by Kayode Ogunwale & Nahimah Ajikanle-Nurudeen
Major General Ishola Williams is a household name in Nigeria’s political space, twenty years after his retirement from the nation’s army. He is a ’soldier of conscience’, whose blunt comments on issues affecting Nigeria are difficult to wish away. In this interview, he spoke on wide ranging topical issues and proffers solutions to the myriad of challenges affecting Nigeria.
You left the army about 20 years ago. How do you see the army of today?
I am a retired Major General from the NigerianArmy. I retired about 20 years ago. I’m completely out of touch with whatever that is happening in the military now but as a citizen of the country, I am also interested in whatever anyone of us can do in making Nigeria a better place and whatever role I can play within the limits of my energy and strength. I hope I can be able to do that becausethe country has been very kind, especially the tax payers money expendedon me to travel to different parts of the world for training.
What have you been doing since your retirement from the army?
I have been doing NGO work and trying to use my head in a way that can add value to the lives of the people, because if I get involved in business then I have to get involved in corrupt practices. I also have an advocacy that focuses on things that have to do with Africans in the Diaspora and how to make the life of our people all over the world better because black people are the poorest in the world. The black economy is shrinking in the global economy and we need to do something and take advantage of science and technology. Most interestingly, we have an indigenous knowledge system which if we do more research into, we can innovate modern science and technology and be able to produce goods and services along that line.Those are the things that keep me busy and I’m trying to find money to see how I can carry them out since nobody is ready to give me money and I am not prepared to beg anybody for money.
Tell us about your Civil War experience?
That was about 45 to 50 years ago. I don’t think we can have such war again. Who is going to fight who? Is it Yoruba against Hausa or Hausa against Igbo or Igbo against Igala or what? Nobody is going to fight anybody. It’s just that some people are benefiting from the present status quo. If we are sensible enough, Aba today could have be an industrial city because when I was young, Aba was already manufacturing and producing many things. Today, how many governors have governed Abia State? What have they done about Aba?
If you were recalled from retirement to serve or partake in a war for Nigeria, will you take up the service?
Of course! As a citizen of a country, whether you are old or young, you have a duty to give something back to the country in order to make it abetter place to live .
Some people believe that the problem of Nigeria is leadership. Do yousubscribe to this?
I don’t believe that the problem of Nigeria is leadership because there are always two sides to a coin. There is the leadership on one side and the followership on the other side. If there is no followership, there can’t be a leader. I have not seen a leader who has led himself or herself; there must be a group of people that you are leading and you must come from that group of people or they must accept that you lead them.
Followership must define its expectations of a leader and then stick tothose expectations in choosing the leader. If they don’t do that, they have nobody to blame and that is why the white men say that ‘a country deserves the leader it gets.’ For example, a Namibian cannot come and contest election in Nigeria. Nigerians are the people who are contesting and it is Nigerians who choose them. So, if Nigerians are good followers that want a good leader, they must put in themselves and look for the person who has character, integrity and the cognitive ability to lead them. If they fail to do that, they must not blame the leader at all.
What is your take on the issue of insecurity in Nigeria?
I will say that we have not been strategic at operational level. I have not seen any political party since 1966 that has put in their manifestoes, from the security perspective, what the country deserves to have for stability. That is the way we have been treating the police and the army. The stupid thing is that we continue to create new agencies instead of strengthening the ones we have. Instead of strengthening the traffic police, we created the Federal Road Safety Corps; you increase the cost, you give people jobsbut of what use? Instead of creating a volunteer force within the communities for civil defense and security, you decided to create a special force called Nigerian Civil Defense Corps, and what did they do? They are quarrelling with the police over arrest of armed robbers and defending pipelines. The people want to defend the pipelines themselves not give it to any government agency to defend. Until the day we behave like people who really want security forces for the real reason of having security forces as a public good and public service, we will continue to run into problems.
The second aspect of it is that most of the political leaders do not understand what security is all about. We need to be able to look at security from the two important aspects; first, the safety of the community and second, the security of the country itself. You should put emphasis on the safety of the community because when the community is safe, the country is safe; when the community is safe, the individual within that community is also safe. And what does safety mean? It is being able to live a life free of insecurity. So, when you have a country like that, then you have community safety and at the same time, you are able to protect your leadership so they don’t get assassinated, they don’t get kidnapped and this gives you a foundation for development.
