A seeming gaffe by the Chief of Army Staff, Tukur Buratai, appearing to disparage his own troops has once again vaulted the faltering war on terrorism onto public discourse. Although he has since protested that he was misquoted, what he has admitted and recent reverses suffered by Nigerian troops on the frontlines nevertheless warrant a review and reinvigoration of the strategy and operational tactics in the war effort. President Muhammadu Buhari bears primary responsibility in this task and Buratai, a duty to run an efficient army.
Condemnation followed the now-repudiated comments; a few voices also rose in his defence. Despite his disavowal, however, Buratai’s past public remarks, a memo and the insurgents’ resurgence raise troubling signals that demand urgent action.
Initial reports had quoted the COAS as saying that “almost all” the recent setbacks suffered by the military on the battlefield were due to “insufficient willingness to perform assigned tasks.” The report quoted him thus: “Many of those on whom the responsibility for physical actions against the adversary squarely falls are yet to fully take ownership of our common national cause.” Coming from the head of the military arm that is taking the lead in the 10-year-old war, this was sensational.
It was the more controversial as Boko Haram and splinters like the Islamic State West African Province, pledging allegiance to global terrorist groups, had been successfully sacking military outposts, ambushing military convoys, killing officers and troops and commandeering equipment.
But in his rebuttal, Buratai declared: “I never said that the troops lack commitment. It was completely wrong and I want to believe that, somehow, I was quoted out of context.” Notwithstanding this disclaimer, he had complained in the past of some of his soldiers’ performance. Moreover, the reversals suggest fundamental problems that need to be carefully examined and fixed.
A report last year cited a memo Buratai sent to all formations in which he warned commanders against abandoning their positions. The memo cited “recent occurrences in Operation Lafiya Dole (code name of the anti-terror campaign) where units abandon their positions cowardly in the face of enemy action without reasonable resistance is worrisome,” agonising that such action “has the potential to rubbish all laudable gains made in the war against Boko Haram.”
Something is definitely wrong. In the week of the COAS’s contested remarks, terrorists had overrun some military posts, killing 31 soldiers, two Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps officers and scores of civilians, as recorded by the Nigeria Security Tracker of the Council on Foreign Relations. At least, two battalion commanders, Lt.-Cols, have been killed and soldiers gone missing in action. Boko Haram had similarly attacked the task force battalion last November in Metele, killing a commander. There were four near-simultaneous attacks on military bases that left many soldiers dead and saw insurgents seizing equipment.
There are reports, speculations, allegations; and prompt official denials; of low morale, poorly equipped and supplied units and lack of timely reinforcements of troops under attack. Evidence of disquiet on the frontlines has also been provided by the series of court martial proceedings against errant officers and troops. In December, 2016, troops turned on their then commander, Victor Ezugwu, complaining of lack of food and unpaid allowances.
Buratai, the Defence Headquarters and Buhari should investigate all complaints by troops and stop routinely dismissing allegations of diversion of funds and allowances, weaponry and neglect of soldiers’ welfare. The war has lasted too long – 10 years and still counting. As everyone, from the President to the DHQ, international agencies and field commanders have admitted, jihadists from around the world are converging on the Lake Chad region. Felix Abugo, Chief of Transformation and Innovation, Nigerian Army, said with ISIS dislodged from Iraq and Syria, “there is undoubtedly a flush of fresh fighters and weapons to ISWAP. Therefore, our military is fighting a global insurgency, without the kind of global coalition that battled ISIS in Syria and Iraq.”
To defeat Boko Haram and ISWAP swiftly and decisively before the trickle of battle-hardened terrorists becomes a flood, Nigeria must change its strategy. The military has to be motivated, supplied and kitted with formidable weaponry. It must develop and become adaptable to effectively relieve besieged outposts and ambushed troops by rapid response reinforcing units.
Experience in the Middle East has demonstrated that you don’t fight terrorism alone and you need invincible air power. Foreign support has been limited to training, some funding and assistance through bilateral and multilateral efforts. They are not enough. Nigeria should open her doors wide with all options on the table, including accepting foreign troops, drone, joint intelligence and commando bases.
Without formidable air power, defeating insurgents is nigh impossible. Despite their powerful militaries, Iraq and Syria needed extraordinary help from the world’s great powers to overcome ISIS. According to Global Firepower, Iraq had 36 US-made F-16 jets, over 300 Main Battle Tanks, 535 armoured fighting vehicles and over 20 attack helicopters; Syria’s 477 military aircraft include 200 fighter jets, 133 attack jets and 166 helicopters, 28 of them attack, as well as 5,035 tanks and AFVs 5,170 AFVs. Yet, they needed deployment of the world’s most advanced military aircraft, including surveillance, weather and intelligence-gathering aerial assets. Nigeria’s inventory is nowhere near these, notwithstanding that the Nigerian Airforce has been credited with applying vigour and adaptation in support operations. We need an international coalition support urgently.
The President and the military brass must open up fully to greater and direct foreign assistance. Politics, narrow interests and religious proclivities should not feature in stamping out terrorists. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kenya, among others, forge very close collaboration with other countries as they confront terrorists. Under its Operation Berkhane, France has troops, bases and air assets stationed in Chad and Mali and supported by the UN Multinational Stabilisation Mission.
Buhari and Buratai should stop living in denial; their repeated claims of having defeated Boko Haram is false as terrorists are adaptable. Buhari needs to revitalise the counter-insurgency by replacing his security chiefs, who have done their bit for four years, with carefully selected new hands based on merit and leadership qualities.