Major General John Enenche, Director of Defence Information at the Defence Headquarters, in this interview with ARISE TV, a sister company of THISDAY, spoke extensively on military operations against Boko Haram in the North East, the recent US report, and the ambush of NNPC and University of Maidugiri staff on oil exploration mission in the Lake Chad Basin, among others. Paul Obi, who monitored the interview, brings excerpts
The military recorded some commended success in decimating Boko Haram, so what actually went wrong with the recent ambush?
Nothing really went wrong, that’s what the public see and tend to believe. Why am I saying so? Where did we start from with the whole of this problem, when you talk about Boko Haram insurgency? Insurgency is now at the level of terrorism, Abuja was affected, Kaduna was affected, Kano was affected, Okene was affected, Jos was affected, Potiskum was affected. But where are we now? It got narrow down to the epicentre in Maidugiri and the surroundings. If you analyse it, realistically, factually, statistically, Boko Haram is not on the rise. Nothing has gone wrong; it is because, if you permit me, the man who is not trained in war will not understand the dynamics of what has happened. What has happened is that their centre has been busted, and that was what happened December last year at Sambisa Forest, Camp Zero. There was a concentration there, it got busted and they are spread now. What are the Armed Forces doing after that? We called Clearance Operation and of course to show relevance, an enemy must seek relevance. But be that as it may, the general public will look at it as if something has gone wrong. Nothing has gone wrong.
Perhaps, we can tolerate the comments of the general public due to the fact that at a point in time we were told that as a terrorist group, they had been technically defeated?
They were insurgents, they took territories to themselves, they had command and control over particular places, particularly Adamawa, Yobe and Borno States, They were collecting taxes, in Borno State, they had control about 21 local governments that were under their total control and with their flags hoisted. But now it’s not so. So, they were technically defeated, the Commander-In-Chief was right. Are they holding any territories now, the answer is obviously no.
But there are a lot of questions that are supposed to be asked?
That’s the way it goes, how many Nigerians were monitoring terrorism outside this country? Virtually none. But we monitor it; we study it, from Afghanistan, from Iran and Iraq and all over the world. Even when we talk about the problem they had in the United Kingdom, Irish problem, that was how it happened. There is a pattern. I am telling you and assuring the general public sooner than later, by the time the Clearance Operation is cleared, you won’t see this happen, this is the tail of it.
The Presidency is dispatching the Commanders and Service Chiefs back to the North East, what is the situation?
Yes, I was there, we were there on Tuesday to review the situation, what that translates to is to review the strategy and the operational plan, and the strategy had been reviewed and we have put in place ways and means on how to achieve our operational objective. The operation is being reviewed, that is why the Chief of Army Staff is there, you will also begin to see the Chief Air Staff more in Yola where we have concentration of our air assets.
Will it be fair to say you have waited for the Presidency to have this reviewed and then actually return back?
You see, people will not understand, there is nowhere in the world where you have ever seen the Service Chiefs in the war front, right from the history of the world; let’s go back to the World War I and World War II, Nigeria is an exceptional case, and that is what I want people to know. You don’t even have the Service Chiefs sitting in the war front, no. Here is an exceptional case; it was not that they waited until they were ordered back. When they say take command and control right to the theatre, most times in history, it was even done from the rear headquarters. Now, what it translates is that there is a forward headquarters that is where they are, and that is where they would be going from time to time. It is not even to go and sit down there, no, that is not the interpretation.
Some days ago, our sister media outfit, THISDAY, broke that story about the US Intelligence Agency and its report about the military not being very capably equipped to retain control territories?
I got that report, a 19 page report on four countries of the Lake Chad Basin, it was a report to review the actions of the four countries, each country was captured. Now, the particular sentence that was misinterpreted to cause misinformation to the public was that, the Nigerian military, ‘having done this so far’ I’m just paraphrasing, ‘are not able to hold cleared territories.’ It is not the job of the military to hold cleared territories. If you interpret it, military will clear; there are other agencies of government in the coalition, in the whole centre that we hold ground, and they are there. So, the statement was interpreted to discredit the military. But in the same report, they said the Nigerian military has done so much to secure lives and properties of American citizens, Nigerian citizens. Can the report contradict itself? Obviously no. So it was done by people who wanted to misinform the public to discredit the Armed Forces of Nigeria, which is wrong.
Would you say the military is over stretched, talking about you being in the theatre and then also having the responsibility of controlling these territories?
No, we are not over stretched, it’s because you are not in the theatre. I was there, I fought there 18 years ago, I know what is happening there. I monitor there, the Defence Headquarters monitor there. Somebody outside would say they are over stretched, I believe we will get to a point when I will tell you what the real problem on the ground there is, as it is now, what we called problem or challenge. We are not over stretched at all.
What are the specific challenges right now, talking about overcoming Boko Haram?
The major challenge, if overcome Boko Haram will become a thing of the past in a jiffy, is getting information from the locals themselves. We have a high level of connivance, a high level of mischief; they are not coming out with information. Otherwise, tell me how, that right within Maiduguri, the suburbs that you see how people, who can even make IEDs and nobody comes out. When they see you are there, we are there, they will be looking at you, they would not even give you information. It takes a lot, the few that can give information, they are threatened, we know it, we know that. The challenge now is how to de-indoctrinate the people from what they believed for over 20 years ago. Some of them still believe in this ideology, but they would not come out. So, the challenge is information, getting information from the locals particularly, because they are high level collaborators.
Is that an indictment on the military intelligence and other security agencies?
