Storms upon the Navy Ship


For little known reasons, the Nigerian Navy has been getting bad press in recent times. I will cite at least four storms behind, upon and ahead the navy ship. It has weathered one or two, and it has to withstand the rest to avoid hitting an iceberg as the Titanic did.

One story that went viral on social media last month was a video footage showing “militants” attacking a facility in the Niger Delta and shooting “dead” three naval officers. It turned out that the “attack” was a military simulation conducted by the navy’s Special Boat Service in the presence of the mainstream media including the BBC and some Nigerian TV stations and newspapers. None of them reported what happened, however, until the navy issued a rebuttal.

Again, last week, some public commentators stopped short of calling for the sack of the chief of naval staff, Vice-Admiral Awwal Zubairu Gambo, for daring to site a naval base in his home state. A savannah area like Kano, one argued, is not deserving of a naval base, for it has no river deep enough to keep a ship afloat. Another commentator on television described Kano as a desert! On social media, both the informed and the uninformed had a field day lambasting the navy and its boss.

But the naval chief has done nothing wrong. Ranking naval officers I spoke with explained that the navy also operates on land: a naval base is not necessarily for combat but could also be an academy.  All naval establishments and units are called bases. And when they are for operations, training, logistics or administration, they’re called “stone frigates”; some don’t need to have a waterfront. “There is the Navy Finance and Logistics College at Owerrinta, Abia State – there is no sea there. The logistics part is being moved to Kano,” a commodore who refused to speak for attribution said.

To decongest its presence in Lagos, the navy has expanded to locations other than Lagos, Calabar, Warri and Port Harcourt: School of Armament Technology in Kachia, Kaduna State; School of Health Sciences, Offa, Kwara State; Command Naval Drafting relocated to Lokoja, Kogi State; School of Music in Ota, Ogun State. Then there is Owerrinta already mentioned. The School of Communication and Information Technology is going to Ife, Osun State.

The Kano base was meant to balance military formations in the country, I was told. And what is this balancing act? Two new bases are now going to Lekki in Lagos State and Oguta in Imo State.

Kano State governor Abdullahi Ganduje has offered 100 hectares of land for the new naval base in his state, even as the CNS has appointed Captain Muhammad Abubakar Alhassan as its acting commander. By doing so, the CNS has merely followed a tradition set by former naval chiefs and other influential leaders: The base at Owerrinta came, thanks to Admiral Amadi Ikwechegh. Bamanga Tukur’s wife is from Calabar, and the town had to win a base. There are other examples. Is it Gambo that should ignore his hometown?

The tempest being battled by the navy ship now is an allegation that it grabs land in parts of Abuja. Various land owners in Asokoro, Bwari, Karshi, Airport Road, Wuse and Maitama lamented that naval officers were “grabbing” their land and intimidating them. Were this true, CNS Gambo would qualify as an admiral of the fleet and land! It’s the FCT minister that oversees land in Abuja, not a military institution. And if there’s a disagreement between the CNS and the minister, they should at least submit to the chief of defence staff or the secretary to government of the federation or President Buhari. Happily, the FCDA has stepped in: executive secretary Mrs Zali Ahmed said a committee was bringing the navy, private developers and Abuja indigenes to a roundtable. It should work expeditiously for peace.

You might wonder what my interest in the navy is. Answer: the navy is my friend. In 1983 I was actually on the verge of joining the armed force, having passed the exam into the Naval College in Onne, Rivers State. When I left secondary school the previous year and was job-hunting in Port Harcourt, what I admired most about the navy was its uniform. On occasion I stopped well-dressed naval officers in the streets of Port Harcourt to inquire how I could be one of them. They encouraged me. After the training period, they told me, I would go home as a sub-lieutenant and with a personal car. Long story short, I rejected the offer because I was an only son! If I had joined the navy then – and survived the odds – perhaps I would have retired by now.

So, my advice to my navy friends is: follow the rule of law. We’ve passed the era of the jackboots. While building of naval bases might look ordinary, an obsession with land matters might suggest an ulterior motive as 2023 approaches.

Vice-Marshall Gambo seemed not to have headed a military command until his appointment as CNS in January this year. He was an “underwater warfare specialist with sub-specialization in intelligence”. In other words, combat was not his forte as a naval officer. For much of his career, he worked as an intelligence officer. Now he should demonstrate prowess in securing life and property. Every service chief’s performance is best judged by the state of security in the country. And I think that’s the marching order they received from the president after their appointments in January.

Gambo was conscious of that order when he addressed officers and ratings of the Eastern Naval Command in Calabar in May: “The Nigerian Navy has been doing its job at curbing insecurity like sea robbery, piracy, including crude oil theft and all other illicit crimes in maritime space. The additional efforts we are making are in the acquisition of more platforms.”

Acquisition of platforms is important, but it can’t substitute for building the character of men. While building platforms – perhaps including on Abuja land — Admiral Gambo would do well to consider the comfort of other compatriots who may not be serving in the armed forces. The security and welfare of the people, our constitution says, shall be the primary purpose of government.

The CNS should expect a storm also from the Navy Holdings Limited (NHL). NHL, whose GMD is Rear-Admiral M. Eno, and its subsidiaries are considered a cash cow in certain circles. Among the beneficiaries, I learnt, have been private companies owned by retired military officers as well as some serving officers preparing for life after retirement. Has the statutory function of fighting off external aggression on the high seas taken a back seat? Real estate development in choice districts of Abuja shouldn’t be a major attraction for seafarers.

At age 55, Gambo too should be preparing for retirement. He should resist pressure from his colleagues who might be seeking short cuts to riches. Those who fell to such pressure in the past – such as former police IG Tafa Balogun and former air force chief Alex Barde – are ugly reminders. Often, it’s the last straw that breaks the camel’s back.

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