…Terrorists technically defeated since 2017, General Adeniyi, Theatre Commander, Operation Lafiya Dole, insists
…Survivors still afraid to go back home
….Military, Amnesty disagree over razed communities
By Kingsley Omonobi, Abuja
The Nigerian armed forces are in the eye of the storm, particularly for their seeming drawbacks in containing the decade-long insurgency/terrorism devastation and unimaginable band of killings daily visited on thousands of hapless Nigerians and communities in the North-East.
This is despite the huge resources provided for equipment, training, exchange programmes, motivating welfare and increased deployments of troops.
But the military authorities have continued to say they are doing the needful to not only overcome or chase terrorists out of the North-East but that they have also driven the terrorists off Nigerian territories with only occasional soft target attacks being carried out to claim relevance.
Consequently, nation-wide shock and outrage greeted reports of the massacre of no fewer than 30 persons by Boko Haram insurgents following their invasion of Sunday, February 10, 2020, of Auno, a village 25 kilometres from Maiduguri, Borno state capital.
Not even the counter-claim by military authorities that only 10 persons were killed could assuage the anger of the populace who have since been calling for immediate response from the Federal Government.
Indeed, with almost daily reports of attacks and killings by the Boko Haram in different parts of the North East, anger has continued to grow in the land, with strident calls from different quarters for President Muhammadu Buhari to rejig the country’s security architecture for better performance.
Even the National Assembly and other key stakeholders across the country are united in their conviction that urgent steps should be taken to halt the horror unleashed on the country by Boko Haram and other criminal elements who have turned parts of Nigeria into killing fields.
But the battle fields where the Nigerian military is locked in a seemingly protracted war with the rampaging insurgents tell a story of anger, fear and hope.
A 130-kilometre trip by select journalists, which began from Maiduguri in Borno State to Madagali in Adamawa State, revealed, in graphic details, the carnage and devastation which years of Boko Haram terror has visited on a seemingly helpless people.
For every stretch of that fact-finding trip, led by troops of the Nigerian Army, we were confronted by shocking evidence of devastation which littered the landscape of the communities visited, with sorrow visibly etched on the faces of those who survived the destructive onslaught.
Following repeated attacks, during which thousands of men, women and children were brutally killed, whole communities and villages, too numerous to count, were senselessly destroyed, burnt to ashes or razed to the ground by Boko Haram, using Improvised Explosive Devices and dynamites.
Those who were not killed, particularly the youths, were abducted and initiated, while the women and young girls were turned into sex slaves.
From Kondugha to Bama, to Banki Junction, a border community to Sambisa Forest to the right, and Cameroun to the left, to Pulka, LaminKara to Gwoza and Madagali, the extent of infrastructural destruction, vis-a-vis communication assets, educational and healthcare facilities, religious worship centres, markets and farmlands, just to mention a few, was mind-boggling.
With nowhere to take refuge, hundreds of thousands of natives had to run for dear lives before they found succour in IDP camps even though conditions in such camps may not be favourable.
For most of the terrorized individuals, the fear of Boko Haram is the beginning of wisdom after years of forced hardship and privation.
But the leadership of the armed forces has continued to reassure Nigerians of concerted efforts to halt the Boko Haram terror across the length and breadth of the North-East.
Indeed the trip to the devastated territories of the North-East, led by the Acting General Officer Commanding 7 Division, Nigerian Army, Maiduguri, Brigadier General Abdullahi Khalifa Ibrahim, supported by his PSOs and Col Sagir Musa, the Acting Director, Army Public Relations, was to let Nigerians see and know that no single Nigerian territory was under Boko Haram control and that life was beginning to return to the erstwhile threatened communities.
Yes, it was observed that most communities had inhabitants or citizens physically living in them due to uncertainty of what may happen next owing to past experiences.
But before setting out at about 9 am, the GOC received a report that one of his soldiers sent to clear a part of the road under his area of responsibility of IEDs to ensure smooth vehicular movements for IDPs to return was blown up and killed in the process.
“This is one of the tasks we have been doing and will continue to do because the insurgents want to frighten the people from returning since they have been cleared from the communities but they will continue to fail,” Ibrahim said.
The GOC said the soldier and others were scanning and removing landmines from the roads when one exploded and killed him.
After leaving Kondugha, the convoy stopped at Bama where economic activities have considerably picked up and thousands of returnee IDPs have settled back to their homes with scores of residents commending the army as the saviour of their town.
At the main Bama Market, buying and selling was going on and some of the residents disclosed that the presence of troops in the town on a round the clock basis had given them the confidence to come out, with some expressing happiness that there had been no Boko Haram attacks for many weeks.
Along the stretch of roads and communities which make up Sector 1 of Operation Lafiya Dole, under the Command of Theatre Commander, Major General Olusegun Adeniyi, were Special Task Force Brigades which, in turn, have several battalions under them.
There are the 21 Task Force Brigade, the 26 Task Force Brigade and the 28 Task Force Brigade.
