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Year of the Debacle’: How Nigeria Lost its way in the war against Boko Haram

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Lirfa Dashe, a lieutenant in the Nigerian army, was due to get married this month. Instead he is buried in the cemetery of Mai Malari barracks, alongside other soldiers killed in the seemingly endless conflict against the jihadist insurgency of Boko Haram.

At the entrance to the cemetery, located in this city in northeastern Nigeria, is a cenotaph with the names of the fallen inscribed on plaques. There are 1,307 names etched so far, stretching back to 2013. Mai Malari, the home of the army’s Seventh Division, is just one of several sites where soldiers killed in the northeastern theater are buried.

Boko Haram’s official name is Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, which in Arabic means “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad.” It originated in 2002 as a local Salafist group led by Mohammed Yusuf, a charismatic young cleric who preached openly in Maiduguri against “Western” values and the Nigerian government. The group launched an insurrection in 2009 that failed, and Yusuf was killed while in police custody.

Taking advantage of links it had established with al-Qaida, Boko Haram rebounded, led by Yusuf’s more war-like successor, Abubakar Shekau—the ranting, gun-toting figure seen in its video statements. In 2015, the group swore allegiance to the so-called Islamic State. A year later, though, Boko Haram fractured when the Islamic State transferred its support to Yusuf’s son, Abu-Musab al-Barnawi, who opposed Shekau’s indiscriminate killing of Muslims. The split weakened the group, but now al-Barnawi’s Islamic State West African Province, or ISWAP, is on the offensive.

All told, Boko Haram’s fight to establish a self-declared caliphate governed by Islamic law has claimed more than 25,000 civilian lives. In the past few years, the conflict has spilled into neighboring Cameroon, Chad and Niger. The government of Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, in power since 2015, has long boasted that Boko Haram has been “technically defeated.” But a string of losses since the start of the rainy season in July has underlined the hollowness of this claim. In fact, the insurgency has entered a new, deadlier phase, and there is concern that the military reversals will accelerate, deepening the humanitarian crisis triggered by the nine-year-long war.

An estimated 600 Nigerian soldiers have been killed over the past six months alone, many in battles resembling the one that claimed the life of Lt. Dashe. In that incident, which took place July 14, ISWAP overran the army’s forward operating base in Jilli, in the Geidam area of Yobe State, in the northeast corner of Nigeria. The militants overpowered 700 men from the Lagos-based 81st Division, 22nd Task Force Brigade.

For the Nigerian military, the insurgency in the north has entered a new, deadlier phase.

Jilli is a strategic area for ISWAP. It’s close to the border regions of Niger and Chad where the group is based and recuperates, and its market is a useful trading center where its fighters can buy and sell goods, easing their lives in the bush. And yet the base’s defenses were minimal. The soldiers had no armor, heavy support weapons or mines. They also hadn’t built bunkers or obstacles, which should be standard at a forward operating base. Moreover, many of the men in the task force had never seen combat, having only recently finished training in the region.

Victor, a sergeant who spoke to WPR on the condition that his name be changed for security reasons, survived the attack. He says ISWAP approached the base in Toyota Hilux gun trucks, some equipped with anti-aircraft cannons, and blew open the main gate. The vehicles, some in Nigerian army camouflage, could have been among those captured by Boko Haram in an ambush a few days earlier around the Boboshe area, 170 kilometers southeast of Jilli.

As they sought to counter the gun trucks, all the soldiers had at their disposal were general-purpose machine guns that repeatedly jammed, and old mortars whose shells failed to explode, Victor says. The soldiers had been issued just three magazines—if that—for their AK-47s, and it appeared there was no system of resupply from the base’s storage dump. When ammunition ran low and ISWAP got into the camp, panic set in.

“The volume of fire was so high our boys were pinned down,” Victor says, noting that no air support came to help them. “They became confused and started running.”

Victor entered the base the next day, after ISWAP had looted and torched it. Among the dead, he recognized Lt. Dashe, one of the best shots in the brigade, who had apparently been rallying the defense of the main gate. He and 34 other soldiers were buried in Mai Malari on Aug. 13.

