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Why we nearly lost to insurgency


NOW that it is officially on record that the Nigerian Armed Forces were “humiliated” by Boko Haram in the war against insurgency until help recently arrived from abroad, it is probably safe to begin a frank and open discussion of what transpired in that near-disaster. The purpose of such discussion is to provide a body of knowledge, which would enlighten all concerned to avoid similar missteps in the future. And since our humiliation was open, there is no shame in an open discussion of the circumstances surrounding it – in the spirit of genuine restitution.

Recall that after the initial skirmishes with the Nigerian State, the insurgents had left Maiduguri to set up base in Sambisa Forest. It was from there that they launched raids on surrounding towns and villages and sent suicide bombers to soft targets around the country. Considering the “closed” nature of Sambisa and its relatively sparse civilian population, this presented the best chance for the military high command to encircle the territory and finish off the enemy with one massive blow and with minimal collateral damage. But this chance was lost. The political leadership prevaricated and the army dithered, appearing even frightened to go into Sambisa which was literally portrayed as an impenetrable “evil forest” in the media narrative.

It was from Sambisa that the kidnap of over 200 Chibok girls was carried out, plus several other spiteful attacks on the soul of the Nigerian state. When nothing happened by way of a resolute response from the Nigerian military, the insurgents knew that something was amiss. Obviously emboldened, they left Sambisa and began to openly parade the streets of North-East Nigeria. They struck their targets at will and overran entire communities without resistance. So easily, in fact, that they soon began declaring captured areas as part of a new “Islamic Caliphate.” Such was their new-found courage that they soon discovered a new hobby in attacking military bases – the most notable being Baga which was laid to waste on January 3, 2015. The tide had clearly turned. The hunter had become the hunted.

First, it is obvious that our armed forces were very poorly led. This has been all too apparent from the start. Everyone could sense the political prevarication and lack of resolve. Everyone could see that the establishment was more interested in addressing press conferences than in getting down to the business of war. Those who recall President Jonathan’s “I am not a lion” speech of October 1, 2011 may well say that his words had come back to haunt him. Clearly, the Commander-in-Chief was slow in rising to the challenge of wartime leadership which is bold, direct and fearless. He was still leading with the peacetime methods of a gentle lamb. At some point, he even appeared more preoccupied with electioneering than leading the armed forces against a clear and present danger. Alexander the Great once said: “I am not afraid of an army of lions led by a sheep; I am afraid of an army of sheep led by a lion.”

As if our leadership problems were not enough, it must be added that a faulty national psyche had long polluted our armed forces recruitment system and left us with officers and men a vast majority of whom are not truly called to soldiering. Over the last 40 years or so, Nigerians have chiefly signed up to a means of livelihood in the army. For many, their greatest qualification was a letter of introduction from an emir, chief, retired officer or high ranking serving member of government. Everyone knew that the chances of Nigeria going to war with any of her neighbours (Cameroun, Chad, Niger or Benin Republic) were close to nil. So, they signed up and took the oath. The motivation was simply to rise through the ranks, as in the civil service, and retire with full benefits. Fighting insurgents like Boko Haram was simply not in the calculation.

That was why when the insurgency first broke, the initial challenge of the military authorities was to stop the deluge of persons scheming not to be posted to the theatres of war! And when they failed, many resorted to absconding from duty posts, refusing lawful orders or simply melting away in the face of insurgent advances. Those who were still wondering why our army, so “accomplished” in international peace keeping, should fail so woefully in real combat against a rag tag militia, were soon reminded that peace-keeping is like friendly matches. It’s a totally different proposition when you step out to play a competitive tournament like the World Cup.

Next, it has also come to light that our armed forces have been massively under-equipped all these years. They were like broken eggs elegantly displayed with the cracked sides neatly hidden from view. Insurgency only unveiled our national shame. Where were all the budgetary allocations to the armed forces over the years going? Have they been going to salaries and emoluments only or slipping through the cracked walls of corruption? Why did we have to do emergency arms shopping to stop a relatively minor threat like Boko Haram? If we were invaded by a professional army from a neighbouring nation, how could we have coped? How come even with the benefit of an air force and the full complement of “intelligence services” (two game-changers in modern warfare) we were still unable to gain a clear advantage in the battlefield? How come our intelligence services have not, till date, recorded any major hits against Abubakar Shekau, his lieutenants, or their social and business networks? The questions are endless.

