Brig. Gen Saleh Bala (rtd) was an infantry soldier and veteran of many military campaigns. He is now the president of White Ink Institute for Strategy Education and Research (WISER). He spoke to Daily Trust on the current state of insecurity in the country.
Over a decade after the insurgency began, it seems we are nowhere near the end of it. What is happening?
The Nigerian military has since after the initial effort in the counterinsurgency become complicit in the politicisation of the insurgency. The political statement made by this government that Boko Haram had been completely dismantled and technically defeated is, to any person with a military ear, a script written by the military for the president. This was confirmed by the presentation of a fresh [Boko Haram] flag and a brand new Qur’an by the Tukur Buratai led army [claiming it belonged to terror leader Shekau] to the president to give the impression of the defeat of Boko Haram.
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But the president is a former general and is not supposed to be as gullible as that. Why do you think he bought into this narrative?
It fits his political interest. Even if he were a general, today, he is a politician and that’s what he wants to believe. The president believes so much in himself that he only believes what is favourable to him and all those around him have understood that so they only tell him what he wants to hear.
What is the military doing wrong?
The military is doing absolutely everything wrong. The military is pandering to political interests by selling the idea that they are in charge and defeating the terrorists, they are not. Consistently, units are being uprooted just as they used to be less than nine months after Operation Lafiya Dole was revived with the vigour of the new service chiefs. The governor of Niger State is saying that Boko Haram flags are being raised in Niger State. How are we sure they are the real Boko Haram, not copycats or bandits? Why is this coming from the governor, not the intelligence services?
Do you have faith in the intelligence services?
I don’t. Within the intelligence services, there are very credible professional officers but that remains at the level of individuals.
So are you saying that the intelligence institution is not functioning the way it ought to?
It is not functioning. Otherwise, an organization that has established and as much as raised a flag, there would have been information to the enforcement arm so that that would be challenged. But it is only coming as public information to you and me. If we have credible intelligence agencies, how could a band of hundreds of kidnappers ride on motorcycles for hundreds of kilometres and drive into a town, like Jangebe, like Kagara and lift two to three hundred students yet the Nigerian authorities cannot even identify where they are? How is it that with so much expenditure on the intelligence services for tracking technology that we cannot even use information from telecom service providers to triangulate from where kidnappers are making calls to negotiators?
Boko Haram penetrated a military super camp in Mainok, using the same tactics they have used before, and inflicted heavy casualties on Nigerian troops. We have new service chiefs but the system apparently hasn’t changed. What is wrong?
Number one, you need a clear military doctrine, policy and strategy on how to deal with this matter. The current service chiefs met the super camp operational strategy of the previous military top brass, have they made one statement to change that? I give them one credit that they have identified that we don’t have the numbers and equipment to deal with this problem. If you remember, we had the troop surge in Afghanistan to deal with the situation because a counter-insurgency just like force enforcement is a game of numbers, just like politics, just as the ratio of law enforcement is one policeman to 446 citizens, so is counterinsurgency. In Chechnya, the Russians had 26 force members to 1, 000 citizens. Tell me when last you heard of Chechnya. That is in terms of personnel, not to talk of equipment. To prosecute a counterinsurgency, you need an overwhelming infantry. The total declared number of the Nigerian Army is less than 200,000. So if you proportionate by these numbers that you need 21 forces to 1, 000 citizens and you work it by the total number of displaced persons, which by 2017 was two million people, how many soldiers, will you need to secure the physical space of Yobe and Borno alone? We don’t have the numbers. We need a minimum of 500,000 infantry alone with essential equipment.
What is stopping the military from expanding to meet these needs?
The political control. It is the political decision also on the part of the military. The military may understand it, I am no more in the military so I don’t know, but those who are there, I respect them and I am sure they will understand what I am saying but when you are a military officer, will you go boldly to the political leadership and speak to them in these terms? Will a service chief go to the president and say sir, within six months my soldiers will need to concentrate on the North East, that you need to have a new IGP who will have to capacitate the police to be able to take care of urban criminality so I can concentrate on my primary responsibility which is the defence of the territorial integrity of Nigeria?
But one thing President Buhari going for him during his campaign was that he was a former military general and would be more amenable to the needs of the military to tackle this situation. If the military hierarchy can’t explain these needs to him in a way he would understand, don’t you think there is a lapse somewhere?
Yes, General Buhari has his experience of the past as a general. He wasn’t a fighting general. When the fighting was done, he was a captain or a major, he was operating at the tactical level. He could have gone to War College but he wasn’t a general at war like the present generals who became generals over these challenges, going back to Liberia and Sierra Leone, when they were probably lieutenants or captains, to Bakassi and several peace-keeping operations including in Bosnia and Herzegovinian. So you can’t compare the present crop with those of years gone by.
So you are saying these are battle-hardened, experienced generals.
I expect so.
Why then are we suffering so many casualties despite all this experience?
Let me take you back to the Clausewitz Theory of War where war is described as a triangle that involves the military, the people and the government. The politicians, sit at the head of this government. Unless you have competent political leadership, a military professional is only part of an executive that could be hired or fired. A military commander can only advise. The military evaluates an operation, do lessons learnt, reviews doctrines, tactics and procedure, do a force assessment and requirements, sits with a politician and says this is the way to go. Do you think the military and police were consulted before the South West was granted Amoetekun? Have the military accepted that rural patrols are the specialised responsibilities of the police? What business does a naval officer have joining an AMAC task force chasing newspaper sellers in Abuja?
Do you think there is a misapplication of personnel?
There is a misappropriation of the defence and security apparatus. Check out an average Nigerian minister, including the sports minister, I am not being condescending to his portfolio, he has 15 policemen fully kitted with AK 47s, flak jackets and Kevlar helmets with four or five Hilux trucks. What is the threat, if not now that kidnapping has made them high visibility targets? If we have 42 ministers and on average each one has 10 policemen around him, followed by the lies we are told that the Nigerian Police is about 400,000 strong (there is a hidden number we are not being told), how many are we talking about? So there is a total misappropriation or a state capture of national resources by the urban elite. Go to any village. How many police officers do you see there? Unless the elites agree that there is a clear and present danger and agree to relinquish that state and security apparatus that we have captured. Go to a big man’s house in Abuja, you will see soldiers in bathroom slippers guarding a private residence when they should be in areas of threats.
What changes need to be made to overturn the situation?
The theatre headquarters [of Operation Lafiya Dole] has no business being in Maiduguri. You can’t have a theatre commander sitting in Maiduguri when the theatre command should be either on the shores of Lake Chad or in Sambisa so that they can coordinate the super camps.
So why is it not there?
They never considered it important. Just like the Nigerian elites, the officers’ corps have an urban mentality. All those headquarters, all those camps. You have two-three barracks in Maiduguri (Giwa and Maimalari). That theatre command should be a virgin place to even send a message to the insurgents that we are here with you.
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