Major General Mobolaji Koleoso retired from the Nigerian Army in 2016. While in service, he held several command and tactical positions. In this interview with SATURDAY TRIBUNE, General Koleoso speaks on a range of issues including security in the sub-region, the North East and on his own career as a professional soldier. Excerpts:
What are the implications of the death of President Idris Deby of Chad for Nigeria? A destabilized Chad will likely affect Nigeria’s North East, Cameroon and Niger. How do you think Nigeria should respond to this possibility?
It was shocking but not totally unexpected that President Idriss Deby died or was killed. May his soul rest in peace. African nations are beginning to resist sit-tight rulers. Idriss Deby has been president of Chad Republic since December 4, 1990, and with his 37-year-old son being a four-star general, succession fear may not be ruled out completely from the minds of the opposition and the rebels. The late Idriss Derby was a dependable friend of Nigeria and a close friend of President Muhammadu Buhari. Note that it was to Nigeria he came first after winning his re-election last week. He shared brotherly kindred with the Nigerian president and sometimes it is difficult to say who was closer to President Buhari between him and the Nigerien president.
One may quickly say that his close affinity to successive Nigerian leaderships over the years was borne out of the security problems being shared with Nigeria, Niger and Cameroon and because of which he was often on the battlefield with his troops. Going to the battlefield is no tea party. It is tantamount to laying down his life for the safety of his country, as he was wont to claim in his lifetime. Military scholars, pundits and all may debate the strategic advantages of such an adventure but the late President Deby enjoyed the face-to-face encounter with the rebels.
The implication of his death for the region is massive, in that he was always agile and committed to keeping that corridor safe for his country’s peace and the relative peace of the region. The MNJTF is headquartered in his country’s capital, N’Djamena. The period between his death and the time it takes his son, the interim president, General Mahamat Kaka Deby, to get his acts together will determine the security configuration necessary to keep the corridor safe henceforth. However, the implication for Nigeria would be to up its game within the corridor, making sure that insurgents are further kept at bay. The men and women of the Nigerian Armed Forces are dependable, agile and always combat-ready. The NAF is blessed, I must say. We have perhaps the best soldiers, ratings, airmen that any commander would wish to take to battle. Luckily, the rebels who attempted taking over N’Djamena and dislodging the interim president the night of Tuesday, 20 April, were roundly defeated and sent far away (150kms, it was claimed) from the capital. I learned that the leadership of the armed forces with Gen Leo Irabor fully in charge are already working out new strategies for the corridor/region. Remember that the Chief of Defence Staff was once a successful commander of the MNJTF.
The countries making up the Lake Chad Basin, Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon, Chad and Benin Republic now have the task of getting interested in the recent developments in Chad. Collectively, and with the new helmsman, General Kaka Deby, the situation in Chad will, sooner than expected, stabilize for the cooperation efforts in the region not to suffer any setback.
There is a general movement southwards from Libya, Mali to Niger putting pressure on Northern Nigeria. There are fears that southern Nigeria could also be overwhelmed soon. Do you share these concerns too, sir?
Almost all nations of the world are aware of the continuous depletion of the ozone layer and our habitat, specifically of climate change and its effects on migration. As the Sahara Desert gets hotter and continuously widening and increasing in size year after year, the possibility of human migration to areas of better comfort and which promises better living conditions cannot be wished away. After all, none of the peoples of Africa were invited to the 1884-85 Berlin conference that shared the African continent like a piece of cake (for exploitation, mainly) among the world powers. When I was serving in 145 Task Force Battalion, Metele, near Lake Chad, as a Battalion Second-in-Command, in 1999/2000, with the current Etsu Nupe, His Royal Majesty, General Alhaji A. Abubakar, as my Brigade Commander in Baga, there is a town called Banki, whose football field is shared between Nigeria and Cameroon. In fact, there is a house in Banki whose sitting room was in Nigeria and the bedrooms on Cameroon soil. Go to Illela, north of Sokoto, and see the affinities we share with our kith and kin from Niger Republic. I have had the opportunity to also serve in 29 Mechanized Battalion in Nguru, where there is no marked international boundary with our northern neighbors.
This is why no Southerner in Nigeria should think a problem is a Northern problem. It is this thinking that has allowed insurgency to fester into accommodating kidnappings, banditry, sheer criminality and other vices threatening the peace of the south now too. Had it been that immediately the insecurity concerns broke out in the North then, it was addressed nationally and holistically, Nigeria may still be better secured today. Footpaths used to crisscross the frontage of a military unit close to the Nigerien border in those days when we were there. There are so many unmanned routes into Nigeria from its northern and northeastern neighbors. Common cultures, languages and, often, even dialects would prevent the best of immigration officials separating a Nigerian from a foreigner, up our northern border.