Though the dead received full military honors, this has not satisfied the Dashe family. They say his death reflects much of what is currently wrong with the Nigerian army and its prosecution of the war, specifically its tactical failures; the lack of care shown by commanders toward their men; and the inadequate equipment given to soldiers. On that basis, they are considering legal action against the army.

“Soldiers are dying and the senior officers in the Nigerian army have become irresponsible and unprofessional,” says Zakariya Dashe, the young lieutenant’s father.

‘Morale Had Never Been That Low’

Zakariya Dashe doesn’t understand why his son was in Jilli in the first place. He had already served three years in the northeast, having been deployed as part of the five-country Multinational Joint Task Force, or MNJTF, battling Boko Haram in the Lake Chad basin.

He returned to Lagos from that initial deployment in March, yet two months later he was sent back to the conflict zone. His commanding officer ignored all appeals to let him stay in Lagos and go through with his impending marriage. “He shouldn’t have been made to go back,” Zakariya Dashe says. “There’s normally a break of two years before you’re redeployed.”

Lt. Lirfa Dashe, who was killed in a recent attack by Islamist militants
in northeastern Nigeria (Photo courtesy of Dashe family).

Analysts say extended and repeat deployments are all too common, despite their drawbacks. “You are supposed to be rotated every six to nine months, but in most cases soldiers serve in the theater for years,” explains Cheta Nwanze, head of research at SBM Intelligence, a Lagos-based political analysis firm. “It doesn’t help at all when it comes to morale.”

Nigeria’s army is notoriously tight-lipped over battlefield losses. In the days following July 14, military officials denied that Jilli had fallen and insisted no soldiers had been killed in the attack. The only formal notification Dashe’s relatives received of his death was when they were told to proceed from their home in Jos to Maiduguri three days before the burial, a journey of more than 500 kilometers whose costs they had to cover themselves.

Three months later, the exact number of soldiers who died in the two-hour firefight is still unclear. The Nigerian army has acknowledged 31 fatalities, but media reports suggest that an additional 200 soldiers are “missing.”

Zakariya Dashe says the lack of clarity is unacceptable. “First, they sent him on a suicide mission without support weapons against Boko Haram using anti-air guns,” he notes. “Then the army [initially] denied the incident, meaning his sacrifice was in vain. All we want is recognition [for his service].”

There were additional insults. Ahead of the burial, his family discovered that the embalming process had been so slapdash that maggots were crawling out of Lt. Dashe’s face. Then, in recognition of their loss, the family received a token one-time payment from the 22nd Brigade equivalent to $140 and a Nigerian flag.

Dashe’s relatives are hardly the only ones frustrated with the military’s top brass; so are active soldiers. To outsiders, the Nigerian army is a tight-knit group. Yet on Facebook soldiers complain about overbearing senior officers who have no regard for their welfare; systematic corruption that robs them of allowances; and the poor standard of equipment and medical care.

The malaise has even affected elite units. In August, special forces rioted at the airport in Maiduguri, firing their weapons into the air when they were ordered to deploy to Marte, a Boko Haram stronghold. The soldiers protested that they had been deployed for years without rotation. They are currently facing a court martial for mutiny.

Victor, the sergeant in Dashe’s unit, says the soldiers in Jilli were suffering food and water shortages before they came under attack in July. They were supposed to receive an operations allowance of $125 per month, but they were regularly shortchanged through a bogus deduction for their food rations. He says there was an overall “lack of management” by the base commander, and “morale had never been that low.”

Worse was yet to come. After the attack, Dashe’s unit was ordered to move to Garunda in northern Borno state, another strategic ISWAP area. On Aug. 8, the insurgents rolled up to the forward operating base there, again in military vehicles. Some of them were dressed in army uniforms, and this time they were allowed through the main gate before launching their attack. ISWAP took Garunda with even less of a fight, killing 17 soldiers.

ISWAP militants are not the disorganized rabble so often depicted in accounts of the conflict. A colonel at the Seventh Division headquarters in Mai Malari, speaking to WPR on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, says they are “a skilled opponent, they learn and adapt,” adding that professional soldiers are unnerved by the fact that “they don’t take cover, they keep advancing, they’re not afraid to die.”

