PREMIUM TIMES has obtained exclusive details of how insurgents ambushed a detachment of Nigerian troops and hours after overran a fortified military base, inflicting maximum damage.
In an assault that has now created fresh complications for the military operation in war-ravaged North-east, suspected Boko Haram insurgents last weekend attacked troops in Borno and Yobe states, killing soldiers, plundering equipment and supplies and torching even larger quantity of equipment and supplies.
The terrorists hit a convoy of officers, soldiers, informants, local vigilante members and hunters in the first attack on July 13. The early morning ambush, which occurred in Bama Local Government Area, Borno State, initially left five officers and 60 soldiers missing. But most of the troops later found their way back to base by the next morning.
The following day, insurgents swarmed 81 Division Task Force Brigade in Jilli, near Geidam, Yobe State. Three Nigerian Army officers and 28 soldiers were confirmed killed in the attack, military sources who examined the aftermath of the attacks informed PREMIUM TIMES.
Sources disclosed that one officer and 24 soldiers who survived varying but serious degrees of injuries during the attack are currently undergoing treatment at medical facilities in Maiduguri, Borno State, and Damaturu, Yobe State.
Two members of the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF) were also killed in the Jilli attack, while three of their colleagues who sustained serious injury are at the hospital in Maiduguri. Four CJTF members went missing in the attack, while the fate of five remained undetermined.
An officer and two soldiers were acknowledged missing in action in the Bama attack by the Nigerian Army 7 Division Headquarters in Maiduguri. But multiple military sources told PREMIUM TIMES that three officers and nine soldiers were still missing in action as at July 16.
In both attacks, insurgents suffered at least 10 casualties, but were able to cart away military equipment and supplies, both ranging from assorted gun trucks to food items in storage facilities.
The Army downplayed the degree of troops' setbacks in its reaction to initial news reports about the Bama attack, saying in a July 16 statement that only one officer and one soldier were injured.
Texas Chukwu, a brigadier general and Army spokesperson, completely ignored media enquiries and reports about the attack on the military base in Jilli.
How attack unfolded
For days, PREMIUM TIMES explored multiple channels to uncover behind-the-scenes details of the attacks, which occurred over 200 kilometres apart and which security analysts have linked to the Abu-Mus'ab Al-Barnawi faction of Boko Haram. The group is known to target military interests rather than soft, mostly civilian targets.
Our sources, well informed about the events, explained how the attack unfolded.
The first attack on July 13, they said, involved six officers, 63 soldiers from 21 Brigade in Bama and 22 Task Force Brigade who were moved from their base in Ilorin and stationed in Bama as part of the ongoing war against Boko Haram.
They were joined by eight military informants, one member of CJTF and two hunters. They left Bama around 9:40 a.m. in seven gun trucks, two Toyota Hilux trucks for a planned operation in Kwakwa, a community in the same local government.
Military sources said the troops recorded initial successes in clearing villages of Boko Haram remnants along the way. When they arrived in Kwakwa, they also managed to flush out some insurgents lurking in a part of the community until they advanced to other parts that had become muddy as a result of heavy downpour in recent days.
At about 4:00 p.m., the men found it difficult to move with their gun trucks due to the impassable terrain and decided to disembark and proceed on foot to clear other areas of terrorists. It was at this point that Boko Haram fighters suddenly emerged, formed a ring around them and opened fire.
The commissioning of the cenotaph
Most of the soldiers then dispersed in different directions. The rest managed to escape in two gun trucks. The remaining trucks and equipment were abandoned at the scene, PREMIUM TIMES learnt.
By the time air support arrived the next day, only two empty trucks were left, insurgents had made away with five anti-aircraft gun trucks and all the bombs and ammunition in them. The Air Force was unable to tow the remaining two empty trucks away and decided to demobilise them to make it impossible for Boko Haram to remove.
Most of the troops returned to their bases between the first day of the attack and the second day, but one officer and two soldiers were still missing as at July 18 with chances of their return becoming increasingly dimmer by the hour, military sources said.
At least 10 Boko Haram fighters were killed in the attacks and about four AK-47 rifles were also seized from them by troops, sources said.
Abdulmalik Biu (brigadier general), the acting general officer commanding of the 7 Division in Maiduguri, arrived at the 21 Brigade Headquarters in Bama hours after the attack. He interacted with many of the personnel on ground, including those who escaped the onslaught and those who participated in rescue efforts.
At the 81 Division Task Force Brigade in Yobe, which is a key base for the Operation Last Hold, Boko Haram elements caught the soldiers completely off guard, military sources said.
In the July 14 attack, three officers and 28 soldiers were killed, and unknown number unaccounted for as at July 16, two days after.
One officer, 24 soldiers and two members of the CJTF were severely injured and taken to hospitals in Damaturu, Geidam, and Maiduguri.
The brigade commander's Hilux truck with all the communication gadgets was taken away. The insurgents also took away an ambulance, arms and ammunition, food supply for the period of July 15 to 31, petrol, oil and lubricants, as well as newly-issued military uniforms.
They destroyed stores, offices, church, two Sino trucks, one Mack truck and water tanker in the attack, PREMIUM TIMES learnt.
Mr Chukwu did not respond to PREMIUM TIMES' requests seeking comments about the contradictions in his statement and what actually transpired in the attack.
Instead, he demanded to know who our sources are, saying he is on ground in Maiduguri and has a better understanding of the attack.
Defence Headquarters spokesperson, John Agim, also declined to comment on the specifics of the attacks.
He however said the Chief of Army Staff, Tukur Buratai, a lieutenant general, is on ground to assess the situation and that there might be more information for the public thereafter.
Onyema Nwachukwu, colonel, and spokesperson for the 7 Division, said enquiries on the matter should be directed at Mr Chukwu.
Unsolved cases of missing soldiers
The resurgent Boko Haram fighters are at the peak of their raining season onslaught and have been ramping up their campaign against security forces.
Despite claims by President Muhammadu Buhari that his administration has boosted their morale and technically defeated Boko Haram, the troops claimed they are still beset by a high death toll, desertions and arbitrary deductions from their entitlements by senior officers, making it difficult for them to beat back the insurgents despite driving them away from the Sambisa Forest.
Earlier this year, they kidnapped over 100 schoolgirls in a small community in Yobe, but the girls were returned a few weeks later following negotiation by the Buhari administration. Only one of the girls, Leah Sharibu, remained in the custody of the insurgents. There were claims ransom was paid, a claim strongly denied by the Nigerian authorities.
The latest attacks appear to be the first major case of soldiers going missing in Boko Haram ambush in 2018.
In October 2016, scores of soldiers went missing in a Boko Haram ambush near the border with Niger. PREMIUM TIMES' reports about the attack were initially met with resistance and denial from the Nigerian Army.
But the Army later confirmed that 16 of the soldiers, including their commanding officer, were found dead in the attack, which occurred in River Komadogou Yobe. This came a few days after the Army declared 46 soldiers missing even while publicly denying PREMIUM TIMES reports about the missing troops.
The Army also commissioned a probe to unravel the circumstances leading to the attack and its aftermath, but the outcome of the inquiry remained unknown two years after.
A similar incident occurred in August 2014 when about 480 troops crossed the border into Cameroon as they clashed with Boko Haram. It remained unclear whether all the troops returned to their base safely four years on.