I remember the day … I confronted Boko Haram
Jefferson (not his real name) jumped off the truck and flung his bulky frame onto the sand and shrubs beneath him. He raised his head and scoured the terrain. The 30 soldiers who had just arrived alongside him were taking fighting positions – some diving, others crouching.
They were in Mongonu, a town in northeast Nigeria’s Borno State, to provide reinforcements for a military convoy that had, earlier that morning, been ambushed by Boko Haram.
Many of the town’s 20 000 inhabitants had fled; others had been incorporated into the Boko Haram frontline – terrified human shields protecting the 200 or so members of the group who were now attacking, determination etched onto their faces, sophisticated weaponry in their hands.
But as Jefferson caught his first glimpse of the fighters, it was surprise, not fear that he felt.
“They were not what I expected,” he recalls now, describing how many of the men had the kind of light skin, curly hair and fine facial features normally associated with indigenes of Chad or Niger or other countries along Nigeria’s northern border.
And the ease with which they fired their Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs) made it immediately clear that, far from being the mob of ragamuffins he had envisioned, these fighters were well-trained and highly efficient.
Just a few weeks earlier, in June 2013, Jefferson, a captain in the Nigerian army, had assumed duty as the commander of a ‘garrison quick response force’ in Borno.
It was his first posting to the troubled northeastern region, which, at that point, had already endured more than four years of Boko Haram attacks.
And this was to be his first encounter with the infamous fighters. The captain quickly overcame his surprise and prepared to attack.
But things did not go according to plan.
“The first shock I got was finding out that the firing pin of my rocket propelled grenade was damaged,” he says.
Then, when he and his soldiers discharged their mortars, all they got for their efforts was a hollow kpoi sound. Their weapons had expired and were, effectively, useless.
They quickly discovered that some of their raw ammunition had no links and the charges for their equipment were broken. Wrapping them in the masking tape he always carried around in his kit proved ineffective.
A training session had been taking place in their barracks when the news of the Boko Haram ambush had reached them. They had grabbed as much ammunition from their stores as they could before heading out to battle – never imagining that it would be defective.
But now, here they were, being attacked with weapons intended for use against aircraft with nothing but small arms with which to defend themselves.
Jefferson recalls how one veteran soldier, a grey-haired, wrinkled man under his command, threw away his gun and broke down in tears, declaring: “Oh God! Oga, what is this?”
‘The worst thing that can happen to a soldier’
Jefferson was 19-years-old when he joined the Nigerian army in 1986.
He had the necessary academic credits and the desire to go to university, but his father, a farmer, had three wives and 12 living children, and Jefferson knew that his family could not afford to pay for his education.
The army appeared to be his best option.
Over the next few decades of military service, he participated in peacekeeping missions in Yugoslavia, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Sudan; sustaining severe injuries during combat and while training; and once returning home from an assignment abroad to find that his wife had run off with her lover, taking their only child with her.
But, for Jefferson, all of these misfortunes paled in comparison to the events of that day in Mongonu.
“Discovering on the battlefield that your ammunition is expired or faulty,” he says, tailing off.
“That is the worst thing that can ever happen to a soldier.”
In such circumstances, a soldier with no plans to die anytime soon is typically faced with little option but to flee the battlefield. And there have been plenty of news stories about Nigerian soldiers doing just that over the past year.
Such reports have embarrassed the government and perplexed the country’s citizens, sometimes pointing to the Nigerian army’s inability to match the firepower of Boko Haram; at other times blaming low morale among the soldiers, a by-product of pot-bellied senior officers in comfortable Abuja offices swallowing the allowances of junior officers on the Borno battlefields.
“But we didn’t run away,” says Jefferson proudly.
After six to seven hours of battle – during which three Nigerian army soldiers were killed and dozens wounded – Jefferson’s unit succeeded, with assistance from subsequent reinforcements, in repelling the Boko Haram fighters.
He credits “the grace of God” for the series of fortunate events that led to the victory.
Particularly providential was the training session that had been taking place in the barracks. Among the trainers were seasoned soldiers like Jefferson and other “special force instructors”.
“There are not many well-trained soldiers in the Nigerian army today,” Jefferson explains. And under other circumstances, such soldiers would not have been around to assist his unit.
He describes the stringent recruitment process he endured before being admitted into the army in 1986; the tough physical and mental training; the trainees who, unable to cope, fell by the wayside; the extra effort required to prove that he was better than others from the same part of the country because the army could only retain a certain number from each state in the federation.