Indeed, since the incidents in Jilli and Garunda, additional defeats have occurred in quick succession for the army in the northeast. On Aug. 30, ISWAP stormed the base at Zari, northwest of Garunda. They killed 48 soldiers and looted the weapons depot before the base was recaptured with air support. On Sept. 7, ISWAP took Gudumbali, to the southeast, after soldiers abandoned their positions. The most recent defeat was the fall of the base in Metele on Oct. 8, which 18 soldiers died defending.

These are just the incidents that have been documented. “Every day there are little firefights that are not reported,” notes Chidi Nwaonu, a consultant with the U.K.-based security firm Peccavi Consulting, which publishes the Vox Peccavi blog. He believes ISWAP is gathering equipment from the army to foil its expected dry season offensive, likely to begin in November or December.

To outsiders, the Nigerian military is a tight-knit group. Yet on Facebook soldiers complain about how the war is being prosecuted.

For an exhausted military, “2018 is likely to go down as the year of the debacle,” SBM Intelligence said in a recent report. Things are so bad, the firm warned, that Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state and the largest city in the northeast, could become an ISWAP target by next year—perhaps in time for the presidential election due in February.

Soldiers, or Cowards?

Military leaders’ response to the army’s recent poor performance has not inspired confidence. Lt. Gen. Tukur Buratai, the army chief of staff, has been quick to blame his men and warn of “grave consequences” for cowardice and incompetence. In July, he appointed his fourth commander in 14 months to lead the fight against Boko Haram. But the continuing defeats point to deeper problems.

For one thing, the Nigerian army is overstretched. It is deployed in 30 out of 36 states in a policing role due to the high level of insecurity in much of Nigeria. Because of manpower limitations, it is unable to effectively secure the northeast beyond the main towns in each district, a reality that hinders the return of the roughly 2 million people who have been displaced by the conflict, as well as the provision of basic services by the government.

The lack of heavy equipment is a regular complaint among soldiers on the front lines. “This war is winnable if the generals give us what we need. Instead they buy soft-skinned Hilux,” says one Nigerian officer serving with the MNJTF. “That is not a weapon—the enemy is not afraid of that. Give us MRAPs”—mine-resistant armored vehicles—“that RPGs cannot penetrate.”

There is also a gnawing friction over who is doing the fighting and dying, which reflects wider societal and religious tensions in a country where just over half the population resides in the largely Muslim north. In the Mai Malari cemetery, Christian graves clearly outnumber Muslim ones. “We have enough evidence that more southern soldiers are being sent to the front, so by default, there will be more Christian casualties,” says one analyst, who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue.

At the back of soldiers’ minds is the knowledge that should they be killed, their families not only stand to be evicted from the barracks, but their wives may suffer an even bigger indignity: To get their husbands’ pension payout, they could be forced to sleep with the finance officers, Victor says.

The military seems perpetually surprised by ISWAP attacks. “We don’t know what they’re planning, we don’t know what they think,” says the MNJTF officer. This despite the fact that the military has surveillance aircraft. Villagers, who are usually the first to become aware of the presence of the insurgents, say they routinely warn soldiers about ISWAP movements.

A group of men identified by Nigerian police as Boko Haram extremist fighters and
leaders are presented to the media, Maiduguri, Nigeria, July 18, 2018 (AP photo by Jossy Ola).

The problem partly stems from how the army tackles intelligence. In the garrison towns of Damboa and Bama, the army intelligence officers I met spoke neither Kanuri, the main language of Borno, or Hausa, the lingua franca of the north.

Finally, soldiers are coming up short in a key challenge in any counterinsurgency conflict: distinguishing between the enemy and the general population. This task is central to winning hearts and minds, but the Nigerian army is regularly accused by human rights groups of going about it all wrong, detaining and killing civilians fleeing Boko Haram and then claiming the victims are “terrorists.”

‘Regime Security, Not National Security’

Amid all these problems, President Buhari does not seem to be paying much attention to the progress of the war. Instead, he is far too focused on the February election, critics allege. “It’s about regime security, not national security,” says a security analyst based in the capital, Abuja, who asked not to be named. “They’ve taken their eye off the ball.”