In order to have the necessary force to defend that, what we should do first and foremost is to have a sort of total security approach, building on that community safety. The security agencies can then make sure that people within their communities don’t create problems. After all, where did the current insurgency come from? It came from the communities, the terrorists come from the community areas. So, if the communities take security serious and they work with all the elements of security agencies, we won’t have terrorism or the so-called insurgency. Look at Niger Republic for example, why don’t they have Boko Haram? They are majority Muslims. Why don’t Cameroon have until recently? People talk of governance as the cause of this problem, but Biya has been in government in Cameroun for over 30 years, why was there no insurgency there?
What can the government do to urgently to address the Boko Haram problem in Nigeria?
Unfortunately, if I discuss that now, it will be a story for the deaf and dumb. In fact, the President himself said he gets advice from the left, right and centre and he is confused and that is failure in strategic leadership. To a certain extent, it means he has a problem with his strategic team because he is supposed to get advice from right, left and centre but he has special advisers who are supposed to diagnose same. If there is an urgent problem, you don’t analyse anymore, you diagnose because when you are sick, you go to a doctor and at that point, a doctor doesn’t bother himself analysing, he diagnoses and asks for the symptoms and things like that and then prescribes medicine for you. We have passed the stage of analysis, we need some diagnosis and that is what we are not doing.
The second thing is that every time we do things, we look at the western model; every time we have a problem, we run to the United States. Now that the US says they are cut off, what is going to happen? It makes sense to me that if terrorism is a global problem and affecting us locally, we must find local solution to it. What the President needs is strategic thinking and tactical action. We aredoing the tactical action because we put soldiers there to fight with the civilian JTF, but at the strategic thinking level, I don’t see anything. I don’t see any innovation. If you look at the tactics that Boko Haram is using, it is normal guerrilla tactics where you hide, come out to strike and then go and hide again. It means that we are reacting to Boko Haram, we are not proactive. How we should become proactive is the challenge.
The third thing is that we just believe that we need weapons to be ableto confront Boko Haram. To me, weapons are of less concern. How to use the weapons and train the people to use the weapons properly are the bottomline because if you know how to fight, then you know what sorts of weapons you need to fight and who you are fighting. That is the way I think the whole thing needs to be approached. From what I read in the newspapers, it amazes me when the military says that it is doing something because every time they tell you that they have captured a place, Boko Haram will capture another place and abduct people and so on. The military has lost its credibility. Unfortunately, nobody believes what they say anymore.
Terrorism war is the most difficult war to fight and most countries that have succeeded is because the communities were the ones who were really on the look out for the terrorists. That is why I will continue to talk about community safety and building on that community safety. To be able to do that means the traditional rulers have a responsibility. We need to go back to the past when the Emirs were in charge of security within those communities. If not, we have a very long way to go.
You talked about lack of strategic thinking on our leaders’ part as being responsible for the continued Boko Haram insurgency. Can you proffer someof this strategic thinking and as a retired general, what do you suggest should be the government and military’s point of action now to curtail the menace?
It will be difficult for me to answer that question because I am no longer in the military and not close to government, so I don’t know what is going on there. From what I have heard, too, the United States says they do not want to give raw information to our intelligence services because anytime they give information, Boko Haram gets to hears about it. The Camerounians, too, have said the same thing.The second and most important thing is that nobody knows the leadership of Boko Haram. Even the military said they don’t want to fight Boko Haram and that they wished they could negotiate with them but regretted that they don’t know who to negotiate with. So, if I have to proffer advice, I need to be updated on a daily basis of what is happening and even visit places like Maiduguri or Mubi talking to people to be able to come to conclusion at various levels.
However, I know that if the state governments in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa are waiting on the constitutional provision that the Federal Government isin charge of security, they will wait for a long time. In the countries where they have managed to curtail terrorist and insurgent activities, ithas been states responsibilities. Now that these states have created some sort of civilian JTF, the best thing is to convince the Federal Government to let them train them up to that level where they will be able to take upthe job. The Boko Haram seems to be more afraid of those boys than those in uniform and if that is the case, it means that if these civilian JTF are properly trained with the community support, they will be able tocurtail Boko Haram elements to a certain extent. Why am I saying so?
