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Damned in translation: Nigerian national security adviser exposed in the mystery of missing billions to fight Boko Haram

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Azubuike Ishiekwene is Editor-In-Chief of Nigeria’s national daily newspaper, LEADERSHIP, based in Abuja.

Across Nigeria, people live in fear of attacks by Boko Haram or any of its many franchises – bandits, herdsmen, kidnappers, gunmen. And as lives are being lost and families shattered, we hear our national security adviser saying billions of naira supposed to be used to keep the people safe are missing.

Last week, Nigeria’s national security adviser, Mohammed Babagana Monguno, stripped the government bare in public, only to try to hide the ugly sight with fig leaves shortly after.

The pathetic damage control didn’t work. Monguno, a retired major-general, told the BBC Hausa service in an interview that billions of naira voted for by President Muhammadu Buhari’s government to fight insurgency could not be accounted for.

Stopping short of naming names, Monguno pointed a finger at the last service chiefs who, after overstaying their tenure as insecurity worsened, still earned promotion as ambassadors. Most of them now join the ranks of ambassadors still waiting to be posted a year after their appointments were announced.

Given the sheer amount of drivel on WhatsApp, I initially dismissed the message credited to Monguno as fake news. It read: “It seems the money released to former service chiefs by President Buhari to buy weapons to fight terrorism, banditry and kidnapping, is missing. Because the new service chiefs have confirmed to us they didn’t see where the new weapons were purchased in their handing over. Apparently, the money is missing, and we must investigate it.”

I advised the forwarder to be careful what he shares, only for me to double check shortly afterwards and find that Monguno said the words, as we say, with his own mouth.

Of course, he tried to walk it back, in a long-winded statement that took a combination of tailors, carpenters and bricklayers to improvise. But like Humpty Dumpty, the damage had been done. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men could not repair it.

It’s not the first time. In February 2020, he leaked a memo showing how infighting among the military services was undermining the war on insurgency and blaming former chief of staff and civilian, Abba Kyari, for hijacking control. It was as surreal as it was unprecedented, but the presidency did not deny it.

This time, however, it has denied Monguno’s claim of missing funds, but the messy trail and chaotic aftermath are a sad reflection of the current state of affairs.

Before the national security adviser finds a microphone for his next bombshell, it might be useful to remind him that one of the main reasons the government he serves was elected was to end the national slide into chaos.

Insecurity was so rampant before Buhari’s election in 2015 that Boko Haram claimed territories in Nigeria the size of Northern Ireland. The group planted its flag in several parts of the north, launched deadly attacks on places of worship and markets, abducted hundreds of schoolgirls from their dormitories and later attacked high-profile targets inside Abuja.

Our soldiers tried to fight back but there was not much they could do. Their superiors, we were told, had stolen the money meant for food, essential supplies and weapons and left the men to fight a deadly enemy with their bare hands.

The toll was not only in the broken morale of bereft soldiers. According to official accounts, Boko Haram killed about 12,000 people between 2006 and 2014. Thousands more were maimed or uprooted from their homes, leaving Nigeria today with more than 2.9 million internally displaced people – a horrific legacy with unfolding consequences.

Before 2015, General Buhari, as he then was, the presidential candidate of the All Progressives Congress, called President Goodluck Jonathan incompetent and asked him to resign. How could a government whose primary responsibility is to protect citizens fail so miserably and still want to continue in office?

Jonathan lost his re-election bid and Buhari won on the promise that he would root out Boko Haram and make the country safe again. But there was no way he could do that without cleaning up the military high command, which had been swallowed whole by corruption.

And so began a tortuous investigation into how the office of Monguno’s predecessor, Sambo Dasuki, managed $2-billion, an investigation with tentacles so long it left no nook or cranny untouched and so deep the dramatis personae are yet to recover from its impact.

For Monguno to suggest, as he clearly did, that nothing has changed – indeed that the pre-Buhari era might have been the golden era – is a poor verdict on his appointer. The hemming and hawing in his interview and the so-called retraction, however elegantly expressed, cannot repair the damage.

Monguno thought he was doing Buhari a favour by saying he thought the president had “done his best by approving huge sums of money for arms purchase”.

But whether he said it in Hausa, Fulfulde or Fula, it comes down to this: the nation’s top spy thinks the president’s job ends at signing off more than $1-billion so far for arms purchases while he, the spymaster-in-chief, stars in this tragicomedy as part-time whistle-blower and part-time loose cannon.

That can’t be right. There’s something from Buhari’s past that we know, that Monguno may also know about, that hinted at a man from whom much more could be expected.

It goes back to the days when Buhari was General Officer Commanding of the 3rd Armoured Division at Jos a little more than four decades ago. Bandits from Chad had invaded parts of Borno and it fell on Buhari to repel them. He flushed them out and chased them, tails between their legs, beyond the Nigerian border, well into Chadian territory.

Even after the Chadian president at the time promised to intervene and Shehu Shagari, who was then Nigeria’s president, asked Buhari to stand down, he demurred, pulling out later, almost at the risk of his commission. In interviews later Buhari said he had no regret and if he had to do it again, he would happily chase the bandits to hell and back, to secure Nigerian lives and territory.

It was that Buhari, tough as nails and the nemesis of Chadian bandits and Maitatsine outlaws, that Nigerians thought they voted into office six years ago. But Monguno, confirming one of the biggest concerns in many circles, suggested that Nigerians might have got a pig in a poke. Buhari is present to sign off more than $1-billion to buy arms, but absent to follow through execution? Where is his promise to keep Nigerians safe?

Monguno can argue about mistranslation. He can also say, as he did most unconvincingly, that his statement was taken out of context. But he’s damned if he was translated correctly and damned if he was mistranslated. His subsequent disclosure that “Mr President has provided enormous resources for arms procurement, but the orders were either inadequate or yet to be delivered” was even worse than his interview.

What he said, in plain English, which was more appalling than the Hausa version – in or out of context – is that there is still no connection between payments made for arms under Buhari and value received. Heart-wrenching news couldn’t get starker.

Public officials are human and subject to occasional mistakes. But what we’re dealing with is not a slip. It’s a man caught in the trap of his own loose tongue. You could look the other way if the consequence was only self-inflicted damage. Sadly, it’s not.

The biggest concern in the country today is insecurity. Up and down the country people live in fear of attacks by Boko Haram or any of its many franchises – bandits, herdsmen, kidnappers, gunmen, you name it. And as lives are being lost and families shattered, all we get for billions of dollars spent on arms are government officials speaking in tongues.

The last thing anyone wants to hear from a national security adviser at this time – one whose government made the investigation of money for arms by a previous government the centrepiece of its house-cleaning exercise – is that funds supposed to be used by the same government to keep the people safe cannot be accounted for.

That cannot be a joke, a mistranslation or a casual slip-up. And coming after the tenure of the last service chiefs, it makes you wonder why this late, and what else has been left unsaid.

Yet, what is said already raises serious questions about the national security adviser’s continued fitness for office. Monguno’s position is no longer tenable. He should resign or be removed. DM

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