The irony is that Buhari’s election victory in 2015 was based partly on the failure of his predecessor, Goodluck Jonathan, to tackle the Boko Haram threat until it was too late. In 2014, as Jonathan was asking voters for a second term, entire towns were falling to the insurgents, who were able to declare a caliphate in territory they had captured. Boko Haram’s successes drew international attention with the kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok in April 2014. Buhari, a no-nonsense former military head of state, was seen as the man to fix the problem.

In reality, the tide began to turn by the end of 2014, just before the vote that swept Buhari to power. The army even recaptured Gwoza, the seat of Boko Haram’s self-declared caliphate, on the eve of the election, though this was not enough to save Jonathan’s re-election bid.

In this election cycle, the Boko Haram insurgency seems to be less of a campaign issue, likely because the group’s attacks are focused, at least for the moment, on the remote forward operating bases. There is far greater national concern, and potential political trouble for Buhari, related to clashes between farmers and herders, a phenomenon that has supplanted the insurgency as the main cause of fatalities over the past two years.

The government’s lack of attention to the war has reduced pressure on the military leadership to show results. “The service chiefs are only concerned about who becomes the next chief of defense staff [and the patronage that entails],” says the analyst in Abuja.

“I think the war is essentially their vehicle to make money, that’s the larger objective rather than winning it,” says a former soldier who asked for anonymity to speak frankly.

Defense budgets—not just in Nigeria—are notoriously opaque, which can help hide the scale of graft. But according to a Transparency International reportreleased last year, Nigeria’s former military chiefs have stolen as much as $15 billion, equivalent to half of Nigeria’s foreign currency reserves, in “fraudulent arms procurement deals.”

The anti-corruption drive undertaken by Buhari when he first assumed office resulted in a pause in the looting and “a lot of craziness was stopped,” says the former soldier. “But now they’ve got the measure of the government, so the corruption is back.” Corruption deprives front-line soldiers of their allowances, and it also means that equipment that should be available on paper either does not exist or is in such poor condition as to be practically worthless.

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari arrives for his inauguration ceremony
in Abuja, Nigeria, May 29, 2015 (AP photo by Sunday Alamba).

Graft can also seep down to the lower ranks of the armed forces. In Maiduguri, it is not uncommon to hear the northeast described as the military’s “ATM.” In addition to payments demanded of vehicles at checkpoints, soldiers are believed to profit from the lucrative fish trade on the shores of Lake Chad and the sale of contraband fuel. Some also own stakes in the transportation companies ferrying the fish throughout the country.

“There’s been a degradation in Nigeria as a whole,” says a colonel based at army headquarters in Abuja, who offered this defense: “You can’t expect the army to be immune from corruption.”

Asymmetric Commitment

Regardless of whether it’s currently up to the task, the Nigerian military is the best hope for protection for war-weary civilians. And soldiers have improved their performance compared to the early stages of the conflict, when indiscriminate arrests and shootings in cordon-and-search operations in Maiduguri generated ready recruits for Boko Haram.

But confidence in its overall ability is limited. Out of 30 displaced people I interviewed in Maiduguri in July, half rated the army’s performance as “very bad or bad,” while nearly one-third said it was just “average.” Because of self-censorship, the civilians’ actual assessment of the army’s performance is probably even worse.

Former Boko Haram fighters who now work with local vigilante groups are also unimpressed by the army’s prowess. They speak of a lack of determination, a distinct unwillingness to engage with insurgents at close quarters, and a readiness to abandon positions and equipment.

In contrast, they describe Boko Haram militants as disciplined, mobile and highly motivated by their stated goal of establishing Sharia law and overthrowing a Nigerian state they view as venal, unjust and Godless. “There is a strong brotherhood, there is unity among them,” one man, who fought with the insurgents in 2014, explains. “They are not stupid, they have spies and study all the details before an attack.”

The insurgents’ conviction, even among those who were captured and coerced to fight, is bolstered by an environment of extreme religiosity, which manifests in, for example, the creation of special units whose job is to pray for victory. And while discipline is fierce, camaraderie is reinforced by the care taken to look after the wounded and carry away the dead.

