President Muhammadu Buhari’s appointment of Yusuf Bichi as the new Director-General of the State Security Service (SSS) has drawn the ire of senior officials within the key national security department, with many of them threatening to undermine not just the president’s re-election bid but also Nigeria’s counter-terrorism operation against Boko Haram.
Multiple officers told PREMIUM TIMES the secret police’s headquarters in Abuja and field offices across the country have been subsumed by an air of anxiety and volatility since Mr Buhari recalled Mr Yusuf from retirement and named him as replacement for Matthew Seiyefa on September 13.
Mr Seiyefa’s removal came a little over a month after he was appointed by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo.
Mr Osinbajo, while serving as acting president for 10 business days in August as Mr Buhari took a break in London, decided on Mr Seiyefa as the acting-DG of SSS after firing Lawal Daura for his role in the infamous August 7 siege by SSS operatives on the National Assembly.
Mr Seiyefa was the most-senior official at the time of his appointment, having enrolled in service in 1984. He assumed office with promises to perform his duties differently from his predecessor, who was infamous for his crude and controversial approach to law enforcement.
In his first two weeks as DG, Mr Seiyefa’s soft reform efforts were already being felt with gradual release of ‘illegally-detained’ suspects from custody and the appointment of the agency’s first spokesperson in three years.
A few days before his removal, PREMIUM TIMES learnt that Mr Seiyefa’s job was being threatened by top presidential aides, especially the chief of staff, Abba Kyari.
Mr Kyari, whom presidency sources said was unhappy about the sack of Mr Daura, tried to mitigate Mr Seiyefa’s control over the SSS. The chief aide ordered Mr Seiyefa to undo some administrative decisions he had taken, including postings, and operate only as directed by the presidency going forward.
At first, Mr Seiyefa rebuffed attempts to make him subservient to the chief of staff — arguing that he would only report to the National Security Adviser as legally required. But he later caved in under immense pressure from the presidency, PREMIUM TIMES learnt, and reversed most of the decisions.
Senior officers and rank and file who spoke with PREMIUM TIMES during Mr Seiyefa’s face-off with Mr Kyari expressed support for their principal, saying they would reject any attempt to further deface the image of the agency by dragging it into politics.
Mr Seiyefa also had the support of some leaders from southern Nigeria, who warned the president against removing the only southerner in the core national security and intelligence architecture.
But it appeared the former spy chief’s popular moves and goodwill were not appealing enough to persuade the president into allowing him stay on the job.
Stalling career progression
When the presidency announced Mr Seiyefa’s removal, there was a whiff of resentment that Mr Buhari took the decision not because Mr Seiyefa was incompetent but because he was not comfortable with a southerner overseeing a crucial national security desk going into an election he had been so keen on winning.
After Mr Seiyefa was sacked, the same group of concerned leaders from southern and central parts of Nigeria accused the President of fueling ethnic and religious division in the country. They said the president deliberately sidestepped senior officers in the SSS who were capable of being appointed DG and recalled Mr Bichi from retirement because he does not believe in Nigeria’s unity.
“That the president went ahead to deepen himself further into the cocoon of ethnic irredentism in making this insensitive appointment shows clearly that he does not care a hoot about the unity, cohesion and oneness of Nigeria,” the leaders, who include Edwin Clark and Ayo Adebanjo, said in a statement September 13.
Mr Buhari declared he would run for re-election in April, a disclosure that effectively shut out potential contenders within the party. A few months earlier, a former vice-president, Atiku Abubakar, had left the party, apparently sensing that Mr Buhari would seek the party’s ticket and no one would be able to stop him.
Other political bigwigs with presidential ambition who left the ruling All Progressives Congress for Mr Buhari included Senate President Bukola Saraki, Sokoto State Governor Aminu Tambuwal and Rabiu Kwankwoso, a serving senator.
Recent findings by PREMIUM TIMES showed that Mr Buhari faces the most potent threat to his reelection not from political opponents or critics like southern leaders but from disgruntled elements deeply embedded in Nigeria’s security architecture.