No, it’s not the military intelligence. Any efforts in war, any effort in a situation like this, particularly asymmetrical war; it involves a lot of stakeholders, the people, the locals and the whole country, they need to come up. It’s part of it.
What is your relationship like with other agencies?
For the security agencies, yes, there is no challenge, we don’t have problems with them, but for the locals to come up, to be convinced. There is no total conviction on their part. That is what we have discovered, that is what is on the ground. We believe that with the efforts like that of the Borno State government and other opinion leaders, who are staking out their lives, who are churning out narratives and messages to the people, we believe that it will work. But we need to make more efforts as a people not the military alone.
You have done so much about communication and the gap and lacuna, one of them you said from the military, the people, how deep is the situation?
You talked about NNPC explorers and University of Maiduguri staff and all that who went on exploration. It was not a one day thing, it was not a two day thing, it was not a three day thing. No, it took over 15 days, I think close to about 20 days and it was on the last day. You don’t take any intelligence analysis to interpret, to know that, look; somebody gave them information, a local. 54 kilometres from Maiduguri, from University of Maiduguri, they saw them going every day, going round, doing the geological mapping and all. How do you talk about that? The reports by a self-acclaimed eyewitness that the people who gathered and attacked our troops are between 50 and 100; nobody saw them, now local saw them, within a few seconds? High level of connivance!
24 hours after the incident, we were taken aback when we received information that the military didn’t get the information right, was it a communication gap from your own part about the ambush?
No, it was not a communication gap. What happened was that, the normal procedure we have in the military or any operation is, there are six stages of reporting. First is the contact reporting, and that contact reporting act as what; what, where did it happen? What has happened? Then you start compiling the report. Then, you have the situation report. That one may even take hours, several hours, up to 12 to 24 hours, because there could be exchange of fire, combat for that period of time. It is that point that, you the commander, we call them friendly and enemy forces, we are now the friendly forces, supposed to have now counted, head count of your own casualties, those you can evacuate medically, you now evacuate them. Then, you now count your enemy casualties, and then you now give the situation report; that situation report was not supposed to be given to the public yet, in a situation where the public are highly interested. You now wait for the after action report, which will normally be after 24 hours. My dear, people are not patient. The main problem that caused this was that, unfortunately for us, the Force Commander was killed, who was supposed to give the contact report and even the situation report. Immediately we lost the Commander of that patrol group, and then about eight other soldiers. The second in command also went, so who would give this report? It was now left for an eyewitness, the Civilian JTF who just gave out whatever must have happened, that was what happened, and there was pressure on the Director of Army Public Relations. In the midst of that, that was why he now came out and apologised. If you talk about our own chain of communication, really there was no communication gap. Yes, because the person that was supposed to give communication was not there and it was not a deliberate operation. Of course, we are embarrassed, if not, why we would we come to apologise for that?
The US has just approved the sales of aircraft to Nigeria to fight Boko Haram. Let’s look at it, putting it side-by-side, a couple of years ago, Nigeria was not able to get military wares, how soon will we start feeling the impact?
It was because of the influence, the work of Boko Haram sympathisers, this time around, it didn’t work, that was why they did not sell the aircraft to us. False accusations of human rights and all manners of things. Just like this one now, you hear people saying the Army is corrupt, without any substance, that was what happened. Now, I want you to take a look at this. Last week, on Sunday, they released a report, somebody misinformed the whole world. Of course, there is no gap in time now; it must have been heard in the US, in the Congress and all, that we are not able to clear space in the North East. It was enough, if not because we came out, then, they saw the clear picture, that it was not so, it was not true. And immediately it followed, approval came, by the information you have and I have. So it is going to impact seriously on the operations by every standard. Of course, if for nothing, the psychological effect and the actual actions in the field. But for us to get it, of course it takes some time to produce. Once the order is placed, it is not a one week thing; it is not a two weeks thing and it’s not even a three months thing. The design is already on the ground, they would start the building and the construction, that I am very sure of. It takes some time, sometimes months for them to churn them out. The moment they churn them out, the technical staff trained, actions start.
Just to land on this one, what about human rights abuses in the North East, particularly in IDPs camps, what is the military actually doing about this?
Well, if anybody is found wanting, found culpable, he will be prosecuted. Nobody has been found wanting, to the best of my knowledge, I was in touch with the Army, and I’m in touch with the Air Force, the personnel that are there. Most of these accusations sometimes are false. Why am I saying so? I have been a Force Commander, I have been Troops Commander in Liberia, where it was false. People that even come to get stipends, they will accuse you of sexual abuse, such things are very difficult to prove. Sometimes, you begin to wonder, but I assure you, the Chief of Army Staff set up Complaint Desk, Human Rights Desk all over the divisions in the theatre. Once any case is reported, they would be investigated and we have been investigating them. It will also be unfair to unduly begin to punish, sanction our troops for what they are not culpable of. But we seek fairness to both parties, and that is what the Army Chief is doing and that is what the military is doing.
But just a final one, with the international cooperation across the world, are we seeing the extinction of Boko Haram soon?
That is it. You cannot put a time limit, even if you have all the arsenals, I will want to say that we need to de-indoctrinate the indigenes and the people around that side who harbour these people. You recalled, about 700 of them volunteered, they sent messages across through various means, we got the information, ‘we want to surrender’, we got 96 out of them, those ones that had been profiled and now they are in Operation Safe Corridor camp in Gombe, but they read what has happened, information gets to them. So, I want to appeal to the general public, particularly people in the epicenter and in that general area, to cooporate with us, give us information, expose collaborators, expose all the people that sympathise with them, because, it does nobody good and for the whole country in general.