EHIMIAGHE: Group Is Weakened, So It Is Reacting Violently
Lt. Commodore Collins Ehimiaghe (rtd), who was part of Nigeria’s ECOMOG contingent to Liberia, told KELVIN EBIRI in Port Harcourt that recent spates of Boko Haram attacks is in reaction to fierce military campaign launched towards the end of the last administration.
Boko Haram has intensified its attacks barely a month after President Muhammadu Buhari took office. What went wrong after recent military successes against the group?
YOUR observation is apt, that since the inception of this administration, there seems to have been an upsurge in attacks conducted by the sect in the Northeast. However, it is clear that a lot of things led to this, and obviously, what we are experiencing now is, reaction to the military campaign launched towards the end of the last administration. Recall that some months towards the end of the last administration, we saw instances where the group actually ran amok in the Northeast, capturing swath of the territory up north.
They held villages, towns and cities, hoisted their flag and commenced administration of their fundamentalist ideas in the Northeast. Since government cannot be halted, the military then, under President Goodluck Jonathan, intensified effort to flush out the sect from those territories they had captured, and I’m sure we have not heard of Boko Haram hoisting any flag in any territory today.
So, what I see from my own perspective is that the group is in retreat. They have been dislodged from territories, which are quite important, and now, they are reacting in their best way as a terrorist organisation and that is by spreading terror.
Originally, terrorists don’t hold territories, they just spread terror, create fears. That is the stage they are in now, to spread terror. It has nothing to do with the newly inaugurated government, because it is barely one month in office. There is not supposed to be a break in security and military activities merely because a government has changed from one president to the other. The conduct of military operations are the responsibility of the military hierarchy and the chief of defence staff is on top of that chain, together with his three service chiefs — for the army, navy and the air force. And all these senior officers are currently in office. Secondly, security operations continue too. We still have the National Security Adviser in office. So, what we are observing now practically has nothing to do with change in government. It is just a reaction of Boko Haram, as they are licking their wounds from the losses they have incurred when they were dislodged from the territories they were previously holding.
That Boko Haram still launches brutal suicide bombing, isn’t it an indication that the group is becoming more daring?
Apparently, Boko Haram is reacting. It can’t get stronger, because it used to have territories, now, it has none. Its flag is not been hoisted anywhere. You see; terrorism is the easiest and cowardly thing you can do. Any person can procure AK 47, storm a bus stop and shoot everybody. It does not mean that he is strong. It does not mean that the people shot are weaker. So, that is what Boko Haram is doing, and that is the real definition of terror, spreading fear, probably, because of religious or political belief. However, this leads to nowhere, because nobody is ever going to succumb to terror. No State succumbs to terror.
Definitely, the State will take casualties, though, very unfortunate; right now, the group is in its weakest state, and that is why it has resorted to this barbaric means of pursuing their objectives. When the bombs are exploded, we don’t even know if their members are within the vicinity too. Suicide bombing is a desperate measure to keep their hopes alive and they are going to fail. We have had these cases of suicide bombers for quite sometime.
The first mention of a Nigerians being involved in suicide bombing attack is the underwear bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who was apprehended on board a US bound flight. Suicide bombing had been ongoing in Abuja and other places; however, I do have apprehension about the upsurge. The group is licking its wounds, so, it is going to resort to the most bizarre form of terrorist attacks.
Was the relocation of the Command Headquarters to Maiduguri a strategically wise move?
This has been a very topical issue since the new administration was inaugurated. In fact, it was contained in the inaugural address of President Buhari. I didn’t know why the military should have waited to be told about establishing a command centre in the Northeast. The theatre of operation is in that region, and from all military experience and procedure, a command centre ought to be closer to the troops. So, what president Buhari directed is just re-echo of what ought to have been done. You will recall that we once had military operations in Liberia and Sierra Leone. All through this period, a military contingent was specifically set up for those operations. ECOMOG was set up and its headquarters was in Monrovia, despite the fact that Nigeria was forming the bulk of the operation. Upon the establishment of ECOMOG headquarters in Monrovia, forces commanders were nominated and they took offices in Monrovia and not in Nigeria. And through out ECOMOG operation, I am not sure you heard much from chief of army staff or chief of defense staff. There is no way you can plan for an operation when you are far from the scene. The directive that military Command and Control for Boko Haram operation should be in Maiduguri or Northeast is clearly the right thing. We need to wait to see the effect of that, because it is not overnight that you set up a military command and control centre.
