Col Hassan Stan-Labo (retd.), a veteran of the Nigerian Army Infantry (Elite Special Forces Corps) and a recipient of the Rockefeller Foundation Award for Service, speaks with ADELANI ADEPEGBA on the imperatives of seeking external assistance to tackle the security crisis in the country.
In the past weeks, the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Isa Pantami, has been trending over his alleged support for global terrorist groups, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. What is your take on the issue?
It is rather unfortunate that this is coming at a time Nigeria is grappling with the challenges of terrorism and insurgency. That a sitting cabinet ranking minister did confess to his affiliation and sympathy for terrorism in an administration saddled with the responsibility of fighting terrorism speaks volume of our seriousness as a people and the sincerity of the government.
Based on his past, should he have been appointed as a minister?
Based on his past, there is no way such an individual should have emerged as a minister of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. I have always remarked that 80 per cent of the federal cabinet as presently constituted have no business in a 21st-century cabinet. They’ve either gone obsolete professionally or intellectually. They are either bogged down by age or analogue mentality. Nearly all are recycled hands, a case of old wines in new bottles.
The Department of State Services was said to have discovered his extremist views yet he scaled the senate screening. Why do you think he was able to slip through the DSS indictment?
If the DSS unearthed such a serious finding, was it passed on to the Presidency? If it was, then some form of sentiments must have played out as usual for the President not to avail such a report the seriousness it deserves. For his name to have been included on the list of ministerial nominees for screening by the Senate leaves a sour taste in the mouth. On the other hand, if Pantami’s affinity with terrorist groups was known but not brought to the President’s knowledge, then whoever was in charge of the DSS as of then should face the music.
The Senate claimed they were not given the DSS report on Pantami. What should be done to bridge such gaps in the future?
To breach such gaps, all requests for Senate screening into the cabinet and sundry parastatal appointments should be accompanied by DSS reports. However, I expect that with the calibre of men sitting in the Senate, the Nigerian Senate has the capacity to know that a security report from the DSS should be made available for screening into cabinet ranking positions. Unfortunately, to the disgust of many Nigerians, the Senate is often too quick to bid nominees goodbye through the usual ‘take a bow and go’ tradition. This has allowed mediocre people to emerge for very sensitive positions. That tradition should be stopped forthwith and Nigerians given the opportunity to have a rough assessment of the nominees.
How do you see the Presidency’s defence of the minister?
Disgraceful and insensitive with a clear display of the same lack of seriousness that has brought us to we are today in our fight against terrorism. No nation out there would take us seriously. It is not the government’s business to forgive him. In the same vein, it is not the business of the Nigerian Armed Forces to pardon or grant amnesty to any surrendering terrorists. Rather, it is the duty of the army to hasten their ‘appointment with God.’
Should Pantami still be the minister overseeing the sensitive database of Nigerians, considering his admission as a terrorists’ apologist?
With the type of administration you have, there is nothing you can do. I tell you, Pantami will remain there even if 200 million Nigerians shout, they would still retain him. And I can tell you that there are several Pantamis in the federal cabinet. There are many like him; I know what I’m saying. We are running Nigeria as if we are running some local cafeteria.
A former Minister of Finance, Kemi Adeosun, was also found to have forged her NYSC certificate yet she was confirmed by the Senate. Would you recommend a restructuring of the screening process for political appointees?
Yes, absolutely. Restructuring is long overdue but we must bear in mind that it is an internal affair of the house. So at best we can only make input from outside. Such reform should come with a well-articulated template of requirements and line of actions. Such requirements would include a dossier of the nominee, containing his credentials, security report, silent submissions from the public, etc. The ‘take a bow’ practice should be discontinued. The lawmakers can also call for additional information.
It appears the security agencies are being overwhelmed by banditry and insurgency. What should we do differently in terms of strategy, intelligence and operations?
