5 SIMILARITIES BETWEEN THE MILITARY'S BOKO HARAM AND ECOMOG OPERATIONS
Soldiers in a military ceremony to honour war heroes (Reuters)
In an earlier article I assessed the claim, often made by our military and political elite, that the Nigerian military “brought peace to Liberia and Sierra-Leone”. In this post, I will outline what I believe to be five compelling similarities between the military’s ECOMOG operations in Liberia and Sierra-Leone, and its prosecution of the current war against Boko Haram.
1. Supply Shortages and Obsolete Weaponry
Footage from Boko Haram’s assault on Giwa barracks, which they filmed. The terrorist sect almost overran the barracks because a crucial but aging weapon system guarding the entrance to the sprawling military installation malfunctioned.
In February this year, the Borno state governor alleged that Boko Haram fighters were “better armed … than our troops”. At the time, the comment was strongly rebuked by government spokesmen – Nigerian officials are legendary for their Ostrich mentality. Events have since proven him right. Reports that have made it to the public domain paint the picture of a military beset by logistic deficiencies. Stories abound of operations imperilled by ammunition shortages and inadequate weaponry.
The March 2014 assault on Giwa barracks, and the Chibok abductions a month later – both in Borno State – perfectly illustrate the incapacitating effects of supply shortages and obsolete weaponry. In the attack on Chibok, a shortage of ammunitions reportedly caused guarding soldiers to flee to the bush – allowing Boko Haram to cart off close to 300 girls, after laying waste to the community. In the assault on Giwa barracks – the largest military installation in the northeast – a large part of why Boko Haram nearly succeeded in overrunning the sprawling installation was due to the breakdown of an aging weapon that had been positioned to defend the entrance to the base. The defective weapon – the ZSU-23-4, also known as the “shilka” – is a 1960s anti-aircraft weapon (it is also effective as an anti-personnel weapon hence its use against Boko Haram operatives) which Nigeria acquired in 1980!
Nigeria’s ECOMOG operations in Liberia and Sierra-Leone were beset by similar problems. The soldiers were totally ill-equipped for the missions. In Liberia for example, there was such a dearth of helicopters that by 1995 there was only a single operable helicopter in the field. “Most of the equipment and guns deployed were unserviceable thereby rendering them useless”, commented one of the commanding officers on his experience in Sierra-Leone. Critical pieces of equipment frequently malfunctioned due to poor service condition. The Armoured Fighting Vehicles (AFV) and Armoured Personnel Carriers (APC) were in particularly pathetic shape and prone to breakdown.
This comes from the intelligence report of Brigadier Rafiu Adeshina (rtd), Brigade commander of the 24th Infantry Brigade in Sierra-Leone, written to the ECOMOG commander informing him of the poor state of his brigade as they awaited an expected rebel attack: “[O]ur … locations have only rifles – no machine guns or AFVs. Out of 4 [AFVs] in the entire brigade, no one is presently functioning”.
2. Intelligence Failures and Communications Breakdown
Nigerian troops patrol Freetown during the RUF’s brutal operation “No Living Thing” in January 1999 (BBC). Listen to a BBC report which covered the RUF attack here.
There is no doubt that the military has foiled many Boko Haram attacks. And for this they must be commended. However, the multiple attacks that Boko Haram has successfully executed point to serious gaps in the military’s intelligence and communications assets. The multiple bombings that have rocked Abuja this year alone illustrate these shortcomings.
By most accounts, the attack on Giwa barracks caught the military by surprise. That Boko Haram could nearly overrun a supposedly well-defended strategic military installation is bad enough. But the fact that Boko Haram could traverse hundreds of kilometres of open terrain in heavily armed convoys on their way to attacking the base without being detected and interdicted point to serious gaps in the military’s battlefield intelligence capabilities. The Chibok abductions raise similar concerns. With information now emerging that military high command was informed as much as four hours beforehand of an impending attack; the fact that no reinforcements were sent to the area, or the unit on the ground forewarned, highlights the communication problems which has bedevilled the military’s response to Boko Haram attack.
Similar intelligence and communication breakdowns were prevalent in the military’s operations in Liberia and Sierra-Leone. Battlefield intelligence was often non-existent or patchy at best. Two examples best illustrate this wretched state of affairs: Operations “Octopus” and “No Living Thing”.
