A former Chief of Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshal Oluseyi Petinrin (retd.), shares with BOLA BAMIGBOLA his views on Nigeria’s many security challenges, debates on state police, how best to procure equipment for the military and how government could tackle porous borders, among others
What have you been doing since you left office in 2012?
I have been a farmer and trader since I retired. I am a businessman. I was already doing some farming while in active service. So, immediately I retired, I became even more interested and now we are doing our bit in agriculture.
After about 35 years in service as a military man, how easy was it settling into a new life?
The military life is regimented. Even as the most senior military officer in Nigeria at a point in time, I could not leave Abuja without taking permission. But now, I can jump up tomorrow and say I am going anywhere and nobody will stop me. There is a bit of difference in the lifestyle, but I enjoyed my years in service. I served for over 35 years and we thank God for everything. I am also grateful to God for the life I am living now. Life can be more fun when you are out of service.
What are your thoughts about the elections, especially the severe criticism that greeted the way the Independent National Electoral Commission handled the presidential and National Assembly elections?
Let’s be sincere, there has been no election in recent times where those who lost didn’t complain and criticise the electoral body. It is normal with our elections and it is something we should expect. I think we are being unfair to Prof Mahmood Yakubu, the INEC chairman. That man conducted what I called an ‘election of first’. It was the first time many powerful people in some states could not have their way. Some could not even win the political positions they contested; they lost to the opposition. These are firsts. That tells me we should give the professor some praise. Yes, there were lapses, but I don’t think we have ever had any election without lapses. These are normal things all over the world today. People believe they should not concede even when they lose the election, but that is the situation we find ourselves in and it should not worry us. As I said, some mistakes were made, but they have remedies. Even if INEC had uploaded results from the polling units to its result viewing portal, there will still be complaints. Democracy is still the best. Are you aware that there was over-voting in some polling units in different states? If results from those polling units had been uploaded and INEC discovered that there was over-voting and it removed the votes from the portal, there would be a protest. People will query why INEC removed a result that was already on the IReV portal. However, every polling agent has a copy of the results, so if what was announced was at variance with what they had, people have the right to protest.
After several elections since the inception of the Fourth Republic in 1999, many Nigerians are not pleased with the quality of leaders the polls have produced. Some would even argue that they were better off under the military. How does that make you feel?
Let me tell you that military government might have been used at a particular time in the past, but it had its own major problems. I don’t want to go into details, but so many mistakes were made during that era. Some of those mistakes are still with us today and they are major ones. Democracy is still the best form of government in which people will have a voice in who governs them. Take the last election as an example, it was because people were hungry for good governance that they voted for different candidates. This country is already too sophisticated for that (military government). Every government makes efforts to do good things, but because of the inexperience of the military leaders themselves, especially at the beginning of their tenure, and the way they tend to do things, the country ran into trouble. When you are governing millions of people, you can’t be giving decrees without the input of anybody. They (military leaders) made several mistakes and for me, the military government is totally out of it. No sensible, active military officer will want to rule Nigeria again. But when you retire and become a civilian, you can do whatever you like. You can contest.
Nigeria is today faced with diverse security challenges, do you think the government has done enough over the years to address the root of these problems?
The thinking of many of us is that every problem that requires fighting somebody should only involve the Ministry of Defence. It is not. The problem we had was getting the then government to believe in total defence. Total defence ensures that every arm of government, every institution, both public and private and every citizen is mobilised to tackle the challenges facing the country. The Financial Intelligence Unit finally came in and started blocking loopholes. They were able to cut off their finances and once the finance is not there, Boko Haram has more or less collapsed. Not that they are not there, they are still there but they are no longer as effective and violent as they used to be. That is what I mean by total defence. If you noticed, Boko Haram menace has reduced. This government has tried in terms of tackling insurgency, particularly in the North-East. I want to say that the reason we are finally getting hold of it is because we finally understood the meaning of total defence.
How can that total defence work in a society like ours?