In short, the government must brace up and start planning on how to contain the effects of massive migration being the sure consequences and fallouts of climate change. The effects of climate change on Africans necessitate such migration and the best approach to curtailing the security fallouts is to strategically formulate policies to mitigate uncontrollable migration problems, including the proliferation of small arms and light weapons which porous and/or non-existent borders cannot check, anyway. The sheer size of Nigeria, its population and human, mining and material resources have placed it in such a position that it cannot shut its borders permanently against its neighbors, no matter the level of insecurity and/or provocative dispositions of such neighboring countries. Such a move hurts economic and human activities the most and can also strain foreign relations. Two-thirds of West African population is Nigerian. So, southern ward migration with its attendant problems is what our leaders must plan ahead for and necessary policy directions emplaced too. The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago; the next best time is now, or so the proverb goes.
Security of schools in Nigeria is another area of concern, what is the best approach to protecting our children from bandits?
Insecurity is an international problem. It seems that nowhere is safe again. No safe corridor again, anywhere. Since Mohammed Yusuf was killed over the Boko Haram ideology that does not align with Western education, we should have known that if the sore is left to fester, schools (and students) would be a target in no distant time. When the Chibok incident happened many years ago, what policy directions were put in place to protect our children in their schools, especially those quartered in boarding houses? Seems we always leave our problems to fester before seeking solutions to them. And that is not a proactive leadership style. No. Schools are being threatened. This should raise the concern of all Nigerians. We cannot afford to shut down our schools. Even if we want to try such an option, for what period of time? The COVID-19 pandemic has already disrupted the school calendar enough.
Be this as it may, adequate security needs be provided for our schools and for the safety of our children. But how do we go about it? Nigeria is not short of able-bodied retirees who can be further engaged for some period of time. But, mind you, there is no security architecture against criminality that is cheap. Is Nigeria, and its leaders at the federal, state and local government levels ready to face the reality and solve the problem and curtail criminality now? For day schools, adequate protection would necessitate a 12-hour security coverage/guard, say, between 6.00 a.m. and 6.00 p.m. Security men arriving early (two hours ahead of school resumption) would have allowed for an adequate sweeping of surroundings to tighten security before school resumption and much longer after they would have arrived their individual homes. If such schools are in townships, they may require lesser numbers of men for security than those in the rural areas. The matter becomes more complicated if such schools are boarding schools requiring 24/7 (all-day-round) security. Prevention is better than cure. We have retired but not tired, agile ex-service men in all local government areas of the country. These still-able-bodied men with military and police trainings could head local vigilante groups and be equally armed to protect our children in schools. Both the ex -military men and ex-policemen would require funding and logistics for adequate patrol and security duties. These efforts may be coordinated at every community and local government levels in the country.
What I fear, however, is the issue on ground now about the Federal Government still owing military retirees some entitlements. If such is not cleared, the bodies or associations in charge of retired men and women may not allow individuals to avail the society such services they may be better equipped to render. I was happy when recently the Chief of Army Staff, Lieutenant-General Ibrahim Attahiru, mentioned that he was going to require the services of some retirees. This means that efforts are already being made by the military leadership in that direction. Overall, the Federal Government may need to reconsider the issue of state policing/community policing. It is a requirement that may assist security measures in no small terms. A state governor should be able to do all within his power to secure his citizens. This is an idea worthy of reconsideration, even now. It wouldn’t take much effort if all the three arms of government warm up to the idea.
What is your take on suggestions that bandits should be given amnesty?
Nigeria has surfed through numerous hurdles as far as security is concerned. Banditry in each country is part of a wider regional political instability, I sincerely believe. The World Economic Forum recently released its Travel and Tours Competitiveness Report which analyzed the travel and tourism sectors in 136 countries of the world. Banditry is a multi-billion dollar foreign exchange earner which no sane government should tolerate or handle with kid gloves. I would recommend its reading for the general public but suffice it to say that I do not support any form of amnesty for any bandit, repentant or not. The idea of ‘repentant’ bandits is even very sickening, to say the least. A man with straw thatched houses does not play carelessly with naked fire. In the first instance, even negotiation, not to talk of amnesty, accords some form of legitimacy on the bandit. Just all of a sudden and out of the blues, a retired Captain of the Nigerian Army, now Sheikh Ahmad Gumi, became a negotiator with the bandits and he could easily locate their territories which legitimate government forces couldn’t. He went as far as cautioning our use of ‘bandit’ for them. Zamfara lawmakers, in February, too asked President Muhammadu Buhari to grant amnesty to repentant bandits. Today, their vigilantes are dealing deadly blows on the bandits. The Katsina State governor, His Excellency, Alhaji Bello Masari, went as far as appeasing bandits terrorizing his state and went into accord with his enemies. Of course, it didn’t take much time before the governor retraced his steps, having seen that the men he trusted were without integrity and honor. Expecting those values in bandits, in the first instance, leaves much bile in the mouth. Writing on same subject, Odewale Abayomi, cautioned that amnesty to bandits would worsen insecurity in the country.
