About a month ago, Nigerians and the rest of the world, woke up to the news of a botched rescue mission in Sokoto, organized by Nigeria, with British support. The objective of the mission, which was not achieved, was to free two Europeans, a Briton and an Italian, who had been abducted and kept in captivity since May last year, by unknown criminal elements.
The mission was, according to both President Goodluck Jonathan and the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, organized and ordered by the authorities which gave them reasons to believe that the hostages' lives "were under imminent and growing danger."
That "credible information," as became clear from media reports, came from suspected criminal elements arrested after a three-hour raid on a compound in Zaria by a combined team of policemen and soldiers, staged just a day before the botched mission in Sokoto.
It is obvious from the few facts cited above that the decision to order the rescue mission was rash, just as the execution of the mission was rushed. The authorities had only one day within which to plan and undertake the rescue mission in a terrain and involving a group of abductors they know very little, if anything, about. Only by a miracle or divine intervention would such a venture have succeeded.
Wherever rescue missions have succeeded, they have been preceded by reliable intelligence gathering, good and painstaking surveillance of the environment and exact location of the place to be raided, careful planning and surgical execution. There was none of these in the Sokoto mission.
We grant, of course, that the authorities found themselves faced with a big dilemma, especially given the fact that the intelligence they received showed that the lives of the two hostages were "under imminent and growing danger." This meant that the situation was very urgent and they needed to act fast.
Still, given the paucity of reliable information and good intelligence about the environment and nature and structure of the big compound where the hostages were held, the number, history and methods of operation of the abductors, and knowledge of the exact room where the hostages were kept, the dilemma, in our view, ought to have been settled in favour of a more promising and less risky approach than a raid on the compound.
Afterall, media reports have shown that months before the botched mission, there had been negotiations about ransom payment and about when, where and to whom the hostages were to be released. If the authorities did not know this, then there was a failure of intelligence that can only be said to be inexcusable. If they knew this but failed or refused to pursue it as a more promising angle, then they cannot excuse themselves from blame for the failure of the mission.
But shoddy planning and failure to exert muscles in more promising directions apart, the manner of the execution of the mission itself made failure almost inevitable. The rescue team comprised a helicopter that kept hovering overhead, and 100 soldiers who almost immediately engaged the ruthless and well armed hostage takers in a five-hour gun battle. How would anyone expect, in such a situation where, for the kidnappers, the options were death or arrest, that the hostages would come out alive?
As it turned out, and not unexpectedly, the abductors, facing imminent death or arrest and with any hope of a ransom completely lost, simply shot and killed the hostages.
The whole affair didn't show our country and leaders in a good light. It is, in fact, almost a study in incompetence and planlessness. And if ours were a country with strong institutions through which the public could hold leaders to account, the president and all the top officials involved in this failed mission would have paid a price for their failures in this affair.
Lastly, it beats our imagination that neither President Jonathan nor David Cameron thought it fit and proper to inform and involve their Italian counterpart in the planning and execution of the mission. Why so? Was this lack of involvement intended to put Italy in the debt of both Britain and Nigeria if the mission had succeeded?
Whatever the reason, it is important that our leaders draw the right lessons from this failed mission. And at the very top of these lessons is the fact that there is no alternative to, or substitute, for good intelligence and careful planning. No mission succeeds without these.