Boko Haram: A General’s Frustrations

40
Back Page With Eni B, Email: eniola.bello@thisdaylive.com

“Ha Officer! How did Boko Haram insurgents kill, in one fell swoop, over 70 soldiers of the 157 Battalion, Metele, Borno State right in their barracks? I had thought those anarchists had long been, to borrow a presidential language, “technically defeated” since you showed them your mojo early to mid 2015. Are you allowing them turn you into Boy Scouts, once again? What is going on?”

“Seventy soldiers? A grave understatement! Those killed should be about 200 soldiers; add to that figure eight officers and the Commanding Officer, a lieutenant colonel. Forget the rhetoric of the Army Headquarters that only 23 were killed; it was a disastrous outing. The situation in that part of the country should not be seen as a northeast thing. And it shouldn’t be treated solely as a military affair. Nigeria is at war and the earlier the nation’s political establishment comes to terms with this, the easier it would be to find a solution to the menace.”

“You painted a very grim picture, a completely different scenario from serial statements from Army Headquarters of successful operations against the insurgents; or from Air Force Headquarters of successful bombings of Boko Haram camps; or from the Defence Headquarters of how the insurgents’ operational capabilities have been greatly degraded; or from President Muhammadu Buhari and his aides about how much the insurgency has been technically defeated. How do we reconcile all this?”

“We can begin to reconcile things by telling the truth for a change. The fact is those in charge of the armed forces have long been lying to themselves, lying to the political authorities, and lying to Nigerians. The military authorities always exaggerate the modest successes on the field while downplaying the challenges. They only tell the politicians what they think the political authorities wanted to hear. They make a meal out of few operational successes and generally understate the casualties. I remember during my tour of duty, the authorities only confirmed nine casualties in an operation where some 300 soldiers were killed. Air Force planes every now and then fly around the operational zone, drop a few bombs randomly and return to base to make outlandish claims of having successfully eviscerated some insurgents’ camps. Where in modern warfare does an air force independently operate without coordinating with soldiers on ground? How do you bomb an enemy’s camp from the air when there is no coordination with the ground troops to follow up with a mop up operation? On the strength of those lies, the political authorities have for long made a song and dance of the so-called technical defeat of Boko Haram even as the insurgents regroup, rearm, remobilize, re-strategize and return to battle stronger, faster, and deadlier.”

“Serious matter! What are the challenges really? Why are advances made not consolidated? How come we aren’t making much progress in this war?”

The challenge is military. It is also political. Take the T-72, a Russian armoured tank manufactured in 1972 and purchased by the Jonathan administration in 2014. What is no more than a tokunbo hardware is our main battle tank in the theatre of operation. It is akin to driving a Datsun 120Y car – no power steering, no AC, no alloy rims, no tubeless tyres, no spares, no airbag, no auto-transmission, no central lock – in Lagos traffic and struggling for space with modern automobiles. I leave the magnitude of the ensuing headache, for the driver, to your imagination. Those who were sent or made it their duty to negotiate the procurement of this obsolete tank and such other military hardware technology has since left behind were generals who had never fought a battle. They therefore had little or no understanding of the challenges poorly or badly equipped soldiers face. Soldiers, some of whom have grown fat on return from peacekeeping missions in other countries, are immediately deployed to the northeast with no more than two weeks retraining on the nature of the terrain and the terrorists’ unconventional methodology.

There are officers who play the fifth columnists, either out of greed or as Boko Haram sympathizers, giving out valuable information to the insurgents on troop movement and capacity. The present military chiefs have exhausted themselves; we need fresh ideas. Politicians influence recruitment and posting. Defence budget is grossly inadequate. The other day there was a great deal of furore over $1 billion special vote for arms. But then military hardware are very expensive, with Air Force and Naval equipment even more so. Pakistan, which has similar problem of insurgency to ours, budgeted $9.6 billion for Defence in 2018. If the National Assembly could have a percentage of the budget dedicated to its administration and welfare, there’s no reason an applicable formula extended to Defence spending, a percentage that should gradually increase over a period of time in the light of worsening security challenges. Lawmakers extort money in the name of some spurious oversight function. And of course, the Defence Ministry bureaucracy distorts the judicious application of military vote. These are some of the problems.”

“With the much trumpeted assistance from the international community, particularly the US and its allies, one had thought that Boko Haram should by now be history.”

“Assistance! What assistance? The US has been a big hindrance. I’m sure you know the US refused to sell Nigeria the needed arms and ammunitions to fight the insurgents, since the time of President Jonathan. I’m sure you’re equally aware the US prevented their allies, particularly Israel, from selling arms to the country. The US government had always justified their action on the alleged involvement of Nigerian soldiers in human rights abuses. But that is a hopeless excuse from a country that has never had a problem selling arms to many rogue regimes around the world.

What the US would not tell the public is that their decision was their way of arm-twisting, or paying back, Abuja not only for its refusal to approve the setting up of an American military base in Nigeria but also its turning down Uncle Sam’s request for unhindered access through the country’s no-fly zone. Personally, I see no reason why the government denied them their request except for some emotional sense of national pride. But emotions can’t be converted to military advantage. Had Nigeria granted the US request, we would have been able to learn one or two things from them. Since our refusal, the US has set up a military base in Niger Republic, our neighbor to the north. From there, they gather whatever strategic information on Nigeria that catches their fancy. For instance, the US gave the South African government the intelligence information that led to the seizure, in 2014, of $9.3 million cash two Nigerians and an Israeli illegally imported to that country to procure arms. Even now, it is common knowledge in military circles that the US uses our no-fly zone. We neither have the capacity to detect when they do, nor the capability to stop them.”

“Aren’t these issues discussed at meetings of senior officers?”

“Aaahhh! Don’t make me laugh! Yes, the issues come up at meetings. But honest discussion, that’s another matter entirely. Officers who have the courage of their convictions to speak honestly are either posted to military schools, if not abandoned there in punishment, or are conveniently overlooked during promotion exercises. Meetings are therefore hollow; all have learnt to speak without speaking, and for self-advancement, watch and coast along. “

“So how long do you think this war with Boko Haram would go on?”

“Should we continue handling the situation the way it is presently being handled, I’m afraid we may be on this matter for another 15 years at least. Indeed, the situation can only get worse as it is getting to the point where the insurgents will begin repossessing territories. However, if we operated from the prism of a country at war, properly and consistently equip the armed forces, and de-politicize the military, we should be able to end the conflict within the next 10 years.”

“Seriously!”

“Well you can help us by bringing our frustrations to public attention, perhaps those who make decisions for us would read you and act.”

“I can only try.”