Boko Haram War And Over- Stayed Military Service Chiefs By Azubike Nass

1.By 2008, Boko Haram had become an incipient terror insurgency seeking to overthrow the socio-cultural and political order of the society and establish an Islamic Caliphate governed by their own interpretation of Islamic Sharia law. They had started striking terror into government institutions and authorities within the area, targeting security and law-enforcement agencies, traditional and religious institutions and the helpless civil population.

2. At that stage Boko Haram adherents lived mostly in camps which they regarded as Islamic Communities. They operated mostly with motorcycles and were often armed with AK 47 rifles and bombs (improvised explosive devices–IED). The constituted State and Local Government authorities (particularly in Bornu State which was most affected), however still maintained authority over their areas. The insurgency kept building up.

3. Boko Haram achieved the peak of their power and authority in 2013/2014 period. They controlled and administered about 25 Local Government Areas (LGAs) across 3 States of NorthEast (Bornu, Adamawa and Yobe States). Bornu State lost about two-thirds of its landmass to Boko Haram which was poised to take over the remaining one-third part being loosely governed by the State government. The insurgents had closed up on Maiduguri, the State capital, which they wanted as the headquarters of their Caliphate.

4. Their Caliphate covered an area that is bigger than the landmass of the 5 States of the SouthEast zone put together. They had replicas of government institutions and functions: appointed district leaders, administrative machinery, tax authority, legislature and judiciary (Sharia courts). Boko Haram insurgents mounted the most audacious and successful assaults against the Nigerian military during that period. The military was being easily routed.


5. Few Examples: In about September 2013, Boko Haram attacked and destabilised the Airforce base in Maiduguri and destroyed some fighter jets newly acquired from China, as well as some weapons and equipment, taking away what they needed. Some months later, in March 2014, they similarly attacked and destabilised Giwa Army Barracks in Maiduguri, seized weapons and equipment, and freed hundreds of Boko Haram suspects being detained there. This was at a time when Boko Haram suspects or arrested members could only be detained in fortified military barracks, as it was risky for any Prison yard to hold Boko Haram suspects.

6. One month after, on the evening of April 14, 2014, the insurgents raided a boarding girls secondary school in the village of Chibok, Bornu State, and abducted over 250 teenage school girls, took time to burn down the school buildings, and herded the girls in a convoy of trucks to Boko Haram hide-out in Sambisa Forest, 20 kilometers away, virtually unchallenged. Few of the girls managed to escape along the way or in the forest, but more than 200 remained in captivity. That incident shocked and alarmed the international community and mobilised global sympathy and concern to tackle the Boko Haram menace.

7. On April 15, 2014, (the next day after abduction of Chibok school girls), Boko Haram carried out a most devastating double car-bomb attack on a busy bus station in Nyanya, a peasant satellite outskirt of Abuja capital city, during the morning rush hours, in which about 88 people were confirmed dead and about 200 people injured, and dozens of vehicles, mostly buses, charred.

8. In September that 2014, the insurgents attacked and captured another Army Barracks in Bama town, some 50 kilometers south-east of Maiduguri. The Army troops were destabilised and withdrew in disarray, abandoning their armoury, some armoured vehicles (including battle tank), and other equipment which Boko Haram neatly captured. The two locations of Giwa in Maiduguri and Bama were old Army Barracks in which troops lived with their families. They were Armoured Brigade units and had been fortified against Boko Haram attack. Yet their defences were craftly breached and destabilised.

9. The next month, on October 29, 2014, the insurgents over-ran Mubi, a major town in the northern part of Adamawa State. The Army troops could not stand them and simply withdrew, living the civilian population to their fate. The insurgents entered the barracks and burnt most of the buildings. Some two weeks later, in the second week of November 2014, Army troops counter-attacked and recaptured the town. That year 2014 witnessed the biggest humanitarian crisis of the war, with massive movement of Internally Displaced People (IDP). The case of Bama and Mubi were particularly pathetic.

10. Earlier in that 2014, Nigerian government had hired American military advisers and trainers to assist in the war. But the Americans were not permitted to take part in ground operations, partly because of Nigerian army’s often reported poor human-rights record in prosecuting the war.

11. In January 2015, in the run-up to the general elections which was to start from February 2015, and in the heat of the fast degenerating situation of the war against Boko Haram, the Nigerian government of President Goodluck Jonathan, who had been badgered at home and abroad for his clueless handling of the war, contracted a South African corporate mercenary group known as Special Tasks, Training, Equipment and Protection (STTEP) to help out. The government postponed the general elections by six weeks, on the promise to retake much of the area under Boko Haram control before elections. Such success was expected to shore up the government’s chances in the coming elections in which the incumbent President Jonathan was seeking re-election for the second term.

12. The mercenary group went into action. Within 4–5 weeks, Boko Haram strategic centres of command, control and logistics, were knocked out across the vast territory they controlled. It was almost unbelievable. It was a relentless fluid operation that hit hard at the insurgents main bases within the towns they controlled and forced them to abandone the cities and revert back to remote bases in the vast forests. Some of their forces were decimated and some others withdrew intact to escape the hit.

