… [how can] a soldier come up and say ‘I’m not well equipped’ yet you have a rifle; what do you want? You want APC, you want tanks? The basic weapon of an infantry man is rifle, so why should there be mutiny? Why? The basic weapon of an infantry man is rifle, so why should there be mutiny? — Alex Badeh, Chief of Defence Staff (January 2014 – July 2015).
It initially started out as 44. Then 100, then ‘more than 100’. And now 118. There is even a chance it could, when all is said and done, end up more than 200. In the end, the truth is somewhere in between. In an attack that ranks among the deadliest this year, Boko Haram downed scores of soldiers in Metele, Borno State, on November 18.
With the benefit of hindsight, we now know the insurgents lurked around for the Army to dispatch a team to retrieve its killed or injured men. When that rescue, treatment and evacuation team arrived in Metele, the insurgents struck again. Among the victims of that first raid are five officers, including a Lieutenant-Colonel; and from the second raid, the fallen include the Major who led the rescue team.
The latest attack is a continuation of Boko Haram’s newfound confidence to take the battle to military zones in recent months, often yielding high casualty tolls. The past few days have been truly difficult for the political neutrals. The social media has been awash with mourning and gnashing of teeth, not only by the opposition, as the government and the Army are wont to always believe, but by those genuinely concerned about the failure of two governments running to pocket Boko Haram. This grand-scale attack has happened despite repeated government assurances of “decimating” and “technically defeating” the insurgents. So, the question goes: why, and three years after electing a Major-General as President, can Boko Haram so easily overrun hundreds of soldiers in one fell swoop?
As I have previously written, the Army is indeed waging a war against Boko Haram — not with weapons but with propaganda. In its trademark downplaying of its own casualties and exaggerating the insurgents’, the Army attempted to sweep the Metele attack under the carpet. And despite its protestations over the so-called “well-doctored” reports by the media, the Army has, after eight days, refrained from making definitive remarks about the attack, particularly the casualty on its side. A war that thrives on misleading the public, ostensibly including the President and Commander-in-Chief, is doomed to fail.
So is a war steeped in hypocrisy. Two soldiers who survived the Metele attack, and are set to desert the Army, released a now-viral video of the post-attack ruins. Laden with anger, frustration and despair, it is a video that should humble every true Nigerian patriot. It is a video that President Muhammadu Buhari — if his advisers have any idea what they’re doing — should have seen and self-analysed by now. But the shocking response of the Army has been to brand members of the public as “detractors or tacit supporters of the enemies of our beloved country” and to threaten them with court suits. This type of sickening hypocrisy should not be judged just on its face value but on its implications for decision-taking in the highest recesses of the Army. It is the same type of hypocrisy that caused Alex Badeh, as Chief of Defence Staff in January 2015, to say soldiers cannot say they’re not well-equipped when they have a rifle, only for him to claim, at his pull-out ceremony six months later, that he was “head of a military that lacked the relevant equipment and motivation to fight an enemy that was invisible and embedded with the local populace”. Badeh had already rendered himself an accomplice to the damage that had been done. Unfortunately, this same strategy of misleading the government and the people has been adopted by the current Army hierarchy. Boko Haram can only be the beneficiary.
Everyone knows the most important move that must be made to whittle down Boko Haram’s powers. The foot soldiers know; the senior officers do. Even the insurgents themselves know. I found out in June 2016. During an undercover trip to the North-East in June of that year, I was in a hospital where a soldier receiving treatment for a gunshot injury was recalling events on the battlefield to his colleagues. He was one of 15 soldiers who ran into 18 insurgents in Kala Balge, the easternmost local government area of Borno, very close to Cameroon, on April 30, 2016. While the insurgents came in six motorcycles and carried a mortar Rocket-Propelled Grenade (RPG) and a General-Purpose Machine Gun (GPMG), the soldiers had only their trucks and their 1949-made Kalashnikov (AK-47) rifles. Still, it was the insurgents who took to their heels while the soldiers chased on with their trucks. One by one, the soldiers killed the insurgents until only two were left. Then they ran out of ammo. Tables suddenly turned, and the hunter became the hunted.
“When our ammo finished, we were looking at them and they were looking at us,” the soldier recalled. “We were about boarding the truck when three of us were fired at the same time with a GPMG.” In all, six of the soldiers were shot. I remember that soldier was filled with optimism about how Buhari’s coming would strengthen the weaponry of the Army. If that soldier is still alive — he promised to return to the field once his leg healed up — he must feel let down the coming of Buhari hasn’t altered the balance of weapons between soldiers and insurgents.
Much as it hurts to say, Boko Haram will continue killing soldiers. I have met quite a number of Nigerian soldiers involved in the counter-insurgency operations, and my conviction is that they are some of the bravest soldiers available anywhere in the world. However, if we’re stuck with fighting Boko Haram with weapons that are older than Nigeria itself (the AK-47 was made 11 years before Nigeria’s Independence), then our soldiers have no chance. No serious military should still be parading the T-12 in this age. This was a tank made between 1925 and 1931, and they are prone to mechanical failures; the soldiers in that video weren’t lying. As they said, Buhari must “interfere” in this matter. This is beyond intervening, the President, as the C-in-C should ‘interfere’ with the operations of the Military same way he does with the petroleum industry. At the very least, it’s time to establish the correlation between the Army’s armoury and the funds recently invested in this war. Until such a time when that gap is closed, expect high casualties on the Army’s side, from time to time.
Soyombo, former Editor of the TheCable and the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR), tweets @fisayosoyombo