In the first week of Mr Bichi’s appointment, at least four SSS personnel at director levels, in separate interviews with PREMIUM TIMES, expressed displeasure over the development. Further interactions with additional eight senior and five junior officers across different departments and directorates confirmed the pall of grievance which Mr Buhari’s decision cast on the agency.
The officers complained that the appointment would greatly hinder their own career progression, with many who belong to the class of mid and late 1980s fearing they will not have a chance to produce a director-general before they retire.
“Afakriya Gadzama (2007-2010), Ita Ekpeyong (2010-2015), Lawal Daura (2015-2018) and Matthew Seiyefa (2018) all belong to the same class,” a senior official said. “Now all of them have been directors-general and no one from our generation has managed to get that high.”
Another officer from northern Nigeria condemned Mr Bichi’s appointment as threatening his own career, saying he would not forgive Mr Buhari for bringing him from retirement.
“This man retired since 2015, he got a security consultant deal with Lawal Daura that kept him near the SSS for two years until 2017, so why was he recalled three years after retirement?”
“I am a northerner and I do not agree with this move by the president because it will destabilise the service,” he said.
“We believe the president took this action to preserve himself in office, but we will ensure he does not get a reelection,” another SSS official at director level said. “In-between working for the opposition and frustrating the Boko Haram war, we will get him out of office.”
All the officers spoke under anonymity because they are still in service and fear they could be targeted for summary dismissal or worse punishment if named in this report.
The spokespersons for the SSS and the Nigerian presidency did not return several requests for comments from PREMIUM TIMES.
Successful leaders since Nigeria’s independence have always placed a heavy reliance on state agents in the SSS. Although the secret service was established to ensure national security, some military dictators and civilian rulers have used it to prop up regime security.
The threats by the SSS personnel came a few months before the general election in February 2019, and as the Nigerian soldiers are recording heavy setbacks in the war against Boko Haram.
Over 100 soldiers have been killed in recent campaigns by insurgents, who also carted away heavy military equipment and other supplies in a string of raids on military formations. The losses followed a few months of relative calm on the frontlines, with many in the northeast assuming the war was already won.
The Nigerian government has also asked residents to return to their villages from where they were once displaced by terrorists, but dozens of those villagers have been killed by insurgents after returning home on government’s advice.
A presidential call
Asides its widely known role of protecting political office holders and national assets, the SSS plays a central role in intelligence gathering for Nigeria’s internal security. Virtually all other law enforcement agencies collaborate with the secret police on security matters.
Even without going out of their way to cause harm, their inaction in most cases could result in a security crises, said security expert Charles Omole.
“Anything that affects the morale of officers is a major national security issue,” Mr Omole said. “What they do mostly is preemptive measures: they join the dots in terms of information they gather and prevent sinister acts before they happen.”
“Therefore, they do not need to do much to cause national mayhem. All they need to do is fold their arms on information they got and that would be a major disaster,” he added.
Some Western analysts have claimed there were times in the past when the United States and some countries in Europe stopped sharing intelligence with Nigerian security outfits because they feared there may be disgruntled elements ready to sabotage it.
“When it comes to employing security chiefs across the world, the president has a right to appoint anyone he likes,” Mr Omole said. “It is not a civil service in the real sense, so you can not say ‘it is my time.'”
“There are people who have been appointed to the CIA who are not career officers,” the expert added.
He said officers could only complain when their internal progression is affected, but not over a political appointment like the director-general.
Mr Omole said, as the new DG, Mr Bichi should immediately conduct an internal review of officers before the situation gets ugly.
“Internal progression, yes, but who becomes the director-general could be anyone the president appointed. There will be all kinds of disenchantment within the organisations, so this could be a symptom of something deeper than just the appointment of the new chief.
“As a minimum response, the new head of SSS should instantly conduct a review of the senior leadership and see how he could address it. That can help mitigate the situation.
“If there are people inside the system who want to sabotage the system, it would be difficult to detect. So this threat should never be ignored,” Mr Omole added.
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