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Kudos As Army Clears Sambisa Forest, Rescues Abducted Females

By Madu Onuorah (Abuja Bureau Chief)
09 May 2015   |   11:23 pm
THE strings of good news coming out of the war against Boko Haram terrorists have been consistent. First, it was the liberation of all the areas hitherto occupied by the sect minus the notorious Sambisa forest. Now, Nigerian Army troops have moved in to clear the forest and hundreds of women, girls and children are…

soldiersTHE strings of good news coming out of the war against Boko Haram terrorists have been consistent. First, it was the liberation of all the areas hitherto occupied by the sect minus the notorious Sambisa forest. Now, Nigerian Army troops have moved in to clear the forest and hundreds of women, girls and children are being rescued. These developments have elicited flurry of commendations for the Nigerian Army and its leadership. They have been coming in torrents. Even noted critics of the military have joined.

Even the Borno Elders Forum, which earlier in the war against Boko Haram asked President Jonathan to withdraw troops from the state hailed the Army for taking the war to the insurgents and reclaiming captured territories. Spokesman of the Forum, Dr. Bulama Mali Gubio said, “It is evidently clear that the tide has changed for the better.” Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) President, Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor said Nigerians should be thankful to the Nigerian Army for their work against the Boko Haram insurgency. “I believe that the military are doing their best. If they were not there, what would we have done? We (Nigerians) should be grateful to them. We should encourage them. Yes, there is hope for improvement but they have done well.”

On February 24, 2015, the House of Representatives gave kudos to President Goodluck Jonathan for the impetus he has given to the Nigerian Army that facilitated its re-taking of some towns that had fallen under the control of the insurgent group, Boko Haram, in some parts of the North-East, particularly Borno. Prompted by a motion of urgent national importance, Hon Abubakar Momoh said: “We need to commend the military and the Commander-in-Chief (C-in-C), President Jonathan, who made it possible for the soldiers to operate effectively.”

In March, the Nigerian Senate lauded the efforts of the Nigerian military for successes in the fight against insurgency. While raising a point of order at the floor of the Senate, the senators said that just as they had raised alarm when the insurgency was at its peak, it was only right also commend successes. President of the Senate, Senator David Mark thanked the senators for their courage in raising the point of order commending the armed forces for their efforts. He stated: “I think we must commend our boys and girls that are in the field who have been going through these hardships.”

Former Minister of Education, Mrs. Obiageli Ezekwesili, who is the chief campaigner of the BringBackOurGirls (BBOG) group said “these girls and women who were also captives of those savages, for God knows how long, can now breathe the air of freedom is certainly victory.”  She added that government must “spare no effort in finding our #ChibokGirls and all other abductees.” In a strongly-worded call to action at the Women in the World summit in New York late last month after news of the rescue of some women, girls and children broke, Ezekwesili described the issue of the Chibok girls an “unfinished business for the world.

“I believe in miracles. Like the parents of our Chibok girls, we will not stop hoping until there is absolutely no reason to hope. There is no evidence that they are dead, so we must keep hoping. They’re somewhere on the face of the planet. We need to selectively determine that they will be found.” Turning to the audience, she said: “We just need you to please not go away. Don’t move on.”

The BBOG had sparked a firestorm when at the onset of the campaign against the insurgents in February it pooh-poohed military statements that the tide had turned against Boko Haram, asking for verifiable proof. The BBOG statement released to mark the second week of its ‘sixweekscountdown’ and read by Tunji Olanrewaju on behalf of Mrs. Ezekwesili stated that, “all reportage of the Nigerian military’s triumphs currently quotes a single source— the defence spokesman, Maj. Gen Chris Olukolade. The news reports refer to the Spokesperson’s press releases and not on the strength of any independently verified information or direct media investigation. We therefore demand that Defence Headquarters takes immediate steps to provide, alongside its releases, as much on the ground evidence of its battlefront actions and successes; that is, verifiable images and audio-visuals from the battlegrounds.

“Our government and the military must come to terms and appreciate that presently, they have an integrity/credibility deficit, due to the litany of misinformation, disinformation, inconsistencies and outright falsehoods in the past. Accurate reporting in times of war is a critical tool for winning battles. Given the history of failed promises and dashed hopes for Nigerians, especially the Chibok parents, we wish to advise our Presidency to do the utmost to avoid a repeat of the unsavoury past.”