Everybody is supposed to be involved. For instance, in the North-East, religious organisations should have been involved. Imagine if we had brought respected Imams from outside the country to come and speak to the people in the North-East on the television and radio that Boko Haram is doing the wrong thing, that alone will reduce the number of people who are ready to join them. These are the things we mean by total defence. So, the mosque, churches and everybody were supposed to be involved, but it took us a long time to realise that. That was why it lasted for so long.
In the past, the main security challenge Nigeria had was armed robbery and a few incidents of kidnapping, how did things get this bad that kidnapping has become a lucrative venture, in addition to high-level insurgency?
When you are talking about internal issues like kidnapping and armed robbery, those are not issues for the military. The police are expected to look at the problem, design a feasible method to combat it and get the necessary equipment to do the job. Due to the high rate of unemployment, people go into crime. So, the solution is for the police to look at the problem, design a method to combat it, buy whatever equipment they feel they need to combat it and go into action.
Many people believe that insurgency festered because previous governments neglected the military by not equipping it well enough. What are your thoughts on that?
How much does Boko Haram have compared to what Nigeria has? Even if they have sympathisers, how much do they have? How much are the sympathisers giving to them that Nigeria does not have? What arms can Boko Haram buy that Nigeria cannot buy one million times over? The Federal Government is doing a lot. I am not talking about this government alone; all the past governments also did a lot. They made sure that these people (the military) got what they needed as much as it was financially possible. The issue is that you must spend the money judiciously. For instance, I have always complained about a situation where the person designated to coordinate the military effort does not have a say in what the services are buying.
Could you expatiate on that?
If the man coordinating the military effort does not even have a say and every service goes to buy what it likes, that will not help us. The person who is going to coordinate the effort and lead the fight and even has the resources to project the kind of problems we would be dealing with in five to 10 years time must be empowered to have a say. We must project into the future, especially because we don’t produce these weapons. The implication is that if you say you want a particular weapon today, you may not get it today. So, you must project. If you only buy the things that you like, it is a waste of money because when the problem comes, those may not be the equipment you need to combat that problem. So, in the case of Boko Haram insurgency, there might have been temporary issues when they (the military) discovered that some of the things they needed were not there, but I can assure you the country quickly bought them. There is no way Boko Haram can outspend or outrun us. If we are having problems combating Boko Haram, know that it is our fault internally and not because the military doesn’t have arms.
There were people who believed that the AirForce was neglected and that was why Nigeria could not maximise its air advantage in tackling the terrorists, was that the case?
There was a period in the 80’s when there was a general neglect of the Air arm of the military, but that has since changed. The Nigeria AirForce has contributed its quota to combating the insurgency. All arms of the Armed Forces have tried their best, but where they have had issues is because of organisational matters, the coordination. Are they working together? Are they working the way they should work? Are people following instructions? Once we take care of all those issues, we will have formidable Armed Forces. It has nothing to do with the government. It is a matter of us enforcing what we have already written on paper. The moment you start deviating and not cooperating when you are fighting, you are wasting your time. However, I must confess that things are beginning to change.
In terms of coordination, who is supposed to coordinate the current fight against insurgency?
It’s at different levels. When I am talking about the military, it is the Chief of Defence Staff. He is supposed to coordinate and have control.
At what level is coordination lacking?
Coordination is lacking at the national level. There is nobody tasked with that. When I talked about total defence, it means everybody should be involved, including the press. There are things that the press will be expected to look into and publicise so that the public will know. Security is too big for everybody to be doing things their own way. There must be somebody to coordinate that total defense. Depending on the problem, the government is supposed to nominate somebody to coordinate all the efforts.
What kind of a person do you believe should coordinate this war against insurgency?
In the United Kingdom when they had this Irish Republican Army problem, they designated their Minister of Interior to perform that role of coordination. So, at various levels, there must be coordination.
If these suggestions are adopted, how soon do you see the country surmounting the insecurity challenge, especially insurgency?
It is not easy to predict when an insurgency will end. It depends on the commitment of so many agencies. Combating this kind of problem is not a matter of one or two agencies. It depends on the commitment of everybody involved, including the leadership. One cannot predict, but if all these people are committed, it will end very soon. Lack of commitment or partial commitment will not solve the problem but total commitment and good coordination. When you have many people trying to do the same thing, you must have somebody to coordinate. Up till today, we don’t have that in this country. Nobody has been designated to coordinate the effort. Everybody knows his job in his own ministry and agency, but once you bring two or more people together, there must be somebody that will coordinate them and it does not have to be a military man.
