Worry over the absence of defense minister

THERE is worry within the nation’s defence sector about the vacuum created by the absence of a substantive Minister of Defence since Dr. Haliru Mohammed Bello was removed on June 22, 2012, a clear 15 months ago. Bello was sacked at the height of the insecurity in the North.
The situation has been compounded by last week’s sacking of the Minister of State for Defence, Dr. Olusola Obada, who was the acting minister while holding on to her official portfolio as Minister of State for Defence.
In the absence of a substantive minister in such “important and sensitive” ministry, President Goodluck Jonathan two weeks ago appointed the Minister of Information, Mr. Labaran Maku, as Supervising Minister. This means that while Maku still has full responsibility to his core ministry, the spokesman of the Federal Government would also exercise oversight functions over the Ministry of Defence.
As one source put it: “What sense does it make to put a part-time minister in charge of a ministry which has control over the military assets of the nation and the fate of tens of thousands of men and women in uniform; and a nation fighting a war against terror at home and is involved in peacekeeping operations abroad? This ministry needs a substantive minister and not a visiting one.”
Clearly, the present arrangement is unknown in the history of a command-structured ministry that oversees the nation’s military. Under the ministry, the minister exercises political direction over the military and supervises the activities of the tri-service Defence Headquarters and the three services – Army, Navy and the Air Force.
The list also includes all the training and operational institutions under the three services. Ordinarily, it was a herculean task for a minister and minister of state to supervise these institutions, including the civilian wing of the ministry. Now, the worry is how a visiting minister could help drive the continuing professionalisation of the military.
The ‘aberration’ of having a Honourable Minister of State for Defence (HMOSD) in charge as acting minister for over a year and now a visiting minister is confusing for members of the military who are used to dealing with a substantive minister, who functions as the representative of the President and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces.
While Obada was acting minister, her official title was Minister of State for Defence (MOSD). Yet, at events, she was variously addressed as Honourable Minister of Defence (HMOD), representative of the HMOD, Acting Minister of Defence or the official designation, MOSD.
A source noted that “by the nature of the MOD, it is not envisaged that the ministry would ever be without a substantive minister. It is just like a Defence Headquarters with an Acting Chief of Defence Staff, the Nigerian Army with an Acting Chief of Army Staff, a Nigerian Navy with an Acting Chief of Naval Staff and a Nigerian Air Force with an Acting Chief of the Air Staff for such a long period. The convention is that anyone acting in any of these positions is doing so because the substantive official is on leave. The military institution in Nigeria has not functioned with such acting appointments for so long.”
The HMOD represents the President and Commander-in-Chief as the chairman of the various councils for the services. They include the Nigerian Army Council, Navy Board and the Air Council. The councils act as the governing body of the services responsible for the direction of policy. It is also the confirmation body for promotion and retirement of officers. Statutorily, the Minister of Defence acts as the chairman of the councils.
Statutorily, the HMOD is also the chairman of the governing boards of tri-service institutions including the National Defence College, Armed Forces Command and Staff College, the Nigerian Defence Academy, Armed Forces Resettlement Centre Oshodi and the Defence Industries Corporation of Nigeria (DICON). In the long absence of a HMOD, the MOSD has been holding forth, a situation not envisaged.
And some have been worried if the decisions being reached at the meetings of the councils and boards would withstand any consistent legal scrutiny in the case of any controversial decision with an acting or visiting minister.
Obviously, the absence of a substantive Minister of Defence has stalled many decisions that require boldness which a caretaker minister would not dare touch. It was quite clear during the tenure of Obada. And in the last change of Service Chiefs, the influence of the substantive Minister of Defence was absent.
During Chief Olusegun Obasanjo’s first term between 1999 and 2003, the HMOD, Lt.-Gen. Theophilus Danjuma, had a firm grip of the military. In fact, it was Danjuma who one morning in April 2001 went to Obasanjo and requested for permission to effect changes in the class of Service Chiefs. Getting the President’s consent, Danjuma installed Gen. Alexander Ogomudia in place of Lt.-Gen. Samuel Victor Leo Malu as Chief of the Army Staff, Vice Admiral Samuel Afolayan in place of Vice Admiral Victor Ombu and Air Marshal Jonah Wuyep in place of Air Marshal Isaac Alfa as the Chief of the Air Staff.
When Alhaji Rabiu Kwankwaso resigned his ministerial position as HMOD to contest the governorship election of Kano State in 2007, Ambassador Thomas Aguiyi-Ironsi was immediately appointed to the substantive position, from his post as MOSD. In fact, never in the history of the MOD has a MOSD held sway for this long.
But a source said that “the only reason the president has left this present situation in the Ministry of Defence may partly be because he wants to indirectly handle the ministry himself. This way, he delegates the operational matters to the Chief of Defence Staff and the administrative issues to the Permanent Secretary while the supervising minister provides the political cover for the activities of the duo. The supervising minister represents the interest of the ministry and the Armed Forces at meetings of the Federal Executive Council (FEC). He presents the memo from the ministry. There may actually be nothing wrong with this if it is just for a few weeks. The situation can be tolerated for now as this is no war situation. The menace of the Boko Haram group in the North-East has been brought under control.”
But another source stated: “The provision of effective leadership to the ministry will be the first casualty of the decision to leave the ministry without substantive leadership.”