Nigeria: Theatre of Death for Nigerian Soldiers

31 March 2020

Chiemelie Ezeobi writes that the deadly ambush in Gorigi, near Alagarno Forest in Borno State , that left 47 soldiers dead and 15 others wounded, is a sad occurrence that re-emphasises the need for the military to formulate new strategies as this recent attack underscores the continued threat the Boko Haram terrorists pose to the region.

On February 22, 2020, the Chief of Army Staff, Lieutenant General Tukur Buratai, said with the renewed zeal shown by Nigerian troops battling Boko Haram and the Islamic State for West African Province (ISWAP) in the North-east, the menace of the terrorists and their criminalities may end in just a matter of days.

In a letter written to the Theatre Commander, Operation Lafiya Dole, Major General Olusegun Adeniyi, Buratai praised the commanders for their gallantry, patriotism and commitment to the war effort by decimating the leadership and rank and file of the insurgents.

But that same day, Boko Haram attacked motorists near Kaliyari, a community located 70 kilometers north of Damaturu, the Yobe State capital. According to reports, the sect members stormed the community, shooting sporadically. During the attack, which took over two hours, the insurgents were said to have mounted a roadblock and seized a group of vigilantes with their Hilux van.

Regrouping Boko Haram Forces

World over, the military and security forces battle one major challenge: regrouping terror forces. Although Nigeria continues to suffer the same fate in its fight against the BHTs, there is no doubt that the military has considerably recorded some successes by reclaiming lost grounds, pushing them back into the arid desert and sometimes, even crippling their sources of weaponry.

But despite these measures, the terrorists keep inventing new strategies to stay afloat. While they have been sacked from the caliphates they had arrogated to themselves, they still unleash pockets of violence in some areas, especially through suicide bombing, and most recently, the resurgence and attacks in Borno State.

According to security analysts, the insurgents are pulling off almost daily attacks. As if that was not enough, they once cut off power from the national grid.

In the past months, specifically from April 2019, there has been a consistent resurgence and escalation of Boko Haram Terrorists (BHTs) attacks in the North-east (NE). Already, the renewed onslaught by BHT has claimed hundreds of lives, especially that of soldiers, who are often the first buffer in the line of attack.

It is therefore no gainsaying that the intensified and repeated attacks in recent times undermine the repeated claims by the military that the sect had been decimated. For years, and even in recent times, with the numerous successes they recorded, the military has maintained that the rampaging sect has been contained, but the recent resurgence has put paid to those claims.

Although Boko Haram no longer controls swathes of territory in the NE as it did in the height of insurgency in 2014, the recent attacks underscores the continued threat the sect poses to the region.

The Ambush

Despite repeated claims by the Armed Forces that the Boko Haram Terrorist (BHT) sect has been depleted and highly degraded, the recent actions of the terrorists certainly suggests otherwise. Week in and out, stories abound of the sect wrecking havoc on the Nigerian forces, sometimes even over running their bases and killing the soldiers.

It is no gainsaying that Northern Borno is the stronghold of BH, from Metele to Abadam, Malamfatori, Baga, Gajiganna, Magumeri, Monguno and even beyond reaching to the borders of Lake Chad and Niger Republic, but the recent attacks have heightened fears about the repeated assurances by the military that Nigeria is indeed winning the war against insurgency and extremisms.

It was no different last week when the sect again attacked and incinerated soldiers. But this time around, this attack was one of the deadliest by the sect on the military forces.

Just last week, the Boko Haram terrorists dealt a deadly blow on the military. In one attack, they felled 47 soldiers after Boko Haram staged a deadly ambush on a moving convoy of troops around Alagarno in Yobe State.

According to reports, the terrorists ambushed the military vehicle conveying logistics which included bombs and other weapons and shot at it, resulting in an explosion that killed the soldiers and the insurgents that mounted the ambush.

Although the death toll was initially put at 70, the military later came out to debunk that. The insurgents had fired rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) at a truck carrying troops and weapons.

THISDAY gathered that the troops had left Maiduguri and were on its way to launch an offensive on a camp belonging to jihadists, when they drove into an ambush, thereby setting off conspiracy theories of a mole leaking their movement.