Some have argued that the insurgence has lingered because of poor intelligence gathering. Why has it been difficult for the DSS and the police to infiltrate their ranks?
All challenges have means of resolution. Boko Haram is clearly a security challenge in Nigeria, and security challenges occupy broad spectrum, and different part of the spectrum requires different approaches. So, if you have security challenges, it is not completely the responsibility of one section of the security community to resolve. Within the framework of the challenge, you have policing, economic aspect, which involves development, and of course, you have the military aspect. In pitch battles, it is clear that the military has done its best and they have defeated Boko Haram. Where the sect had the initiative and took over some bases, the military finally dislodged them. That is what the military is trained for, to capture objective. But the military is not trained to be chasing suicide bombers and to rework the economic activities in an area that is suffering from underdevelopment. Everything comes under the gamut of national security framework, and until we sit down and probably establish one, which encompasses military, policing and of course, economic development, it is going to be difficult to tame people that take up arms against Nigeria. Of course, you should know the organisation that is responsible for that, which is the Department of State Security (DSS) and that is the question we should be asking, why is it difficult for DSS to be more proactive in this war. By now, I expect officers of DSS to be swarming all over Ndjamena and Niger Republic, such that they can get intelligence on the movement of the insurgents. I equally expect operatives of DSS to be alert. Most probably, they are thwarting a lot, so what we see is just one percent of the planned attacks. So we need to try and understand that.
And of course, apart from DSS, we have the police force and the work of police is prevention of crime. A suicide bomber is a criminal. Before the suicide bomber leaves home, he is prepared with explosives and all sorts of devices, so police too need to be proactive. And it brings me back to the subject of development.
How are our communities organised? Because if you live in a community where you are virtually walled off from prying eyes, you can sit down and work out means of terrorising people within your enclave when you step out. We need to look at how communities are developed, the regional planning of the community, safety rules, and of course, community policing.
How is police interrogating people living in certain communities? Then the higher level, which is the DSS, how are they monitoring people with known affiliation to Islamic fundamentalism locally and outside? So, without timely intelligence, you cannot take action.
Why has it been difficult for the military to subdue the insurgents?
The economy of the country determines the ability of the state to provide security, and security is a wide spectrum from policing, intelligence gathering up to the military. Now, in recent times, most Nigerians do not seem to be impressed with our military. Our military has suffered a lot of neglect in the past. The current military, as we see it, is a product of history and the performance we can see from them is actually based on what has happened over time.
I will not want to be specific about whatever challenges the military has or whatever shortcomings many Nigerians have been able to point at the military. It will be very uncharitable for me to be this specific because right now the military is fully deployed in a war situation. Lives are being lost daily and limbs are being maimed. Trying to come up with whatever challenges they have may actually be a demoralising factor to their current effort.
We must continue to commend our men and women of the military that are deployed to make sure that Boko Haram does not charge into civilian areas. However, as a concerned citizen and somebody who would love to see the military in the best shape, I can easily say that the fundamental problem that has put the military in this situation is that the military we see today is sign of the sanctions and economic prospect of the Nigerians State since the mid eighties, particularly during the military rule.
Hitherto, the Nigerian military enjoyed good relationship with the international community. Nigeria and our supporting friends gave us the best of trainings, probably free. We were able to have credit line to military equipment and up till the 80s, the Nigerian military was one of the best equipped in Africa.
Before the departure of General Olusegun Obasanjo, in 1979, Nigeria was acclaimed to have one of the most sophisticated navies in sub-Sahara Africa. We had Meko 360 frigate, which was top of the line, then. We had a combination of fast track missiles carrying crafts. We had landing ship transport that could ferry more than a battalion across the sea. In the army, we had top on the line challenger battle tanks.
