• Shettima lauds war theatre commander, Nicholas, says predecessor was a disaster
Olawale Ajimotokan and Michael Olugbode in Maiduguri
The Nigerian government has paid the United States government $496 million for the acquisition of 12 Super Tucano fighter jets to be used by the Nigerian Air Force in the ongoing military operations against the Boko Haram insurgency in the North-east.
The Minister of Defence, Brig.-Gen. Mansur Dan-Ali (rtd.), made the revelation Monday at the special town hall meeting held for the military and security agencies in Maiduguri, the Borno State capital.
Dan-Ali said with the payment of the money, the U.S. government will deliver the jets as soon as possible, after accepting the letter requesting the sale of the bomber aircraft.
The Defence Minister, who insisted that the capacity of Boko Haram insurgents to carry out attacks had been completely neutralised, said U.S. President Donald Trump had commended Nigeria’s military strength when they met at a recent security meeting in Saudi Arabia.
The minister recently had expressed concern over the stringent terms given by the U.S. government for the sale of the aircraft, including the non-inclusion of Nigerian military personnel during their manufacture.
However, he did not state Monday if the terms had been renegotiated with the U.S. before payment or if they had been relaxed.
Speaking on the decimation of the insurgents, the minister said: “Gone are the days when our soldiers dropped their rifles and started running from the war front. Our gallant troops have successfully degraded the Boko Haram insurgents.
“Let me make it clear that currently, no single Nigerian territory is under the control of the Boko Haram terrorists. For instance, before the emergence of President Muhammadu Buhari, 21 of the 27 local councils of Borno State were under the total control of the insurgents. But today, they are all liberated.
“Currently no Nigerian territory is under the insurgents, while we have freed 30,000 people, mainly women and children held by Boko Haram.”
In addition, he said the government had acquired five units of caterpillar armoured mine-sweepers, new French patrol boats for the Nigerian Navy, and two fighter jets from Pakistan.
He also disclosed that many members of the Civilian Joint Task Force who had participated in pushing back the insurgents, may not be absorbed en masse into the Nigerian Army because of concerns over the federal character principle and other rigid eligibility requirements into the military.
However, the minister’s assertion that the Boko Haram terrorists had been defeated and territories in the North-east completely liberated was challenged by the chairman, Senate Committee on Defence, Senator Abubakar Kyari.
Kyari dismissed the minister’s claim, saying Marte Local Government in Borno, one of the local governments under his constituency, was yet to be liberated from the insurgents.
He said though the army had succeeded in decimating the insurgents, more efforts were needed to ensure the liberation of Marte Local Government Area.
Kyari also hinted that normal socio-economic activities were yet to return in the areas recaptured from the militants, following the restrictions placed by the security forces.
He advocated a review of the restriction on movement placed on the liberated areas so that residents could return and resume their normal lives.
In his remarks, the Bornu State Governor Kashim Shettima, who co-hosted the town hall meeting with the Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, commended the federal government and military’s efforts to end the insurgency, but said they should not relent by clearing Sambisa forest of remnants of the terrorists still hiding there.
“Now all the local government areas have been recovered. Suicide bombing is not a sign of strength but weakness by Boko Haram, who are a bunch of lunatics that thrive on cheap publicity.
“The Nigerian military in the past couple of weeks has taken total control of the Sambisa forest; they could not do that in the past three years,” Shettima said.
He singled out the Commander of Operation Lafiya Dole, Maj.-Gen. Rogers Nicholas, a non-Muslim of Igbo stock for exhibiting leadership and professionalism in the fight against the Islamic extremists.
Shettima sang the praises of Nicholas, saying he and the state’s Police Commissioner, Tom Chukwu, both coincidentally from Mbaise, Imo State, changed the game in the battle in the war-torn North-east theatre.
“Some of our greatest recent feats in the conflict were done by non-northerners and non-Muslims officers in the military. Most of the soldiers that sacrificed their lives are not of the Kanuri ethnic group,” he said.
He admitted that the Boko Haram insurgency regained momentum after 2016 because of the failure of command at the theatre of war.
Shettima was emphatic that the change of guard at the Operation Lafiya Dole Theatre Command, which saw the replacement of Maj.-Gen. Leo Irabor, who is now at the Multinational Joint Task Force, did not help in sustaining the winning spirit of the troops.
Irabor was replaced by Maj.-Gen. Attahiru Ibrahim, who has also been replaced with Nicholas.
The governor said Ibrahim did not give a good account of himself, as his tenure as theatre commander was greeted with embarrassing attacks on troops and civilians.
Shettima said he was disappointed to observe that the previous commanders, who are from the southern states of Nigeria, did much better than the last occupant of the office who is from the north.
“The last theatre commander who is even a northerner had woefully failed to perform,” said Shettima.
He restated that the replacement of Attahiru with Nicholas was a game changer for the counter-insurgency operations.
“When Gen. Leo Irabor, another southerner, was leaving, he left the Boko Haram insurgents in a degraded state. But the insurgents picked up hostilities shortly after he left,” he said.
Shettima said the recent victories of the military over Boko Haram were as a result of the change of guard at the military command and control centre.
“Some of our greatest accomplishments in the current counter-insurgency efforts were recorded under army generals who are not from Borno and northern Nigeria.
“And what we have recorded in the last six weeks outweighs what was accomplished in the last three years, especially under General Nicholas who is yet another hero of our time,” he said.
Shettima said the current tempo of the fight could only be sustained if the federal government doubles its support for the troops, especially now that the rainy season is over.
“We want the federal government to deploy more resources and sustain the current tempo before the rainy season sets in,” said the governor.
“We need to root out Boko Haram now before the dry Sambisa forest becomes an impregnable fortress for Boko Haram.”
Also speaking at the meeting, the Minister of Internal Affairs, Lt.-Gen. AbdulRahman Danbazau (rtd.), said that the expected first phase of repatriation of Nigerian refugees in Cameroon, Chad and Niger from this month might be further delayed.
He said 80 per cent of the refugees or 80,000 of them were from Borno State.
Danbazzau said a technical committee met with their Cameroonian counterparts two weeks ago to review the development.
“We are working as hard as possible but the first phase of the repatriation which is supposed to be in February may not be possible and may be shifted by the committee.
“Repatriation is voluntary, but we have the interest of the displaced people,” Danbazzau said.
He said the refugees would only return once the military gives the signal that it is safe for them to return to their former places of abode.
Also, former Senate Leader, Senator Ali Ndume, who was at the meeting, criticised the federal government for underfunding the reconstruction of the North-east destroyed by the Boko Haram conflict.
Ndume said over N2.7 trillion or over $7 billion was required for the rehabilitation of the region, noting that donor agencies had provided N230 billion.
He added that the federal government only budgeted N45 billion in the 2017 budget, leaving the Borno State Government to cough up N100 billion for the effort.
He lamented that of the amount appropriated by the federal government, only N10 billion was released last year to the Presidential Council on North-east Initiative (PINE), a development that overburdened the Borno government with the reconstruction efforts.