This recent slaughter of soldiers in an ambush by Boko Haram in the North-east, undermine repeated claims by the military that the group has been decimated. On January 8, no fewer than three soldiers were killed in an intense fighting between the army and the sect around a key garrison town in the Lake Chad area. The soldiers died when an army vehicle burst into flames after a car filled with explosives rammed into a convoy.

A patrol team was attacked near Monguno, but the patrol was quickly reinforced and the attack was repelled. Though there were fewer casualties on the Nigerian troops through vehicle-borne Improvised Explosive Devices (IED), many Boko Haram Terrorists were however eliminated during the encounter.

Also on January 17, not less than 17 soldiers were killed in confrontations between the military and Boko Haram insurgents along Bama-Gwoza road. Many soldiers were also said to have been abducted by the insurgents, who also suffered severe damage in its flanks.

The insurgents were said to have attacked Firgi, 20 kilometres north of Pulka along the road from Gwoza to Bama on Friday night. They were equally said to have carted away some arms, ammunition and vehicles belonging to the Nigerian Army.

The next day, the insurgents came back and attacked a military company at Banki junction on Bama-Gwoza road. For three hours, they battled and the casualties on the side of the military was four with the record from the insurgents not known. The insurgents were also said to have abducted yet to be ascertained number of soldiers and carted away arms and ammunition.

Military's Reaction

Although the Defence Headquarters (DHQ) initially confirmed 47 soldiers were killed and 15 others wounded in the ambush by Boko Haram, they would later bring the figure down to 29 soldiers and unknown number for the officers.

The Coordinator of the Defence Media Operations, Major General John Enenche, clarified that the 47 soldiers were not killed in direct combat with the terrorists, rather the terrorists ambushed the military vehicle conveying logistics and artillery, which included bombs and other weapons and shot at it. According to him, the shooting resulted in an explosion that killed the soldiers and the insurgents that mounted the ambush.

He said: "As you know, we are in a fluid conflict situation and our gallant troops are out there at the frontlines. Ladies and gentlemen, between 21 and 23 March 2020, troops of Operation Lafiya Dole, were on clearance and fighting patrol operation to Gorgi in Borno State, which was successfully done.

"However, during consolidation, they were ambushed by elements of Boko Haram Terrorists (BHT). Sadly, we suffered some casualties in the unfortunate attack. Forty-seven soldiers were killed and 15 soldiers were wounded."

Afterwards, Enenche said upon review of the casualty, 29 soldiers and some officers were killed while 39 others were wounded during the fire-fight.

He said the review of the number downwards was based on new figures from the battlefield, adding that some officers were killed but could not make their names available since the procedure for informing their families were not concluded.

On the burial plans for the fallen officers, he said the next of kin of the deceased soldiers would be contacted while a befitting burial would be accorded the fallen soldiers and officers in line with military burial procedure.

"Following the encounter between Armed Forces of Nigeria and insurgents in Operation Lafiya Dole at Gorgi between 21 and 23 March 2020, a team was sent to carry out the due operational after action procedure which include reconfirmation of casualties and immediate medical evacuation required among others.

"After the exercise, the team made the following findings: 29 Nigerian troops were killed in action and 39 were wounded in action, as a result of the explosion of the truck carrying logistics and ammunition resupply for the fighting echelon.

"This is contrary to the figures from the first contact situation report of 47 killed in action and 15 wounded in action. This is a common occurrence during combat operations due to the fog of war, encounters or conflicts, when first contact reports are released to higher quarters in contemporary times, in order to counter false reports and fake news by mischief makers," he added.

Reprisal

Following the gruesome ambush, the military high command carried out reprisal on the enemy camp in combined air strikes and artillery bombardment by troops and Air Task Force of Operation Lafiya Dole, which they decimated 100 insurgents.

According to Enenche, "the team also found a casualty of over 100 Boko Haram terrorists neutralised as the result of direct fire action and encounter with the gallant troops of the land component of the Armed Forces of Nigeria during the clearance of Gorgi."

He further noted that the land component of the Armed Forces of Nigeria in Operation Lafiya Dole successfully cleared Gorgi and dealt a heavy blow on the enemy and the end state of clearing Gorgi was achieved.

FG's Charge

Reacting to the monumentalL loss, President Muhammadu Buhari expressed "profound grief and sorrow", just as he charged the troops not to allow the loss affect their morale.