The troops were fully kitted in view of the mountainous, muddy and undulating terrains, complete with paraphernalia for unpredictable weather conditions.
Also in evidence were armoured personnel carriers and tanks in several strategic positions.
At Banki junction, Ibrahim halted the convoy, showed journalists the Abu Ali shooting range of the Division named in honour of the late Col Abu Ali, the Commanding Officer of 272 Tank Battalion who was killed in an ambush by Boko Haram at Fatori on November 4, 2016.
A few metres from ahead, we got to one of the bridges blown up by Boko Haram when troops of the Nigerian Army were in their pursuit.
This particular bridge known as Jebra Bridge was the link to Maiduguri.
However, troops of Nigerian Army Engineers have since reconstructed the bridge and restored vehicular movements.
All the way down to Laminkara where another bridge was blown up with dynamites to prevent troops advance and the terrorists’ subsequent defeat at Gwoza where they wanted to declare a Caliphate, to Madagali where Lt. Col US Abdulsalam, as Commanding Officer, 144 Battalion, is holding sway with his troops, the army was everywhere, day and night, even when the convoy was heading back to Maiduguri.
The GOC was quick to draw the attention of journalists to a maneuvering tactic which, he said, was being applied to checkmate remnants of the Boko Haram insurgents who might want to sneak back and attack soft targets, saying: “As you see these deployments, by day we are picketing, but by night we become several ambush parties”.
So when on Friday the Theatre Commander, Operation Lafiya Dole summoned a briefing with the team of journalists, he knew he will not escape the deluge of questions that were fired at him.
Adeniyi started: “I took over as Theatre Commander, Operation Lafiya Dole in August last year, 2019. Before then I was Deputy Theatre Commander. I was Commander, 37 Brigade. I have been here. I am not a security expert like the ones who come up everywhere. I have been a fighting soldier and General for the last 16 years and 9 months.
“These Boko Haram and their ISWAP collaborators are bastards, nuisance, cursed fellows. I stand by every meaning of the word that Boko Haram has been seriously degraded because before we came they were lords onto themselves.
“But today that is not the case and nobody will be convinced or say that they are no longer there.
“Let me, however, say that the military did not start Boko Haram and the military is only one of the aspects through which Boko Haram can be stopped.
“Our duty is to create the enabling and favourable conditions for other aspects to succeed and we are doing that successfully.
“For instance, as at 2013, the number of internally displaced persons as a result of the Boko Haram menace was over 1, 377, 000.
“Today, February 2020, that figure has dropped to just above 800, 000 IDPs and this is because we have established a level of confidence and the people are going back to their communities.”
Giving a brief insight into the insurgency, Adeniyi said a large number of youths between the ages of 18 and 28 years old are not educated and are jobless, and in this group are very vulnerable, idle minds who easily fall prey to the devil’s use.
He said what many people did not know is that Boko Haram metamorphosed from a terrorist group into a terrorist army.
“That is why they graduated from robbing banks to kidnapping for ransom, stealing or rustling cows, attacking and taking territories. They wanted a situation where Gwoza was their Caliphate; they will sit there and be having discussions with other countries”, he said.
“Of course the ammunition depots of former Libyan leader Gaddafi and other militia cells were easy sources of weaponry, drugs, etc. So they went about capturing towns after towns: Bama, Baga, Damasak and 21 other communities.
“All of these towns were at a time under Boko Haram. Helpless people fled and emirs left their communities for Maiduguri.
“But when Lt. General Tukur Buratai was appointed the Chief of the Army Staff, the music changed. As a result of our operations, we killed thousands of Boko Haram terrorists to recapture these towns which you have visited and seen for yourselves.
“In 2017, when the Federal Government rightly declared Boko Haram technically defeated, Boko Haram was roundly defeated.
“When the group discovered that the Nigerian Army and the armed forces were closing down on them, a section branched out and merged with ISIS from Iran, Syria and their allies from Libya and the Sahel to form ISWAP (Islamic State West Africa Province). This group is the Al Barnawi group”.
Continuing, Adeniyi said: “ISIS and Syrian terrorists transformed into ISIS terrorist army. They seized portions of countries in Iran and Syria and Middle East.
“They were selling and exporting oil to rogue regimes through the black market and made billions in dollars.
“It took a coalition of America, Russia, Saudi Arabia and some European countries to drive them out.
“So they brought the terrorist money to the Sahel and have been wreaking havoc in Mali, Niger, Chad and even Botswana.
“But they met a brick wall in Nigeria as the army and other members of the armed forces effectively resisted them.”
‘Super Camp’ strategy
The Theatre Commander also said Boko Haram insurgents and their ISWAP affiliates will never get hold of any inch of Nigerian territory again, insisting that any plot by the insurgents’ to attempt to retake any territory “is a dream that will never come to pass for them”.
According to him, the military would continue to fight to ensure that ISIS did not have a foothold in the region like they have succeeded in doing in other countries.