This statement angered many Nigerians who termed the BBOG statement “politically motivated.” One Atanda Adeyemi demanded that, “these people should be called to order.” Barrister Uche Uke said it was sad the group could make such a request at a time when the military was gaining ground. She said: “This is incredulous. I think free speech is being taken too far by these people with their demands. It is a shame they have not rallied against Boko Haram rather against the government. They are traitors in short.”

But a source in Abuja was worried that “the fixation of the BBOG movement on the Chiibok girls numbed them into not knowing that there were other girls, women and children that were abducted by Boko Haram in the North East. There is also this long held view that their fixation to only the Chibok girls made them prized targets for the insurgent leadership who would have seen them as bargaining chips and propaganda tools. It is also worrying that they have not been interested in helping in the rehabilitation efforts of the women and girls being rescued by the Nigerian Army. Why can’t they extend the good hand of fellowship and goodwill they have for the Chibok girls to these unfortunate girls and women already released. Maybe, these ones do not resonate in the international community or does not fit the narrative they want.”

On its own part, a civil society organisation, Citizens Advocacy for Social and Economic Rights (CASER) joined the applause. In a statement by its Executive Director, Mr. Frank Tietie, CASER stated that, “the recent success of the Nigerian Armed Forces against the insurgents is highly commendable. Bravo to our forces. God bless the Nigerian Armed Forces. Long live the Federal Republic of Nigeria. God bless Nigeria! Much of our country is relatively safe today against a well-orchestrated Boko Haram conflagration against Nigeria. Who else could be more noble than the men and women who had laid down their lives for the preservation of the peace and future of a prosperous Nigeria? CASER hereby calls on all citizens of Nigeria to show proper love and respect to the members of the Nigerian Armed Forces.”

Another NGO, Nigeria in Safe Hands, commended the military on the successful clearing of the notorious Sambisa Forest. National Coordinator of the group, Mr Godwin Meliga, said, “this latest invasion of Sambisa Forest by our soldiers and the rescue of 293 hostages is courageous and commendable. Nigeria In Safe Hands Group congratulates the military authorities and the troops at the war front for their determination and doggedness in the fight against Boko Haram insurgents. We believe that by this achievement, we are reassured that the troops are close to eventually finding the Chibok girls and we call on them not to relent in this onerous task of restoring our nation’s pride and sovereignty.”

In the heat of the 2015 general elections, even the Buhari Support Organisation (BSO) jettisoned partisan politics and joined in the victory celebration. It issued a statement stating that “over the last few days the Nigerian Army has distinguished itself in the fight against the terrorist insurgents who have been wreaking havoc in the North East, murdering innocent citizens and killing our soldiers. We join millions of Nigerians in saying we are extremely proud of these successes, particularly the reclaiming of parts of our nation, which hitherto had been illegally taken over by Boko Haram.

“It shows that the spirit of the Nigerian soldier is alive and strong and remains dedicated to the service of our Nation. It also means that when adequately empowered and equipped, our Army can reclaim its reputation as the formidable fighting machine, which used to be the “best-trained and best equipped of all sub-Saharan armed forces.” This is the Nigerian Army that we know and deserve.”

The successes on ground is such that President Goodluck Jonathan announced Thursday 30 April 2015, in Abuja, that he will do all within his powers to ensure that all Nigerian territory still held by terrorists and insurgents are totally liberated before May 29, 2015. Receiving a delegation of Heads of Customs from the West and Central African Region of the World Customs Organisation led by the Secretary-General of the organisation, Mr. Kunio Mikuriya, President Jonathan said that he is determined to hand over a country completely free of terrorist strongholds to the President-elect, General Muhammadu Buhari.

The President said that ongoing military operations in the North-East had already recorded huge successes, with two states completely free from the control of terrorists, while operations in the third state had reached a concluding stage. “We can now say two states are completely free from terrorist control, while in the third state, it is only in one Local Government Area that they are still present. That is in the Sambisa Forest,” he said.

Indeed, the situation on ground could not have been imagined months ago when the military especially the Army became the butt of derision. It was such that when National Security Adviser, Col Sambo Dasuki, in defending the deferment of the 2015 elections, said the military would crush the Boko Haram insurgency that has bedevilled the country for the past six years in six weeks, it was like a joke. “All known Boko Haram camps would be taken out by March 28. The situation would surely be conducive enough for elections,” he had added.

US-based Time magazine, in its Feb. 10, 2015 edition had this verdict: “Nigeria’s military has so far proved incapable of containing Boko Haram, and there is little to indicate that anything has changed… That Nigeria’s army needs help dealing with what even its own leaders call a rag-tag militia is a sobering indictment of an institution that was once considered the powerhouse of African peacekeeping.”

