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The extent to which the military and the Federal Government have effectively disrupted, degraded, or destroyed Boko Haram insurgency in the North-East of the country is heavily contested. While President Muhammadu Buhari and the military high command believe vigorously that Boko Haram has been disrupted and dislodged from their base in many parts of the North, some people disagree.
When Buhari launched the Presidential Committee on the North-East Initiative (PCNI) on Wednesday, October 26, 2016, he said with confidence that the most terrible days of the Boko Haram insurrection were over. He estimated that the terror group had murdered more than 20,000 citizens and displaced more than two million people.
Buhari said during the inauguration of the PCNI: “Fortunately, the worst of insurgency is behind us. This, we owe principally to the valiant efforts of our military whose gallant efforts have significantly degraded the insurgency. With these successes, many displaced persons are willing and ready to return home to pick up their lives and move forward. However, and sadly so, many have nothing to return to. They have lost everything to the insurgency. In addition, social and public services are also absent due to the massive destruction of public and private infrastructure. To this end, I have established the Presidential Committee on the North East Initiative…”
Barely three weeks after that presidential declaration, former Vice President Atiku Abubakar countered. He said on Sunday, November 20, 2016, that the battle against Boko Haram was far from over because many of the displaced people were yet to return to their homes. He said Boko Haram still inhabited a large expanse of Nigerian territory known as Sambisa Forest. For this reason, many of the displaced persons were yet to return to their homes because of fear of Boko Haram reappearance.
Atiku said: “We cannot say it’s over until the survivors of this insurgency receive the help they need, including psychological therapy to deal with the trauma they have been through. It is the basic right of every Nigerian to live in his local community, go to their churches, mosques and their children are free to attend school and their women go to their markets.”
Soon after Atiku’s remarks, the Director of Defence Information, Brigadier-General Abubakar Rabe, made a veiled reference to Atiku’s critical comment and cautioned: “While we recognise and respect the views of our esteemed citizens on national discourse, issues of national security concern deserve some caution… especially as the operation is still on and we have and continue to make unprecedented progress over the insurgents, especially in denying them freedom of action and movement and, most significantly, the rescue of persons from the group.
“While we advise our citizens against politicisation of security, we are committed to eradicating the insurgents and other forms of criminal activities wherever (they) surface … it is a civic responsibility of citizens to contribute in their ways and means of confronting the national crisis with a view to eliminating this menace. We know what we have done and people are appreciative of stabilising the North-East in particular and the country in general.”
Exactly 10 days after Buhari pronounced Boko Haram nearly dead and obliterated, the Commanding Officer of 272 Task Force Tank Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Muhammad Abu Ali, and four of his colleagues were killed when Boko Haram terrorists carried out a surprise attack on the Army’s location in Borno State. The number of fatalities could have been higher but for the timely and brave intervention of soldiers of the 119 Battalion who fought back courageously, annihilating 11 Boko Haram terrorists.
The untimely demise of the five officers was disheartening particularly as it came against the background of general optimism that peace was finally returning to areas formerly occupied by Boko Haram.
It is difficult to know precisely what is happening on the battlefront or who is having the upper hand in the conflict. What we know, based on official statements by field commanders on the battlefield, is that soldiers are matching Boko Haram strategy for strategy and are determined to rout the terrorists even as they seek to hide in their evil forest known as Sambisa. Only senior commanders who have firsthand knowledge of the battlefront are in a position to clarify the situation. It is also important to keep in mind that, in warfare, propaganda is a vehicle used freely by both sides to win the hearts and minds of people.
The idea that Boko Haram has been degraded and, therefore, incapable of mounting any serious attacks except on “soft targets” may have been a little bit exaggerated. History tells us that terrorist organisations are not easily incinerated. Every time government expresses optimism that Boko Haram has been defeated and dislodged from territories they occupied, the terrorists come back fighting harder, inflicting more pain and losses on our soldiers. This should not continue to happen. Nigeria cannot afford to continue to lose young, highly decorated and experienced soldiers in this conflict. It is time Buhari and his national security advisers mapped out new strategies to confront the enemy.
One topic that dominated public conversation a few months after the election of Goodluck Jonathan as President in 2011 was how he would deal with the growing threat posed by Boko Haram to the nation’s security interests. Since then, Boko Haram has continued to threaten the peace and security of Nigeria through mindless violence and terror campaigns in different parts of the North, reaching sometimes the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja. Again, following the election of Buhari as president in 2015, the public sphere also experienced sporadic discussion about Buhari’s capacity to destroy Boko Haram.
One of the first things Buhari did after the inauguration of his government was to direct the military high command to relocate to Maiduguri. The directive was seen as symbolic. Maiduguri is close to Sambisa Forest, the area that Boko Haram had turned into an evil residential space. By that decision, Buhari wanted to send the unmistakeable message to Boko Haram that security forces were ready to confront the them measure for measure, weapon for weapon, in an open space and also in their narrow cavern. Senior commanders also conveyed the message that soldiers were ready, highly motivated, and fully equipped to pursue the insurgents to their abode and beyond.
During his acceptance speech on April 1, 2015, Buhari did not mince words when he said Boko Haram’s insurgency was a significant test of the nation’s unity and structure. He said: “No doubt, this nation has suffered greatly in the recent past, and its staying power has been tested to its limits by crises, chief among which is insurgency of Boko Haram. There is no doubt that, in tackling the insurgency, we have a tough and urgent job to do. But I assure you that Boko Haram will soon know the strength of our collective will and commitment to rid this nation of terror, and bring back peace and normalcy to all the affected areas. We shall spare no effort until we defeat terrorism.”
Of course, Buhari’s instruction did not go down well with everybody. For example, soon after Buhari ordered the military to relocate to Maiduguri to confront Boko Haram terrorists, debate erupted about the correctness of that directive. While some people saw value in the military high command moving closer to the headquarters of Boko Haram to confront the terrorists in their own territory, others argued, however, that it was not necessary to move the military headquarters closer to Boko Haram territory. One of the arguments in support of this way of thinking or reasoning was that you did not need physical movement of soldiers to engage in modern warfare, whether it is conventional or unconventional war. In the age of digital technology, it is possible for a nation to fight an enemy who is located thousands of kilometres away.
Ever since Boko Haram forcibly took control of parts of some states in the North, Borno State in particular has become not only a casualty of terrorism but also a territory heavily contested by federal troops and Boko Haram fighters. On many occasions, through extensive bombing in the northern states, Boko Haram had signalled its capacity to strike with ease at anytime and any location it considered an important target.
Because they managed to engage in periodic bombing of fortified places such as Army barracks, Boko Haram has continued to confound politicians, as well as the Army and the police. The terror organisation has also shown its uncanny ability to integrate into local communities and recruit members from those communities. This has made the task of dealing decisively with the evil organisation much more challenging and complicated. In places where there are so many unemployed and, therefore, angry youth, the disenchanted subscribe so easily to the quaint ideology that Boko Haram has been propagating to deceive young boys and girls.
Before he was elected President, Buhari pledged during the election campaign to get rid of Boko Haram within months of assuming office. That has proved to be an unattainable dream. More than one year since Buhari was elected, Boko Haram has continued to strike against the nation in various ways. While the frequency of the bombings may have diminished somewhat, the ferocity of the strikes does not seem to suggest the enemy has been obliterated.
Certainly, one sore problem that will continue to irritate Buhari is how he would end Boko Haram’s insurgency and the violence that has prevented many displaced people from returning to the homes they abandoned for fear of losing their lives. Whatever happens, Buhari needs to respond forcefully and comprehensively to the Boko Haram threat to the peace, security, and unity of the nation.