Sep 8, 2010 | 22:56 GMT

5 mins read

The Politics Behind Nigeria's Military Leadership Changes

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan ordered changes in the leadership of his country's armed forces, police force and internal security service Sept. 8. The changes come a day after Nigeria's Independent National Electoral Commission announced the date for Nigeria's 2011 presidential election. By ordering the leadership changes, Jonathan likely is working to ensure the loyalty of the military before announcing his intention to run for president.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan ordered a shakeup in the leadership of his country's armed forces, police force and internal security service Sept. 8. The heads of the army, navy and air force, along with the chief of defense staff, police inspector-general and head of the State Security Service (SSS) have all been replaced. Of the men who held these positions, only one — former air force chief Air Marshal Oluseyi Petirin — remains; he is the new chief of defense staff. Petirin is the second consecutive air force chief to be promoted to that position. The move comes one day after Nigeria's Independent National Electoral Commission established Jan. 22, 2011, as the date of the country's next presidential election. Jonathan has yet to declare his candidacy for his party's nomination, but he is almost certain to do so soon. He probably is trying to ensure that the leaders of Nigeria's military and security services are loyal to him when that day comes, in preparation for the inevitable blowback he will face from his political opponents when he enters the race. Chief of Defense Staff Paul Dike, Chief of Army Staff Lt. Gen. Abdulrahman Dambazau and Chief of Naval Staff Vice Adm. Ishaya Ibrahim were all pushed out by the presidential order. The new heads of the armed forces branches are Maj. Gen. Onyeabor Azubuike Ihejirika (army), Rear Adm. Ola Saad Ibrahim (navy) and Air Vice Marshal Mohammed Umar (air force). Ogbonna Onovo was replaced by Uba Ringim as acting police inspector-general, while Ita Effiong took over for Afakriya Gadzama as the SSS director-general. Of these organizations, the army is the most powerful. It is noteworthy, then, that the new army chief of staff, Ihejirika, hails from the Igbo tribe in Nigeria's southeastern geopolitical zone. Ihejirika is the first Igbo to be named army chief since Nigeria's 1967-70 Biafran war, a secessionist struggle led by the Igbo that sparked an era of recurring military governments. This period ended with Nigeria's transition to democracy in 1999, but its legacy weighs heavily on the psyche of the Nigerian elite. It is therefore possible that Jonathan has chosen an Igbo as army chief as a means of ensuring that region's loyalty should he enter the presidential race. Though Jonathan is a southerner, there are still many opponents to a Jonathan presidency in the southeastern zone. Had Jonathan's predecessor, northerner Umaru Yaradua, not died earlier this year, he most likely would have earned a second four-year term in 2011. Because of the unwritten zoning agreement reached during Nigeria's transition to democracy, the presidency would then have been open to a southern candidate in 2015. The Igbo feel they would have been most deserving if this had occurred. But as it stands, a Jonathan presidential victory could well lead the north to clamor for a return to power for eight years in 2015, while a Jonathan loss likely would leave a northern president in office for two terms (until 2019). Jonathan has continued to tread very carefully as far as making public his plans for the future, as he knows there will be tremendous blowback from his political opponents if and when he announces he will run. It is no secret that Nigeria's northern elites oppose what they see as a southerner trying to usurp their rightful place in power. The level of protest that leading northerners have sustained so far is nothing in comparison to what it will be if and when Jonathan actually declares his candidacy. Every Nigerian president shakes up the military leadership. Yaradua last did so in August 2008, and his predecessor, Olusegun Obasanjo, did the same in May 2006. It is done so that no individuals in the military can become so entrenched in their positions that they pose a threat to the government. Jonathan's reshuffle is not outside the norm in this regard. However, his situation is different due to the incredibly high level of tension between north and south that has resulted from the circumstances that made Jonathan president. The last thing he wants is uncertainty over whether he has the military's loyalty, and he wants to make a change while the political atmosphere in Nigeria is still relatively calm. Nigeria is a country full of potential hot spots — the Middle Belt region of Jos, the recently calm Niger Delta, and the north, where the Islamist sect Boko Haram is causing problems again in the Borno state capital of Maiduguri. Jonathan is worried not only about the potential for a military coup, but also about how his political opponents could point to his inability to provide security in any of these regions as a way to discredit him during the campaign.

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