13. The mercenary group soon had disagreement with the government and withdrew their men and assets from Nigeria. There were accusations that some powerful forces in Nigeria were determined to sabotage them and that made them to withdraw from the fight. Soon after, the insurgents re-emerged to occupy the towns they were chased away from.


14. In the 1990s, the South African corporate mercenary group known as Executive Outcome (EO) was well acclaimed, if also sometimes notorious, for its involvement and efficiency in several war zones in Africa and beyond. It was founded in early 1990s by two ex-military officers: Col Eeben Barlow, originally a white Rhodesian (now Zimbabwe) special-forces officer who later moved to South Africa and commanded the notorious, combat-hardened Buffalo Battalion of the Apartheid era. And Simon Mann, an ex-British Special Air Service (SAS) officer who had also worked in South Africa. The two founders and their men were ex-dogs of war from Apartheid South Africa whose units were disbanded in 1990 when Apartheid ended. They then formed a corporate mercenary group known as Executive Outcome (EO).

15. In 1999, Simon Mann (the co-founder) led some mercenaries to Equatorial Guinea in a coup to topple the government of that small African country. The plot leaked and failed. Simon Mann was arrested, tried and jailed in Equatorial Guinea in 2000. His co-founder, Col Eeben Barlow, dissolved Executive Outcome that year, and soon registered another corporate mercenary group known as Special Tasks, Training, Equipment and Protection (STTEP) with the rest of his men. That’s the group Nigeria hired, led by Col Eeben Barlow.

16. Speaking in a seminar organised by the Royal Danish Defence College (Denmark’s war college)in April 2015 (shortly after he left Nigeria), and in a separate interview with a special-forces website,. sofrep•com , Col Eeben Barlow said the initial plan with the Nigerian government was for his men (most of whom were in their 50s and 60s of age) to train up a team to help seek and free the over 200 abducted teenage school girls who were still being held by Boko Haram. But as Boko Haram’s unchecked rampage continued, killing and seizing more towns and villages, his men got involved in schooling “Nigeria’s largely traditional army in unconventional mobile warfare”, and that involved “relentless pursuit”, which involved mimicking Boko Haram’s hit-and-run tactics, with non-stop assaults. Once the insurgents were on the run and their likely routes established, members of a strike force will be helicoptered into positions ahead of them to disrupt their escape and exhaust them further.

17. Col Barlow further explained that his men made good use of bush-tracking skills to read Boko Haram’s movements and likely positions/jungle hide-outs. As he put it, “Good trackers can tell the age of a track as well as indicate if the enemy is carrying heavy loads, the type of weapon he has, if the enemy is moving hurriedly, what he is eating, and so forth”. He described Boko Haram as “a bunch of armed thugs who use religion as a glue to hold their followers”. He warned that despite the rapid success achieved in the short time, “The enemy was able to flee the battlefield with some of their forces intact, and will no doubt regroup to continue their acts of terror”.

18. Boko Haram had sundry mercenaries. They had always hired mercenaries and other technical and stilled hands from among the free-floating, al-Qaeda linked jihadists, and other secular insurgents, mostly from neighbouring northern African countries, including from Nigeria’s immediate neighbours: Cameroon, Chad and I Niger Republic. Boko Haram regularly engaged the services of sundry international guerrilla arms dealers and smugglers, as well as sending indigenous operatives for training and combat to gain experience in terror insurgency spots, from Mali through Al-Shabah of Somalia to Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria.


19. In modern warfare, opposing forces aim to gain superiority and sophistication in weapons and equipment. It gives advantage. It is also a fact that no army has all it needs to fight a war or win a battle. Sometimes you use innovative approach to take maximum advantage of your area of strength and reduce vulnerability in your area of weakness. Though superiority of war materials gives advantage, it is not all there is to winning a battle or war. American forces had far more sophisticated weapons and equipment, but they lost the war to local Vietnamese whose strongest weapons were their resilience, ingenuous improvisation and patroitic commitment.

20. An old military adage says, it’s not just the gun, but the man behind the gun. That means the skill and commitment of the men and women that operate the weapons and equipment. If you have the best weapons and equipment, and other things are not equal, you may not go far. The enemy could outwit and out-manoeuvre you and capture a good part of your war materials and use them more effectively against you. And the frightened civilian population and traumatised soldiers who survived a fierce combat could tell tales of the enemy having superior weapons. This commonly happened in the present insurgency war with Boko Haram, particularly during 2013/2014 period when our troops were generally under-performing as a result of multiple issues.

21. Part of the multiple issues could be that the insufficient weapons and equipment given to fighting troops could have frequent breakdowns which could be very frustrating in battle situation. And that could largely be because the materials passed off as brand-new purchases could actually be refurbished old stock from some foreign land. And sometimes certain weapons and equipment which the troops lack in the frontline, are stocked up in some distant military deport/warehouse, and the clogged up, inefficient and insensitively corrupt administrative process may not allow the materials to reach frontline troops in critical time of need. That is very common in our system.