Still another point that must be made is that our military high command was out-foxed both tactically and strategically by a band of ill-trained miscreants. In the opening phases of the insurgency, we were using conventional methods to fight a guerilla war. Wrong! Quelling insurgency is essentially by covert operations using intelligence and Special Forces. Our wrong choice of methods or the absence of alternative operational capabilities gave the enemy undue advantage: They went after easy civilian and military targets; we had no easy targets to hit because they mingled with innocent civilians, or so we were told. Even after the terrorists left Sambisa and entered the towns and villages, our armed forces failed to launch any major offensives to cripple their operational capabilities. Instead, we were reacting to their initiatives. Ordinarily, a national army should beat the drums while insurgents are made to dance until they become lame.

Lastly, it must be said that Boko Haram has been smarter in fighting a war of the mind. This is where all battles are first fought and won. The insurgents used abductions, raids and propaganda to demoralise our people. In contrast, Nigerian state officials were busy issuing meaningless press statements urging the people to “unite against insurgency” – as if the people actually supported the terrorists!! Not once were the ideological foundations of Boko Haram seriously attacked or its members rightly portrayed as “banza” (bastards).

In the absence of firm leadership, heart-warming victories on the battlefield and an ideological manoeuvre aimed at the heart of the insurgency, Boko Haram for too long had a field day recruiting young men and women who were either incensed by the failure of the Nigerian state to protect them, or simply sought “refuge” in the hands of the “new overlords.”

When this nightmare is finally over, there is only one sensible resolve that remains to be made: Never, never again shall any group take up arms against the Nigerian state and be left standing by the next sunrise! But before we can rightly take this stand, the numerous injustices inherent in the Nigerian state, some of which created the Boko Haram phenomenon, must be laid to rest.

•Anazonwu, a Lagos-based communication practitioner, sent this piece via

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  • FortB

    In all the contents of this treatise, the only correct ascension is that of political influence in the recruitment process and people getting into the force for employment purpose and not for love of the military. All others were wrong. As part of the force, I will give you a few tips to go and make further research of so that you can write a better article on this matter.
    1. The military was never afraid of the book haram.
    2. Obj regime, with pressure from the US using a defense contractor (MPRI), enacted policies that deliberately weakened the military. For example, slashed the defense budget, reduced the strength of the military from 100,000 to 50,000, retired compulsorily all officers who had hitherto held political office, engage the military in peacekeeping operations to divert their attention form politics, etc. To crown it all, strategic ammunition reserve depots were destroyed. Remember Ikeja and Kaduna bomb lasts?This era saw the appointment of generals from Intelligence Corps, Military Police Corps, Signals etc who in standard armies cannot be appointment to head a force. The effect is that the military was deliberately weakened to suit US purpose.
    3. Nigeria defense budget from 1999 fell from 0.9% of GDP to 0.5%, the lowest of any country fighting an insurgency. Normally, countries at war experience astronomical rises in defense spending to cater for the needed resources to prosecute the war. The opposite was the case for Nigeria after the Shagari regime. All because of fear of coups and the US negative policy to clip our wings from ever being able to again do what we had accomplished in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Check Pakistan, Tunisia, Algeria, Iraq, Kenya, Egypt that are all fighting one form of insurgency or another, their average annual defense spending is about 3% of GDP. So its not really a problem of corruption by the military leadership, but one of poor funding from the government which as I have said was deliberate.
    4. Next point is that Boko Haram was not better at strategizing. It was a problem of lack of local support for the military initially. Remember the attacks were focused on Christians and Christian assets initially. Thus, the northern elites and leaders tacitly gave support to the sect instead of to the government and its security agencies. Do you remember when churches were being bombed almost on weekly basis? Did you hear northern leaders condemnation then? Did you remember when northern leaders were accusing the government and its army of genocide? Do you still remember how the chief of army staff was being threatened with ICC? Do you remember how some northern leaders stormed the US Congress to lobby against Boko Haram being branded an international terrorist organization? Research global trend, no nation wins a counter insurgency war without local support.
    5. The successes we see now was because book haram evolved and started attacking Muslim interests in the north and across our borders. Remember the start of attacks on Emirs and some Mosques from last year? Attacks on Cameroon and Niger territories last year? This has turned the lack of support to one of support from both the northern leaders and our neighbors who in the past allowed their territories to be used as safe haven by the sect.
    6. Why then did this government wait so long before equipping the military? I guess lack of experience by the president and the pressure from the northern leadership and deceit by the US. On both counts, he should have listened to the military leaders advise much earlier.
    So, I believe with the few tips above, you can make another research and come out with a better and well thought out article. The above article is shallow to say the least.

