A coalition under threat, By Dele Agekameh
Like a nagging toothache, the issue of cowardice associated with Nigerian soldiers on the battlefront has again come to the front burner. It’s an old problem, an old problem that has now taken on the toga of a recurring decimal. In fact, this is believed to be a major clog in the wheel of progress in the ongoing fight against Boko Haram terrorists in the Northeast of Nigeria.
And last week, the media was again awash with news of soldiers running away from the battlefront. This bombshell was recently dropped by Mahamadou Karidjo, Niger Republic’s Defence Minister, when he made a comment suggesting that Nigeria’s troops are cowards. Karidjo had said: “Our soldiers are not like Nigerians. They don’t run.” His comment did not go down well with Chris Olukolade, a Major General and Nigeria’s Director of Defence Information, who swiftly took to his tweeter handle to denounce the statement. In a series of tweets last week, Olukolade described soldiers from Niger Republic as looters who collaborate with terrorists “as a way of surviving the poverty in their country.” He said: “Our soldiers have been defending our people and nation’s wealth from mercenaries supplied to Boko Haram by those who boast that they don’t run.”
But the Nigerien Defence Minister is not alone. Just last month, Abubakar Shekau, the leader of the Boko Haram terrorists, had in a 36-minute video released via YouTube, described Nigerian soldiers as cowards. He had said: “Your army kept deceiving the world that you can’t fight us because you have no arms. Liars! You have all that it takes; you are just coward soldiers. Is it not amazing that we, who started with sticks and machetes, are today the biggest headache to the almighty Nigerian soldiers? What a shame!! He did not stop there. He also boasted about Boko Haram’s collection of ammunition. Pointing to a heap of war arsenals, he said: “All these arms and ammunition you see in their thousands are gotten from Baga. As you can see, we have thousands of AK 47 rifles; we have so much that we are still conveying them to our camp here.”
It would be recalled that between January 3 and 7, 2015, Baga and its environs in Borno State became a theatre of wholesale massacre when Boko Haram terrorists, like a swarm of bees, descended on the communities. In the attack, the terrorists overran a military base harbouring the headquarters of the Multinational Joint Task Force comprising troops from Chad, Niger and Nigeria. In the melee that ensued, the troops, mainly Nigerian soldiers, voted with their feet, abandoning their weapons which the terrorists gladly confiscated and converted to their criminal use.
Writing under the caption, ‘The Devil’s Alternative’, on Wednesday, June 11, 2014, this column had this to say: “It is no longer in contention that the military is in tatters, no thanks to the many years of military dictatorship and the rapacious corruption that came with that era and subsists till date. The depth and breadth of the rot has been amply demonstrated by its lacklustre performance so far in the war on terror and terrorists now threatening to overrun the country or at least, a section of it. Nigerians are scandalised by the shallowness and cowardice of most of the officers and their amazing capacity for fibbing. Nothing explains this more than a recent submission by Mark Welsh III, a United States General and US Air Force Chief of Staff, who said that the Nigerian military is becoming afraid of engaging the Boko Haram insurgents. He said this while testifying before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee. According to him, ‘We’re now looking at a military force that is, quite frankly, becoming afraid to even engage.”’
With the above, notwithstanding the vituperations of the Nigerian Defence Ministry and its officials, it is quite clear that the Nigerien Defence Minister’s view about Nigerian soldiers may, after all, not be totally out of place. At any rate, there is a precedent to that as exemplified by the words spoken several months back by Mark Welsh III. Just last week, this view was also corroborated in an interview granted to the British Broadcasting Corporation, BBC, by an unnamed Nigerian soldier in the frontline of the battle against Boko Haram. The soldier accused Nigerian leaders of treating the war on terror like a football game where it is important to “support the home team” and armchair patriots can kick back in their houses while soldiers put their lives on the line. The soldier said he was willing to lay down his life for his country, but wants the country’s leaders to first solve the problems of low manpower, obsolete warfare equipment and underwhelming morale of soldiers.
Furthermore, the soldier lamented that, anytime they are attacked by Boko Haram, Nigerian soldiers are reduced to mince meat because “we don’t have support weapons and we are usually outnumbered.” “In some instances,” he said, “about 116 soldiers are asked to fight 3,000 well-armed Boko Haram terrorists.” When asked if he agreed that the current regional force can defeat the sect within six weeks, he retorted: “I don’t agree. I can look on, but I can’t agree. Things are wrong; that’s what I am telling you; that’s the truth.” According to him, “we can defeat them anytime, but if logistics fail, weapons fail, morale of the soldiers will fail because many things are wrong.” That speaks volumes about the situation on ground in the Northeast.
However, the latest embarrassment to Nigeria coincided with a promise by President Goodluck Jonathan, last Friday, that the nation’s security forces would completely wipe out members of Boko Haram from Adamawa and Yobe states before the March 28 and April 11 rescheduled dates of the country’s general elections. He made the promise during a cocktail he organised for members of the diplomatic corps at the Presidential Villa, Abuja. He said the security forces would carry out the operation in order to ensure that elections hold in the three affected states. He also boasted that his administration would defeat Boko Haram and terrorism the same way it defeated the Ebola Virus Disease.
The President must have played to the gallery in drawing parallels between a potential victory against Boko Haram and the Ebola Virus Disease that greatly tasked the country’s health system last year. I think that while, of course, the virus is still around, Africa or even the world cannot really rest on its laurels, never mind Nigeria and its West African neighbours. And also, war against a widespread disease and a war against a bloodsucking ideology, is all about relative examples. By the last count, the disease had wiped out the lives of no less than 9,253 people in the three most affected countries in West Africa, namely: Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Right now, the casualty figure from this Boko Haram terrorism, put conservatively at 15, 000, has far exceeded the total number of deaths from Ebola. So, in essence, what we have on our hands in Nigeria is a situation that is far worse than the Ebola Virus over which Mr. President is claiming victory.
A coalition of forces drawn from some of Nigeria’s neighbours including Cameroun, Niger Republic and Chad, have now contributed troops to fight Boko Haram. This has resulted in a renewed vigour in the onslaught against the terrorists to pave way for elections in the Northeast of the country at the end of March. At least 750 Nigerien soldiers are among the 7,500 regional joint forces. If the current face-off between the Nigerian and Nigerien army leaderships is not quickly resolved amicably, it has the capacity and ammunition to scuttle the ongoing regional military co-operation mid-way. Like Charles Hendrickson Brower, an American advertising executive, copywriter, and author who died in 1984 once said: “A new idea is delicate. It can be killed by a sneer or a yawn. It can be stabbed to death by a quip and worried to death by a frown on the right man’s brow.” Indeed, there is a lesson to be learnt here. There is the need for caution as these times call for sober reflection!