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 firstname.lastname@example.org