22. In the presidential election of March 28, 2015, Muhammadu Buhari won, against the incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan. Buhari as a candidate of his party before the election, had in 2014 narrowly survived Boko Haram targeted suicide car-bomb attack. The suicide bomber in an explosive-rigged car, had pursued Buhari’s car, levelled up shoulder-to-shoulder with it, and detonated in a loud explosion in the central northern city of Kaduna. What saved the day was that Buhari, unlike his usual routine, was being driven in a bulletproof SUV, so the exploding suicide bomber’s car, even though caused some shock and limited damage to Buhari’s car, did not harm those inside. That incident happened not long after candidate Buhari strongly publicly condemned Boko Haram bombing of Nyanya bus station in April 2014. He had described Boko Haram as “godless” people and vowed to crush them if he won the election.

23. Shortly after inauguration, the new President Buhari vigorously pursued and secured a new deal with Nigeria’s immediate neighbours that share common border around Lake Chad (Cameroon, Chad and Niger Republic) to strengthen and reinforce the existing Multinational Joint Task Force for major operations against Boko Haram.

24. The new President appointed new military service chiefs few months after taking office. The service chiefs were given marching order and directed to re-locate to NorthEast operational area to better prosecute the war. They promptly complied and the fighting spirit of troops pick up, making steady progress against Boko Haram. Within the first two years the troops uprooted Boko Haram from virtually all the major towns that constituted their Caliphate administration. All the over 25 LGAs that made up the Caliphate were retaken, though not in full in some places. Boko Haram fell back to more remote areas where they retained strong enclaves that did not constitute distinct administrative boundaries. This initial impressive performance raised High public expectations that the war may soon be won.


25. After the impressive push, progress seemed to stagnate. Operating from their remote recesses, Boko Haram remained a lethal force that could pick a military target, mobilise and concentrate men, weapons and resources to dislodge any targeted military location, capture weapons and equipment and pull back to their remote bases, not caring to hold ground.

26. To reduce such vulnerability, the military came up with the idea of Super Camps in which large troops units are co-located in a fortfied position to be able to withstand such attacks. It hadi its advantages and disadvantages. Boko Haram continued to proof their capacity to strike with devastating effect. Civilian communities remained easy target for Boko Haram attacks.

27. The military had not been so effective in taking out Boko Haram in their remote strongholds. Boko Haram had often beaten back such attempts. Example: Certain places within the shoreline and wetland of Lake Chad basin (which borders 4 countries) are of strategic importance for Boko Haram survival, such as around the major fishing town of Baga. It is like their gateway to the outside world, their seaport and land route, their economic lifeline, as they control the resources of the water and wetland (including but not limited to fishing and agriculture).

28. Major attempts made by own troops in that direction have never gone far enough before being beaten back. Naval outpost was strategically sited in the area, but in late December 2018, Boko Haram launched a massive and fierce attack that dislodged the Navy troops, captured and took away some boats, including gunboats, and destroyed other boats. The military soon regrouped and reinforced the position. In late June 2019, Boko Haram dislodged it again in similar way, with related losses.

29. The major bomb factories and warehouses of Boko Haram (both factions—they were originally one and still operate in similar ways) are still intact, not threatened, and located in well fortified bunkers and possibly excavated mountain caves deep in the forests. They still have dozens of gun trucks, some armoured vehicles and heavy ground-fighting weapons.


30. This writer had interacted with Executive Outcome (EO, now rebranded as STTEP) of South Africa, a corporate mercenary group, in the 1990s. I have an idea of their capability and how they operate. I have also keenly followed the presentation made by their leader, Col Eeben Barlow, in a seminar organised by Denmark’s war college in April 2015 (shortly after he left Nigeria), and a separate interview he granted to a special-forces website. I can vouch that the group was already mapping out plans to take the battle to Boko Haram jungle bunkers and strategic economic centres, before the group withdrew from Nigeria.

31. Nigerian forces can take on that task as the next strategic phase. But we must be truly prepared and committed. This writer had some 3 years ago published an article in which I argued, with case studies, that Boko Haram can be roundly defeated. It’s not gonna be a walk in the park. But it is doable. Very much so. Only if we are prepared to break the jinx of our clogged up traditional approach.

32. For a start, fresh hands with fresh enthusiasm have to head the military high command. The present service chiefs have been on the saddle for over 5 years now. They are all over-due for statutory retirement from Service. They did a wonderful job in about their first 2 years before things got stuck. They have to go for many good reasons. They deserve honourable retirement. Only Mr President can grant that.

33. Picking new service chiefs that can effectively fight and win an insurgency war, is not so easy for Mr President. This is because there are many competing interests and political balancing involved, each trying to out-do the other. Mr President doesn’t really know the individuals other than reading their personal profiles submitted to him to choose from. And such profiles are normally padded and embellished. Such lobbied and padded personal profiles is a common tradition along the line in pursuit of career enhancement for public/civil servants. The military has its good share of it. You may not always know the true capability of a person from such profile.

34. This writer is of the view that Mr President should be ready to change any military leader that is not achieving desired result in the Insurancy war. Accommodating interest groups and political balancing should be downgraded.

Alexander the Great once said that he is not afraid of an army of lions led by sheep, but he is afraid of an army of sheep led by lion.
I rest my case.

Azubike Nass.
(October 01, 2020).

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