The recent directive by the President of Nigeria and Commander-in-Chief of its Armed Forces, Muhammadu Buhari, for the Chiefs of Army and the Air Staff to re-locate to Maiduguri, the epicenter of the campaign against Boko Haram, generated mixed reactions.
A local newspaper reported, in the aftermath of the order, that the top brass of the military were unhappy at the directive. Quoting unnamed sources, the publication alleged that the top brass were unhappy at the directive as they felt it was intended to humiliate them. They were quoted as saying that asking them to move to the north east was akin to trying to equate them with the GOC (General Officer Commanding) Nigerian Army’s 7th Division (which holds sway over that area).
Upon actually relocating to the city however, the service chiefs that had been said to be unhappy about the move appeared quite cheerful and confident. That caused some to wonder whether the report published by the newspaper in question was actually true. Furthermore, the assertion by the chiefs that they have always paid regular visits to the area of operations to get a first hand experience of how things were proceeding and also to boost the morale of the troops and fighter pilots suggested that they did not equate the relocation with any unsavoury intentions by the President.
Indeed, the directive by President Buhari brings to mind the position of some African historians that modern African States do not apply the good practices in African history to contemporary efforts at state building. It is suggested by these scholars that there are many good practices that obtained in pre-colonial Africa that could help improve political administration today.
In the case of President Buhari’s directive to his military chiefs, it resonates with the practice in the old Oyo Empire—that thrived in present day Western Nigeria and spread all the way to the border between Ghana and Cote D’Ivoire. Given the fact that the two most powerful people in the Kingdom were always the Alaafin (Oba or King) and the Aare Ona Kakanfo (Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces), both could not stay in the capital. In fact, the Aare was required to always remain deployed in that part of the Empire that was most likely to suffer from an attack from external forces.
Scholars suggest that this was in order that he might be kept busy and also to ensure he is distracted from interfering in political matters. Furthermore, such permanent deployment served as a deterrent to the Empire’s enemies, who, knowing that the Aare was based in the location where their attack was most likely to originate from, would think twice before launching it. This would explain the location of Aare Afonja (in Ilorin) to checkmate Fulani encroachment into Yorubaland during the 19th Century Jihads (though he later invited them in when he fell out with the Alaafin—an act that explains the origins of the socio-political and demographic reality of Ilorin vis-à-vis mainstream Yorubaland today).
The celebrated Yoruba civil wars, or, more appropriately, the “Ekiti Parapo” wars, would appear to have profited from a dysfunction in the system that fed that policy, albeit indirectly. It all began when Aare Kurunmi—who, perhaps remains the most feared Aare in Yoruba history—was stationed in Ijaiye to checkmate threats from that direction, to the well-being of the Oyo Empire. Everything went on well until the Alaafin in power died and was replaced—against tradition—by his own son. He had gotten the Oyomeesi (Council of Chiefs) to swear on oath to allow this to happen. Kurunmi however refused to accept it—some experts say because he was quite old and conservative and preferred the old order—and so he refused to recognise the new King. The internal schism that thus resulted, seemingly with two monarchs in the Empire, fractured the political order. It also fractured the army, as the eventual civil war that resulted saw Oyo forces fighting against a fractured Ibadan and Egba confederate army. The Ekitis—another Yoruba group—saw that as an opportunity to break off the sovereignty of the Alaafin over them and so instituted what would later be described as the Ekiti Parapo wars. This was the situation when the British arrived and sought to impose indirect rule, using an Alaafin whose political power and clout had been considerably weakened. Of course it failed!
Thankfully, the Nigeria of today is a Republican democracy and not a monarchy, where political power and headship of all military forces is vested in one person—the President and Commander-in-Chief. However, the policy of stationing top military commanders in locations harbouring potent threats to the well-being of the state, perfected by the Oyo Empire, appears logical and sound. This may be why President Buhari, a strategic expert in his own right, may have been influenced by it and thus went ahead to apply this strategy.
From the foregoing therefore, President Buhari may have become the first African President to adopt a well-known and historically documented pre-colonial policy in African strategic reality to address a modern day military threat, even if threats to the well-being of the state are not a preserve of pre-colonial societies. His action is likely to re-open the debate on the need for modern African states to revisit their past and adopt sound polices initiated by their forebears to advance the well being of their peoples and drive the development of their societies.