We must, as a matter of urgency, begin to address the inherent deficits currently suffered by this operation as it relates to the ‘big five’ – funding, manpower, equipment, training, welfare, and motivation. A good focus on the ‘big five’ will reduce operational issues by 60 per cent. We must desist from politicising the fight against terrorism. We should call for immediate external assistance as it is glaringly clear we’ve been overwhelmed.
Some people believe the military is compromised. In this situation, can the military win the war against insurgents and bandits?
I have never taken the position that given our situation now, the military can do it. I have already said that we need assistance. Talking about the issue of moles, of course, there are moles in the military. In every 12, there is a Judas (Iscariot). There would always be moles but it is the number of moles that really matter. In our own case, they have become too much because the moles are making money from it, they are making good money. I delivered a lecture some days back where I talked about those who have turned Boko Haram (insurgency) into brisk business. A good number of those who are executing this war are now in business. Not just the soldiers alone, even right from the Presidency down to the National Assembly, to the humanitarian ministry, everybody is in business if you don’t know. While some of us are here kneeling down to God to end this war, some people are telling God, ‘Thank you for opening another breakthrough for us.’ It is left for God to know which prayer to answer. This is the situation.
With the situation you have painted, is there hope for the country?
Well, there is hope if the leadership is open to suggestions made by you and me but the leadership is not open to suggestions because most of the suggestions don’t fit into their plans. It took them over one year to listen to the issue of changing the service chiefs. At the end of the day, they yielded but look at how late it is. Now, we are now appealing to the United States whether they can bring AFRICOM to Africa. In the first place, it’s only if Nigeria is strategising as it should be as the giant in Africa. I remember when AFRICOM was to be born, the Americans needed a ground right on the continent to plant that organisation; Nigeria could have grabbed it that time because Americans were crazy and they are still crazy about the situation in the Gulf of Guinea. We could have seized that opportunity; it is not too late. Right now, we can tap our contacts in the diaspora, the nearly eight or so Nigerians holding cabinet appointments in Joe Biden’s administration. If we can muster some reasonable pressure and diplomatic push, we can see whether the Americans can relocate AFRICOM from Germany to Nigeria and if we are shy in doing that, the Ghanaians would do it. I trust Ghana. They know how weak we are and how slow we can be.
Do you believe the relocation of AFRICOM would help in addressing the insurgency?
Of course, it would. The presence of AFRICOM and the much-vested interest the US has in the Gulf of Guinea would avail tremendous operational support for the fight against terrorism – from the sharing of intelligence to operational advisories, logistics, training, etc. If we embolden our diplomatic push using all our relevant contacts in the diaspora and eight Nigerians currently serving as cabinet ranking members of Joe Biden’s government, AFRICOM could move to Nigeria. Unfortunately, we don’t have a leader that can pull that, and nepotism will not allow for the best hands to come on board and do the job.
Do you endorse the call for the engagement of mercenaries?
Yes, I endorse every call for external assistance; assistance from any quarters at this point would be welcomed. Be the global actors, state actors, non-state actors, mercenaries or what have you. We no longer have the leisure time for selection.
But some retired generals opposed the calls, saying that the military has the capability to overcome the security challenge. What is your take?
