No one expected the war against Boko Haram to progress without some setbacks and reverses but the attack on Auno village on Sunday last week, February 9, caused distress and consternation all across this country. The heavy losses of life, injuries and much destruction of vehicles, goods headed for Maiduguri as well as shops and houses of hapless village residents was very sad indeed. At least 30 people died, many more sustained injuries, an undetermined number of people were abducted while eighteen vehicles were destroyed, including a petrol tanker and heavy trailers.
The depth of feeling over the setback was such that some Maiduguri residents booed President Muhammadu Buhari when he stopped over in Borno on his way back from Addis Ababa, where he attended an African Union summit meeting. Although Presidency and ruling APC spokespersons tried to downplay the event, variously by saying that only some students did the booing and that they were sponsored by some people, it was a defining event in a region where Buhari used to garner over 90% of the votes.
The location, timing, circumstances and brutality of the attack all raised questions for which Nigerians are hungry for answers. There is a night-time curfew in Maiduguri, which is understandable, but soldiers stopped travelers at Auno, only 25 kilometers short of Maiduguri, as early as 4.30pm, according to the travelers. When hundreds of motorists became stranded at Auno, a proactive army officer should have reviewed the situation and either allowed them to proceed to Maiduguri or provided them with protection.
The army did neither. Instead, the small army contingent in the village disappeared in order to “mount an ambush somewhere” according to a Garrison Commander. Insurgents easily evaded that “ambush” and launched a brutal attack on the unprotected travelers and locals. No help came from the military while the attack lasted for an hour and a half. We support the call by Senator Kashim Shettima of Borno Central, the former governor of the state, for a commission of inquiry to find the answers to these puzzles and identify anyone who was derelict in his duties at Auno that night.
That the Maiduguri to Damaturu highway, the most important road in the region which was relatively secure even at the height of the insurgency, should now be so unsafe calls for a total review of military and security strategy. Army Chief Lt General Tukur Buratai reiterated last week that Boko Haram is not holding any territory and that they are only into opportunistic attacks on soft targets. Maybe so, but the army’s super camps strategy that led to withdrawal of troops from many small communities clearly needs to be reviewed. We also expect to see the recently launched helicopters in action in order to further degrade Boko Haram and push them back from key highways that they recently made targets of frequent attacks.
Widespread or not, the booing in Maiduguri should be a warning to President Buhari that he has not delivered on his most important election promise, which is to wipe out Boko Haram once and for all and enable millions of IDPs to return to their homes. If the president does not want to heed widespread calls to change the service chiefs, that is his choice. He must however sit down with all his key advisers, work out the right formula to end Boko Haram, obtain the necessary weapons and neighbours’ support, re-energise and re-motivate the military and security agencies to finish this job once and for all, and as soon as possible. Otherwise, the booing can become more widespread down the road.