The insecurity challenge moved from Boko Haram to banditry, why do Nigeria’s security problems keep mutating from one form to another. What is at the root of this?
No society is absolutely crime-free. As we are tackling one thing, many people are cooking up many other things. It is the nimbleness of the internal security personnel that will quickly nip these issues in the bud. As new crimes surface, we must quickly sit down and look for ways to tackle them. Let me give you an example; immediately after our civil war in the 70’s, armed robbery became a serious problem. What did the government do then? One of the things they did was to introduce the death penalty for armed robbery. There were instances of public execution of armed robbers to send a strong message to everyone. These crimes come and once they are tackled, they will go. However, you can make the society safer with the commitment and proper organisation of our internal security architecture.
In recent years, many military chiefs have been accused of corruption, how do you feel that the revered military institution was dragged into such a mess by some officers?
With the financial system we are running now, if we continue to run it that way, there will continue to be problems. When there is an issue, you are supposed to sit down and think carefully about how it can be stopped. Unfortunately, we are more interested in catching people. I am not saying we should not catch people, but that should not be the main focus. The main focus should be to examine why it is happening and what we can do to forestall it. That is the way to go, not just about catching people. The approach to stopping it must be total and comprehensive. It is not just one thing you leave for the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission and other anti-graft agencies. There are so many things you need to do. For instance, at the Ministry of Finance, what can we do to make sure that the money is not stolen? You can only steal what is with you. These are the things we need to sit down as a nation to consider. The way we are going now, I don’t think we are employing the comprehensive approach.
You spoke about reorganising internal security architecture to prevent crimes. Some people believe having State Police is the way out. What do you think?
Yes, people are clamouring for state police, and I have nothing against it. However, we must be careful. If all you are going to do is to have the same type of policemen we currently have at state level, Nigerians will still be dissatisfied. If what you are going to do is to recreate this same police at the state level, the only thing that will eventually change is the leadership from the federal to state. If it is the same problem that we are going to face from them, it won’t make any sense. That is one aspect. That means if you want state police, the training must be different. States can’t take those to be recruited to the same training school; else they will get the same products. It means states must establish their training schools for the police. If we don’t do that, we may simply be changing the command structure, but results may not be too different. Many of the states cannot even pay workers’ salaries. I know it is improving, but it was there before now. Are these the same governors that you will put another burden of state police on? If you don’t pay policemen, knowing they have arms, you will be unleashing thousands of armed robbers on the state. We must be very careful.
What do you propose?
The solution I want to suggest is that, let the Federal Government cede to the state governors the control over all the policemen posted to states, including the commissioner of police. They will still be paid by the Federal Government, but the control should be under the governors who would truly be the chief security officers of their states. I suggested these ideas long ago. If you do that, it is a win-win situation in my view. The states will no longer be able to complain that the reason crime is so high is because they do not have control over the police, because they will use the police to fight crime in their states. I quite agree that it is a problem when you don’t have control over somebody and the people expect you to make him do his job the way it should be done. It can be difficult.
There is also an added value in what I proposed, it will be difficult for these policemen now to be used in a wrongful manner, because the commissioner of police, who is in that state, knows that if he goes along with the governor to be used wrongly, the Federal Government can sanction him. He who pays the piper dictates the tune. We can start with that and gradually move into state police, but if we prematurely run into it where states can barely pay their workers, I don’t think it’s the best.
In the wake of insecurity, some governors asked their residents to arm themselves and some have gone further to suggest that Nigerians should be allowed to carry guns for self defence. What do you think?
We will regret it if we do it. Majority of the people just want to live a good life, have money in their pockets, send their children to school and reap the fruit of their labour. That is what people care about and that is what every government should try to help people achieve. If you say everybody should carry arms, look at the United States, where one idiot will just enter a restaurant and kill people; a mad man will enter a primary school and kill school children just because he has arms and he is allowed to carry it. We should never go near it. In fact, in my view, we already have too many agencies carrying arms. They should reduce the number of agencies carrying arms. It is not good for us. The more arms you have in the society, the more crimes we are going to get. I know the situation sometimes makes people suggest these quick fixes, but unfortunately, they always have their own consequences that are even worse than the problems we are trying to solve.
