Early this week, Nigerian newspapers carried on their covers the picture of local vigilantes in Borno State allegedly preparing to enter the dreaded Sambisa forest. They were ostensibly ready not only to rescue the Chibok girls, but to also confront Boko Haram insurgents.
They carried local weapons, a few pump action guns and were “fortified” with an assortment of charms! The motley group reminded me of the Kamajor hunters enlisted in the brutal civil war in Sierra Leone, that Nigerian soldiers commanded by the late General Maxwell Khobe, eventually untangled.
They also reminded me of childhood in Ilorin, during dry seasons, when local hunters accompanied by their mongrel dogs hunted for “bush meat”. Local vigilantes reflect deep-seated communal ethos of self-defense, hacking back to old days of pre-colonial warfare. People transport themselves to idealised versions of their past when confronted with overwhelming crisis of modernity.
The appearance of local vigilantes also reflects the depth of crisis of national defense today in Nigeria. That picture is an expression of frustration in communities engulfed by the insurgency; they are prepared for self-help because the Nigerian state and its armed forces seem unable to guarantee their safety and security.
Self-help seemed to have received a boost, following the report last week, that local residents in the town of Rann, in Kala-Balge local government of Borno engaged about 300 Boko Haram insurgents and killed about 200 of them. The story in the media was that: “The people in Rann and environs used traditional fighting equipment and charms to repel the attacks (by Boko Haram)”, and BOOM, it has created a copycat effect!
This is the sorry pass we have arrived at in our country. It is a reflection of the state of our armed forces; and I say that, not to demoralise our very heroic combatants who have made tremendous sacrifices contending with the challenge of the Boko Haram insurgency.
A very dangerous dimension was introduced recently, when troops of the 7 Division of the Nigerian Army in Maiduguri, opened fire on the car of the General Officer Commanding, GOC, Major General Ahmed Mohammed.
The soldiers were reported to have been angry over the killing of 12 of their colleagues in an ambush by insurgents on their way back from the north of Borno. Soldiers blamed the lack of adequate fighting equipment for their death. DAILY TRUST of Thursday, May 15, 2014, quoted an officer, who said: “The 101 Battalion has severally complained that they lack kits, including fragmented jacket.
They repeatedly complained that they don’t have support weapons, they don’t have helmets, boots and basic things for survival like water”. The report also quoted another “credible source”, that the soldiers were angry over their inferior firepower compared to Boko Haram, as well as over delayed allowances.
How did we get to the dangerous pass, whereby soldiers will be confessing that: “It is not that we don’t know how to fight but we don’t have the equipment to fight.
We always run for our lives whenever the terrorists come because they have superior weapons; it is difficult to confront them?” Something is rotten in the state of Denmark, to quote Shakespeare! As I noted on this page last week, Nigeria has appropriated almost N3 trillion, in the past few years, for the purposes of defense.
So how come our troops are so badly provisioned in terms of basic equipment, body armour and night vision equipment? Why did even President Goodluck Jonathan confess about the inadequacies which our valiant fighting men and women face? Related to this is the way some sections of the international community who have accepted to help us with the effort to free the Chibok girls, have been doubting the ability or willingness of our forces to engage the insurgency.
While it is true that the Nigerian Army had historically been trained to fight conventional wars and enemies, not the asymmetrical war against an insurgency, it is also true that there seems to be a serious problem in the manner we have responded to the challenge posed by asymmetrical insurgency war. Looking in, from outside as an observer, there is an impression that strategic and tactical thinking were not quickly adapted to the new challenge while the provisioning and morale of forces suffered.
The Nigerian Army has also suffered a high attrition rate amongst its officer corps, with forcible retirements of highly trained and experienced officers, to ensure the promotion of favoured officers. Surely, we cannot continue to lose our best-trained officers to retirements just to satisfy nepotistic elevations of favoured officers; in the long run, as we are discovering with the Boko Harm insurgency, it is the army that suffers.
Yet, this has not always been the situation with our fighting men and and women. I can say, without ambiguity, that we have always possessed some of the best soldiers on earth. It is not for nothing that we have always been some of the greatest suppliers of troops to peace-keeping operations around the world.
We can teach other armies around the world how to effectively keep the peace. In the course of my work as a journalist, I have reported from Darfur. I went on a Route Assessment Patrol with the Nigerian Army in South Darfur.
I was with our soldiers in Juba, South Sudan; I saw our troops in action manning the mixed zone between government and rebel troops in Ivory Coast and I was equally pleasantly surprised to see our soldiers in Western Sahara.
These are examples that filled me with patriotic pride, encountering Nigerian forces abroad. They were professional and they provided leadership to the armies of other African countries.
The Boko Haram insurgency has sapped the morale of our forces largely because of the way things have been handled by officialdom. We need our troops to be taken to the highest levels of professionalism; with the best provisions in terms of equipment, combat gear, allowances and rotation from scenes of engagement.
The enemy we face today, as a result of internal contradictions and external factors, continues to evolve; similarly, we must protect our borders and be capable of projecting force in our West African neighbourhood, as we did with ECOMOG and earlier in Chad, in the 1980s.
And given the difficult job they do, Nigerians must recognise their sacrifices and give them support. Our armed forces are some of the best of our national institutions!