Generals on a diplomatic mission

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One of the professional callings which have definitive impact on human society is the military profession. The military is a robust national institution. It is an institution that, as noted by Sir John Hackett, a British general, makes ‘anyone who decides to join the profession of arms become an unlimited liability of the state.’

General Hackett’s submission captured in his 1962 work, Profession of Arms…was further amplified in his 1970 lecture at the United States Airforce Harmon Memorial Lecture, titled: “The Military in the Service

of State” where he posited thus: “Until man is greatly better than he is, or is ever likely to be, the requirement will persist for capacity which permits the ordered application of force at the instance of a properly constituted authority.”

The training and exposure of military men in the service of their nations, makes them unique people in and out of service – in recognition of, and commitment to duty and country.

And for those lucky to attain the rank of a general, they automatically become statesmen. And as a statesman who understands how to conduct state affairs, you can be given any assignment on behalf of the state. It is then easy to see why the role of military men in or out of uniform, has been profound for many centuries.

It is this unique training and exposure which makes them loyal, patriotic, selfless and committed to duty, honour and country that has made both old and modern civilizations to deploy retired military officers for purposes other than assignments directly linked to their military career.

Countries such as  US, UK, India,Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, China, Egypt, Korea, etc, have various ways of utilizing their retired military  personnel. Even though they are apolitical and many stay true to such orientation, history is replete with instances where retired military men proved to be astute in politics.

The US’ first president and founding father, George Washington, was a general who was dragged into politics to lead the new state. The role of retired military officers has been so profound in the US, that many of its former presidents were soldiers dragged into politics after their retirement. From Washington, General Dwight Eisenhower, almost every American president has had military training either as combatants or reserves. In fact, it was a prerequisite for vying for the presidency of the US until recently.

In Nigeria, former President Olusegun Obasanjo was dragged from prison to join politics and subsequently lead Nigeria from 1999-2007. President Muhammadu Buhari is a military general who led Nigeria as head of state from December 1983 – August 1985. In other instances, Bsome are appointed to boards, others retire to a quiet life.

One of the areas in which retired military officers are utilized is deployment by their countries as non-career ambassadors. For instance, in the over two hundred years of American democracy, various administrations have utilized retired generals as diplomats. As noted in the Profile in Diplomacy on the Council of American Ambassadors, “the tradition of sending prominent Americans abroad for diplomatic assignments continued up until the present day. In the wake of the

Civil War, prominent generals were posted abroad for diplomatic assignments. Major General Daniel Sickles, Medal of Honour winner at Gettysburg, was appointed Minister to Spain; Major General Williams Rosecrans was sent to Mexico by President Andrew Johnson; and

Confederate General James Longstreet was sent by President Rutherford Hayes as envoy to Turkey.”

In India which is the largest democracy in the world with over one billion people, successive administrations have utilized the knowledge, experience and acumen of retired military generals. Research indicates that since independence, India has assigned a total of 18 retired defence to diplomatic missions as ambassadors or high commissioners. While 16 of these are retired service chiefs, the two other retired defence officers include one Lieutenant General (Srinivas Kumar Sinha) and a brigadier (Bhiwani Singh). The service-wise break-up of these 16 retired chiefs comprise seven army chiefs, five air force chiefs and four navy chiefs.

In the same vein, Indonesia has been tapping from the experience of retired military officers. In their article, ‘Indonesia: Diplomacy as Nation Building’, Dr. Greta Nabbs-Keller & Dr. Hadianta Wirajuda note that: “… former military and police officers (were) installed at ambassadorial posts where there is a key security dimension or hardship component. Retired Marine General Safzen Noerdin, for example, served as Indonesia’s ambassador to Iraq from 2012-2015. Whilst, former Police Commissioner- General and Head of Indonesia’s Criminal Investigation Agency (Bareskrim), Ito Sumardi, heads Indonesia’s mission in Myanmar.”