The president, according to a statement by presidential spokesman, Malam Garba Shehu, said "sacrifices of our gallant patriots cannot be quantified, and their sacrifices cannot go in vain."

The statement said the president, who commiserated with their families and those who sustained injuries, added that the death of every soldier causes deep pains because he knows what it means to be a soldier.

According to the statement, the president fully understands the extreme risks associated with the profession, noting that "despite the tragedies and incidents, we cannot allow anarchists and mass murderers to hold the country hostage".

It added that the president appealed to the military "not to allow the incident to affect their morale," assuring them that his administration would continue to motivate and equip them adequately in order to cope with the complex challenges of unconventional warfare.

Shehu said the Nigerian Army had dispatched a team to assess the situation and report back to the government.

A Governor's Palliative

Following the onslaught against the soldiers, Borno State Governor, Babagana Zulum, announced cash support of N23.5 million to the families of the 47 soldiers.

The governor, who was at Maimalari Army Barrack in Maiduguri, said each family of the 47 fallen heroes would be given N500,000 cash, "which should not be seen as compensation for the lost priceless lives but as social protection considering the tough economic times caused by COVID-19 inspired lockdowns across the country".

Zulum, received by the G.O.C, 7 Division of the Nigerian Army, Brigadier General A.K Ibrahim, was at the barrack to convey condolences and solidarity with the authorities of the military's counter-insurgency operation in the Northeast, Operation Lafiya Dole.

He said:"Nothing can compensate for losing these precious brothers and patriotic Nigerians. We commiserate with their families and because we are at a tough and unprecedented times, the government of Borno will support each family with N500,000. Importantly also, we hope the unfortunate incident will not dampen the spirit of our gallant military in our shared fight against Boko Haram."

The Borno Governor, who also used the occasion of his visit to address widows and other family women living at the Maimalari barracks, directed that an accurate and verifiable list of all widows and family be compiled with each identifying her choice of small scale business and bank account details attached to every name so that government can transfer startup capital to them.

He said: "You the widows and those married women with children have borne the impact of the sacrifices made by your soldier-husbands. We know your pains and we share them. We are mightily proud of your husbands and we salute them and you who stand by them. We will support you in ways we can and we will support you directly through your bank accounts so that you start business and boost the ones you are doing" Zulum said to the ovation of the women.

Burning Questions

While the military and of course, the federal government rally round to put to a stop the incessant deaths of our soldiers, some pertinent and burning questions begs for answers.

Questions like- why would the soldiers continually protest the dearth of modern equipment if truly they were given? Why the constant clamour for improved welfare for the troops? Why must the response of the military to the clamour for improved welfare be courtmartial? Why must tales of corruption continually trail funds released to fight insurgency? What happened to the release of N360 billion approved by the president in April, 2018, from the excess crude account (ECA) for the purchase of military equipment to fight Boko Haram insurgency? What kind of equipment were acquired and where are they now?

Given the recent fury of the sect against the military, should we expect new tactical manouevers from the military? Should the soldiers expect better welfare to boost their already dwindling morale? What tough stance should we expect in the coming days from the military? While all these questions needs to be answered, Nigerians need workable solutions and visible implementations to end this theatre of death of our gallant soldiers and officers.

Way Forward

Globally, the threat posed by terrorism cannot be understated. Accordingly, nations have evolved various approaches to tackle the menace with mixed results depending on the country and nature of the threat. Nigeria has not been an exception when the rise of the sect assumed international notoriety in 2009.

It must however be noted that the nature of asymmetric warfare particularly counter terrorism and counter insurgency in a complex environment requires dynamism to address the challenges of the fluidity of operation. Expectedly, it has it ups and lows, the latter which should not drag for a long time if the war is to be won.

One of the major ways to surmounting the challenges of this strange war, according to some military officers who spoke anonymously, is to constantly change leadership of the military in the theatre of war, which allows for introduction of new tactics, approach to logistics and fire support that will bring about the desired operational success.

Undoubtedly, the criminal elements have not always had the upper hand. The military recorded some laudable successes this year in the war against insecurity. Although the successes, which are too numerous to mention are no doubt laudable, given the huge sacrifices the soldiers make, the gains must be sustained if it should have any meaningful impact on the war against terror.

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