    • Victor Anazonwu

      You have raised salient points, sir.
      So Boko Haram was better funded than the Nigerian military before February 2015?
      How about the Chadian and Nigeriene Armies now helping us flush out the bandits – are they better funded than our army?
      Why reduce everything to funding?
      I submit that even with 50,000 men only and poor funding, the Nigeria Army or any national army for that matter should be able to silence BH in a few weeks.

      • FortB

        You got it wrong. Chad military was better funded. Can’t say the same for the Nigerienes. France assisted the Chadians with training and equipment. Again, lets be careful with the real “support” from our neighbors. Most of the over-hyped reports you read of their exploits are not true. The Nigerian military has been the ones doing most of the fighting that led to recapture of territories that you have been reading about.
        Our neighbors are restricted to the border fringes to prevent Boko Haram from using their territories as regrouping, training bases and launching pads. Chad has been going back and forth at Gamboru, just inside our border. They took the town from BH, but they then left. BH returned to the town, and then Chad had to return again. That’s pretty much where they have been apart from helping the Cameroonian and Nigeriens at Mala Fatori and other places.
        If you took time to read my comment above, you will see I discussed much more than funding. Funding is just one factor. I raised over 4 different issues that led to state we were by 2014. Another thing is that you will be wrong to assume BH is a bunch of rag tag bandits. In their ranks are experienced former Chadian and Malian rebels with many years of fighting experience and training in guerrilla warfare. How else did you think they acquired the knowhow to make IED? Or got access to heavy anti-aircraft weapons? Or are able to operate armored and artillery vehicles/weapons seized from the army?
        Secondly, don’t forget that most of our troops are also tied down in the states helping the police out in maintaining internal security. Today we have soldiers in joint operations with the police in 32 states. So you do not have the liberty of deploying all the troops to the northeast.

    • IKYOR

      FortB: Your analysis is highly
      encompassing and very enlightening. Analysts and commentators ought to read
      FortB’s views more carefully. I would like to add: (1) The fourth point FortB
      made is even more pertinent in helping to understand the sluggish and
      ineffective counter-terror fight because, in my view, President Jonathan, in
      the initial fight against Book Haram, got highly intimidated by core northern
      Nigerian leaders who accused the Nigerian Military of genocide in the fight
      against Book Haram when the group was being contained at the material time that
      they focused their attack on Christians. At that time, the Sultan was reported
      in the media to have said that Book Haram members should be brought to him for reformation
      when caught. Also, there were arguments about whether or not to declare Book
      Haram a terror group. Today, we all seem to forget that the same core northern
      leaders who are calling for President Jonathan’s head over insecurity are the
      ones who travelled to the US to argue that Book Haram should not be declared a
      terror group. We forget so soon. These manipulative meddling seem to have dampened
      Jonathan’s political and military will to counter Boko Haram. (2)A related
      problem from inside the military was the case of moles who sold out to Boko
      Haram but this could have been quickly dealt with had the political and military
      will been there in the first place.

      (3) I feel that Jonathan’s weakness in acting fast on Book Haram lies in his
      apparent capitulation to core northern leaders, who today, true to type,
      abandon him and blame him for the nation’s security woes. My analysis of
      Jonathan’s weakness in this regard is that some southern Nigerians and
      politicians are failing to understand Middle Belt and the core north dichotomy,
      and they thus credit the so-called “North” with so much (empty) power
      and consequently feel that political success (e.g. second term quest) depends
      on the blessing from the amorphous “North”. What Nigerian presidents
      of southern Nigerian origin need to do is to empower the Middle Belt by for
      example correcting some of the anomalies in states creation made by Babangida
      and Abacha. Until recent events, who knew, to further illustrate, that Chibok
      in southern Borno was over 70% indigenous Christian? That space straddling
      parts of Gombe and Adamawa was denied a state (just like southern Kaduna)
      perhaps because it would end up being another Christian state. (4) One final
      point is that some southern Nigerians rightly have bitter memories of the civil
      war and some of them initially saw Book Haram as God’s punishment for
      “these Northern Christians and Muslims” who must now be doomed to
      fight and kill themselves (thought in reality until Chibok, perhaps, and beyond
      more southerners doing business in the core north were the highest victims of
      the terrorists’ attacks). Probably, rightly nursed pain such as this delays southern
      political understanding of overall Nigerian vital political criteria.

  • ukoette ibekwe

    The military as an institution is corrupt especially the high echelon of the institution. Many of the richest people in the country are from the military. How come? How did they make their money?

    • FortB

      My friend, corruption is a simplistic way of overlooking very serious challenges we face. See my assessment below