It is also important to note that current Pakistani, Indonesian, Bangladeshi, and Indian ambassadors to Nigeria are retired generals of their armed forces. For Instance, Indonesian Ambassador to Nigeria with concurrent accreditation to ECOWAS, including Sao Tome and Principe, Usra Hendra Harahap, is a retired two-star general of Indonesian Air Force. Similarly, the Pakistani High Commissioner to Nigeria, Muhammad Tayyab Azam, is a retired major general and an infantry officer. The immediate past Bangladeshi High Commissioner to Nigeria, Md. Shameen Ahsan, even though not a retired military officer, is a fellow of Bangladesh National Defence College.

Over the years, various administrations in Nigeria, have begun to embrace global best practice of tapping into the experience, pedigree and legacy of countrymen and women who have distinguished themselves in their chosen careers and appointing such individuals as non-career ambassadors, including retired military officers.

Recently, Lt. General TY Buratai and his co-service chiefs joined the roll call of military officers who have occupied ambassadorial positions such Brigadier George Kurubo, first Nigerian Chief of Air Staff; Brigadier Babafemi  Ogundipe, (deputy to General Ironsi) and

Brigadier Oluwale Rotimi. Major General Joe Garba was Nigeria’s Minister of Foreign Affairs while in service and served prominently as Nigeria’s Representative to United Nations.

Following this time-tested tradition, President Muhammadu Buhari in February 2021, nominated retired Chief of Defence Staff, Gen. Gabriel Olonisakin, Chief of Army Staff, Lt. Gen. Tukur Yusufu Buratai, Chief of Naval Staff, Vice Admiral Ibok-Ete Ibas, Chief of Air Staff, AirMarshal Sadique Abubakar and Chief of Defence Intelligence, Air Vice Marshal Mohammed Usman as ambassadors.

Fully convinced about what he wanted to achieve with the appointment of former service chiefs as ambassadors, the President worked closely with the National Assembly to ensure their confirmation.

While presenting the report of the senate committee which screened the nominees, chairman of the committee, Mohammed Bulkachuwa, said their nominations conformed with Section 171(40) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Bulkachuwa said the committee was satisfied with their performance and their knowledge of international diplomacy.

And in confirming the President’s nomination, the Senate President, Ahmad Lawan said: “These nominees that we have just confirmed are nominees that have served this country to the best of their ability. Our appeal to the Executive is to make sure they use their experiences as military men to the best.”

With their confirmation, the President wasted no time in deploying the former service chiefs to countries where geopolitical dynamics as well as the current and emerging security challenges in Nigeria are important: General Olonisakin was posted to Cameroun; General Buratai to Republic of Benin; Vice Admiral Ibas to Ghana; Air Marshal Abubakar to Chad; and Air Vice Marshal Usman to Niger. They have been issued with letters of credence, and have reported to their places of ambassadorial duties.

As already noted, the decision by President Buhari to appoint the former service chiefs underscores his understanding of ever-changing dynamics of regional, continental and global politics and diplomacy. It also indicates a strategic shift on the one hand, and clear desire to take charge as well as retool Nigeria’s diplomatic relationship with the assigned countries.

The appointment of Buratai and other service chiefs is not just a timely decision, but a timeless practice that has been on for over a century in even the most advanced democracies. It is therefore a well-informed strategic decision, rather than the dispensing of patronage which the partisan media and the opposition tried to ascribe to the appointments.

With this deployment, Ambassador Buratai is joining the ranks of other prominent chiefs of army staff appointed ambassadors in retirement such as India’s 8th Chief of Army Staff, General Gopal Gurunath Bewoor (he succeeded, celebrated Field Marshal San Manekshaw in 1973, who was appointed as his country’s envoy to Denmark in 1976).

Already, in less than one month of resuming duty in Benin Republic, Buratai’s tour of duty is yielding results. Reports indicate that the arrest of secessionist mastermind and so-called leader of Yoruba nation, Sunday Igoho, was as a result of Ambassador Buratai’s proactive approach to, and clear understanding of his diplomatic assignment.

It is hoped that Ambassador Buratai and other military chiefs will continue to justify the confidence of the President on the one hand, and of Nigerians (both those who supported or opposed their appointment) on the other hand. Like all generals who have commanded at tactical, operational and strategic levels at home and abroad, these new ambassadors understand not just how to wage war, but more importantly, waging war and keeping the peace.