Nigerian army makes fragile gains against Boko Haram

New helicopter gunships provide an edge against extremist group, but old challenges remain

Nigerian MI-35 helicopter. Courtesy Nigerian Air Force
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The Nigerian military last week announced it had retaken the towns of Mongono and Marte near the remote Sambisa forest in Borno state.

Authorities vowed to press ahead and defeat the extremist Boko Haram group.

A two-minute video posted by the military showed air strikes conducted by the Nigerian Air Force destroying six militant gun trucks. Several others were destroyed in follow-on attacks, as the helicopter gunships continued to strafe fleeing insurgents.

Previously, insurgents launched three attacks on a military base in Marte and stole from the armoury, but the attacking force was later pushed out of the encampment.

"What happened in Marte last Monday was a reprisal attack from the insurgents," Samuel Musa, a senior non-commissioned officer fighting in the north-east, told The National.

The sergeant used a pseudonym because he was not authorised to speak to the media.

He described how the Nigerian military conducted a feigned withdrawal – a common military tactic designed to lure opponents into a trap.

“They had initially attacked our military base in Marte, so we implemented a strategy that tricked them into a false sense of early successes" the sergeant said.

"With the help of our air force, with helicopter gunships, they suffered a large number of casualties.”

Taking the fight to the enemy 

More than ever, Nigeria's armed forces have taken the lead in their long-standing war against Boko Haram. Since 2009, the extremist group has killed more than 27,000 people and forced more than two million out of their homes. Many have moved into camps for internally displaced persons. The group has targeted all of Nigeria's communities, including local Muslims who refuse to follow its diktats.

Blessing James, a 40-year-old mother of nine, and her husband, Ismail, are from one of the families forcefully evicted from their homes in Marte.

She and her husband hail from Adamawa state in north-east, Nigeria. They previously lived in Baga, one of the towns controlled by the insurgents, before moving to Marte for refuge.

But a few months later, they fled from Marte when the militants invaded the community.

“My family and I were chased out of Baga on January 3, 2014,” Ms James recalls. "We relocated to Marte where we spent only five months before Boko Haram came. There, we ran petty businesses to keep the family going before the attack.”

Ms James and her family later found shelter in an IDP camp run by a Catholic church in Maiduguri, the capital city of Borno state.

Nigeria is deeply mired in insecurity, not only because of continuous attacks from Boko Haram, but also deadly farmer-herder clashes, kidnapping and banditry, which plagues the northern provinces.

For many years, armed forces suffered from a lack of equipment, coupled with inadequate funding for combating terrorism.

“The fight ought to have been won long ago, but a lack of technological equipment made it linger,” said Sgt Musa.

In the past, the military’s strategy has been defensive, rarely launching operations to attack enemy strongholds.

In 2015, the army launched Operation Lafiya Dole to tackle the activities of Boko Haram. Maj Gen Tukur Buratai said the main objective was to transform the army professionally, as well as fast-track the war against Boko Haram.

epa08939157 A military legion member wears a face mask as he stands in line during a military parade for the fallen heroes at the Tafawa Balewa military arcade in Lagos, Nigeria, 15 January 2021. The Nigerian military celebrates fallen heroes in the ceremony that includes laying of wreaths, a military parade, and gun salutes.  EPA/AKINTUNDE AKINLEYE

Three years later, it announced Operation Last Hold, which aimed to completely smash the terror group. More recently, it launched Operation Tura Takaibango which aimed to "end of all criminal elements within the north-east”.

Terrorism expert Temitope Olodo said the military had recorded successes, but lasting gains are limited due to the absence of a containment strategy.

“In every security situation, you need a situation where after victory you adopt a civilian-military relationship that will help to ensure law and order in those areas. Otherwise you will lose the military gains due to reprisal attacks, and the people will suffer.

Mr Olodo said the problems besetting the military’s operations stemmed from inadequate planning and follow-up evaluation, often referred to in military circles as “lessons learnt".

“Issues related to kidnapping, the farmer-herder dispute crisis and terrorism, which were supposed to be tackled by operation Tura Takaibango and others, are still being reported in the national daily news. These linked issues are the oxygen of insecurity in the country,” he said.

“There have not been any major differences between the three operations,” Mr Olodo said. He said repetitive tactics allow the insurgents to prepare for the next fight.

“The air force has always been offensive, they carry out their bombardments – but there have never been any special troopers being dropped on the ground to mop up the area afterwards.”

Military doctrine often advocates using artillery or air strikes to “soften up” an enemy position before troops are deployed.

New equipment

The Nigerian government eventually changed tack by rebuilding the military armoury in 2019.

Contracts were signed with Russia for Mi-35 helicopter gunships and last year, it received a batch of 17 combat vehicles, consisting of VT-4 main battle tanks, an ST-1 wheeled tank and two types of self-propelled howitzers, totalling $152 million.

The government also acquired additional equipment, including domestically built armoured vehicles, to combat insurgents.

Kabiru Adamu, a defence analyst, said the reason for the recent offensive was renewed political will to deal with the problem.

A Nigerian soldier, with a grenade launcher, stands guard near the Yobe river, that separates Nigeria from Niger, on the outskirt of the town of Damasak in North East Nigeria on April, 25 2017 as thousands of Nigerians, who were freed in 2016 by the Nigerian army from Boko Haram insurgents, are returning to their homes in Damasak. - Yagana Bukar's younger brothers Mohammed and Sadiq were among about 300 children kidnapped by Boko Haram from the town of Damasak in remote northeastern Nigeria nearly three years ago. But instead of the global outrage and social media campaign that followed a similar abduction of 219 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok, there were no protests for the children of Damasak. (Photo by Florian PLAUCHEUR / AFP)

“There are two important things to mention. Number one, the rainy season has ended. Usually, after the rainy season, the Nigerian military goes out on their offensives. But during the raining season, there's always a relaxation because that kind of equipment cannot move freely in wet weather.”

But in order to maintain gains, Mr Adamu said the military must learn to win the hearts and minds of people by implementing the “countering violent extremism” framework developed by the Nigerian government and endorsed by the United Nations.

"The counter-extremism framework is yet to be implemented," Mr Adamu told The National.

"It is through that framework that the Nigerian government can win the hearts and minds of the people, thus they can reduce the insurgent's ability to get support from the local public and the ability to acquire new ammunition, including funding."