Opinion

Tolu Ogunlesi: Rekindling Faith In The Nigerian Military

Last week, I got a phone call asking if I was available to join the Minister of State for Defence, Musiliu Obanikoro, on a tour of Naval formations in Lagos. I try to never pass up any opportunity to travel on Lagos’ waterways, and find it puzzling that a state in which one-fifth of the territory is water (creeks, wetlands, and a large lagoon) still finds itself forced to depend mostly on congested roads.

(I would later find an August 2012 interview in which Governor Babatunde Fashola told ThisDay newspaper, regarding water transport in Lagos: “I think it is perhaps more difficult than road transport. The natural asset is there – water. But most of the lagoons are silted and you can see it. So, you have to build the road under water by dredging the lagoon and you have to also put beacons and signals in the waterways; you have to train people, the way we have drivers’ institute to train drivers on road… I did not know all these before but we are making progress now.”

On this trip was the minister and his aides, and four journalists/bloggers/social media users (including myself). We rode in a convoy of navy boats, never losing sight of land.

It took us only 30 minutes to travel from the naval dockyard in Victoria Island to Navy Town in Ojo; a journey that would have taken at least twice that time (not accounting by traffic) by road.

The decision by Obanikoro to have us on the trip seems to me part of a larger attempt by the military and defence authorities to improve communication with the public, and is therefore worth commending.

Recently, Defence spokesperson, Chris Olukolade, a Major General, joined Twitter. That’s the latest in a series of moves by his office to adapt to the demands of communicating in the age of the Internet; before now, there was the inauguration of a unit to handle “digital” communications.

Terrorist groups have of course long taken advantage of the Internet to propagate their causes, shooting and distributing videos intended to strike fear in the hearts of opponents. Al-Qaeda has long been a master of Internet videos and sites, and in East Africa, Al-Shabab once ran an efficient Twitter operation, which it used to regularly taunt Kenya’s Defence Forces.

Communications has always been a major challenge for the entire Nigerian government; its helplessness worsened by the Internet. A few months ago, I heard a one-time head of one major government body admit that the biggest failing of his organisation, under his watch, was communicating effectively. Now, I can see his successor struggling with the same challenge.

It’s not that the government doesn’t know that it needs to communicate; it’s also not that it is not spending money in the name of communications. We have seen huge sums of money allocated to the communications component of governance, on everything from social media budgets to international PR contracts.

But somehow a disconnect persists. Part of the reason for this is that like in everything else, some of the allocated funds will vanish into the pockets of vested interests. Another reason is in the government’s conception of communications; warped as it is by a longstanding instinct for secrecy and propaganda.

I admire the efforts of people like Olukolade and Dr. Fatima Akilu (the director overseeing behavioural analysis and strategic communications in the office of the National Security Adviser) in working to break down communications barriers within tough operating environments. Akilu, it was, who told me, a few weeks ago, regarding Nigeria’s war against terror, that, “A central part of war is communications and information management.” She assures that work is going on – much of it behind the scenes – to build communications capacity within and outside the government, to respond to the challenge of Boko Haram.

But, important as communications is, there’s ultimately something even more important – operational performance. Without it, the finest communication becomes useless.

Impressed as I was by the navy facilities that we saw in Lagos – a training facilities for combat divers, a hospital, a naval air base, etc (none of them rundown or shabby in the way one has come to expect from Nigerian government facilities), the question that stayed on my mind was this: If we have a truly capable military, why are we constantly having to endure the sort of news that daily comes out from the North-East?

How do we relate the historically acclaimed capability of Nigeria’s armed forces (recall ECOMOG exploits in Liberia and Sierra Leone) with the reporting that Boko Haram is continuing to sack villages and seize territory, even to the extent of proclaiming an “Islamic Caliphate”. Is it all terrorist propaganda, for which the local and international media are falling? Or, is there more truth to it than falsehood?

While the efforts at improving communication are commendable, even more effort should go into addressing the root causes of Nigeria’s military seeming inability to tackle the insurgents. There is only so much that communications strategies can achieve in the absence of a clear demonstration of on-the-ground competence. I believe Nigeria’s military forces are capable of rising to the occasion. That it doesn’t seem like they are doing that is tragic, and needs explaining.

The military also needs to realise that the respect of Nigerians – a bunch of people critical and cynical by default, and understandably so – has to be earned, not demanded.

Armies exist to display their might, and any army not seen to be convincingly doing so risks being dismissed by the people it ought to be protecting.

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Article written by Tolu Ogunlesi, On twitter @toluogunlesi and Culled from his PUNCH Newspaper.

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