I doff my hat, therefore, to the Executive Governor of Kaduna State, His Excellency, Malam Nasir El-Rufai. From the onset, and till now, he has made it known that no pressure from any quarter would make him negotiate with bandits. The only strategy remaining for the governor, as also will be expected from his compatriots all over the nation, is for a legislation for the execution of confirmed bandits and kidnappers. With such laws across the country, the criminality will drastically reduce, if not totally exterminated. But for now, for a man on a N300,000 annual income before now to be making hundreds of millions of Naira from banditry and kidnapping in just a few months, may present a difficult vocation to end. Without a strict law to punish perpetrators, we may not soon see the end of criminality in the country.
My favorite Senator in the Red Chamber, and who should know more than most people about the general disposition of bandits, Senator Ali Ndume, has also condemned calls for amnesty for these non-stàte actors who are causing us great discomfort and shame. Finally, and luckily, the man we elected to govern us all, President Muhammadu Buhari, has, twice in February and March this year, reiterated his resolve, and by extrapolation, that of his government, not to negotiate with bandits, not to talk of considering them for any amnesty. You don’t make peace with an enemy you have not conquered and go peacefully to bed and sleep soundly. It may turn to the sleep of death.
I side with both Governor El-Rufai and Senator Ndume. I equally hail the stand of the Commander-in-Chief. Amnesty for bandits should not be an option worthy of our consideration at this moment and time.
Do you have any advice for the new service chiefs on the difficult job they have in their hands?
With my retiring rank of a two-star general, it is expected of me to know what channels of communication are available to me to reach any of the service chiefs with any piece of advice I may have. He who wears the shoe knows where it pinches. I have had the opportunity of serving closely with some of them before I left service. I must be quick to say they were brilliantly chosen and well appointed. They have also started well. All we need to do now is have them in our prayers as they all sacrifice their peace and lay down their lives to make us as comfortable as we can be and be safe from harm’s way. They are all men of proven integrity who can quickly and easily build on the worthy legacies of the men they are succeeding. They require the goodwill of all of us and the muscular support of the government to have all they require to succeed. I sincerely wish them well.
Looking back at your career as a soldier, what day would you describe as the most difficult for you and why?
My most difficult day in service was Thursday, July 7, 1994. It was in Kaduna when I was serving at the 29 Mechanised Battalion that was changing location with the armoured unit in Kaduna. We were leaving Nguru for Kaduna and swapping place with the armored unit. We were also preparing to be launched into the ECOMOG operations in Liberia then. The interaction was between my Commanding Officer and my humble self. Details will come up in my autobiography in not too distant a future. I can never forget that day and date as it is permanently etched in my memory without any bitterness, of course.
Why did you join the army?
I give all the glory, honor and adoration of my choice and service in the Nigerian Army to God. I believe that there is always God’s hand in the affairs of His chosen and anointed.
I was at the University of Lagos from 1979 to 1982 and passed out with a degree in Mass Communication. A year ahead of me was a cousin, also from Ibadan, by name Olatunde Akande. Olusola Obilana was my ‘twin’ brother since our ‘A’ level days at the SBS, The Polytechnic, Ibadan, since 1977. Our plan throughout our university days was to end up with first class degree, believing that such a result would earn us the Commonwealth scholarship to study for a direct Ph.D. At the end of 1981, Olatunde Akande passed out with a first class. Our earlier two years’ scores of 1980 and 1981 had prepared our minds that the first class degree was attainable. Alas, we both ended up with second class upper and a busted dream. Our friend and buddy, Levi Obijiofor, made the first class degree and treed the pathway we once desired. He is a successful professor of Mass Communication in Queensland, Australia, now and doing greatly, winning laurels. We had no Plan B. Meanwhile, while preparing for the NYSC service year (both of us were posted to Kwara State), I encountered an Economics graduate friend, Olayiwola, who told me he would never participate in the one-year service programme. Asked why, he told me he was already a soldier and that he came to the university on Nigerian Army sponsorship.
