Nigeria’s Chief of Army Staff, Lt-General Ibrahim Attahiru, died in a plane crash that killed ten other military officers, including crew members, in a trip to Kaduna on the night of Friday, 21st May. There was no immediate information provided about what might have caused the plane crash, but Brigadier Gen. Mohammed Yerima, Director of Communications for the Nigerian Army, said more details would be released soon.
Lt-Gen. Attahiru was appointed Chief of Army Staff by President Muhammadu Buhari on January 26, this year, replacing Lt-Gen. Tukur Yusuf Buratai, who had spent five years on the job.
The crash that killed the Army Chief is the third crash involving the Nigerian military in the past four months. On 21 February, King Air 350 crashed near Abuja, killing all 7 personnel on board. The Beechcraft King Air B350i aircraft crashed while returning to the Abuja airport after reporting engine failure en route to Minna. On 31st March, NAF475 “went off the radar,” with 2 crew members. Boko Haram claimed responsibility for the downing of the plane, but that claim has been disputed as the video evidence presented by the insurgents was a video taken from a crash site in Syria.
From the foregoing, the Nigerian military seems plagued by internal and external crises. On April 25, an Air Force fighter jet on a mission against Boko Haram extremists mistakenly bombed men of the Nigerian Army, killing over 20 officers, according to a military source. The soldiers, who were reinforced from Ngandu village, were said to be on their way to Mainok, headquarters of the Kaga Local Government Area of Borno State, which was under attack by militants from the Islamic State-backed faction of Boko Haram.
The military has also been dealing with desertions for some time. In July 2020, 356 soldiers applied to formally exit the Nigerian Army citing “loss of interest,” in a development that insiders say is indicative of the broken morale in the army. 24 others exited because they wanted to “take traditional titles,” making a total of 380 soldiers, including 2 Master Warrant Officers and 28 Warrant Officers, voluntarily discharging from the army, according to sources with direct knowledge of the development. However, it is unclear if their applications were approved.
In January this year, then Army Chief, Tukur Buratai approved the discharge of 127 soldiers who were exiting the Nigerian Army. The soldiers, drawn from various formations of the army across the country, are all of the junior cadres who are mostly at the forefront in the field. The military personnel, comprising one Master Warrant Officer, 3 Warrant Officers, 22 Staff Sergeants, 29 Sergeants, 64 Corporals, 7 Lance Corporals and one Private, were on course to be disengaged this month.
Lt-Gen. Attahiru’s death, which is coming on the heels of the alleged death of Abubakar Shekau, longtime leader of the Jamāʿat Ahl al-Sunnah li-l-Daʿawah wa al-Jihād (JAS) faction of Boko Haram at the hands of the Islamic State-backed faction (the Islamic State West Africa Province), will present a case of low morale to an army already stretched thin from fighting terror on multiple fronts across Northern Nigeria.
The military had received a morale boost, following his appointment in January which temporarily halted disaffection in the army, following President Buhari’s decision to extend the tenures of the immediate past service chiefs way past their retirement date. The losses raked in by the army and the military at large in the North East have been inflicted by ISWAP, the breakaway faction of Boko Haram, dedicated to hitting hard targets such as military installations, bases and personnel in ambushes such as the one that happened on March 12 this year in the Gudumbali area of Borno, where a military convoy lost about 15 soldiers and 4 civilian joint task force fighters at the hands of ISWAP.
A successive change in army leadership alters the status quo in the fight against Boko Haram, as operational changes might be made. When the immediate past Chief of Army Staff was in office, inter-agency rivalry at its peak saw the army bid for its own separate air force for operations such as “Lafiya Dole,” among others. However, appetite for that cooled with the appointment of Lt-Gen. Attahiru as Army Chief.
Although the Boko Haram insurgency is the most pressing task at hand, Service Chiefs are allowed to prioritize operations and lead the war effort independent of the President. The renaming of army supercamps to forward operating bases by the late Chief is an example of such.
Before his death, Attahiru was investigating the misappropriation of about $1billion set aside for arms procurement during the tenure of his predecessor. There are genuine concerns that the investigation could be derailed following his death. The army, and the military in general, are grappling with institutionalized corruption which sees soldiers serving on the front lines not being paid their wages or being paid in half, with fingers sometimes pointed at superior officers for graft.
With fratricides and other challenges within its ranks, Attahiru’s replacement does not only have the work of cleaning up the military on his hands, but also winning back the trust of Nigerians, who have been at the receiving end of massacres and atrocities (one of which was the “Lekki Massacre” on 20th October, 2020) perpetrated by soldiers. These are imperative, as rumours of coups loom large.
The multipronged security challenges facing the country means the involvement of the military in internal security operations, which have led to the influx of high tempo military operations in the length and breadth of the country. As mentioned before, the military is stretched thin, and so the type of fatigue manifesting among army personnel may be showing up in the Air Force too. The sustenance of the rather high tempo of these internal operations may be contributing to the compromise of safety of weapons and personnel, and in the case of the late Chief of Army Staff, military aircraft.
A few days ago, Nigeria’s Air Force officially took delivery of three JF-17 fighter aircraft during a ceremony at a base in Makurdi amid celebrations marking the 57th anniversary of the service. The fighters jets were handed over by Pakistan Aeronautical Complex, which constructed the aircraft and was responsible for their delivery. There are several other aircraft expected from the United States and Italy. As the defence budget goes up, emphasis must be placed on maintenance, which must go beyond mere budgetary provisions to real action as a means of preventing the multiple aviation disasters that have come to mark Nigeria’s military aviation space.
MacHarry is an analyst with SBM Intelligence