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Nigeria – Shake-up in the military about politics, not a coup

On Thursday, January 16, President Goodluck Jonathan sacked his high command and brought in fresh blood. The president was spurred by infighting among his military commanders that hindered the fight against Boko Haram and the pressing need to modernise command structures. Key Nigerian sources dismissed any speculation that the move pre-empted a military intervention, stating that the mere fact the civilian government was now able to dismiss the entire high command with no fear of retribution showed Nigeria’s constitutional democracy was robust and safe from the interventions of the past. Overall, the reshuffle is a significant and positive development, some legal issues aside.

There was wide consensus in weekend news reports that Mr Jonathan acted out of growing frustration with the high command over its inability to make headway in the war on Boko Haram terrorism and an old threat from militia movements in the Niger Delta. It was no coincidence, the sources said, that the key commanders relieved of duty included Chief of Defence Staff Ola Sa’ad Ibrahim, Chief of Army Staff Lt. Gen. Azubuike Ihejirika, and Chief of Naval Staff Vice Admiral Joseph Ezeoba. The former two held key positions in the war on terror, and the latter was supposed to stop the theft of oil from the Delta. In addition, Mr Jonathan had to act to modernise the command, tactics and strategies of the military that analysts said was too rooted in old conventional ways and unable to deal with Boko Haram and its tactics.

When announcing the sweeping changes, Mr Jonathan said that the National Assembly was briefed on the new appointments and its approval would be sought to formalise the appointments of the new commanders as required by court orders and the constitution. Major General Kenneth Jacob Minimah is to take over from Gen. Ihejirika as the new Chief of Army Staff (COAS), Good;lRear Admiral Usman Jibrin was appointed the new Chief of Navy Staff (CNS), while Air Vice Marshal Adesola Amosu took over as the new Chief of Air Staff (CAS).

While the appointments raised few eyebrows and in some cases appeared to be widely anticipated, the legal fallout has yet to be resolved. There have been complaints that Mr Jonathan exceeded his constitutional powers by appointing replacements. According to this argument he was free to fire the old incumbents, but replacements needed to be approved by the National Assembly before they could be formally appointed. The presidency appears to be skirting around that issue given that the current state of infighting in the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) was likely to cause delays in the appointment of key security personnel as members of the PDP played politics over the appointments. Mr Jonathan appears to have wanted to duck that possibility and he may just get away with it on national security grounds and thanks to the overtures to the National Assembly before the formal announcements.

Why do we care? Given its history, any major developments impacting the Nigerian military always cause a few ripples of uncertainty. That is no longer the case and the bold step to remove almost the entire Nigerian military high command in fact testifies to the maturity and robust nature of a Nigerian democracy that no longer lives under the threat of military intervention. Further, the slow pace of the war on Boko Haram, the infighting among the military commanders over how to deal with Boko Haram, and the dire need for new blood, new ideas and new strategies to deal with the rampant northern terrorism, all demanded decisive political intervention. The ripples from the legal and constitutional debates may continue, but the fact of the matter is that Nigeria today has a new command structure that appears better equipped to deal with Boko Haram and oil theft than its predecessors.

Analyst: Gary van Staden

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