He invited me to his office which was the Nigerian Army Military Sectetary’s Office, at Victoria Island then. His office was littered with applications for the Short Service Combatant Course at the Nigerian Defence Academy the following year, 1983. He also encouraged me, there and then, to apply as he also did. I had forgotten about it when the list of candidates invited for the interview in Kaduna for the cadetship was published early in January of 1983.
I approached my father whom I respected a lot and whose advice I had never for once discountenanced. He didn’t venture an opinion just yet. He only told me that I would be driving him early in the morning to see his pastor. When we got there, he just dropped me with his pastor, collected his car keys and went back home. The pastor took me to the ‘mountain’ for a three-day-prayer, returned me home and delivered God’s message to my father. My father later called me, blessed me and gave his permission for me to attend the interview. I returned to Ilorin where I was serving at the Agricultural and Rural Management Training Institute (ARMTI) under Dr. Garnet Brown as Director General, took my leave and left for the NDA. And that was the beginning of a successful military career that it has pleased God to make me have. So, if Governor Nasir El-Rufai was an ‘accidental public servant’, yours truly was an ‘accidental soldier’.
Who is your war hero?
My war hero was Johannes Erwin Eugen Rommel, a German general, actually Field Marshal, and military theorist. Popularly known as Desert Fox, he served in both World Wars. Born November 15, 1891 and died of suicide on October 14, 1944.
As Germany’s military situation deteriorated, a group of senior officials attempted to assassinate Adolf Hitler (his hero) with a briefcase bomb, only to be thwarted at the last moment. Rommel was friends with some of the conspirators and certainly conversed with them about a post-Hitler future. Nonetheless, the full extent of his involvement in the plot remained unknown. According to his wife, he opposed the assassination but wanted Hitler to be arrested and brought to trial. Whether innocent or otherwise, his name came up during the subsequent Nazi dragnet, prompting Hitler to arrange for his death. When Hitler’s men came to arrest him, he duly informed them that he was not disposed to trial which might belittle him and rob him of his popularity as a war hero. He quietly loaded his pistol, went into his study and committed suicide by firing himself in the head.
From his life stories and his times as a war commander whose leadership was exemplary, I learned the virtues of total loyalty to superiors, empathy and compassion for the troops one has the opportunity to lead into battle and to administer. Because he did not go on public trials but quietly committed suicide in his home, he is still being celebrated today in Germany as ‘chivalrous’, ‘brave’ and a ‘victim of tyranny’. He is my military hero and I took the lessons of his life and times to heart throughout my service in the Nigerian Army.
You retired voluntarily after 33 years in service. How did you feel the day you left the service? Relieved or nostalgic, or both?
I had served a cummulative of 33 years, six months and 15 days on Friday, September 15, 2016 when I voluntarily retired from the Nigerian Army. One couldn’t have spent that much time in a profession without being nostalgic at the point of exit. Surely, I would miss most people I had spent so many years with, on land, air and sea, both in and out of the country. Relieved, maybe, but that feeling would count when I looked back and saw many rivers crossed and many near-death occurrences God saved me from. ‘Relieved’ wouldn’t have captured my emotions then though. I was just grateful to God for His mercies, compassion, favors qualified and mostly unqualified….
In 2013, I had attended an EI Course in the UK where the professor who gave the valedictory ‘advice’ prepared our minds about possible retirement from active service and what to do after to have a peaceful life in retirement. I took it all in and made up my mind to pursue academics in retirement. But I need to start early. Why wait for three years to start? I needed to probe into the university system and see where my further studies could fit me in or accommodate me. I had my first degree in Lagos, my Master’s in Zaria and desired to finish up at the University of Ibadan. After all, ilé l’àbò ìsinmi oko.
Immediately I returned from the course, I made my way to the University of Ibadan where providence took me to Professor Isaac Olawale Albert, a professor of history and the first African professor of Peace and Conflict Studies. He was then the director of the institute. He grew a sudden interest in me and my quest for scholarship and advised that I register for the M.Phil Course in Peace and Conflict Studies as a part-time student immediately. He continued to encourage me and prodded me on, even while I remained in service.
It was to him I turned again the very week I was to retire. He assured me that he was also ready to take me on as a full-time student immediately on disengagement. I retired in Minna as the Commander, Headquarters Training and Doctrine Command of the Nigerian Army, on September 30, returned to my family in Abuja on Independence Day. On October 2, we all did our prayers and fasting and thanksgiving privately, praising God. The following day, I resumed at the University of Ibadan as a full-time doctoral student. To God’s glory, I concluded my studies and became a doctor of philosophy (Ph.D) during the award ceremonies of the university on Monday, November 18, 2019.