Q and A
Reverence, Respect and Credibility
Brig. Gen. Saleh Bala
Discusses the Need for a Culture of Professionalism in Africa’s Militaries
Retired Brig. Gen. Saleh Bala spent 29 years in the Nigerian Army. He is a former military chief of staff of the United Nations Mission in Côte d’Ivoire and a former chief of staff for the Nigerian Army Infantry Center. He has a long history of teaching the fundamentals of professionalism to Soldiers, from cadets to midcareer officers. He served as an instructor at the Nigerian Army Infantry School, an instructor at the Nigerian Defense Academy and was on the directing staff of the Nigerian Armed Forces Command and Staff College and the National Defence College. After his retirement in 2013, he founded a research, training and consulting company, White Ink Consult. He spoke to ADF from his office in Abuja. This interview has been edited to fit this format.
ADF: Can you share an event during your career that underscores the importance of military professionalism and ethical comportment? What lessons did you draw from this event?
Brig. Gen. Bala: I was the third-most senior military officer at the U.N. headquarters in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, in 2011 and 2012. I was a military officer having to coordinate with my civilian counterparts since the U.N. headquarters is civilian led. So I learned how to operate and deal with the two cultures. The civilian culture is very bureaucratic, and the military culture is command-centric. It was a very trying year and a half, which tested my understanding and training at the strategic level. You must establish understanding, coordination, cooperation and communication in order to achieve integration in such a higher headquarters.
ADF: So you had to strike a balance between the military wanting quick results and the civilian leadership following its own procedures. Were there other challenges?
Brig. Gen. Bala: We were also the second mission after the Democratic Republic of the Congo that was the test ground for the U.N.’s protection of civilians policy. That also brought us into regular contact with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) who always want to maintain their neutrality in a professional sense. They did not want to be seen with the military — otherwise their neutrality would be lost in the minds of the other parties of the conflict. But the protection of civilians policy also included us ensuring the sanctity of routes, liberated areas and secured areas within which these NGOs could effectively operate. We had to play this role without impinging on or affecting their own policy of neutrality. It was a difficult situation, but at the end we were able to forge an understanding. We had effective coordination to secure the areas where the internally displaced people (IDPs) and the refugees were located. We were able to secure the routes on which humanitarian relief was provided as well as coordinate with the [Ivoirian] government to ensure that civilian security and administration were returned to the liberated regions.
ADF: As an instructor and a mentor, how did you include issues of professionalism and ethics in training?
Brig. Gen. Bala: I had the opportunity of graduating from training the tactical to the operational up to the strategic levels. This period of my service was also a period in which Nigeria was transitioning from military rule to civilian rule. It was also a critical and interesting period where the world was transitioning from a bipolar to a monopolar world. It was a period when we were having a paradigm shift from wars between nations to wars within nations. That brought about the emphasis for military operations to conform to humanitarian law and the laws of armed conflict. From the tactical to the strategic level, for me, it was a difficult balance to train officers to have the instinct to analyze things as fast as can be at the tactical level to achieve combat successes. But at the operational level, it became important to have a mix of understanding of the political and even diplomatic considerations for commanders. So, as we were growing and training, we were also incorporating critical political education and even diplomatic understanding of the sphere of military operations. We included training blocks for comprehensive U.N. operations, including how to write up rules of engagement, understanding laws of war, humanitarian law with an emphasis on handling IDPs and refugees, relief operations, and so on and so forth. That came into contention with inculcating in the lower-level military officer the instincts to confront threats and destroy them. This is a delicate balance, and I have continued up to today because I do a lot of mentoring at the Nigerian Defence Academy for young cadets who are to be commissioned into the officer corps.
ADF: Corruption is one area often criticized when it comes to the professionalism of African militaries. Corruption often happens in the procurement process. Can you explain how this can be avoided?