We had the Vickers. In the air force, we had the C130 transport planes. We had the MiGs and other deadly weapons and equipment. So, we enjoyed this from the international community because we lack the productive base for such.
Our economy was reasonably good enough to afford these, probably because there were less leakages in the system. But from the mid 80s, when the military returned to power, starting from the era of General Buhari, when that government had problem with the British government and other members of the international community, this support started dwindling and it reached a height during the regime of general Sani Abacha when we were excluded, internationally.
So, financial wise and training, the military suffered. Perhaps, it was a call for us to look internally. But in most cases, it is difficult to rely on yourself. Modern military is alien to Nigerian culture and the original owners of modern military concept are Europeans and they keep on updating and reinventing the military. If they taught you last in the 70s and the 80s and there was a break, you are just going to be left with the knowledge of the 70s and 80s.
Now, they are talking about warfare for the next century. Nigerian military has suffered in terms of training and equipment and this is the effect of what you are seeing today. The current crop of the military are members of the 24th and 25th course. They joined the military in the 80s, so, you can see that they were the ones that were completely exposed to this challenges we had from the international community. So the bulk of their training was local and it was with materials locally available, and that, in essence, will tell you what to expect.
Over a period of time, the Nigerian military did not relate well with the international community and the international community did not relate well with us. The state of Nigerian economy could not afford certain military hardware, even if they were available. Our current defence budget is probably about $6 billion. 90 percent of this goes for salaries and overhead. So, at the end of the day you are left with N30 billion, which is not adequate to provide for a real fighting force.
Why has it been difficult for those in intelligence to unravel Boko Haram’s source of funding, base and recruitment processes?
Boko Haram is not very organised, as we perceive them to be. If you had seen the clip of videos making the rounds, you’ll notice that most of the equipment they used were the ones stolen from our military. So what sort of funding do you need, to steal something from somebody? The heavy weapons they carry were all looted from military establishment, including anti aircraft and even armoured personnel carrier, because they took the military bases by surprise.
That was the initial strength they got. It is obvious that they do not have any serious institutional finances. You know they have been existing for sometime in the north, so, they had farms, probably, when they took over territories, they taxed farmers and inhabitants of those territories to get by.
And you will recall there are lots of instances when Boko Haram raided markets for foodstuffs, so, that one shows they don’t really have a logistic supply line that is fueled by any external or local sponsorship. Of course, they might have friends and sympathisers, who support them, but it is going to be difficult to see any serious or institutionalised support for Boko Haram. Perhaps, it appears difficult for the security agents to pinpoint the major sponsor(s) of the group.
Are you not concerned that Boko Haram might want to spread its terror network to southern Nigeria?
The progress and sustainability of their activities is going to be based on how we confront the current challenges. Definitely, they recruit from local resources, that is, the local populace. If it is shown to the idle youths that Boko Haram is stronger than the state, it is obvious that they will make up their mind and join the stronger party in a fight and with its implied benefits. It is how we confront them today that will show whether they can garner strength in the Northeast and progress to the South. However, progressing to the south will be quite difficult for a rag tag force like Boko Haram. The fact that you are faraway from your supply base, the more difficult your ability to conduct military operation. It makes you vulnerable. You have extended line of communication. Before they can actually get to the south, they will need to get firm control of Adamawa State, coming closure to the south, probably, Benue State, because by being in firm control of a state, it can launch attack against another. Right now they don’t have any village, let alone, of a state.
Will Nigeria ever defeat Boko Haram?
I am confident that the Nigerian State has the capacity to subdue and wipe out the group. The capability is there, but we need to harness that capability thoroughly, before we achieve hundred percent success.
The beginning of harnessing that capability is the understanding of the group, because what led to their emergence is multidimensional, like rise in Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East, the presence of jihadist groups in north Africa and the geopolitics of the Lake Chad region, and of course, the underdevelopment in the Northeast, and finally, the conduct of security operation in Nigeria.