Back then, Boko Haram insurgents were routing the Nigerian Army from their positions and barracks in the three Northern Eastern States under state of emergency – Adamawa, Borno and Yobe. For example, just before the February 14 presidential elections were rescheduled to March 28, Boko Haram was in control of 20 of the 27 Local government Areas of Borno State. Only Maiduguri, Jere, Konduga, Bayo, Kwayakusah and Biu were under the control of the government of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. These seven were flying the Nigerian national colours. All others were flying Boko Haram flags.

Even in matters of the security, all the other seven Local Government Areas under Nigerian control were under constant threat from the sect. For Adamawa, Boko Haram took over five local governments in the state. They include Madagali, Michika, Mubi North, Mubi South and Maiha. In neighbouring Yobe State, Gujba and Gulani Local Government areas were captured by the insurgents in July 2014 and remained under their control for nine months until they were cleared in March. As of November 30, 2014, Adamawa State had become home to camps housing an estimated 400,000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) fleeing violence from Boko Haram in locations such as Mubi, Madagali, AskiraUba, Bama, and Gwoza, in the states of Adamawa, Borno, and Yobe.

The attack and capture of Gwoza signaled a change in strategy for Boko Haram as on 24 August 2014, it announced that Gwoza was now part of an Islamic Caliphate and the insurgents’ headquarters. By then, Boko Haram has killed over 15,000 between 2009 and 2015, including around 10,000 in 2014 alone. The attacks were concentrated in the three geo-political zones of North East, Northwest and North Central, just as it displaced over 1.8 million Nigerians.

But the tide turned late January when the Nigerian Army’s 7th Division launched a counter-insurgency campaign against Boko Haram, striking eastwards from Maiduguri and recaptured Bama, Borno State’s second largest city, while Chadian forces swept the western shore of Lake Chad and retook towns like Baga and Doron Baga. Before then, Boko Haram fighters were escaping across Nigeria’s borders to neighbouring countries to evade capture. Now, they are blocked by troops from Chad, Niger and Cameroon.

And with Nigeria’s permission, Chad and Niger have even sent their forces inside Nigeria to pursue the insurgents. Now, routes used by Boko Haram to transport fuel and ammunition have been reclaimed by the military. On March 27, 2015, the Nigerian Army inflicted a significant defeat and achieved its biggest victory on the Islamist insurgents by taking Gwoza, their self-proclaimed headquarters.

Acting Director, Army Public Relations, Col Sani Usman told The Guardian that, “what has changed the tide is leadership by example. Gen Mininah was able to turn around the fortunes of the Nigerian Army. He insisted that the Army, as a purely disciplinary organisation, must be cohesive and disciplined. If a soldier does not fight war, what did he enlist to do? What is he or she wearing uniform for? This idea that Boko Haram was better equipped is not here. If you see a normal Boko Haram fighter, you will be tempted to give him arm than arms. But you have a situation where the soldiers are apt to listen to rumours of or from Boko Haram than to hear from their commanders.

“Yes, the Army got new equipment. But we got a new lease of life, new ways of doing things. It is such that if you run from Boko Haram, you know what awaits you. Some of what happened in the North East is not what we like talking about. For example, in Mubi, Adamawa State, the number of Boko Haram fighters that entered the town was insignificant. But when Boko Haram arrived, the soldiers who were supposed to stop them bolted. There is also the issue of vested and political interests who never wished or wanted this war against Boko Haram to end. That’s why there was no national cohesion about the war.”

With the routing of the Boko Haram fighters from all the territories they took, attention shifted to Sambisa forest where the insurgents have their notorious hideouts and camps. There on 28 April 2015, the first wave of rescue started as Nigerian troops rescued 200 girls and 93 women. This was just as the troops captured and destroyed three terrorists’ camps including the notorious Tokumbere camp. On April 30 2015, The Nigerian Army rescued another set of 234 women and children through the Kawuri and Konduga end of Sambisa forest. On Saturday May 2, 2015, troops on patrol located 260 women and children in the outskirts of Chalawa village in Adamawa State where they had been held up while trying to escape from terrorists. They have since been reunited with their communities.

