Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo’s call for a fundamental tactical change in approach to the ongoing campaign to defeat Boko Haram could not have come at a better time, following the heart-rending carnage Nigerian soldiers suffered in a recent encounter with terrorists in the north-eastern part of the country. No fewer than 47 Nigerian soldiers were killed in that dreadful clash with the jihadists.
Instead of the usually aggressive and antagonistic disposition of the soldiers towards the local population, the Vice-President believes that blending well with the locals in the ongoing battle could swing the pendulum of victory in favour of the military. This option should be explored above every other to bring the seemingly unending war to a closure.
The war, which has been raging for the past 10 years in the North-East, has become an embarrassment to both the government and people of Nigeria. Over 100,000 people, among them soldiers, children and women, have been killed, according to a former Governor of Borno State, Kashim Shettima. Many women and children, including the 276 Chibok secondary schoolgirls, have been kidnapped, while over two million have become internally displaced persons, living in camps far away from their homes. Entire villages have been razed to the ground, just as schools, one of the main targets of the Islamists, have been destroyed.
The war has sapped Nigerians mentally, socially, economically and financially. The country is teeming with terrorist groups even when the impact of terrorism is waning in other parts of the world. Despite government’s claim that it has “technically defeated” and “degraded” the terrorist groups, Boko Haram, Ansaru and the Islamic State West Africa Province have been escalating their atrocities, obviously to sound a warning that they are still fully capable of inflicting much harm on civilian and military targets.
One of the ways the terrorists have been making their impact felt is by carrying the battle to the military, attacking their formations or waiting for them in ambush. In 2018, for instance, they staged a successful attack on a military formation in Matele, where, according to a Reuters report, scores of soldiers were killed. The same weekend, they attacked two other formations in Gajiram and Mainok before they were reportedly beaten back.
In the recent incident that resulted in the death of 47 soldiers, the military authorities denied that the soldiers were directly killed by the terrorists. According to them, the convoy was carrying bombs when it ran into a Boko Haram ambush. Unfortunately, as they opened fire, the bombs were hit, triggering further explosions that claimed the lives of the soldiers. John Enenche, a major-general and Coordinator, Defence Media Operations, said, “They were not killed by the terrorists; they were killed by a bomb explosion because they were conveying bombs.”
Other reports, however, had it that the gallant Nigerian soldiers were simply outgunned by a better-equipped opposition that had the benefit of not less than 15 gun trucks. Whatever was responsible, the loss of 47 soldiers in a single battle is a big blow and does not augur well for the morale of the soldiers and the image of the nation. It is also a good reason why the costly war should be brought to an end because some of the soldiers are already suffering from fatigue, while the jihadists are not showing any signs of flagging.
It is with the same grit and arrogance that the terrorists have been engaging Chad, one of Nigeria’s neighbours and a reliable partner in the ongoing war. Just days after the attack that claimed the lives of Nigerian soldiers, Boko Haram also killed 92 Chadian soldiers in what Idriss Deby, the Chadian leader, described as the deadliest attack yet on the country by the jihadists.
The painful aspect is that some of the heaviest losses by Nigerian soldiers have come when they run into an ambush, a recurring facet suggesting the jihadists may be getting priceless information about troops’ movements and strategies. But the soldiers should be able to also gain some advantages by winning the confidence of the locals, as the Vice-President said.
The military should take reports of human rights violation seriously. The Human Rights Watch 2020 report says Nigerian authorities detained at least 418 children in 2018 for their or their parents’ alleged association with Boko Haram. It adds that there was little progress on accountability for security forces abuses as the report of the Presidential Judicial Panel set up in August 2017 to investigate the military’s compliance with human rights obligations or allegations of war crimes has not been implemented.
Osinbajo’s summation of the situation in the North-East as “an era in which warfare is easily waged by non-state actors that hide within the civilian populations” is very apt. So, to make headway, there is the need to do much more to win the sympathy of the local population. This has been the case in other countries where the war against terror has been waged with greater success.
For instance, when the Americans had their breakthrough in their bid to get at the late leader of the al-Qaeda terror group, Osama bin Laden, they relied on information from the locals. The same thing happened in the case of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the dreaded Islamic State, who was tracked down to his hideout in Syria and killed last year by American forces.
In Nigeria, however, it appears Boko Haram has the confidence of the local people in some of its areas of operation. For example, in the Dapchi schoolgirls’ kidnap of February 2018, reports had it that some of the girls were able to sneak out of captivity. Unfortunately, they missed their way and enquired of an escape route from some farmers they met on their way. The farmers, sadly, directed them back to the terrorists’ camp out of sympathy or fear of reprisal. This trend has to be reversed for a more effective counter-offensive against the dangerous jihadists.