Evidence from other conflicts, according to researchersHammad Sheikh and Scott Atran, suggests that devotion to a “sacred cause” empowers fighters to willingly sacrifice their lives, allowing “low-power” groups to endure and often prevail “against materially stronger foes.” One Boko Haram commander described Boko Haram’s strengths this way: “Some people join out of greed, or they want power. But when you look at those that go on suicide missions, it can’t be just about that, it must be about something deeper.”

To be sure, Boko Haram has had its own challenges. The split in 2016 between Shekau and al-Barnawi, who argued that the militants’ focus should be on fighting the security forces rather than carrying out attacks that targeted fellow Muslims, turned into bitter factional fighting. That, coupled with food shortages in the countryside due to Boko Haram raids on villages, weakened the group.

Corruption is so rampant in northeastern Nigeria that the region is often described as the military’s “ATM.”

Shekau, now isolated in pockets around Borno’s Sambisa Forest and the border with Cameroon, is an increasingly marginal figure in the war. ISWAP, on the other hand, has secured a conduit for arms supplies through the Sahel region and entrenched itself in the local economy. Its less exclusivist and bloodthirsty approach has enabled it to win some support among the rural population.

As it pursues its offensive against forward operating bases in northern Borno, ISWAP is seeking to sweep the military out of the borderlands around Lake Chad. ISWAP is “playing a long game,” with an eye toward potentially claiming one of the bases for itself, says Nwaonu of Peccavi Consulting. “Now they are raiding, but if they gain sufficient strength to capture an FOB, and the army can’t take it back, that would be a game changer.”

For now, the consulting firm does not believe Maiduguri is a likely target for any serious assault, as this would be far too large an undertaking. Instead, the goal seems to be to push the army south, forcing much longer logistics and supply lines when the military’s anticipated offensive begins at the end of the year.

How to Win

For all its setbacks, the Nigerian military has had success against Boko Haram before, and there’s no reason to believe this success can’t be replicated if the right strategies are implemented. One factor in the military’s improved performance in early 2015 was the hiring of the South African private security firm STTEPto train a mobile strike force. The South African team brought highly skilled air support and imparted a doctrine of “relentless pursuit” among the commandos of Nigeria’s elite 72 Strike Force, which proved effective over the course of its three-month contract.

Part of the challenge in building on past gains, though, rests with the military culture. “It’s a very top-down, rigid system. There is a refusal to delegate. In a firefight, when they run out of ammo, it has to be the ‘oga’ [the senior officer] that releases it, not the platoon sergeant,” says Nwaonu. “A junior officer or NCO [a non-commissioned officer] can’t call in an air or artillery strike. In NATO or other armies these responsibilities are delegated down to sergeants and 2nd lieutenants.”

He adds that there are times when troops who are outgunned or outnumbered need to withdraw in order to counterattack, but the army doesn’t train its soldiers to do that tactically—the premise being they should never retreat. As a result, when soldiers do fall back, it turns into a rout. “They just run and are shot.”

Nwaonu does not see ISWAP as an existential threat if properly managed. They are far from major population centers and can be contained. The current Nigerian strategy of placing bases in key movement corridors is operationally sound, “but they need to harden their FOBs, provide better fire support and sort out the logistics,” he notes.

Destroying Shekau’s already degraded forces, stuck in the Sambisa Forest area and along the border with Cameroon, could be done “with constant small, well-sustained, heavily armed fighting patrols, moving by foot, vehicle, motorcycle and helicopter, continuously harassing the enemy and forcing them into battle and degrading them further.”

In short, “everything needed to win the war is there,” says Nwaonu. “It’s just not properly used.”

Sgt. Victor is not so sure. He bristles at the accusation by the army chief of staff, Buratai, that the men who fled Jilli and Garunda earlier this year are cowards. “It’s a lie. He’s not in the picture. How can we run if we have tanks and armaments?”

But he admits that, since those two battles, he has thought of quitting the military. “If it wasn’t for my children who are in school, and being labeled a deserter, I would leave,” he says. “My family would suffer, but it would be better to go back to my village and farm.”

Obi Anyadike is a journalist and Open Society Fellow. He is researching Boko Haram recruitment in Nigeria. Follow him on Twitter @Enugu62.

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