Brig. Gen. Bala: First, my response should not be misunderstood or misconstrued as saying politicians influence the corruption that has seeped into the military. The corruption which came upon the military was a total disappointment to the ethics and the professional ethos. This is mostly about concern for the lives and welfare of troops. It was hurtful to see inferior equipment, which we knew could fail with dire consequences for the lives and operations of our Soldiers. We experienced this massively in the Boko Haram insurgency where, at a point, shamefully, our well-trained and motivated Soldiers had to turn and run away from insurgents. It is a complex and difficult matter to deal with. Now we are having a new focus and regime where the Ministry of Defence is duly recognizing that end-user demand, meaning military demand, dictates what equipment is required. This occurs after judicious test and evaluation and research and development, based on a threat and doctrinal assessment process. The equipment must be cost-effective, understanding also the need for interoperability among the various services since most operations are now joint operations. So equipment procurement has to conform with interoperability so the land forces will be able to effectively communicate and share equipment with the air and naval forces. And vice versa. Even with the paramilitary forces, meaning police and border security. We have a coordinated effort, which, if such is done, and the procurement process is controlled by the Ministry of Defence, that should curtail corruption. There is also a new policy adopted, which is a bilateral country-to-country, government-to-government agreement on purchasing military equipment. That way the temptation of individual military officers to get into deals with contractors is well-curtailed.
ADF: What are some of the factors that push corruption in African militaries? Is there an institutional culture that needs to be changed?
Brig. Gen. Bala: The cultural aspect is quite an ethical dilemma for the average military officer. Once you are inducted into the military force, you become an elite in the eyes of your community, and you must climb the social ladder. You are expected to come back to your hometown to a very comfortable house. You are supposed to drive a fancy car. Your children are supposed to go to the best schools. You are supposed to take up school fees, medical bills, travel, marriages and feeding of your extended family. This is definitely not done on your basic salary. So this puts a lot of pressure on the average African military officer. On retirement, we hardly have a robust retirement plan. You find yourself retiring at the rank of a 1-star brigadier general, and your monthly pension is $600; how do you survive on that? When you were in service, your salary was up to $1,300 with free housing, free electricity, a staff car. How do you balance all this socio-cultural pressure and your family’s needs? So, typically officers, when they approach their retirement, are induced to corrupt ways in order to find a safety net for themselves.
ADF: How can this be changed?
Brig. Gen. Bala: There are several efforts now within the military to build a reasonable, better landing for officers on retirement. We have an independent pension scheme, which hasn’t quite changed the pay rate but at least you are assured that every month you will get your pension, unlike in the past when you waited a year or two or three after your retirement before you started earning your pension. We also started an insurance scheme that you can contribute into to provide health insurance. There is also a housing scheme for which you make a contribution during your service years and you are assured a level of accommodation in the location where you intend to retire.
But the preponderance of corruption among the nonmilitary elite is still a pull factor to military officers. You find today, even someone who is a distant junior to you, who has become a senator or a governor of a state, is able to fly on and even own private jets, expensive cars and provide security for his or herself. This is attracting officers to be unethical, against the grain of their training and their tradition. But the effort is being made to train and emphasize ethics from cadet school through the staff college and defense college, as well as the regular officer and enlisted training through the years.
ADF: Despite challenges, polls taken across numerous African countries consistently show the military as among the most respected institutions. Why do you think this is the case?
Brig. Gen. Bala: Mainly it’s about the institutional culture and the faith the general populace puts in the military. The military is known to be courteous, professional and hold strict regimented ethics. Orders are orders. And, what’s more, the military is always quartered and isolated from the general public. That distance gives the military an image of grandeur and invincibility which has been preserved for the past six decades in Africa, despite the aberrations in history of military involvement in governance. In the military, specific orders and projects are executed in a short timeline. This is quite unlike the civil, bureaucratic process which takes consultation, due diligence and political assessment before the project comes to fruition.
ADF: How does the military maintain this position in the eyes of civilians?
Brig. Gen. Bala: The military must maintain its professionalism in order to maintain and hold its image of reverence and respect, its general credibility in the eyes of its civilian masters. As such, it must remove itself and never be tempted to make or impinge on political decisions. It also must maintain its merit-based culture in order to select only the best for its leadership. It must also lend itself to civilian oversight. In several of the militaries, without mentioning nations, you find that simply for being the son of the president you are appointed the chief of intelligence services or even the chief of defense staff. This is affecting the militaries of a number of nations and resulting in ineffectiveness of such militaries in operations across the continent. But there is a groundswell of understanding that the military must maintain its subordination to civil rule, and, from within, it should build the upward mobility of its officers and enlisted based on merit.