It is only a national policy that encompasses all these causes or things that will reveal what led to the upsurge in in Nigeria. It won’t just be about eradicating or wiping them out, it will be about creating resources such that no sect ever develops to this level in Nigeria.
Why is insecurity so pervasive across Nigeria?
Apparently the state of insecurity in Nigeria in the present day is very grave, because when you open the papers, you read that armed robbers have invaded a bank in the west in a commando style manner.
You hear that in the east kidnappers have taken people and in the south-south, you hear that kidnappers are reigning in the streets and that oil thieves have ruptured pipelines, siphoning crude oil. While in the north you have this terrorism challenge of Boko Haram. If you look at it in total you will see that there is this widespread insecurity in Nigeria.
Why this widespread insecurity in Nigeria? It is apparent that the fundamental responsibility of any government is the provision of security for the people. So, if we have dire strait of insecurity in Nigeria, there is no other place to lay the blame than poor governance. It is only good governance that can provide security for the people. Security in terms of considering the challenges they will face when they go about their daily lives — security in terms of how resources are located because these are things that breed discontent and how the environment is managed.
These are the things that only the government can provide. The provisions of the constitution are another bane. The constitution charges federal, state and local government with security of their people. Unfortunately, the same constitution gave only the federal government the powers to manage security in Nigeria.
That is a major organisational challenge for confronting insecurity. For policing, we only have one police force in Nigeria and it is under the control of the federal government. True, we have state commands and various departments of the police force, but the fact is that all these are still controlled centrally from Abuja.
So, it is going to be difficult for them to be proactive enough to attend to local problems. The state and local councils are completely excluded from the provision of security. Compared to other democracies, in the United Kingdom you have up to 8000, police forces for a population of less than 60 million. In the United States, you have 18,000 police forces. You have county, state and federal police. Everybody is concerned about protecting their environment, community, state, and of course, the country. So, the constitution of Nigeria has assigned that responsibility solely to the federal government.
Organisational wise, when something is central it becomes bureaucratic and difficult for it to react and inflexible to local challenges. Another reason insecurity is prevalent in Nigeria is the state of our economy. Nigeria is the largest economy in Africa with a GDP of about $530 billion. However, government revenue is just about 20 per cent of this amount, which is just about $100 billion a year, and this is shared by the federal, state and the councils. The federal government that is charged with security does not take more than $30 billion a year as revenue and it is on this that all ministries, departments and agencies are funded. With that kind of amount, you are going to get security for 160 million people. The State of Texas that is almost as big as Nigeria has a population of 22 million, the GDP of the state of Texas is $1.4 trillion and the money that is budgeted for security is close to the budget of the federal government of Nigeria. Security is an expensive undertaking, and without money, you are not going to have adequate one.
For us to start looking at adequate security in Nigeria, we need to first be able to increase the productive of our economy, our GDP though the largest in Africa, but for a population of 160 million, it is low. Unfortunately, insecurity and poor education will affect the GDP of the country. So, in a nutshell, poor governance, obnoxious provisions of the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and the state of our economy determine the kind of security we have and obviously these three have promoted the state of insecurity in Nigeria.
Do you support the idea that the federal government should dialogue with Boko Haram to end this conflict?
Crisis resolution involves a whole gamut of activities. Of course, there is confrontation and negotiation aspect of it. You need to listen to what somebody wants before you go to the next phase. If what they want is not accommodated in the constitution, and you lack the power to give them what they want in your negotiation, you need to let them know that you cannot accede to their demands. They need to understand the secular nature of Nigeria and they need to understand the powers of the Federal Government. Everybody is free to worship his religion the way that it is accommodated within the law. But if there are some provisions in your religion that is against the law, then it is going to be difficult for the State to accept it. Apart from that, we need to understand the political nature of it too. If actually a group of people want a way of life, and it is accommodated in the constitution, you need to follow constitutional means, by saying, this is how we want to move and the constitution has specifically stated this is how we want to be governed. That is why it is important that the federal government negotiates with them so that probably they can help direct their energy to a more peaceful means of actualising what they wish for themselves. All challenges have means of resolution.
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