BOKO Haram’s audacious attacks on the 157 Task Force Battalion, Metele, Borno State, in which scores of soldiers were killed, represent a stunning reversal of fortunes for Nigeria in its fight against Islamist insurgency. Initial reports by the French news agency, Agence France Press, said 44 soldiers died in the three-day assault, which began on November 18. Inexplicably, President Muhammadu Buhari and the military initially buried their heads in the sand about the attacks. It is high time the country re-strategised on how to subdue this obdurate enemy.
It is worrisome that, in spite of the major setback, it took five days before the President admitted the debacle, and a week before he summoned the Service Chiefs to a meeting. This shows lack of seriousness. Apart from 12 farmers who were killed and the abduction of seven female farmers, new reports indicate that about 100 troops lost their lives, blamed primarily on obsolete weapons being used to confront the insurgents. It sends a signal that the Nigerian military are there for the taking.
The tragedy in Metele was a disaster foretold, which undermines the misleading claim by the Buhari administration that Nigeria has “technically defeated” the Islamists. As the Metele offensive shows, it is an empty claim. Between July and September, Boko Haram attacked nine military bases in the North-East, deploying gunboats, mortar and other artillery, according to AFP.
Some of the formations, like the 145 Battalion, Gashigar, Borno State, were attacked twice within this period. In an October raid, the terrorists deployed 13 gunboats, killing one soldier and wounding four others, the Nigerian Army stated. July was a disastrous month for the country. In just one weekend, the terrorists launched two vicious attacks in Borno and Yobe states. In the initial one, they ambushed a military convoy in Bama (Borno), where they killed about 10 troops with scores displaced. Within 24 hours, a second attack saw the Boko Haram extremists using their huge number to overwhelm the 81 Division Forward Brigade located at Jilli, Geidam (Yobe). Scores of troops could not be accounted for after a fierce encounter that lasted over two hours.
According to Governor Kashim Shettima of Borno State, 100,000 Nigerians have died in the insurgency. Obviously, Boko Haram, which has splintered into factions, has lost none of its bite. Why, then, has this tragedy not provoked global outrage as it happens when similar incidents occur in other countries? Perhaps, it is because the Nigerian government prefers to live dangerously in denial. Since the attacks ended, neither the military nor the government immediately revealed the true account of the invasion. Much of the information came from other sources, including videos that have gone viral on social media, which the military described as “doctored.” This is unfortunate. Which country would lose 100 soldiers in battle and not launch an instant all-out offensive against the enemy?
Sadly, this is the same careless detachment Buhari’s predecessor, Goodluck Jonathan, exhibited during the abduction of 276 Chibok secondary schoolgirls in April 2014. First, a denial; and then a late, futile, rally. For three weeks, that administration irresponsibly refused to act, until the girls had been spirited out of the reach of the Nigerian state. More than four years after, 113 of the Chibok girls are still in Boko Haram captivity because of the cruel incompetence of the Jonathan government. Buhari seems to be going down that similar, discredited path.
Not surprisingly, back-up assistance from other formations did not arrive on time during the latest invasion, allowing the insurgents, who reportedly came in 20 trucks, to gain the upper hand. This operational deficiency has been all too familiar in the nine-year-old war. By now, the military ought to have developed counter-measures to stop the militants in their tracks by building up smaller formations and aerial power to respond to attacks swiftly. It should trigger a fresh review of the counter-insurgency strategies currently in operation.
The development erodes the gains initially made under Buhari. On assumption of office in 2015, the government effectively retooled the operations with the military recapturing the territories under Boko Haram in Adamawa, Borno and Yobe states. They took the battle to their Sambisa Forest stronghold and confined them largely to the North-East. However, with the upsurge in attacks on military bases and soft targets, the insurgency demands another urgent review.
Countries battling terrorism review their strategies periodically. Confronted by renewed terror attacks, the British authorities demonstrated their resolve with gusto. This followed five separate terror attacks in Manchester and London in 2017, in which 36 people died. According to Britain’s domestic intelligence agency, MI5, it began running 500 live operations involving 3,000 suspected extremists following the attacks. Four hundred suspects were later arrested by the security agencies, leading to 78 prosecutions. MI5 said nine out of 10 of those charged were convicted, while nine terror attacks were foiled in the year to March 2018. Our government should pursue the prosecution of terrorists upon their arrest.
Buhari should rebuild the military’s capacity. No country in sub-Saharan Africa can conveniently defeat Islamist terrorism on its own. Syria received help from the United States and Europe to fight the Islamic State. Nigeria should seek international help in terms of intelligence, technology, equipment and financial aid for the war. The repeated complaints among the troops about their welfare and long tour of duty should be addressed to give new impetus to the war.