I do not doubt the capability of the Nigerian Army to take care of the situation on the ground; however, I am looking at the exigency of the situation in which we found ourselves at the moment. What are those impediments on the path of the Nigerian Army? I have talked about the big five ranging from funding to manpower, equipment, welfare and motivation. We cannot put all that in place now before crushing the bandits; the situation is such that you just have to call for external help, deal with this rubbish on the ground and you can then rebuild your military. Our military needs some real fixing but we cannot be fixing it and at the same time fighting this war. No, I know the Nigerian military very well, I have a wealth of operational experience with the Nigerian Army. I have fought in this same army in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Darfur and the Bakassi Peninsula. I commanded troops and was also commanded. I led men and I was led, I played several roles, so I know the army I’m talking about. If anybody is saying ‘don’t bring any external help, we can fix it,’ why have we not done it till now? The greatest problem we have on the ground now as we talk is leadership at the strategic level, that is, at the centre. Invariably, I’m referring to the President, if you want me to be specific. We do not have strong leadership that can drive the entire process of this war through; I’m sorry to say. We lack it. We need a strong personality who is determined with a clear sense of vision who can take us on a mission and get the job done. We have a president whose sense of vision and reasoning is blurred by sentiments ranging from ethnic, tribal, religious and even greed and corruption and so on. So, we don’t have the right personality in terms of leadership at the centre. We have a leadership that is still speaking from both sides of the mouth, whose policy pronouncements are lacking clarity. At times like these when leaders speak, we should not have any fear about whether they would serve our purpose right. We cannot be fighting this type of war and be retaining a minister who is apologetic to terrorists. It does not show any sense of seriousness on your part as a leader. These are the things we are talking about.
Why do you think we have not been able to arrest and prosecute the sponsors of the insurgency?
Because the leadership at the centre has yet to be fully committed to the fight against terrorism. The government lacks the political will, effrontery and guts required in facing the challenge on the ground. Its sense of appreciation of the situation is currently blurred by sentiments. Be they ethnic, tribal, religious or nepotism and corruption. This can be rightly seen in the reluctant slowness, lukewarm and lackadaisical attitude with which decisive policy pronouncements are made on issues requiring immediate swift actions. Rather than arrest and prosecute them, the Federal Government is busy defending them. Telling us instead how they want to go after those agitating for the heads of such sponsors and apologists. Does that sound to you like a government that is ready to fight terrorism? Maybe by 2023 we may be blessed with a President that’s ready to fight terrorism, but for now, we are doomed. That is the bottom truth.
What do you think is responsible for the rising violence in the South-East?
It is an eclectic mix of the following: politicians positioning for 2023, frustration emanating from refusal to restructure the polity, and consequences of the harsh economic times and terrorist sleeper cells at work covertly and embedded.
IPOB has denied involvement in the attacks? Do you suspect that some elements may be hiding under their cloak to carry out the violence?
IPOB may truly not be physically involved but would happily avail both moral and material support provided their interest is well served unsolicitedly.
Some people are saying the attacks in the state are as a result of Governor Hope Uzodinma’s alleged estrangement with some political blocs in the state. Do you believe this?
With politicians, all things are possible, including turning water into wine. I’m not really knowledgeable on the political squabbles or situation in the South-East. My annoyance with the Igbo man is that he has not brought his robust business acumen and republican sagacity to bear on the politics of Nigeria.
So, why is the police unable to defend their stations and formations in the South-East?
The inherent deficits in the security and sector as it relates to the ‘big five’ – funding, manpower, equipment and logistics, training, welfare and motivation. These five heartbeats are responsible. Address them and the story will change. We should also learn the lessons from the #EndSARS peaceful demonstration that got hijacked by the government and opposition politicians. Leaders of the South-East should sue for peace. They should assemble all stakeholders in the South-East and jaw-jaw. Youths should be assuaged, the government must create job opportunities and empowerment programmes.
A NAF jet with two crews has been missing for over three weeks without any rational explanation from the authorities. What’s your take?
What is the implication of Chadian President Idriss Deby’s death, considering his leadership role in the anti-insurgency war?
That is why Nigeria should not be aloof in the selection of a new leader for Chad because Deby has been able to forge a wedge between us and some of the terrorists coming from the Maghreb using Chad as a route. He has been able to withstand whatever their challenge is and he has assisted us in creating a very good buffer zone. So, we need a strong personality in Chad who can really play that role again for us and that is why some of us would like to have his son, who is also as determined as the father, to take over.
Though he is facing a lot of opposition based on constitutional issues and so on. I want to believe by now, we should have started some diplomatic shuttling between Abuja and Chad. The problem with us is that we are always too slow, very slow; that is the problem with this administration.