Following the November 25, 2012, explosions that killed at least 15 people and left many more injured at the St. Andrew's Military Protestant Church inside the Jaji Cantonment in Kaduna State, the Chief of Defence Staff, Admiral Ola Sa'ad Ibrahim, ordered the re-deployment of the Commandant, Armed Forces Command and Staff College (AFCSC) Jaji, Air Vice Marshall Abdullahi Kure, as well as the Corps Commander, Infantry Jaji, Major General Mohammed D. Isa.
Both officers happen to be Muslims and are of Northern origin. Their replacements, AVM Ekor E. Osim and Major General K. C. Osuji, are both Christians and of Southern origin.
Whether by design or default, the action of the military meant that all the five military formations in Jaji have been placed under the headship of non-Muslims. This fact has led to some conceptions in certain quarters of religious and ethnic bias.
The Jama'atu Nasril Islam (JNI) in particular alleged that the action of the military authorities was motivated by religious and ethnic considerations. It said that the speed with which the affected commanders were removed and replaced prior to the launch of any investigation was a nebulous and punitive measure that the military did not consider taking after similar attacks on military formations in the past. The JNI, in its statement signed by Dr Khalid Abubakar Aliyu, also accused the military of "using two different approaches to address the same issue".
In response, the military through the Director of Military Intelligence, Major General Ahmed Jibrin, however noted that the officers' redeployments had no religious undertones.
Clearly, the issue is a sensitive one, made even more so given the circumstances. However, while the JNI is in a legitimate position to respond to issues of this nature, its mode of approach on this one could have been more circumspect. The fact the JNI's President-General and Sultan of Sokoto, Muhammad Sa'ad Abubakar, is a retired soldier, could have facilitated back-channel contacts to raise the matter with the military authorities. That would have minimised the chance of the rush to judgement that appeared to be case here.
The JNI's citing of a previous blast at the headquarters of the 1 Mechanized Division, where the General Officer Commanding (GOC) is a Christian, last February, as example of duplicity on the part of the Army because the commander was not also removed is not valid, because the gates were not breached. Another attack at Mogadishu Barracks also in Kaduna occurred outside the perimeters of the fence; there were no casualties.
Although it has been a longstanding trend in the country for operational decisions to be viewed through religious or ethnic prism, the recent redeployment of the two Jaji commanders certainly seemed to be tactless and did not take into account the sentiments it could evoke in the larger community. It would have benefited the decision-makers and the general public if the likely impact of such sentiments was considered and thought-through before the decision was made. That could explain, but not entirely excuse, why the JNI, despite its foundation as an impartial institution, did not exercise some discretion in its approach to the military to express its concerns.
It is important to address critics' concern that the redeployment of the senior military officers did not in any way imply their guilt or complicity. Even in non-military agencies, blame should never be apportioned before the outcome of investigations. Two boards of inquiry are currently investigating the Jaji incident and none has concluded its assignment. It goes without saying therefore that the officers' redeployment could not have been a result of any judgment in the case.
The military in Nigeria is widely seen as the last bastion that citizens can rely upon in matters of internal security and territorial integrity, and within whose ranks ethnic and religious colours are kept at bay. Sustaining that tradition should be the utmost goal of all its commanders. It would be a dangerous disservice to the nation and a betrayal of the people's trust if the military would have to pick and choose from a list of ethnic and religious biases before deploying its officer corps to duty posts in operational conditions.
That distinction entails some responsibility on the party of the military too, to be sensitive to the realities of the environment in which it operates, complex though it may seem.