Why the Military Cannot Defeat Boko Haram By Bayo Olupohunda
To begin this piece, one fact has become undeniable. Our country is at war. According to the latest Human Rights Watch report, Boko Haram has killed 2, 053 Nigerians in the North-East in six months! The Nigerian military is at the forefront of the war on terror but it is doubtful if it can win this war. Now a caveat: I am aware that terrorism is a new phenomenon in our country. Terrorism causes national trauma, stalls development and drains a nation’s resources. But as we have seen, serious nations can effectively weaken terrorist organisations, break their cells, drive them underground and render them ineffective. But our military has proved to lack either the will or the capacity to confront and bring this war to an end. Why is this so?
In the wake of September 11, 2001 terrorist attack, the US government resolved to confront al Qaeda which had struck a severe blow on America’s much cherished prestige. For years, they haunted Osama bin Laden and its terror network. At the forefront of the war on terror were the formidable American military and the Department of Homeland Security. Americans saw a threat to their country and responded decisively. Bin Laden is now history. America has become safer. Unlike Nigeria, the US takes human rights violations by its military seriously. American soldiers who commit abuses in Afghanistan are punished.
In Nigeria, both our government and the military forces have proved incapable of defeating a small army of insurgents whose activities are limited to the North-East zone. This is in spite of billions of naira in defence spending since 2010. In recent years, Boko Haram has become more daring in its attacks. Apart from conducting suicide bombings, it has continued to carry out coordinated raids on villages and military formations. In these attacks, hundreds of people including soldiers are being killed. The army has often told Nigerians it is winning the war. But Nigerians have dismissed the claims as propaganda because the attacks have become more frequent and deadlier. Why has the war on terror become so intractable? Why have the military forces become so impotent?
Having failed so far, it has become critical to question the ability of our military to win this war. Really, it is becoming apparent that the war on terror may never be won by the military. Recently, President Goodluck Jonathan sought a whopping addition of $1bn foreign loan to tackle Boko Haram. Nigerians are understandably righteously outraged that the war on terror has become a conduit given that between 2012 and 2013 over N3trn, which is about 25 per cent of the national budget, was expended on defence alone. Where did all the money go? By requesting more money without demanding accountability and addressing alleged corruption in the military, the Jonathan administration is indirectly undermining its own effort to combat our security challenges. If money alone had been the issue, the war on terror would have been won a long time ago.
It is a curious paradox that a military that has grossed a substantial chunk of budget is too ill-equipped to confront Boko Haram. The Governor of Borno State, Kasshim Shettima, recently observed that the Islamist terrorist sect is equipped with more sophisticated weapons than our military. While the terrorists are said to be equipped with RPG7 anti-aircraft, GPMG, IEDS, and Browning machine guns, Nigerian military confronts them with AK47 rifles with no ballistic helmet and fragmental jacket. Boko Haram also overruns fortified military formations with ease. For example, the insurgents had successfully carried out coordinated attacks on the air force base in Maiduguri. In that attack alone, five fighter jets were reportedly destroyed. In Bama barracks attack, 29 Armoured Personnel Carriers were destroyed, and the barracks was burnt down. Why is it that the Nigerian military, having identified the 60,000 kilometre Sambisa Forest as Boko Haram’s stronghold, has been unable to launch successful military offensive on the forest, even before the kidnap of the Chibok girls?
So far, over 1000 soldiers are said to have been killed by Boko Haram. Even our international partners know that corruption is at the root of Nigerian military’s failure to halt the Boko Haram bloody campaign. The United States Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights, Sarah Sewall, recently said, “Corruption prevents supplies as basic as bullets and transport vehicles from reaching the front lines of the struggle against Boko Haram.” There have been a slew of allegations of soldiers’ reluctance to go for operations over the inadequate supply of just bullets. “You cannot get 60 bullets until you pay a bribe. How in the world can you fight someone who attacks you with thousands of bullets while you have only 30?” a frustrated Nigerian soldier told the Voice of America.
The Nigerian Army has become too, ‘domesticated’, ethnicised, politicised and undisciplined to function as one spartan fighting force in defence of our nation’s territorial integrity. Over the years, the military has majorly been used by governments in power as a force of repression and an army of occupation. Patriotism is lacking in the present force as it appears soldiers lack the morale to confront our common enemy. The military top brass has become too ‘civilianised’ and sloppy to the detriment of their primary goal of defending the nation.
The military may also not win this war because it has also failed to gain the trust of the locals and international community. For example, the United States is wary to fully assist the Nigerian military because of its blighted history of human rights violations through extrajudicial killings of civilians which the Nigerian government has consistently failed to investigate. According to a report in the Huffington Post, influential congressmen in the Foreign Affairs Committees of both Houses of Congress had introduced an amendment advocating for more aggressive US security and intelligence support for the Nigerian military in the field–both to help the #BringBackOurGirls and to better prevent Boko Haram from conducting similar abductions and raids in future. But these initiatives are hampered by stiff legal roadblocks preventing the Obama administration from sending more military assistance or equipment.
According to the report, Section 620M of the Foreign Assistance Act, commonly referred to as the “Leahy Law,” prohibits the US from providing any military assistance “to any unit of the security forces of a foreign country if the Secretary of State has credible information that such unit has committed a gross violation of human rights.” Unfortunately, our security forces are not exactly the most reliable in taking human rights obligations seriously during operations. Our military has been condemned by human rights organisations for the use of torture, extrajudicial killings, summary executions and wrongful arrests often during and after offensives against Boko Haram militants. Only recently too, Lauren Blanchard, a Specialist at the African Affairs Congressional Research Service, told the US House Foreign Affairs Sub-committee on Africa that our military has not been yielding to American suggestions on the war against terror. Rather than continue to waste more money on corruption, President Jonathan must find the courage to demand accountability from the military. To win this war, the military must also put its house in order before terrorism consumes us all. A stitch in time saves nine.
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