Many Nigerians, including the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), have lamented the country’s porous borders and they have attributed it to the high-level insecurity and arms proliferation. What is the best way to secure those borders, with illegal borders numbering about 1,400?
Nigeria has a certain number of official crossing points. I don’t think they are up to 500. But the unofficial crossing points, I want to assure you, are more than 5,000. You can walk or even drive across where there are no roads in certain areas, particularly in the northern part of the country. What I am trying to say is that whoever has to enter Nigeria will enter whether we like it or not. We can only try and rejig our cross-border system. Having said that, there are ways in which you can make people crossing into your border almost irrelevant. Take for example, the National Identification Number is a very good idea. Left to me, we should not waste any money doing census. We should have advanced beyond that. We should know our population without physically counting. That was done during Jesus Christ time and human beings were few then. It is no longer something we should be doing. In the United Kingdom, when they say they are doing a census, they don’t disturb anybody. Everybody goes about their business. What they do is just like random sampling. What we should do is to concentrate on Nigerians getting their NIN. Once everybody has NIN, anybody that comes in and does not have NIN will be restricted. Landlords must be barred from renting houses to anyone unless they have NIN or passport to show they are allowed to stay in Nigeria. Those should be the conditions for you to rent an apartment or even buy a house in Nigeria. If the person is with a visitor visa only, they should be in a hotel and not a house. Children should not be registered in schools without having NIN or residence permit. Jobs should be given to those who have NIN or residence permit only. What I am saying is what is obtainable in the United Kingdom and the United States. If you don’t have those things, you can only do menial jobs in hiding. People will stop crossing here when they see that no service is available to them, except if they are citizens who have NIN or they are residence permit holders. This means from our NIN alone, we know our population. Once you don’t have a NIN or residence permit, nothing should be available to you and if you are an illegal migrant in Nigeria, it will be easy to spot them. That, to me, is the solution to our border problem. We can’t police it.
Does it mean policing the borders won’t work?
The number of immigration officers we will need to stop illegal migration, if we are to pay them, we will use all our resources because they will be too many. So, the government must devise what is workable. We must be able to identify our people and we must only give services to those who are identified. Doing the above will also discourage the migrants from coming. They will tell themselves that if they don’t have NIN or residence permit, nobody will even rent a house to them. When you have a problem, you look for a solution that is cost effective and one that will work. As it is, we cannot do anything to our porous borders because the unofficial crossing points far outnumber the legal ones. Anybody can move in because we have a large land border. The only way we can do it, like I said, is to be able to identify those of us that are here and then those that are not supposed to be here will find it unfriendly.
To tackle insecurity, what do you think the incoming president should do differently?
I expect the incoming administration to look into the issue of insecurity. I congratulate the incoming president (Asiwaju Bola Tinubu). He has had a good fight. He is the kind of person I believe will be able to run this country because it is not an easy country to run. But the bottom line is that people want a good life. So, the economy that is actually the problem should be looked into, then other things also. I am happy I have been hearing the right ideas from some of his (Tinubu’s) people about how they will improve the economy. They have been talking about how they will give out loans. It is good but they should take it a step further. That’s why the National Identification Number is very important. You first need to know yourselves before you can give individuals what they need. The only problem is that since our manufacturing industries are not functioning well, whatever loans you are giving to Nigerians must be restricted to those things that will be manufactured in the country. Once the loans to buy from the manufacturers are given to Nigerians, more people will also want to go into manufacturing. Without that, we will be where we are especially in our manufacturing sector.
Many retired military officers and men are going into full politics and seeking political offices. You have not openly identified with any party, what informed that?
Everybody has their area of interest. Everybody is into politics. It is just that you are either into full time politics or not. It is not true that I am not into politics, I have had occasions to do many political things but without making noise. I have been active in politics but not trying to get political office. I am not bothered with that, rather, I have concentrated my energy on my farm.