next year.

He said: “We were asked to go on courses of our choice for about a year. The aim is to make us redundant based on the new policy, but it will not be immediate. Probably, once the new Chief of Army Staff is confirmed by the national assembly, the shakeup will take place.”

Some generals are lobbying for special concessions but only a handful of them are likely to get them. As things stand, the generals are still reporting at their duty posts but things remain uncertain for them.

Bloat or necessary resources?

A military source says: “Ideally, there shouldn’t be too many generals in the system because of the wage bill. Besides, as it stands, many of these generals don’t even hold any significant appointments in the military. The problem was that the previous service chiefs stayed for too long, nearly six years. This clogged the system because many of the generals were not retiring. So, there is a deliberate attempt to purge the military of redundant generals.”

But a retired Major General, Henry Ayoola, says the new policy had no basis as it was not included in the Harmonised Terms and Conditions of Service of the military which guides the military’s policies.

Ayoola argues that while it made sense for those senior to the service chief of a particular military branch to retire, it makes no sense trying to ease out seniors in other branches of the military who ordinarily will have no interaction with the branch chief.

“If they are sent on course and not retired, it is a neat way of doing things but not a necessity in my opinion. The Chief of Army Staff will not have any interactions with his seniors who are in the navy and the air force. The military should stick to the Harmonised Terms and Conditions of Service and implement it,” he said.

Buhari to blame?

But a retired rear admiral tells The Africa Report that Buhari was to blame for the impending retirement of generals.

He argues that the mass retirement could weaken the war against insecurity.

The rear admiral says: “When General Tukur Buratai of Regular Course 29 was appointed Chief of Army Staff in July 2015, President Buhari skipped Courses 25, 26, 27 and 28 to pick him. All his seniors in the army were eased out, while those in the navy and air force were not affected.”

“In this recent appointment, the President just caused a deliberate problem by skipping highly qualified seniors, even from the north, to pick a Course 37 officer to lead the army. It is a deliberate attempt to truncate careers and this will weaken the fight against the various security challenges facing this country.”

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