“We hear what people say about us, and it’s not true. We’re soldiers and we want to fight,” the Nigerian corporal said, the exhaustion in his voice clear even down the crackly phone line from Borno state, where large swaths of territory have become plundering grounds for religious extremists Boko Haram.
“Most days we go out to face the enemy in Hilux [trucks],” he continued, hesitating before saying what came next. “You can imagine what happens to a human body when somebody fires rockets on a [soft shell] Hilux. Meanwhile, we all know the money to buy proper equipment is being chopped [stolen] higher up.”
In a few brief seconds, the man who has served for more than a decade summed up the key conundrum facing Nigeria’s army as it struggles to crush the sect whose campaign to carve an Islamic caliphate in the religiously mixed nation has killed 3 000 people so far this year, and shows little sign of abating after half a decade.
Facing Boko Haram on the one hand, the Nigerian army has been further weakened, some soldiers say, by senior officials who siphon funds and leak intelligence. Layered on top of this has been an inability of troops to gain the trust of locals, against whom it has sometimes lashed out in a bid to uproot sect members.
Africa’s giant once boasted a military that was an anchor in a region convulsed by civil conflict. Nigerian troops were key to stabilising Sierra Leone, Liberia and Angola, among others. But beginning in the late 1990s, underinvestment, internal politics, growing indiscipline and an increasingly prickly relationship with western forces began to erode the forces. That has left the country’s overstretched 130 000-strong security forces on the back foot today, as they struggle to quell a raging insurgency within its own borders.
In May last year, President Goodluck Jonathan said the state of emergency in three of Nigeria’s arid northeastern states signalled the beginning of the sect’s end. Instead, the situation has spiralled to a point where leaders have scrambled to put together a regional force to fight Boko Haram. Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon each pledged this month to contribute 700 soldiers to the proposed multilateral army.
The military says it is slowly learning to take on counterinsurgency in much the same way the US military took several years to learn the same against al-Qaeda in western Iraq.
Not a conventional war
“Our boys drove them out at first. But [Boko Haram] is a very determined, highly dangerous and well-equipped group,” said a retired Nigerian general, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “The root of the problem is that this is not a conventional war, which means the enemy can always shift tactics. Until we adapt, we cannot say this is finished.”
Operating from the margins of the Sahara desert, Boko Haram has regrouped and unleashed a storm of forcible conscription drives and kidnappings. The horrific practice peaked with the abduction of more than 200 schoolgirls this April, and with it has come mounting anger at the spreading insecurity.
When twin bomb blasts last week killed 85 people in Kaduna – which is not covered by the state of emergency – angry crowds turned against the security forces trying to cordon off the area.
“What is the military for if they cannot even protect us?” said Ibrahim Shehu, a trader who lost a colleague in the explosion. After about 30 minutes, the crowd was teargassed, he said.
But soldiers in the field are equally demoralised. In recent weeks, some told the Mail & Guardian their pay had been halved to around 20 000 naira (R1 300) with no explanation, while Jonathan has sought a $1-billion loan to upgrade security infrastructure. Transparency campaigners have called for an investigation into what happens to an annual $6-billion security budget.
“I can’t lie, it’s just because I am an upright person, otherwise I would have deserted a long time ago,” said the corporal, who said many overworked soldiers weren’t being granted leave for fear they wouldn’t report back.
The army’s chief of staff, Lieutenant General Kenneth Minimah, admitted desertion was taking place, but said this happened in every conflict. “We must accept that ever since the Punic wars, soldiers have deserted from the battlefield,” he said. “There’s a high level of unemployment on the ground, most people want jobs, and if that job is to join the army, fine, it’s a source of employment. But when the reality of military service comes, he drops his rifle and runs away.”
Such thoughts had never crossed the corporal’s mind before he was posted to Borno state in May last year. A summons came for thousands of others, following a dawn meeting at the presidential villa in Abuja, the palm-lined capital.
The sole item on the agenda revolved around a dossier that showed an alarming new trend: Boko Haram had burnt the remnants of government symbols – police stations, schools, customs offices – and hoisted its flag in at least 20 of Borno state’s 30 local councils.
But the troops who poured in alienated an impoverished population who Boko Haram had, through fear, and through frustration at the government, convinced they could provide better services for.
“This is crucial and there are simple things one can do to ensure the population trust you. Just as a very simple example, food can be bought from locals, so you build a rapport with them and provide them some kind of income at the same time,” said an air vice-marshal who spoke anonymously.
But soldiers and two retired generals told the M&G that direly needed rations, when they did arrive, had led to several unnecessary deaths. “Each soldier on the frontline is entitled to a 1 500 naira daily allowance but the money doesn’t get to them and no food is provided,” a general said. “Several soldiers have been killed while they were eating or haggling for food at checkpoints. That is completely unprofessional and any commanding officer who let his troops look for what to eat while on duty should die by firing squad.”
The soldiers’ anger has led to at least two mutinies in recent months. “Definitely this army is compromised. If … you put two and two together you realise somebody senior is giving [Boko Haram] our plans, our movements, even where we stop to eat,” said Adamu, another soldier stationed in Borno who didn’t want to provide his surname.
In May, soldiers were forced to return to base after 12 of their number were killed in an ambush in Borno. Angered by what they felt was a fatal blunder caused by plans being leaked by an official, the soldiers turned their guns against their commanding officer.
Targeting innocent people
And the military’s distrust and increasing paranoia as they target an enemy capable of blending into communities has led, rights groups say, to them targeting innocent people as they sweep into Boko Haram-infiltrated areas. Security forces have rounded up hundreds of men and boys suspected of supporting Boko Haram, detained them in inhuman conditions and physically abused or killed them, Human Rights Watch said in report released this month.
“The Nigerian government should recognise that it needs to protect its population both from Boko Haram and from abusive members of its own military and police,” Corinne Dufka, the group’s West Africa director said.
Army spokesperson Brigadier General Olajide Laleye acknowledged some of these problems earlier last month, but said the military was taking every necessary measure to check corruption and indiscipline. He said the army would “undertake an equipment audit … with a view to identifying areas where equipment and material are in short supply, unserviceable or even obsolete”.
Meanwhile the staggering human cost continues. Hosiah Lawan, a villager elder from Chibok, where the schoolgirls were captured, has two phones that ring constantly. “I receive phone calls every day. People live in fear. They live in terror. Every morning, if they see a car, they run. If they see any unusual movement, they run. They have been so traumatised.”
Those in Chibok could no longer tell if approaching camouflaged vehicles were under the command of the army or Boko Haram, who have successfully looted several bases, said resident Mungo Park.
But as they and dozens of surrounding villages have been pummelled by near-daily raids from Boko Haram, young and old men have formed vigilante groups, wielding homemade muskets, machetes and table legs as weapons.
“We have no choice. If nobody else is going to do it, we are the ones who have to struggle to defend ourselves,” said Park, who heads the village’s growing stream of recruits.
Samuel Yaga, whose daughter was among the 219 schoolgirls taken from Chibok, said he didn’t blame the underequipped soldiers for sometimes refusing to come to their rescue. “Would you try to face Boko Haram if you didn’t have the bullets?”