By Iheanacho Nwosu
The appointment of Lt General Tukur Yusuf Buratai, an infantry officer from Biu as the 26th Chief of Army Staff on July 17 2015 by President Mohammadu Buhari changed the tide of the insurgency war in the North-east of the country. He got a marching order from the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces to flush out the terrorists who had ravaged his own ancestral home. Today, the stronghold of Boko Haram, Camp Zairo, located in Sambisa forest has fallen to the superior power of the Nigerian military. In this interview, the COAS revealed the strategies and tactics he adopted to dislodge the insurgents.
The few years you have spent in office has resulted in the defeat of Boko Haram. How did you do it?
First of all, let us know that the military is an instrument of the state, especially under this democratic dispensation. We are tools in the hands of the democratic system where we take our strategic directives in the national interest to carry out our constitutional roles and this has been made very clear from day one when President Muhammadu Buhari was sworn in. To underscore his commitment to ending this insecurity, especially the Boko Haram insurgency in the North-east, he directed that the military command and control centre be moved to the North-east. So, whatever follows up to the storming of Camp Zairo inside Sambisa forest, to say the least, was derived from this direction from his strategic position as the President and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces of Nigeria.
From military strategic level, would you say that the position has been that of the defeat of Boko Haram and indeed, other security challenges arising from the insurgency?
If you look at it comparatively, the situation of our troops before we came on board has been very regrettable and in a very bad state. But by and large, everything revolves around the leadership. The military leadership in this regards, even received the appropriate direction and indeed the command from the Commander in Chief, we set out to implement the command as directed and we looked at it holistically in terms of the strategic disposition of the North-east itself, the strategic significance of the Boko Haram insurgency, what they stood for, their motivations, how has it been received and what is the disposition of the North-east and Nigeria generally? What is the disposition of international friends especially our neighbours?
Having look at all these, I think the first thing that needed to be done was to check the state of mind of the soldiers operating in the North-east and equally the state of mind of the officers and indeed soldiers in other parts of the country in their different formations. So, the first thing was to undertake a visit to the theatre itself and to see what had been on the ground, just as I said their state of mind. The first thing is the morale of the troops. What are their challenges; why were they behaving the way they behaved; what was missing? We’ve been known for long for our exploits in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Sudan, not to mention earlier peace keeping missions in Congo. The situation we met was that the morale of the troops was very low to say the least.
Their resolve to stand fast and defend themselves was weak and the casualties we suffered from the Boko Haram terrorists before this administration came on board and before our appointment were extremely high and these were very demoralizing, so we must change that tendency. Luckily, I visited the first few units and I saw the challenges and we even had shortages of manpower, shortages of the basic kitting of the troops and the challenges of mobility.
Mobility was fundamental and also the deployment of troops, all these we had to look at critically. So, I assembled my team, officers and some of their commanders and we have been brainstorming. That was in Damaturu around July 2015 immediately after my appointment. We commenced the strategy on how to look at the overall deployment and what the gaps are in the theatre having seen the morale aspect. We now looked at the deployment aspect. How were they deployed; how were they mobilized? We also looked at the disposition of the Boko Haram terrorists across the theatre. We now strategized in deploying appropriate troops to their appropriate locations. Hitherto, Yobe State had not been looked at. There were only deployments inside Damaturu town itself, then Boni Yadi and even Boni Yadi was on the outskirts and there are no deployment in the town and we also have some skeletal deployments along the Maiduguri-Damaturu road. There were very skeletal deployments, so effectively Maiduguri was circled and once you enter Maiduguri you cannot go more than 20km radius. Virtually everyone was circled in that area. We now saw there was need to employ more troops, there was need to deploy the necessary equipment especially our surveillance equipment and indeed to improve medical care for the troops and so on. Before then, Damaturu used to be just a transit headquarters for the three divisions and I said no, you must remain in Damaturu that’s the GOC. We realigned some of the brigades that were under 3 Div and took some under command of 7 Div. With that realignment, we were able to checkmate the terrorists in that axis and able to block their movement around the area of Alagarno. Then going up to the northern part of Borno State, Yobe and then just going to the south in the Sambisa forest. So, having done that, we moved to change the name of the operation itself. It was Zamani Lafia and we decided we have to change the name at the level of commitment, the level of seriousness to which we need to handle that operation. If you look at it strictly, there is no difference in the name, the only difference is in emphasis, when you say Zamani Lafia, it means “Peaceful coexistence”. So, it is more passive in Hausa language, but we changed it to Lafia Dole, which means “wellbeing” or “health”, but in choosing our codename we don’t have to follow the linguistic definition, but it is mainly to reflect on our intention and the intention was to restore peace by all means.