Operation “Octopus” was the codename for Charles Taylor’s attack on Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, on the 15th of October 1992. While the operation failed in its objective of capturing the capital – the Nigerian-led counterattack repelled Taylor’s advance and devastated his rebel group – the complete surprise that Taylor was able to achieve in his initial assault was due to the total absence of battlefield intelligence on Taylor’s forces. So complete was the failure of intelligence that it would take ECOMOG forces a week to counterattack while they figured out what was happening. This was a tragic failure that was paid for in 3000, mostly civilian lives – lives that ECOMOG were supposedly deployed to Liberia to protect in the first place.
Operation “No Living Thing” was the codename for the Revolutionary United Front’s (RUF) brutal assault on Freetown, Sierra-Leone’s capital, on the 6th of January 1999. Though the RUF similarly failed in their objective of capturing the capital – Nigerian troops reasserted control after bitter fighting – the very fact that the rebels were able to stage such a massive assault, and by some accounts almost succeed in capturing the capital, was the result of a colossal failure in intelligence and communication.
One month prior to the assault on Freetown, Nigerian positions in the north and east of Sierra-Leone had been overrun in a lightning rebel advance. Given such dramatic developments, the information reaching Nigerian commanders in Freetown about the resurgence in rebel activity should have spurred them into bolstering security around the approaches to Freetown. Unfortunately no significant additional measures were taken. A false sense of security pervaded the capital throughout this period. Nigerian commanders, in a tactic that has become all too familiar in the current fight against Boko Haram, set about falsely reassuring the worried population of Freetown that “all was under control”. Due to this lackadaisical attitude to intelligence, when Freetown was attacked, Nigerian commanders were caught napping, resulting in the near-loss of the capital. To quote Brigadier Adeshina (rtd): The attack “caused pandemonium and almost resulted in the capture of Freetown”.
Further quoting the Brigadier at length on the general lack of intelligence which characterised Nigerian operations in Sierra-Leone: “Most of the operations I conducted in Sierra-Leone had no intelligence input at all… Not much information about the enemy was available throughout except for those we got from captured rebels which often proved misleading or unreliable… Often times, intelligence information was not taken seriously by higher headquarters in Freetown. For example when it became evident that the rebels were going to invade Freetown ... no action was taken to prevent this invasion”.
3. Close Operational collaboration with Militias
At a CJTF checkpoint in Maiduguri, Borno State (Sunday Alamba/AP)
The rise of the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF) – a loose band of primitively equipped vigilantes – has so far been one of the defining features of the war against Boko Haram. By many accounts, CJTF has brought some measure of stability to areas where they have an operational presence. The CJTF are frequently used by the military in combat support roles (such as providing intelligence and manning checkpoints etc.), and often times their operatives join soldiers in conducting raids on, or defending against, Boko Haram – thereby taking on direct combat roles.
Nigeria’s operations in Liberia and Sierra-Leone were similarly characterised by a heavy reliance on militias to perform crucial combat support roles. In many cases, they also fought as allies in direct combat. In Liberia the militia which Nigerian forces mostly collaborated closely with was the Armed Forces of Liberia (despite the formal sounding name, the AFL had long before the war ceased to function as a formal institution and had mutated into an ethnically based militia). Often times, though not as consistently as with the AFL, Nigerian forces also closely worked with two other rebel militias: the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL, a breakaway faction from Taylor’s rebel group, the NPFL) and United Liberation Movement of Liberia (ULIMO, formed in 1991; the group split along ethnic lines in 1994). Despite periods of tension with ECOMOG forces, the AFL, INPFL, and ULIMO often provided critical aid, both in combat support and in direct combat, to Nigerian forces in the fight against Taylor – an enemy they all shared.
In Sierra-Leone, the Civil Defence Forces (CDF) played a central role in the Nigerian military’s operations. The CDF was a loose coalition of ethnic militias; the most powerful of which were the Kamajors. Much like the CJTF against Boko Haram, and the AFL, INPFL, and ULIMO against Taylor; the CDF – especially the Kamajors – often fought alongside Nigerian troops in both offensive and defensive operations. Given the weakness of its combat intelligence capability on the ground, as indicated by Brigadier Adeshina in the previous section, the CDF to a large extent functioned as the primary combat intelligence arm of the Nigerian army in Sierra-Leone.
