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Ibrahim Attahiru: In memory of the soldier who led by collaboration

BY ISAIAH KUMUYI

As the Nigerian Armed Forces continue to make giant strides in their fight against insurgency and general insecurity in the country, we must continue to celebrate the memory of a patriot. He was Lieutenant General Ibrahim Attahiru, Nigeria’s 21st chief of army staff – whose 57th posthumous birthday is today. General Attahiru was the very definition of a man who came, saw, and conquered. At the heart of his strategy for conquest was collaboration, something which continues to give the armed forces the edge in this all-important fight. 

Tragedy struck on that fateful day of May 21, 2021, when the plane carrying him, and ten other officers and men of the Armed Forces, crashed en route Kaduna. Today, the nation still mourns the loss of a dedicated soldier, whose short time at the helm of the Army, exemplified the essence of collaborative leadership. 

Right from the home front, with his family, all the way to the battlefield with his officers and men, Lt. Gen Ibrahim Attahiru was a firm believer in thriving by putting heads together. He was strong, but he believed in collective effort. He was wise but was never impervious to superior arguments.  He was a soldier – a thoroughbred Infantryman – but he believed in the non-kinetic inputs of the media and civil populace to the success of the counter-insurgency operation.

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Before his appointment as the chief of army staff, he had earned his stripes as the theatre commander of Operation Lafiya Dole in Maiduguri, where he oversaw counter-insurgency operations in the north-east. His short stint of six months on that job made him see clearly that the insecurity challenge that confronted the nation required a synchronised approach that involved all branches of the military, and even other agencies. 

From the moment he was appointed to the top job of the Nigerian Army by former President Muhammadu Buhari on January 26, 2021, Lt. Gen Attahiru left no one in doubt about his approach to leadership, i.e. a commitment to cooperation and joint efforts. He wasted no time in changing the code name of the counter-insurgency campaign from Operation Lafiya Dole (Peace by Force) to Operation Hadin Kai (Let us cooperate). That initial step signalled a significant departure from what had existed before when service chiefs pulled in different directions.

The closer working relationship that began to develop among the Nigerian Army, Air Force, Navy and other security agencies must be remembered as one of the notable achievements of Lt. Gen Attahiru in office. He pushed for synergy of efforts, intelligence sharing, and resource pooling among the different branches of the military. That approach worked.

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It is on record that, for the first time, ground troops had the direct support of an air component. That was possible because service chiefs were no longer pulling in opposite directions, but were working together in a synergy that produced significant successes. 

In just 115 days, going by his principle of “take the attack to the enemy”, resoundingly successful operations were carried out against insurgents in the north-east. The dramatic recovery of Marte from the hands of Boko Haram terrorists in under 24 hours after its initial fall will always be remembered as the result of hands-on, inspirational military leadership. Again, it is on record that, because of the heightened pressure that the collaborative efforts of the armed forces piled on the insurgents, about thirty-five thousand Boko Haram fighters surrendered to the Nigerian armed forces.

According to a former chief of training of the Nigerian army, Major Gen. Okwudili Fidelis Azinta (Rtd) in the book: The man, the soldier, the patriot, biography of Lt. Gen. Ibrahim Attahiru: “Lt. Gen Attahiru understood the importance of collaboration, as you can see in his management of the operation in the North/East, starting with the change of the name to Operation Hadin Kai and the synergy formed with the other services in the fight. He understood that to get enduring peace, you needed the people. You can’t force it down the throats of people. We discussed the Theory of Trinity and how the Army, Government, and People must come together to win any war.”

The immediate past chief of air staff, Air Marshal Oladayo Amao (Rtd) also confirmed this: “We were together at the forefront of the counter-insurgency operation. We crafted strategies to combat insurgency and other security challenges with high aspirations. We had similar visions with the fundamentals of joint operations and synergy as a cornerstone of our strategy. He believed so much in joint operations.”

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As Nigeria’s chief of army staff, General Attahiru, was resolved to modernise the army and to turbocharge its capacity as a fighting force. He was resolved to reform it into a national institution that is ready, dutiful to country, dependable, and committed to continuous leadership development.  His commitment to meritocracy and welfare endeared him to officers and men of the Army and inspired a renewed sense of purpose. He was impatient with the lingering insurgency crisis. Many who know him have attested to his avowed determination to “make Boko Haram history, Insha Allah, by end of 2021”.

Painfully, the promising journey to victory on which he was beginning to take the country was cut short, just 115 days into his tenure. Alongside ten other officers and men of the armed forces, he was out there in service to the fatherland. Even in the face of death, he led with courage.

As we celebrate what would have been his 57th year on earth today, it is important that we remember his legacy of collaborative leadership. His brief yet impactful tenure serves as an instructive reminder that unity of purpose and collective action are the cornerstone of progress, especially in the face of formidable challenges. 

The life and service of Lt. General Ibrahim Attahiru give Nigeria a telling instruction that the hard work and sacrifices of our armed forces would only yield desired results when they do so in the spirit of collaboration. Even as Nigeria currently navigates her way out of security and economic headwinds, she would best do so when collaboration between the government and the people becomes the modus operandi. Ours should be an all-of-society approach.

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A tree never makes a forest. Fingers make a fist only when they come together. Lt. General Ibrahim Attahiru’s leadership of the Army was a beacon of hope, a reminder that when a people unite in pursuit of a common goal, they can achieve greatness – even in the most trying of circumstances. 

Nigeria’s 21st chief of army staff died on May 21, 2021. There is a significance that we can draw from the numbers 2 and 1. When added together, they produce 3; and what again did the elders say about the Tripod Stand? It never spills the soup!

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Fifty-seven posthumous cheers to Nigeria’s 21st chief of army staff, Lt. General Ibrahim Attahiru. May his noble soul rest in peace. May his legacy continue to inspire us all.

Kumuyi writes from the University of Lagos, Akoka

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