Peace is a must and that’s the literal translation of Lafia Dole. It gives it the sense of urgency and seriousness in the whole operation and I think that was a strategic move which helped to psyche up the troops and raised their hopes to feel that there is a business coming and not the usual and we have to work to defend our territory. When we renamed the operation, we re-launched it in Konduga. After that I decided we must systematically scale up the operations, we must regain our territories. The first directive I gave was to recover Dikwa, the second local government on the way to Gamboru Ngala, which is seven kilometres away from Maiduguri. Within two weeks we were able to enter Dikwa, captured it, clear them and from there in two months we moved to capture Gamboru Ngala. So, having revived the morale of the troops, having checked the challenges, having some right on the ground there with the new kitting and injection of more mobility for them to operate and getting further equipment that were procured, we now set the ball rolling towards the eventual position we are today.
The storming of Camp Zairo beside Sambisa and definitely the capture of Camp Zairo is not the end. That’s the truth. It’s not the end of our effort and as we have told you, they are on the run, our troops are pursuing them. We blocked all their logistics routes but food and water supply and even medication have already spread and they take advantage of weak points and also isolated areas and their return to IED attacks is what they are using to show presence, but we are closing up on them. We will progress and get them with the support of all other security agencies which is key to the eventual clearance of the remnants of the Boko Haram terrorists. It’s not an issue that the single service can handle and all this issue of the recapturing of those territories which we began with Dikwa, Gamboru Ngala and other places were achieved with other services, especially the Air Force and the Department of State Services through their intelligence.
If Sambisa forest has been rid of Boko Haram, why are they still attacking and taking people to the same place? And about the commanders who fled, how many in the army have been arrested so far?
First of all, the understanding of Sambisa forest is different from the way you are seeing it. The Sambisa forest is about 60,000 square kilometers and Camp Zairo is just one area of the forest. There are several others that we have cleared and when you look at the terrain it’s very vast, there are different forests and so, just as I said, they are desperate and that’s why you see some of these attacks.
Our deployments are also one area you may have to look at critically as it is not possible to deploy to every square metre of the ground there. We are targeting the specific areas, specific routes where these Boko Haram terrorists are following, just the way they operate. We are still studying their pattern especially in this phase where they are scattered inside the Sambisa forest. Hitherto, they used to move in and out, but now they are scattered in different locations, so based on that, they come and strike and hide or even go to a place that we have identified.
This is an issue that we are working on. They come and strike to gain some supplies at some weak points or isolated areas, but by and large, I tell you this is not an issue that the military is not capable of handling.
Boko Haram terrorists are still not holding any significant control of any other place. It is a situation that we would continue to pursue and ensure that we get them out of the way and when you talk of the Sambisa forest itself,we are there and that’s why we are planning our championship and even testing one of our equipment and you will see the Sambisa forest and you will appreciate the huge challenges you see, just like this issue of armed robbery and kidnapping which has been with us for long and I see this aspect of the terrorists as merely criminal activities rather than strictly insurgency. We need to look at it critically and say, Boko Haram has been defeated, but what is remaining now is for them to even find a means of living and instead of them surrendering, they commit crime.
What they are doing right now is to search for food and attack convoys at vulnerable points actually and the issue now is the route between Maiduguri and Damboa which is a very busy road and at times you see hundreds of vehicles are being escorted along the road and what happens? It means we have over 150 to 200 vehicles and they take advantage of weak positions. In most cases we follow them, track them, get some of them and recover those things and they don’t go back to Sambisa, that strong enclave they use to have. They are going to other parts of the North-east, so this is how I want to see it. They’re more like criminals than insurgents. I think one point that we will like people to notice is that rather than glorifying them to be insurgents they should be regarded as criminals and treated as such.
One of the major atrocities committed by the Boko Haram is the abduction of some Chibok girls and some of them are still held captive. What is their fate?
Well, we are still hoping that they would be rescued. Definitely, we are not giving up, every day we will continue to rescue more and more. Abducted people are being liberated on a daily basis, some escape on their own, some of them are being released by these same terrorists because of the harsh reality of their inability to feed the people they abducted. We are still hopeful and we will continue to carry out our operations across until we get everybody out and we are very hopeful.
Beyond military action, what other strategy is the military adopting against Boko Haram?
The fight against insurgency is not entirely military and it involves overall national assets; the national power and indeed individuals within the country while the insurgency lasts. So, it’s a comprehensive approach to be taken, the military is just one aspect and when we talk about the military, we have succeeded from where we were up to date. In those days, abductions were rife and they attacked villages and stole. They surrounded villages and abducted hundreds of children and women even on a daily basis, but now we have been rescuing these abductees on daily basis. The IDP camps in the North-east shelter hundreds of thousands that have been rescued and still the operation is ongoing. The casualties before January 15 was so high, we have the statistics, but I tell you, those wounded and killed in action have reduced considerably.
What has made it difficult for the military to tell the public those who are sponsoring Boko Haram insurgency?
It is not the military, journalists are supposed to tell us who they are and other arms of the government.
Even before Boko Haram insurgency started, there were indications, so what were the people doing; what were other agencies doing? It’s not about responsibilities, it is not about some people not working; other agencies are working too but it is not our responsibility to tell you the sponsors, other agencies are there. The government itself, state administration, traditional leaders are there and people need to report, just as I said when we are doing our part, the people have to do something also.
