Nigeria’s premier intelligence service, the Department of State Services (DSS, formerly known as SSS), has been at the center of several controversies in recent weeks. On 7 August, Nigeria’s then-Acting President Yemi Osinbajo fired the DSS’ director general, Lawal Daura. The DSS had barricaded the National Assembly, preventing some lawmakers and staff from entering the building as rumors swirled about plans to impeach Senate President Bukola Saraki. Disputes continue about who exactly was acting on whose orders.
Replacing Daura has also been controversial. President Buhari, once back from another medical trip to London, named Yusuf Magaji Bichi as the new director general on 13 September. Bichi took over from Matthew Seiyefa, a southerner who had stepped up as the interim head of the service. Bichi is a thirty-five-year member of the DSS/SSS. The controversy, however, stems from accusations that Buhari passed over as many as six qualified southerners in order to appoint a northerner. The fear among such critics is that Buhari is not only promoting figures from his home region, but also subordinating the DSS to his own agenda. Other reports say that Bichi “was a compromise candidate between the preferred candidate of some powerful presidential aides and the choice of the president who was said to have preferred a retired military officer to head the nation’s secret service.” So perhaps Buhari did not get exactly what he wanted. The presidency may have even been hoping that Bichi’s appointment would be seen outside of the context of regional “zoning” and more in the context of technocracy – but in that case they were obviously mistaken about how reactions would play out.
It’s really difficult for me to separate rumor from fact with stories like this, so to me one important point is the controversy in and of itself. Every federal appointment carries the potential for scrutiny and controversy, but this appointment seems to have been received particularly poorly by Buhari’s critics (see this roundup of online reactions). it is also striking how multi-faceted this particular controversy is. Even before the announcement of Bichi’s appointment, moreover, the whole spectacle of Daura, the National Assembly, and Buhari’s management style had provoked public speculation about whether and how the DSS fits into the chain of command – and about who really runs the agency. In other words, this controversy seems to involve more wide-ranging issues than other recent personnel matters, such as the controversy around the Finance Minister’s national youth service or lack thereof.
Obviously all of these concerns by the public and the president’s critics are heightened during the present election season, when various observers fear that the presidency will use the DSS as a tool of autocratic power – or that the DSS is freelancing in Nigerian politics for its own reasons. The saga of the DSS, Daura, and Bichi has also re-awakened fears that Buhari has not changed much from his time as military dictator in 1983-1985. At the link above, one can read the accusation that “it however appears difficult for those at the top to understand and accept the fact that the nation is no longer running a military regime. There is therefore the need for Buhari to lead by example. There is huge but disturbing politicisation of the various security agencies in the country, the DSS being the most susceptible, even though the police and others are not any better.” These are serious charges indeed.