A Guard of Honour of the 7th Division being inspected by a former Chief of Army Staff (Nigeria Army)
On the 14th of May 2014, soldiers within the 7th Division based in Maiduguri, a hotbed of insurgent activity, raised their rifles against the passing convoy of their divisional commander and sprayed it with bullets – allegedly with the intent to kill him. According to press reports the rebellious soldiers were pushed to such an extreme by the death of 12 of their comrades who had been ambushed by Boko Haram the previous night; deaths they believed were avoidable, and blamed on the divisional commander. It is also alleged that some of the underlying reasons for the mutiny were poor service conditions, irregular payment of salaries, and the strains of going into battle inadequately armed against a determined and bloodthirsty foe.
In Sierra-Leone the same combination of fury at the death of comrades and plummeting morale would produce one of the more dramatic acts of rebellion that I have come across in Nigeria’s ECOMOG operations.
In April 1998 after a particularly fierce battle for a village called Yigbeda in the east of Sierra-Leone, the battalion that had borne the brunt of the casualties rebelled and nearly mutinied when they heard their battalion commander was to be replaced for command failure. To quote Brigadier Adeshina (rtd) at length: “[B]ecause of the clear evidence that the CO (Commanding Officer) [of the] 5th battalion had lost control of his men, I relieved him of command of the unit… The soldiers of the battalion instantly protested and told me to my face that nobody would remove their CO and that the casualties they sustained were my fault not that of the CO. They shouted at me that we had no business in … Sierra-Leone – while pointing at the pick-up truck loaded with the corpses of their colleagues who were killed during the encounter. As I sensed that a mutiny was about to take place on a battlefront and far away from Nigeria, I rescinded my order and asked the CO to continue with his unit”.
The same 5th battalion rebelled again on the same day not long after the first incident. The battalion had been ordered to stay behind to guard a just captured village and provide rear-defence to its parent unit, the 24th Infantry Brigade, as it moved forward to capture a major town. Soldiers of the 5th flatly refused, unwilling to have to confront the RUF alone in case of a rear attack. Again, quoting Brigadier Adeshina (rtd): “I directed them to hold a defensive position in the [village] and remain there until we captured Koidu… [M]y directive was rejected by soldiers of this battalion… I furiously directed the removal of the CO there and then for the second time… The soldiers again refused the order. All the pleadings I made with them … that the location was too dangerous to be left unoccupied was rejected by the soldiers. When I realised that … the boys could simply kill me with nothing happening to them back home in Nigeria … I [again] rescinded my order”.
5. Fluid Stalemate
Nigerian troops on their way to recapture Damboa town in Maiduguri (PR Nigeria)
The most striking and worrying similarity between the current conflict and the operations in Liberia and Sierra-Leone is the fluid stalemate that has now developed between the military and Boko Haram. By this I mean that while on the one hand the insurgency now seems to be in strategic stalemate – Boko Haram’s aspiration of an Islamic State in Nigeria remains a pipe dream; similarly, a comprehensive military victory against the sect seems unlikely for now. On the other hand however, battlefield conditions on the ground is characterised by tactical fluidity. The frequent loss and recapture of towns and villages by the military, and Boko Haram’s ability to move heavily armed operatives in large convoys with impunity in significant sections of the northeast illustrate this fluid and rapidly changing situation on the ground.
The outcome of Nigeria’s armed interventions in Liberia and Sierra-Leone can also be described as fluid stalemates. In neither country was the military able to achieve its strategic objective of breaking the rebels’ war-fighting resolve. In both countries, while the Nigerian army controlled the capitals, in Liberia the rebels controlled the rest of the country, whilst in Sierra-Leone it was the northern half by December 1998. And in both missions, despite the strategic stalemate – i.e. neither the rebels nor the Nigerian military completely vanquished the other – the tactical situation on the ground was highly fluid as battlefield fortunes ebbed and flowed.
Reasons for Optimism and Concern
Perhaps the title for this subsection should have been “Reasons for Tentative Optimism and Serious Concern”. This is because my optimism is much less sanguine and concern much more worrying than the title conveys.