Everytime the Boko Haram abducts people or raid a town, they are strengthened.That is why they can attack a place with 50 to 100 people. If you can stopor deter them from doing that, then you are reducing their strength.The soldiers cannot be everywhere but the communities have a lot of young people who, together with the efforts of traditional rulers, can curtail Boko Haram. So, the Federal and the state governments have to get to a stage in which the Federal Government must pass some responsibilities to the states formally.
You were recently quoted as saying that soldiers have the right to protesting view of the widely reported alleged mutiny and subsequentcourts-martial in the army. Can you expatiate on this?
What I mean is that when you take an accused to a court of law, you lookat the circumstances in which that crime was committed. That is why if you commit murder and they charge you for murder and you say you did it for self-defense, the judge will ask you how can you prove it? And if your lawyer can prove it that you did it in self-defense, the judge won’t sentence you to death. You may even be freed.
But in the case of those soldiers, yes, agreed they mutinied but for the first time in the history of the Nigerian Army, wives of soldiers also protested. If that has happened, it means there must be a serious omission on the part of the army, for the soldiers to mutiny and their wives to protest. So, is the army giving us a clear picture?
If you listen to so many people, they will tell you that at that particular time, the soldiers had not got enough ammunition or the weapons were not given to them or things like that or the Boko Haram did get information that the soldiers were coming to a particular place and they just ambushed them and so on. So, the boys were saying that no, we cannot continue like that and that is what we read in both the foreign and local press.
Now, I would have loved a situation in which the army brings out theweapons they captured from Boko Haram to show the public and then also show the weapons that the Nigerian soldiers are using and then we compare which one is superior. Those of us who have knowledge of weapons and ammunition can easily determine that. If you then sort out the situation, it will be clear to everybody whether those soldiers were right or wrong in carrying out their mutiny.
The second thing is that in the army, you say there are no bad soldiers, there are bad officers. For it to get to that level, what were the officers doing? For soldiers to get to that level where they would mutiny, you need to find out; is it because they were not well fed? Were they notgiven their allowances? Were their injured colleagues not given proper treatments in the hospitals? These are the conditions that you need to consider.
Of course, if you mutiny in the army or you commit an offence, you can be court-martialled, but what I am saying is that they do not deserve to be sentenced to death with all these conditions that I have enumerated. You don’t need to be an imam or a reverend father to see that and this is whythe death sentence should be reconsidered.
Your former military boss, retired General Muhammadu Buhari is contesting the 2015 presidential election. Do you think he can bring about theturn-around that the country needs at this critical time?
There are many possibilities; the first thing is that when you look at the party he belongs to, APC, I don’t see any difference between it and the PDP, except for him as an individual because he is tested but a tree cannot make a forest. If he wins, he has to be very stubborn and look for people outside the party to surround him. If the party does not allow himto do that, he should form his own kitchen cabinet of non-party people who have the brain because what has been missing in Nigeria is strategic thinking. We have no room for people who think. The public service will tell you this is the way we have been doing it; how can innovations come in if we continue to do it the same way? The country can never make any progress and that is why research and development is dead in Nigeria. How can a group of people donate N21 billion just for political campaign, are they crazy? The whole world is just laughing at us. If you call them that you have a research programme can you give us N2 million, some of them will tell you they don’t have and there are many people who have made proposals that can help this country, but they can’t find the money to carry them out. To me, Buhari has a tough job; he must surround himself with people outside his political party if he wins.
Recently, the Niger-Delta militant, Asari Dokibo threatened bloodshed if President Jonathan is not re-elected in 2015. What is your take on the statement?
I am not afraid of any of those statements! Where are they going to create problem? Is it in the Niger-Delta where they are already killing soldiers, kidnapping and so on, so what is new?
There was also a report that Tompolo has purchased warships…
Is the warship coming to attack Lagos or Borno? Is Tompolo going to bomb Lagos because they voted for Buhari? You should be laughing at that. Anyway, it won’t happen. If Tompolo and Dokubo wanted to fight, they should have joined Boko Haram, but they are not interested in that.