Vain Search for Soldiers of Fortune

Twenty-three years ago, I used to interview Lagos lawyer Femi Falana and report on the activities of activists like him. At times in this column, too, I’ve quoted him because his opinions usually agreed with mine.  We all are activists!

Today, however, I must disagree with him and other senior advocates of Nigeria whose recent comments have been most unfair to the current chief of army staff, Lt.-Gen. Tukur Yusuf Buratai. Falana, Mike Ozekhome et al asked Buratai to resign following the “revelation” that he has two houses worth $1.5million in Dubai. If he didn’t resign, Falana advised, President Muhammadu Buhari should fire him since there should be no sacred cow in the anti-corruption fight.

If President Buhari were to obey Falana’s command all the time, he would be busy hiring and firing public servants throughout his tenure. But I don’t think even Falana wants the president to do his bidding always. It’s just that, as a friend of the media, he knows how to capture the headlines, a skill necessary for capturing (rich) clients also.

I’ve delayed my comment on the Buratai affair until now because I’ve felt it’s like putting the cart before the horse – I’ve waited for the outcome of a panel’s enquiry into arms’ procurement in the military. When, therefore, the headlines in both the print and digital media were filled with calls for Buratai’s resignation, I became confused but almost sure that some people were after some other people.

Why do some who preach human rights not extend the same rights to others? And why do those who know the law so well turn a blind eye to due process of the law when it doesn’t suit them? In this matter of Buratai owning $1.5m houses, for instance, lawyers Falana, Ozekhome and others know that no court of competent jurisdiction has convicted the army chief of stealing public funds. On what basis then would the president sack him? Falana acknowledged, in a statement, that “despite Buratai’s commendable feat of leading the Nigerian Army to defeat Boko Haram in the north-east, the war on corruption was also a must-win for the Buhari administration”.

The Punch, which gathered a potpourri of opinions to make up its front-page story last week, should not have sought or published Falana’s opinion on the Buratai affair. It forgot that the same Falana was the lawyer of Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzaky, leader of the Shiite Islamic movement, who is in court with Buratai and the military authorities over a deadly clash with the sect last December. Just like now, Falana had asked the army chief to resign after the bloody clash. Thus, he is an interested party in this case.

Whatever misgivings anyone had about Buratai’s integrity have been cleared by the report of the Presidential Committee on the Audit of Defence Equipment released on Thursday and President Buhari’s approval of its recommendations. I must confess: I was among those who quickly searched through the names of 52 culprits identified by the panel. Not finding the names of some former army chiefs and Buratai (who was once director of procurement), I was not satisfied. That was until Friday, when information minister Lai Mohammed clarified that the audit was being done in phases, and the audit report released on Thursday was the third of such, covering the period 2011 to 2015. The committee would commence the audit of procurement from 2007 to 2010 as soon as the necessary documents were available, the minister said, assuring that the federal government’s anti-corruption fight was non-discriminatory.

Maybe in the course of probing people and companies indicted by the audit report, Buratai would get hooked.  But, until then, nobody has a right to point fingers at the army chief for corruption. He has spent just one year – and he has done the job for which he was hired so well, as Falana himself has admitted. On the strength of Buratai’s performance so far, Buhari made the right choice.

I have consistently criticised the gulping of Nigeria’s scarce resources by security votes and defence expenditures. Given a chance (as president perhaps), I might decide to replace all the armed forces with a more efficient outfit that depended a lot on good intelligence. I made that clear in this space last Sunday (see “Homeland Security – The Way to Go”). So long as we allocate billions of dollars to importation of military equipment and governors’ security votes, so long will at least millions of dollars be pilfered, so long will the security situation of the country get worse, and so long will other sectors crying for attention be ignored. Few people in depression-prone Nigeria today would, if exposed to “security vote”, resist the temptation to pinch it.

We learnt it took the president time to appoint an army chief because he was looking for someone who was not tainted by corruption. And, according to the story we heard at the time, the general he found was not one who owned many mansions in Maitama and Wuse but one living in a three-bedroom bungalow somewhere on the outskirts – around Masaka or Mararaba, on the way to Keffi, Nasarawa State. Buratai had/has a snake farm in that area. I was wondering how profitable a snake farm could be, until someone I interviewed for this column told me that snake venom is sold to pharmaceutical companies at a very huge price.

Whether snake venom alone could yield $1.5m after a few years is none of my business. But I understand that this army chief did not omit the two Dubai houses in his assets declaration form. The military authorities have confirmed he declared that he and his wife owned them. Is his wife a general also? No, she’s in business. Just like Falana. Just like Ozekhome. What then is $1.5m (or N250m that time) to a businesswoman? I too have been in business for some years and don’t have assets worth $1.5m, but the same cannot be said of Falana or Ozekhome. I can swear that each legal luminary makes more than that per year!

There are no saints waiting to be made Nigeria’s chief of army staff. I believe Buratai, even with their $1.5m houses in Dubai, is still one of the cleanest and the poorest generals the Nigerian Army has produced so far. Has Falana not been reading stories of massive corruption involving other top military officers and politicians? Did he call on a president who, a few years ago, owned a university, a library, “blind shares” in blind trust and other assets worth several billions of naira to resign? Many know that the richest Nigerian today is not Dangote but a former army chief.Soldiers of fortune” is the title of Max Siollun’s book.

If Falana had been appointed attorney-general and minister of justice, as was rumoured last year, by now he would have been facing missiles from all directions like the current occupier of the position. Would he have resigned? And if his ambition to become governor of Ekiti State materialised, would he like to be pulled down unnecessarily?

For the sake of Nigeria, let us desist from harassing the few good people we have in government out of their offices. The military led by Buratai has done well in fighting terrorism – and that matters more. Even when serving officers are found to have taken a few crumbs, greater effort should aim at recovering the cash than on casting aspersions on them.


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