Last Tuesday, Defence Headquarters announced the clearing of additional seven camps and rescued more women and children. The camps include the four Alafa camps as well as Rogo Fulani, Laraga and others used as training camps. They also recovered 25 women and children. Sources said these camps had the unsavoury reputation for housing some of the most deadly members of the group and some of their weapons. There, they recovered various weapons including Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs), Anti-Aircraft Guns and vehicles, which were either captured or destroyed.  Four soldiers were however wounded and were evacuated for treatment.

Altogether, the Army has liberated about 1,000 abducted women, girls and children. With the rescued are tales of woes and great distress. For example, about 300 of the women and girls are suffering from stomach ulcer, malnutrition, eye problems and diarrhea. Also, a good number of them have eye defects traceable to the harsh conditions in captivity.

On May 5 2015, Governor of Borno State, Alhaji Kashim Shettima added a new dimension to the rescue of the women and girls, stating that Boko Haram insurgents often rape girls and women for the sole purpose of raising more terrorists to succeed them even after their death.
Shedding light into the weird ideology of the Boko Haram insurgents, Shettima said at a meeting with some government officials in Maiduguri that the insurgents believe that “I am happy with the rescue of hundreds of women and children. It is a thing of joy that they have been freed alive. However, I am also very worried about what the future holds for us if what I have gathered about these insurgents work according to their plan. The sect leaders make very conscious effort to impregnate the women, some of them, I was told even pray before mating, offering supplications for God to make the products of what they are about doing become children that will inherit their ideology. After getting their captives pregnant, they keep them to allow the pregnancy mature to an extent of say four or more months to make abortion difficult or impossible for the women due to life threats in carrying out abortions at that level. They abandon the women afterwards to go and give birth anywhere else.”

Army spokesman, Col Usman told The Guardian, that, “the Governor of Borno State is right. From our investigations, there is a deliberate plan by the insurgents to regenerate themselves. The abduction of women and girls were actually part of their well-thought out plan to pro-generate more terrorists.”  He also explained that through the Army’s processing of the rescued women, girls and children, “facts emerged that there are three classes of women, girls and children rescued from the Sambisa forest. The first are the haggard looking one who have been abducted for so long and were malnourished.

“The second are the robust looking ones who are members of families of Boko Haram insurgents. They were well taken care of. The third class of the rescued are the terrorists themselves. When our troops came to rescue the women, girls and children, they were at a point fired at by some of the women members of the Boko Haram. In one encounter, eight women were wounded and one killed. Even some of the children being rescued are Boko Haram child soldiers. In Maiduguri, there is a case of a 13-year old boy who was captured and who could dismantle and fix back an AK47. It is that bad.” And to drive home the frightening dimension of the Boko Haram terrorists, a report from the United Nations Population Fund (UNPFA) says that 214 of the women and young girls rescued by the Army were visibly pregnant.

According to the executive director of the UNFPA, Prof Babatunde Osotimehin, the organisation helped deliver 16,000 pregnancies last year in the North East region.

According to the statement from UNPFA, “while not all can be confirmed as Boko Haram related pregnancies, many of them likely were. Tragically, many of these girls have been raped repeatedly, sold into sexual slavery and indoctrinated. As a result, they will likely need extensive psychological treatment as well.”

The Army spokesman noted that; “one of the things Nigerians have to watch out for especially those in the North East is the need to be vigilant. These terrorists came from the society and they might have slipped back to the society. So, the society has a role to play by exposing these undesirable elements among them. Remember, it was the hypocrisy of the Borno people especially the elders that brought the Boko Haram menace to the level that it was a threat to the whole nation. It was the denial of Borno people about the terrorists that brought us to where we are today in that part of the country.

Gen Minimah spoke on the resolve of the Army when on Thursday April 30 at the inauguration of the newly refurbished 81 Division Officers’ Mess Lagos, said, “Never again will Nigeria walk this path where insurgency and terrorism will come to redefine our unity as a nation and bring the Nigerian Army to a low level of concern to its own. We will continue to push in major operations in the fight against insurgency to a close. It is achievable and we are working towards that. It is our wish that we find them (Chibok girls). It’s just in one of the camps that were destroyed that we found that number of Nigerians.

“I am sure that as we edge further into the forest, we will begin to capture more camps. We pray that we rescue more people. Every Nigerian looks forward to this. Let me commend the efforts of our gallant officers and soldiers who continue to make enormous sacrifices to ensure that Nigeria remains safe, united and stable. I wish to reassure all Nigerians that the Nigerian Army will continue to do what is in the interest of the nation in pursuance of our constitutional roles. We will always rise to the occasion wherever and whenever duty calls. We will not fail Nigeria and Nigerians.”