On Saturday, the President of Niger, Muhammadou Issoufou was in Diffa, the largest Kanuri city in the country to thank his troops for their bravery and competence in repelling yet another attempt by Boko Haram to take over the town the previous day. It was a bold move as Boko Haram has made numerous attempts on the town over the past two weeks and they were still in the vicinity. But then, he is commander-in-chief of the armed forces so it was appropriate he was with the troops in spite of the risks.
The previous week, he was in a massive demonstration of tens of thousands of Nigeriens in Niamey showering thanks and solidarity on the armed forces of Niger for fighting Boko Haram with determination and success. Their Defence minister made an annoying statement stating that unlike Nigerian soldiers who flee at the sight of Boko Haram, their own soldiers stay, fight and win. Our brave spokesman of the Nigerian armed forces, Major General Chris Olukolade, was livid with anger and responded that the soldiers of Niger were bandits while ours were disciplined and effective. I understand his anger but I don’t know who advised him to show his anger, (all of us did feel the anger at the insult), as we do need their cooperation at this delicate stage of the war.
This week, Paul Biya will lead what the Cameroonians in a “massive republican solidarity demonstration” to thank their armed forces for their effectiveness in fighting Boko Haram. Here at home, I am a regular reader of General Olukolade’s tweets in which he has been urging Nigerians to be patriotic and show support for our troops rather than insulting them. My response was that I am very ready to March in support of CDS Badeh and his officers and troops but I would first like to see some good results to encourage me along that line. My question today is whether we are approaching that moment?
Over the past ten days or so, there has been a lot of apparently good news on the war against Boko Haram in Nigeria. This weekend, General Olukolade issued a detailed press statement on the recapture of Baga by our troops. It would be recalled that Boko Haram had on January 4 attacked the base of the Multi-National Joint Task Force, MNJTF, in Baga and taken over the town. According to human rights group, Amnesty International, over 2,000 innocent people were killed in the attack. The Nigerian military however denied the claim and said that the number of people killed did not exceed 150 – including terrorists, soldiers and civilians. The reality was that both numbers were “guestimates” as neither Amnesty nor the Nigerian military were there to count the casualties. All those who escaped were too focused trying to get out of the place to count and only said that a large number of people were massacred.
The operation to recapture Baga, Monguno and other territories held by Boko Haram kicked off around February 14th, the day we were to have started voting. We recall that Nigeria’s National Security Adviser, Sambo Dasuki, and the military chiefs had warned INEC that they could not guarantee security if the elections went ahead as planned as they would be busy fighting Boko Haram.
We all descended on them attacking them of blackmailing INEC to re-schedule the elections and playing out a script to scuttle the elections written by the PDP that has been trailing by far, vis-a-vis the growing momentum of the presidential candidate of the opposition APC. We said so because for most keen observers, a six-weeks extension could not make a difference that five years had not made in the struggle against Boko Haram. The reality is that the Nigerian military has always had a “believability deficit” as far as the war against Boko Haram is concerned.
My knowledge on the poor record of the Nigerian military in fighting Boko Haram was developed through the engagements we had in the Bring Back Our Girls Movement. We were first informed by the parents of the Chibok girls that the military told a lie when they claimed they had rescued the girls a day after the abduction. They also told us that villagers discretely followed the abductors of the girls and were phoning and informing the military about their whereabouts but no soldiers turned up to rescue them.
Angry at this non-response, we marched on the Defence Headquarters on 6th May 2014 where we were received by top generals to whom we told the Chibok narratives of the refusal of our soldiers to fight and rescue the girls. They did not deny the facts but promised us that they would soon start fighting. We reflected this in our report of the meeting and our good friend General Olukolade was furious that we were embarrassing the military. Specifically, his statement alleged that we distorted our report on the meeting ostensibly to pitch public opinion against the armed forces and to project the Nigerian military in bad light and further heat-up the polity. The rest is history because subsequently, the military itself started Court Martials against its soldiers and officers for cowardice and running away from battle.
The reality is that there has been a decline, if not collapse, in trust and confidence between the military and Nigerians on the war against Boko Haram. The military refused to open up to Nigerians on their low capabilities and lack of arms to prosecute the war, pretending that everything was going on fine. It was only over the last couple of months that they confessed their dire situation and started making amends. It was sad because we ended up losing so much time, which Boko Haram benefitted from to strengthen themselves.
Back to my question on whether we are at the turning point, over the past few days, the Nigerian armed forces have clearly launched a huge military campaign to retake territory lost to Boko Haram. On February 16th, the military announced it had reclaimed the town of Monguno and nearby communities after days of fighting. On February 19th, the military said it has invaded the notorious Sambisa forest base of the terrorists and was clearing them out of their hideouts. Other areas being recovered from Boko Haram, we are told, include Gajigana, Ngaze, Ngenzai, Marte Junction, Mile 90, Yoyo, Kekeno, Kukawa, Cross Kauwa, Kangarwa, Amirari, Kichimatari, Borokari Barati, Kauwa and other localities where troops have flushed out the terrorists in the operations preceding the entry to Baga. In their desperate attempts to escape Nigerian troops, many Boko Haram members are said to have drowned in Lake Chad.
The explanation, it appears is that the Nigerian Air force have been empowered by the Federal Government’s procurement of numerous attack aircraft including helicopters with night vision equipment and capabilities for night operations. In addition, mines-counter armoured personnel carriers’, high velocity T55 armoured tanks have also been purchased. These are the types of reports we have been waiting for and we are excited at these developments. Of course the story is wider than the Nigerian revival.
Our neighbours have finally made real the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF), which has finally been deployed to borders towns with Nigeria thereby ensuring a blockade for the terrorists. Chad has supplied 2,500 battle-hardened troops, and they are making a huge difference. We applaud this regional cooperation and wait to see progress against Boko Haram continues so that the “believability deficit” between Nigerian citizens and our armed forces could be addressed and if that happens don’t be surprised to see me in the streets demonstrating in support of, and not against our armed forces. For the armed forces themselves, its an opportunity to show they are on the side of the Nigerian people not just on the war against the insurgency, but also in their neutral conduct in the forthcoming elections where they have questions to answer in terms of their recent conduct in the Ekiti gubernatorial election.