Once he made it, he was sent to the Airborne Training School in Jaji for further training. A few weeks later, he emerged a bona fide private with a sense of “utmost patriotism” and a resolve to die for his country.
“I was taught that anything that would bring about the failure of the system was an enemy,” he says.
The hajia list
But, for Jefferson, things began to change during the military regimes of Generals Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha in the 1990s. He noticed how a number of failed military coups had infused the top ranks of the Nigerian army with fear and distrust for one another.
Senior government officers started sending trucks to their home villages to gather unemployed young men, who they then signed on as soldiers.
Jefferson watched as many of these new recruits were unleashed on the army, with barely a few weeks of basic training under their belts. Those who had connections in high places were often exempted from tough physical training on the parade ground. And this soon led to what was known among Jefferson’s cadre of soldiers as the ‘hajia list’ of recruits.
“They didn’t know basic regimentation,” Jefferson explains. “They didn’t know the parts of a rifle or even how to cock a gun.”
However, they were experts at polishing the shoes and ironing the clothes of their employers and superiors, to whom they considered themselves devoted. Hence, the term ‘hajia’, a common way of addressing Muslim women in Nigeria.
It soon struck Jefferson that these soldiers were being groomed to be completely loyal to their bosses. Those at the top were steadily building an army of soldiers who would serve them, not necessarily the country.
The nepotism became so ingrained that Jefferson noticed some of his colleagues from different ethnic groups changing their names to give the impression that they were from the ethnic or religious group they felt would win them the most favour at any point in time.
Allegations of government officials and ‘emirs’, local Muslim leaders, sending lists of soldiers they wanted commissioned became rife.
Today, Jefferson attributes his slow rise from private to captain to the fact that he had no connections; no one to influence the trajectory of his career and follow up on his postings.
Still, seven years after joining the army, he finally fulfilled his dream of going to university. The army sent him to study a social science course at one of Nigeria’s most prestigious universities. A few years later, he returned to the same institution to study for a masters’ degree. And then, for a PhD, which was truncated by the call of duty two years into the programme.
In addition to his qualifications, Jefferson was sent to different military training programmes around the world, and received a number of awards for excellence.
But these distinctions only frustrated him further.
“No matter how well I performed,” he says, “those with lower scores and less qualifications were constantly promoted over me.”
They may have discriminated against him when it came to promotions, but Jefferson’s bosses were well aware of his merits and often singled him out for responsibilities that would normally have been given to someone of a higher rank. He says he always obliged, embracing the extra responsibilities without complaint.
For example, just a few months after that day in Mongonu, he was selected to be part of the patrol team that escorted some of the military’s newly acquired equipment from Abuja and Bauchi.
At the airport, Jefferson posed beside some of the shining new guns and missiles, his 165cm frame neatly tucked into a brown and green camouflage uniform the same colour and design as the aeroplanes in the background. Throughout the journey to Maiduguri, he relished the thought that a new phase was beginning in the war against Boko Haram. He dreamed of finishing the battle soon and returning to his new wife, who had grown anxious since his transfer to Borno.
But the battle against Boko Haram was far from over. Jefferson observed that, even after weeks of training by the defence attaches of the countries that had supplied the new weapons, many Nigerian soldiers were unable to operate the hi-tech ammunition.
With amusement in his voice, he describes how their attempts to handle the hi-tech guns resembled somebody trying to master a Rubik’s Cube.
But his amusement is tinged with anger.
“Further training then fell on commanders like me,” he says, “training men who were impervious to learning.”
It grew difficult for Jefferson to contain his ire each time he saw a soldier at a checkpoint chomping on mangoes or chatting on his mobile phone as his gun lay on the floor beside him.
And such indiscipline wasn’t just evident among the junior ranks. Once, a brigadier-general mocked Jefferson for always being in full kit, teasing him about dressing “like an American soldier”.
“I soon got tired of being the odd man out,” he explains. “The commander who insists that soldiers must wear their fragment jackets, their caps – being accused of being too fussy.”
So Jefferson resigned from the army in mid-2014. He now works for the security department of an international organisation in Abuja. A number of his colleagues who also left the army have similarly well-paid jobs as, with the rising threat posed by Boko Haram, international organisations in Nigeria now consider it imperative to have security departments staffed with counterinsurgency experts.
“The insurgency has created jobs for us,” Jefferson says.
But despite the relative comfort of his new life, Jefferson still looks back at his almost 28 years in the army with nostalgia. The near tragedy of the day when he came face to face with Boko Haram is something he now considers just another day in the life of a soldier devoted to serving his country.