What is required of the people to safeguard their lives and make the job of the military less tedious?
All these suicide bombers. Some people have been held hostage, some would not share their experience, so either they do or not, at the end, you are the one who will be at the receiving end. Two to three weeks ago, we made an offer on any information on suicide bombers on their guides, factories, locations, where they harbour or keep in transit hostages.
We offered N500,000 for useful information that would lead to them or their collaborators.
In fact without offering any reward, they should give us, but unfortunately those that we expect to give that information, either they don’t do it out of fear or they are sympathetic to the insurgents. We are still making arrests in conjunction with other agencies definitely. So, they need to come out, they need to condemn their actions. They need to support our efforts.
There have been some publications by media houses and online especially about the military. If Boko Haram kills two soldiers and you make it a headline, it becomes an issue and do you know the implications? It would boost their morale, they will use it as propaganda to tell their fighters, to reward them and encourage them. Tomorrow they will be ready to go to another place, they have succeeded, they are winning and the unfortunate thing is that 60 percent of the terrorists are not Nigerians.
The Rann incident where unfortunately Air Force dropped some bombs by mistake, the terrorists were there and their movements were noticed and the report was sent. So, when they saw what happened that day they didn’t attack but they came back the next day and one of them was captured and 15 of them were killed. Virtually all of them were Cameroonians or Chadians because none of them could speak any of the Nigerian languages.
Herdsmen and farmers have cohabited for a very long time, all of a sudden herdsmen now kidnap for ransom. The government has said some of them are foreigners, so how do they get in and are we not breeding another kind of criminals?
We don’t have any border force, we have a very lengthy border. The interaction between the border towns and border communities has been robost for long, most of the border communities are all the same linguistically, religiously, culturally and so on.
There are more opportunities here and be assured that those on the other side will always come in free, they don’t have any checks along our border. It’s a major issue that needs to be addressed and I am sure it’s being done but it may take time.
Globally many countries have strict and well secured borders and unauthorised routes are closed. You must cross through the authorised routes and so on.
If you have the requisite opportunity, would you advocate a border force?
We have already done that, we have made a case, but on our parts, some of our units that are deployed to the border try to do their best to prevent any harm from coming to the country. They work with other paramilitary formations like the Nigerian Immigration Service.
The issue of herders/farmers clash is an issue that has been long standing. It goes up and down but overall it’s not the military that should do that. Traditional rulers have a very important role to play as well as local community leaders, individuals and religious leaders to avoid these things. We are all brothers and sisters.
We need to work together, we will do our part to ensure that communities are protected, but primarily it’s the responsibility of the police. We are only called in when it gets out of hand.
Is the army overstretched since you are now performing the role of the police?
Due to the confidence people have in the army, in the military generally, our level of professionalism also implies our level of patriotism and we have discharged our responsibilities professionally and patriotically with a lot of commitment and neutrality and all our operation are in support of the authority. Just as I said earlier, you can be called out to support the civil authority and the army in particular is spread across the country.
Although we are not more numerous, the strength of the army is not as much as the police. We have always been relied upon to address some security issues, which involve violence. So, I will not say that the army is overstretched, because we are found anywhere, we operate in the air, riverine areas, forest, desert and so on. The military is not always the final solution, it will require everybody to key in, ensure things are stabilized and security is maintained. So, if we are called out now, as we are in Southern Kaduna, it’s an issue of space and the space is very wide. It’s an issue of population and is an issue of our mobility. If we can do that, then we will achieve the desired result. What happened in the South-east in December period was just an exercise, we were able to mobilise other security agencies, we had the best of times for the first time in many years, the crime rate in the South-east dropped drastically. We used to encounter armed robbery and other evils hitherto frequently, but last year compared to previous ones we only had three or four incidents. Against militancy also and pipeline vandals, the results were quite successful.
Same thing in the South-west and Sarandagi in the North-west. But still, definitely we cannot do it alone, despite the fact that we didn’t complain about being overstretched, we always carry other services along.
How did you manage to restore peace in the Niger Delta? Did you speak to the people?
Like I said, it’s our professionalism, level of commitment and patriotic disposition. We know that if we are to do anything, we are serious about it. It’s an issue of criminality and sabotage of our national assets.
We went in there with clear mandate and objectives to checkmate those criminal activities and we have the capability and we have the requisite training and ability.
They have been making noise before, they gave the impression that the military was incapable of checkmating them and they have appeared severally wielding weapons as if they were stronger than the Nigerian military, but in just about a week or two weeks operation, they saw our mobilization and now not only in the creeks, but the land also. Now it is a combined operation between the SSS, Navy and the Nigerian Army.
The army led the exercise, and we have an objective. There is no way you play with the national might, the capability of the state with some few criminal elements trying to show that they are better let them come out clearly, openly and say this is their source of power, whether it will match ours. I perform my duties professionally and without any self-engagement, now anybody who doubts us let him join the insurgents and we will clear his doubts.