Despite the grim picture of a terrorist group rampaging through a sizeable section of the country, the biggest cause for tentative optimism is the fact that the Nigerian state, and consequently the military, still holds at least two significant advantages over Boko Haram. The first is territorial. The central government still controls the strategic territorial core and economic heartland of the country. Absent some political calamity – such as a coup or some other destabilizing event – this is unlikely to change anytime soon. Unlike in Liberia and Sierra-Leone where the government’s writ didn’t extend beyond the capital, or even in Iraq and Syria (to take two contemporary examples) where insurgent forces now control up to 40 percent of those countries; the Nigerian state, though beleaguered, is unlikely to collapse from Boko Haram’s pressure alone. At least for now anyway.
The second cause for cautious optimism is the legitimacy deficit of Boko Haram. The Nigerian state, despite its dysfunctional mode of governance, enjoys far more legitimacy amongst the general population than any alternative Boko Haram is proposing. Boko Haram’s dogmatic (and heterodox) beliefs, and the freewheeling way with which its operatives have butchered anyone who crosses their path has repelled the very same constituency they profess to be fighting for, Nigerian Muslims. This point is very important as without popular support it will be very difficult for Boko Haram to entrench itself within society, hence theoretically easier to uproot.
The reasons for optimism I outlined above are tentative for a reason. This is because the advantages could very easily be eroded.
The advantage associated with territorial control could rapidly evaporate should Boko Haram extend its terrorist attacks to the south of the country. By this I mean, even if Boko Haram’s territory doesn’t increase, should the group develop the capability to perpetrate terrorist attacks – suicide bombings, car bombings etc. – in the south with the same level of impunity and frequency as they have done in the north, this will in all probability lead to the raising of armed militias in the south. A development that will only result in the further fragmentation of the country.
As for the legitimacy advantage, the Liberian and Sierra-Leonean conflict has shown that even insurgents with little to no popular support can collapse a state once state structures are enfeebled enough. And of course, there is always the danger that Boko Haram may “wise up” and begin to place greater emphasis on “hearts and minds” and governance in areas they control. Such a development will dramatically erode Nigeria’s legitimacy advantage and allow Boko Haram to embed itself more effectively in northeastern communities given the savagery and unbridled violence with which Nigerian security forces have fought this war, as shown in a recent Channel 4 documentary.
My other reasons for serious concern relate to the implications of the CJTF and the mutiny which occurred on the 14th of May.
While government officials have interpreted the CJTF phenomenon as a sign that the indigenes of the war-ravaged northeast are at last “taking ownership” of the insurgency in their region. I view it as the disgraceful failure of the Nigerian state to adequately provide for the security of its civilian population. The true meaning of the CJTF phenomenon is that the state has effectively subcontracted its fundamental duty to a group of mostly semi-literate locals armed with nothing more than cutlasses, machetes, and primitive homemade guns. This ill-disciplined and grossly ill-equipped force is now co-responsible with the armed forces for securing the territorial integrity of the Nigerian State. What a shame! As we’ve seen from other conflicts, militias formed and primitively armed at the beginning of a conflict, inevitably acquire more sophisticated weapons as the conflict drags on, and eventually become security problems in themselves when the conflict phase subsides.
The widely reported mutiny within the 7th Division, and the fact that mutinies are recurrent features in Nigeria’s military operations, indicate weak command and control capabilities. No military force can long survive the erosion of its command and control capabilities – i.e. the ability of officers to exercise authority over their troops. The mutiny also suggests problems of poor morale and mission weariness. These two are problems that must be viewed with utmost seriousness as soldiers who, even if adequately equipped, lack belief in a mission and are debilitated by poor morale will likely buckle in the face of a determined enemy. The tale of the Iraqi army’s ignoble collapse earlier this year as Jihadi warriors surged into the north and west of the country underscore this point.
“Shine your eyes”. This is the phrase a Nigerian often uses when he wants his interlocutor to open his eyes and see the truth for what it is. The same sentiment undergirds this article. It is time we recognise the Nigerian military for what it is: A hollowed out and enfeebled force. Only by acknowledging this fact can we recognise that a comprehensive reform of the military is a necessary part of any long term strategy for defeating Boko Haram and restoring peace to the northeast.