Metele: Never Again!, By Dele Agekameh
It is high time we started getting our strategy right against the Boko Haram insurgents by giving a response commensurate to the threat posed by the group.
The news of the November 18 attack of Boko Haram insurgents on the 157 Task Force Battalion of the Nigeria Army, stationed in Metele, Borno State, was hard to swallow by all well-meaning Nigerians. The offensive by the terrorist group was devastating, not only for the frighteningly high number of casualties, but also for the implications of the audacious attack and its demoralising effect on troops who are fighting on that front. The attack calls to question the entire military campaign against the insurgents and our preparedness for the changing nature of the fight in the North-East.
Despite public attitude towards the army, in light of recent occurrences outside the North-East, the death of a single Nigerian soldier in the defence of the country is a national tragedy. Although there is some controversy on the actual number of troops lost in the bloody sacking of the military base in Metele, reported accounts of survivors and other media sources suggest that the death toll may be close to a hundred. Military service is one of the highest commitments an individual can make to his/her country. This column salutes our fallen heroes in Metele and elsewhere, who have paid the highest price to defend our country.
At this time, it is clear that the best tribute to the fallen troops and honour for the ones still in the trenches, is for the government to ensure, to the utmost extent of its ability, that this occurrence is never repeated. Although the outrage over Metele in November has attracted international headlines, reports show that more than nine military positions had been attacked by a well-equipped Boko Haram in the preceding four months, with many military and civilian casualties. The bloody Sunday in Metele was followed by more fatalities when troops returned to retrieve the bodies of their slain colleagues. With military bases suffering repeated attacks, there is an urgent need to go back to the drawing board.
No mistake should be made about it; the insurgency in the North-East has since degenerated into full scale war. It is unbelievable to remember how it all began with misguided and over-zealous fundamentalists under the guidance of Mohammed Yusuf in Maiduguri. Today, the territorial integrity of Nigeria is under threat from fundamentalists, backed by fighters from across sub-Saharan Africa and beyond, boasting a mysterious pipeline of funds and supplies that now rival the equipment of our military. The same mistake of mismanaging the evolution of the group that was made in 2009 must not be repeated. The soft target terrorists have now grown into invaders of military bases and urgent action must be taken at this point.
The age of massive military casualty from open fighting in warfare has come to an end. Modern warfare is heavy on intelligence and strategy, with the route of least casualty always the most tactical. This requires adequate funding, and more importantly, military spending, in areas that ensure the loss of the least number of men. According to Lieutenant General Tukur Yusuf Buratai, chief of army staff, the $1 billion from the Excess Crude Account that was approved for military spending in the fight against Boko Haram is still tied up in red tape at the Central Bank. One expects quick resolution of this impasse, especially when the news media is littered with reports of troops lamenting the lack of weapons that can match Boko Haram’s fire power.
Besides the issues surrounding the efficient use of funds in ensuring that proper equipment reaches those on the frontline, there are questions concerning the coordination of the war effort against the insurgents. At least from the outside, it does not seem like there is enough synergy between the efforts of the different armed forces in the fight.
More investment needs to be made into equipment for aerial warfare. With an enemy like Boko Haram that feels safe in strongholds which are likely not easily accessible, the acquisition and deployment of more drones and fighter jets for reconnaissance and tactical missions will greatly reduce casualties. The strength of the formidable U.S. Army today is in its aerial arsenal, and we have seen this being used with precision in its fight against terror across the world.
The argument in military circles is that the army should engage the air force to drop bombs on suspected Boko Haram strongholds before the army advances on those places. Mention is still regularly made of the first attempt by the army to enter Sambisa Forest in the early days of the war, when the army had to beat a fast retreat under serious fire from the insurgents. Improved aerial power will also deflate the confidence of the insurgents in openly engaging any targets. It is reported that the insurgents arrived Metele in about 20 trucks; 20 trucks that cannot hide from a military jet or drone, if quickly scrambled sometime after the attack began.
Besides the issues surrounding the efficient use of funds in ensuring that proper equipment reaches those on the frontline, there are questions concerning the coordination of the war effort against the insurgents. At least from the outside, it does not seem like there is enough synergy between the efforts of the different armed forces in the fight. There may be gaps in the command structure between the different armed forces of Nigeria and in their relations with regional partners in the fight, like the Chadians, who may not be doing any better.
On Wednesday, March 5, 2014, this column suggested the formation of a war cabinet to direct the efforts of the fight against Boko Haram. The call came after lives were lost in coordinated attacks on soft targets, including schools in Yobe and Adamawa, and a twin bomb explosion that tore through the heart of Maiduguri in Borno State. The call for a war cabinet is all the more necessary now that the soft targets are being exchanged for core military positions by the insurgents in offensive operations that leave the country stunned.
When our ordinarily brave troops routinely take to their heels at the sight of the insurgents, the signs are not encouraging, not for our sovereignty nor for our dedication to the efforts against the insurgents. It is time for a shift in our strategy too, one that honours our men on the frontlines.
Four days after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in the United States, President George W. Bush held a meeting of a war cabinet that had been created in response to the attack. Part of the cabinet included the equivalent of Nigeria’s minister of defence, national security adviser, secretary to the government of the federation, minister of finance, director of the National Intelligence Agency, director of the Department of State Services and others. The president himself and his vice president were members of the cabinet.
A war cabinet is an age-long approach adopted in statecraft during times of national security distress, like we are currently facing, and its goals are usually clear and unambiguous. The government does not have to adopt the example given above verbatim, but some concerted efforts through apportioning primary responsibility for the coordination of all efforts in the fight against Boko Haram is urgently needed. For one, it lets us all know where blame should be lodged, and it puts the presiding authority on its toes, be it a dedicated cabinet level minister or a dedicated mini-cabinet for the purpose.
With such an introduction, the service chiefs can have the rallying point of a dedicated supervisory authority, like a war cabinet, where issues like funding, purchase and distribution of equipment can always be ironed out seamlessly and accountably. It is high time we started getting our strategy right against the Boko Haram insurgents by giving a response commensurate to the threat posed by the group. The political interference that seems to have plagued the efforts against Boko Haram can also be minimised through the creation of this authority, with the understanding of what lies at stake in terms of the lives of valiant troops and the innocent people of the North-East.
Attacks on military bases may be indicative of a shift in the strategy of the insurgents. Actively engaging the military in offensive attacks, rather than defending a position may suggest an expansionist drive aimed at regaining lost grounds or even widening the fight past the North-East. When our ordinarily brave troops routinely take to their heels at the sight of the insurgents, the signs are not encouraging, not for our sovereignty nor for our dedication to the efforts against the insurgents. It is time for a shift in our strategy too, one that honours our men on the frontlines.
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