For a brief moment when he announced the replacement of all four service chiefs on 26 January, it seemed that President Muhammadu Buhari was at last holding his military high command accountable for the disastrous unravelling of national security over the last five years. That feeling evaporated when he followed up with a statement thanking them for their ‘overwhelming achievements in our efforts at bringing enduring peace to our dear country.’ He also sweetened the move by insisting that they had offered their resignations. That looks like an embarrassing fiction.

For the past four years General Abayomi Olonisakin (Defence), Lieutenant General Tukur Buratai (Army), Vice Admiral Ibok Ekwe Ibas, and Air Marshal Sadique Abubakar (Air) mounted a well-resourced campaign to convince Buhari that they should stay long past their legally required retirement age, for fear of breaking all-important continuity at the apex of the security system.

New Chief of Defence Staff, Maj-Gen Lucky Eluonye Onyenuchea (Leo) Irabor

The argument might have convinced more Nigerians had the service chiefs presided over any measurable improvement in security. Instead, conditions have deteriorated badly, made worse by the increasing politicisation of the military and the intelligence services. Buhari’s appointment of their successors has been greeted with some cheers across the country. First to commend the move was the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) governor of Rivers State, Nyesom Wike, who sought an urgent meeting with the new chiefs to discuss security in the Niger Delta. Likewise, the militant Ijaw Youth Congress congratulated Buhari for a constructive initiative.

But the northern-based Arewa Consultative Forum, which has stepped up criticism of the government’s management of security over the past year, warned that it was too early to assess the capacity of the new service chiefs to reverse the government’s loss of control of vast swathes of territory, the ‘ungoverned spaces,’ in the north-east and north-west. All in their mid-fifties, the new service chiefs will unblock a spate of promotions and upward movement through the hierarchy, which should help boost morale. They have also all had substantial battlefield experience.

  • Chief of Defence Staff Major General Lucky Eluonye Onyenuchea (Leo) Irabor, from Delta State, is a trained engineer with graduate degrees. He has expertise in weapons of mass destruction and has completed stints in UN peacekeeping missions. He was commander of the Nigerian Army’s Operation Lafiya Dole against Islamist insurgents in the north-east. 
  • Chief of Army Staff Major General Attahiru Ibrahim, from Kaduna State, was General Officer Commanding of the 82nd Division and then deployed to command Lafiya Dole in the north-east, replacing Irabor in 2017. Ibrahim was then redeployed to Army headquarters by General Buratai but insists this was not because of the mission’s lack of success.
  • Chief of Air Staff Air Vice Marshal Isiaka Oladayo Amao, from Osun State, was Air Force Commanding Tactical Air Command and has substantial battlefield experience, along with various graduate degrees. Air power and aerial reconnaissance are crucial factors in counterinsurgency operations in the north as well as in anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Guinea
  • Chief of Naval Staff Rear Admiral Awwal Zubaru, from Kano State, is an underwater warfare and intelligence specialist. He has a doctorate in transport management. 

Those who think the appointment of the new service chiefs might be part of a delicately negotiated reorganisation of the security system point to the redeployment, announced on 9 January, of over 1,500 officers, of whom over 200 were generals. The new commander of Lafiya Dole is Major General P.I. Eze, who is from the south-east.

This excerpt is taken from Nigeria Focus, our monthly intelligence report on Nigeria. Click here to receive a free sample copy.