By Casmir Igbokwe
In 2014, during the run-up to the 2015 general election, the then General Officer Commanding the 7 Division of the Nigerian Army, Major General Ahmadu Mohammed, narrowly escaped death. The man was addressing his troops in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State, when some disgruntled soldiers fired gunshots at him. But his aides shielded him and drove him out of danger.
In a piece I wrote for Aljazeera then, I noted that the attack on Mohammed was one major indication that the morale of many soldiers fighting insurgency in Nigeria was low. The soldiers had lost a number of their colleagues to terrorists. And they were not happy with some of their superiors who they felt were working against their interest.
Today, as the nation prepares for another general election in 2019, nothing has changed. On Sunday, November 18, 2018, Boko Haram terrorists killed over 100 soldiers in an attack on 157 Task Force Battalion at Metele in Borno State. Many other soldiers were reportedly missing in action. Among those killed were the commander of the battalion, a lieutenant colonel, and some senior officers. This was the same day President Muhammadu Buhari launched his campaign for 2019 election called Next Level in Abuja. The service chiefs were also there at the inauguration with him.
Apparently to explain away their ineptitude, the military authorities said the media had been brandishing false casualty figures and circulating various footages of old and inaccurate Boko Haram propaganda videos, alluding same to be the Metele attack. It said reinforcing units had been able to repel the terrorists and that normality had returned to the battalion. The defence headquarters also announced it had taken new delivery of military equipment and would deal decisively with the insurgents. Good.
But do we need to wait for a deadly attack before delivering new weapons? Why did we record this high casualty figure in Metele? Can we still say that Boko Haram has been technically defeated as the current government had repeatedly boasted? What is the state of weapons given to our soldiers? Are they adequately remunerated and rewarded for their sacrifice? Do we properly utilise military budgets?
Different groups, including the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), Transparency International and Coalition of Political Parties (CUPP) have called on President Buhari to order a probe into the spending of the military budgets.
As SERAP put it, “The military’s inability to respond adequately to the Boko Haram insurgency suggests among other things mismanagement in the spending of the country’s defence budgets. Establishing a commission of inquiry to investigate how defence and military budgets have been spent since 29 May, 1999 would help Nigerians to know if the funds meant to defend the country and for the purchase of arms to empower Nigerian soldiers to fight Boko Haram have been transparently and accountably spent.”
During the administration of former President Goodluck Jonathan, the then National Security Adviser was alleged to have diverted $2bn arms fund. He is currently in detention and in court over the allegation. How free is the incumbent government over this same problem, especially as the presidential election fast approaches? What has happened to the $1bn special fund reportedly released to this government to fight Boko Haram? What about the N1.323 trillion allocated to security in the 2018 budget which was higher than the N1.142 trillion allocated to it in the 2017 budget? Could it be what Transparency International called huge defence corruption?
Media reports quoted some soldiers in the warfront as saying some of their greedy officers were using them to make money. They said they were given outdated arms to fight the war, citing T72 tank made in Slovakia in 1983 as a typical example. They lamented that the country had neglected them even when many of them had not seen their wives and children for years.
We never learn from our past mistakes. During the Jonathan era, the then United States Under-Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights, Sarah Sewall, said despite Nigeria’s $5.8bn security budget in 2014, supplies as basic as bullets and transport vehicles did not reach the frontlines of the struggle against Boko Haram.
Then also, soldiers grumbled that their leaders didn’t pay them their allowances as and when due. Some of them also complained that some of the weapons given to them were obsolete.
Reports were rife in Jonathan’s government that the Boko Haram terrorists used some weapons reportedly stolen from the Nigerian military to prosecute their agenda. There was suspicion that some soldiers allegedly colluded with the terrorists to wreak havoc on the nation. Some media reports in 2014 even alleged that nine generals and some other senior officers were under investigation for their alleged role in the sale of arms to Boko Haram.
The situation was such that former President Jonathan even lamented that Boko Haram had infiltrated his government. That was why some secret information on military movements was allegedly leaked to the insurgents. And that was why the American officers, who came to help rescue the young schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram in April 14, 2014, reportedly said they would not share intelligence information with their Nigerian counterparts.
The Nigerian military should watch it. Nothing kills esprit de corps than mutual suspicion and acrimony. Recently, some soldiers fighting the Boko Haram terrorists reportedly kicked against the alleged approval by the Chief of Army Staff, Lt. Gen. Tukur Buratai, of the promotion of soldiers who unravelled the mystery behind the disappearance and death of the former Chief of Administration of the Army, Major General Idris Alkali (retd).
The soldiers told journalists the action was unfair and would further demoralize them. They wondered what death or danger the soldiers sent to Jos faced, or what threat to the nation they had warded off. They regretted that even when they were daily being killed by insurgents, they got little or no rewards. The morale, to say the least, is already low. The Federal Government should not worsen it by certain actions that will depict it as insensitive.
This is why the political bickering between the ruling and opposition parties, which usually follows this type of tragedy, is unfortunate. During the Jonathan administration, the then opposition APC used every opportunity to lampoon the PDP government. It called the then government weak, clueless and corrupt. Today, the tide has turned. The PDP and the CUPP, for instance, insinuated that the war had become a source for raising campaign funds. It wondered why months after Buhari reportedly received the $1bn to fight Boko Haram, soldiers still fought with obsolete weapons.
The APC fired back, accusing the opposition parties, especially the PDP and its presidential candidate, Atiku Abubakar, of dancing on the graves of the fallen heroes. The ruling party said the PDP’s allegations regarding diverting military funds to finance the 2019 election campaigns of the APC was a sad reminder of the evil and retrogressive practices the PDP was notorious for during its rule.
One disturbing point in the midst of all these is that the President purportedly ignored intelligence reports on the potency of Boko Haram prior to the Metele attack. A South African firm, Specialised Tasks, Training, Equipment and Protection International (STTEP) had alleged negligence on the part of Buhari in the latest Boko Haram onslaught.
Besides, President Buhari’s response after the attack came very late. It took him almost six days to express shock at the massacre. Former President Goodluck Jonathan was also guilty of this. For months after the terrorists had abducted young school girls from Chibok in Borno State, Jonathan reportedly doubted the veracity of the abduction story. He dilly-dallied until the situation escalated. Now, he is trying very hard to exonerate himself.
We are used to our leaders, past and present, telling us cock and bull stories after a major tragedy. Although the military has denied reports of negligence, it is pertinent to advise that concerned authorities should be on their guards. There are reports that the insurgents are planning another attack on another military base at Jiddari-Polo in Maiduguri. The terrorists, who reportedly hacked four farmers in the area to death last Monday, allegedly left a message that the army should prepare for them. The military should treat this information with all the seriousness it deserves.
Since July this year, there have been Boko Haram attacks in such places as Jili, Zari, Mainok and Kekeno with alleged heavy casualties. The Metele tragedy was the most recent. It is good that the military has decided to deploy drones to fight the insurgents. This action should have come before now. But it is better late than never.
For Nigeria to survive the terrorist onslaught and prevent a recurrence of the Metele massacre, there is need to overhaul the intelligence network of the security agencies. The Federal Government must find a way to motivate the soldiers and summarily deal with every act of corruption in the military. The government should also declare national mourning for the fallen heroes.
By the way, what are the service chiefs still doing in office? Are they not supposed to be cooling off in retirement by now?
- First published in The Sun of Monday, December 3, 2018.