He pointed out that the adoption of ‘Super Camp’ strategy had further compounded the problem of the insurgents and their ISWAP allies since troops now have ability for longer reach.
Adeniyi added that with more equipment, including the MRAVs and better motivation, the army was now taking the battle to the terrorists in their hideouts, while reiterating the claim that the army is not contesting any inch of Nigerian territory with Boko Haram insurgents.
Troops burned entire village —Amnesty
Meanwhile, Amnesty International (AI), on Friday, came out with a report indicating that not all communities were razed by terrorists.
AI directly accused Nigerian troops fighting the terror war of burning and forcibly displacing entire villages in response to a recent escalation in attacks by Boko Haram.
It based the accusation on interviews with affected villagers in Borno and satellite data analysis.
“These brazen acts of razing entire villages, deliberately destroying civilian homes and forcibly displacing their inhabitants with no imperative military grounds, should be investigated as possible war crimes,” said Osai Ojigho, Director of Amnesty International Nigeria”, the human rights group said in a report.
“They repeat a longstanding pattern of the Nigerian military meting out brutal tactics against the civilian population. Forces allegedly responsible for such violations must be suspended immediately and brought to justice.
“The military also arbitrarily detained six men from the displaced villages, continuing a pattern of violations Amnesty International has documented throughout the country’s decade-long armed conflict in the northeast” it said.
“The men were held incommunicado for almost a month and subjected to ill-treatment before their release on 30 January 2020”.
AI claimed to have interviewed 12 women and men forced to flee their homes on 3 and 4 January 2020 from three villages near the Maiduguri-Damaturu road, between Jakana and Mainok in Borno.
The organization also said it reviewed fire data from remote satellite sensing, which indicated several large fires burning on and around 3 January in that area.
Satellite imagery of Bukarti, Ngariri, and Matiri, it said, showed that almost every structure was razed. The imagery also shows signs of burning in neighbouring villages, it said.
Residents from Bukarti consistently described to AI scores of Nigerian soldiers arriving during the late morning of Friday 3 January.
“They said soldiers went house to house and to surrounding farmland, forcing everyone to gather under a tree and by a graveyard between Bukarti and the main road. Soldiers also rounded up people from neighbouring Matiri and brought them to the same area”, the report said.
“Around 3 p.m. on 3 January, soldiers demanded everyone walk to the main road, where the villagers were forced to board large trucks. Witnesses said that, as they were loaded into the trucks, some of the soldiers returned to Bukarti.
“The witnesses then saw their village burning.
“The trucks then took more than 400 women, men, and children from Bukarti and Matiri to an internally displaced persons (IDP) camp near Maiduguri.
“The next day, on 4 January, soldiers went to Ngariri, a village across the main road from Bukarti, according to three residents of Ngariri. Soldiers assembled primarily older women and men, as younger adults had already fled to surrounding farmland, and forced them aboard a truck that took them to Maiduguri. Ngariri was then razed.
“People who returned to check on Bukarti and Ngariri told Amnesty International that everything was torched. Satellite imagery corroborates both villages were burned in early January.
“Witnesses interviewed said they could not bring belongings with them, so lost everything – their homes, jewellery, clothes, and, most devastatingly, the crops they stored after the harvest”.
`Campaign of calumny’
But denying the AI accusations, the military through the Defence Headquarters said, “The Defence Headquarters (DHQ) has taken cognizance of yet another falsified report by Amnesty International (AI) in a campaign of calumny targeting the Nigerian Military and deliberately supporting the callous acts of terrorism perpetuated by Boko Haram Terrorists (BHTs) and Islamic State of West African Province (ISWAP).
“The Defence Headquarters wishes to state unambiguously that the allegations being touted by AI is nothing but a betrayal of its lack of in-depth knowledge of the goings-on in the North East (NE) theatre of operation.
“It is expedient to state that troops of Operation Lafiya Dole who are conducting Counter Terrorism and Counter Insurgency Operations in the NE do not employ arson as an operational tactic.
“It is a well-known fact, going by the modus operandi of BHTs that they, have more often than not engaged in the atrocious acts of looting and burning of villages, as well as destroying infrastructures.
“It therefore, beats one’s imagination that AI is attributing these atrocities to AFN troops who are legitimately defending the country guided by extant rules of engagement and operational codes of conduct.
“AI must understand the fact that Nigeria is at war against terrorism in the NE and that the troops have a constitutional mandate to protect lives and property, even if it means conducting an evacuation to save and secure lives of civilians in the conflict.
“Protecting civilians by evacuating them from the line of fire during combat is not a violation of the international law of conflict or a war crime. It is rather a commendable effort by the troops to prevent collateral damage during combat.
“Our troops should therefore be commended for making deliberate efforts to evacuate civilians in order to protect their lives and property.
“It is also crucial to point out, that troops deployed to fight terrorism in the NE do not attack or raze down villages, communities or settlements, rather they launch offensive on terrorists camps, enclaves and hide outs”.