DHQ bungled opportunity to end Boko Haram war — Retired Col Stan-Labo

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Col Hassan Stan-Labo is a veteran and retired officer with a wealth of combat operational experience spanning his duty tour of Liberia, Sierra Leone, The West Darfur and Bakassi Peninsula as part of the Army’s Elite Infantry (Special Forces) Corps. Now a security consultant, defence strategist, resource fellow and Convener, ‘FIX NIGERIA NOW!’, Stan-Labo speaks on the replacement of Service Chiefs.

Presidential spokesman Femi Adesina described the exit of the former Service Chiefs as timely, contrary to the views in many circles that it was long overdue considering the level of insecurity in the country. Adesina quoted President Buhari as congratulating them for their efforts to bring enduring peace to Nigeria. What is your view of that assessment?

The change of Service Chiefs cannot be said to be timely under the present situation in which the entire nation is under siege. It is long overdue because it was now glaring even to a lay person that that crop of Service Chiefs had come short of ideas and needed help. Of course they deserve commendation. Their first three years in office saw us out of the woods.

You were among those who strongly believe the ousted Service Chiefs should have gone long time ago. How did you feel when you heard the announcement that they had been finally removed?

To me, their replacement was the right thing to do though coming belatedly. But rather late than never, it was only necessary that they pave way for fresh hands, fresh thinking and ideas to come on board. Their continuous stay had become inimical to the career progress of other subordinate officers itching for self-expression. Unfortunately for the rest of us, the President’s men believed Nigeria was safe and so we were just noise makers bent on bringing down the administration by insisting on a change. Since they had the President’s ears, it became difficult convincing Mr. President of the need for the change of Service Chiefs.

When they assumed office way back in 2015, it was like there was a spark against insecurity especially with the relocation of General Buratai to Borno, the epicenter of Boko Haram insurgency, and we began to hear about the terrorists being defeated or degraded. Was that really the situation at that time? Were the terrorists really degraded?

The Service Chiefs on assumption of office actually brought some level of operational boost to bear on our fight against insurgency. They succeeded in routing the terrorists and got us temporary relief. That was the stabilization phase of the operation in which our troops gained some operational stability to return to the field.

The enemy force couldn’t have been defeated but YES they had suffered high degradation and demoralization.

It was a situation that called for immediate consolidation. That would have been the right time to appoint a new team of commanders with the requisite attributes for consolidation. This team would have by now be preparing for the final onslaught while we continue our deepening effort on winning the hearts and minds of the people through humanitarian and social welfare initiatives. Unfortunately however, we wasted so much time and suffered so much loss in traction and momentum while the belligerent force recouped, reorganised and regained control.

The terrorists apparently returned with renewed vigour with attacks and killings here and there. At what point did the Service Chiefs get it wrong and what were the problems? And could the problems have been fixed?

I don’t see the fault of the former Service Chiefs in the way we bungled an opportunity to end this war. The Defence HQs did not have its eyes on the ground. Its interpretation of the operational situation was wrong based on its faulty reading of the battle.

If only the Defence HQs had got its reading right, it would have been absolutely clear that the battle was already transiting from the stabilization to consolidation phase and this would have informed changes in command as consolidators would have to come on board. We saw this during the Gulf War under Desert Shield and Desert Storm where Force Commanders were regularly replaced by the Pentagon to take on the various cycles of command in the theatre as the war progressed.

Could the problem have been fixed?

YES it could be fixed despite all time wasted subjecting a purely military matter of replacement of Service Chiefs to a national debate. While the debate was on, we lost traction and momentum to the belligerent force. Now steps are being taken to fix it.

Many people including the National Assembly were vociferous in calls that the Service Chiefs should be removed. Were you surprised that President Buhari, being the Commander-in-Chief and a retired general, decided to turn deaf ears to the calls and the Service Chiefs spent more than five years in office in spite of the killings?

My surprised rather is that the President finally yielded to the pressure to change his Service Chiefs. Since the President listens only to his aides, and take their pronouncements as sacrosanct, changing his opinion could be a herculean task. More so when all he hears on a daily basis is that

“Oh Nigeria is Safe”, “Oh the situation today is better than it was in 2015”, “Oh corruption is on the decrease”, “The call for restructuring is aimed at bulkanizing Nigeria” bla, bla, bla. Anything outside that automatically makes you an enemy of the administration and by extension the state.

The military was apparently overwhelmed. How do you assess the ousted Service Chiefs’ handling of kidnapping and banditry especially in the North-West?

There is no doubt the security agencies including the military were overwhelmed under the present situation. The military is presently engaged in several fronts in about 34 states of the federation thus creating a big distraction to its level of commitment in the North-East. These additional engagements were not initially expected and so not factored into the initial grand plan. The Service Chiefs did their very best but got weighed down by several factors:

 

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(i) Absence of strong supervising authority

(¡¡) Poor professional over-sighting

(¡¡¡) Undue interference by politicians and

(iv) Corruption and the spoils of war.

The appointment of the new Service Chiefs has been generally hailed. Do you share in the optimism?

I see the change as a good omen and, like every patriotic citizen, I exercise cautious optimism over better things to come. However my cautious optimism is preconditioned. They should avoid the pitfalls of their predecessors.

How do I mean?

(a) They should submit to the professional oversight and qdvisory instruments of the office of the Chief of the Defense Staff (CDS) and National Security Adviser (NSA).

(b) They should avoid & discourage undue political interference.

(c) They should exercise inter-service synergy & cooperation

 

The new Defence and Army chiefs are said to have once commanded troops against Boko Haram terrorists and some people believe this experience will be helpful in finally defeating the militant group. Do you share this perspective?

Absolutely I share the sentiments that such experience would come handy. You don’t buy experience. You must go through the grill. With four international operations behind me, I make bold to say, but with every sense of responsibility and humility, when I talk operations, superior officers in rank are compelled to listen. Because I am not talking ‘text book’, I am talking operational strategy falling back to live experience in diversed difficult terrains and weather conditions in theatres of war.

The operational experience garnered by the new Service Chiefs in the North-East would really enrich delivery capacity and enhance component synergy. It would be a big plus.

If you are to set an agenda for the new Service Chiefs, what will that be?

First and foremost I will avail them a job description spelling out timeliness, milestones, key performance index and a budget (funding). Inclusive in that job description would be the following:

The new Service Chiefs belong to regular courses 35 and 36 and the implication is that members of regular courses below 35 still in service must go. Is this development healthy for the military?

The military worldwide is an institution built on hierarchy and chains of command. It is rather rare or would I say sacrilegious to find a senior serving under his junior. So once the top leadership has been appointed as in this case, all those who are seniors by courses to the present Service Chiefs i.e. Courses 34, 33, 32 etc would, any moment from now, be shown the way out. It is a tradition. Even without being told individuals begin to forward their request for voluntary disengagement. The essence is to pave way for a smooth administrative take off and successful tenure without undue encumbrance. Permit me to add that, given the desperate situation we presently find ourselves, the President should do an operational review of the situation in the North-East and come out with his Strategic Commander’s Intent as to what direction he wants to war to move in. He must bear in mind that we could be fast losing out on our operational gains, with further delay.

I must also say that in my estimation, and with every sense of responsibility, the President needs assistance in facilitating his ease of understanding the operational imperatives and urgency attached to our present state of national security.

I strongly suggest an Independent Presidential Defence Advisory Team (IPDAT) made up of counter- terrorist and asymetric warfare experts outside government. Their responsibility would be the continuous monitor, analysis, updating and proffering of strategic optional lines of action on unfolding developments in the field for consideration.

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