Army chief speaks on insurgency war: We’re not constrained by manpower, equipment – Buratai
Lieutenant-General Tukur Buratai, the Chief of Army Staff (COAS), in an exclusive interview with Daily Trust on Sunday spoke on how his troops are winning the war against terrorism in Nigeria, the strategies employed by the insurgents, the preparedness of the Nigerian military to tackle the ISWAP and other security issues bedevilling the country.
We understand that you visited the National Assembly, together with your colleagues in other security agencies. What’s the outcome of the discussion, and what necessitated it?
You are very much aware of the hues and cries over insecurity across the country, the seemingly resurgence of Boko Haram terrorists in the North-East, kidnappings and banditry in the North-West, and some other criminal clashes. This calls for concern. The government is very concerned, and in their constitutional responsibilities, the National Assembly felt there’s a need for us to meet and discuss these issues. Essentially, that’s why we were invited. And we had a very useful discussion on the security situation in the country, and of course, the way forward. The most important thing is that there is an understanding for us to address the issues. One interesting thing is that we have always been proactive. We have always been pursuing the goal of ensuring security across the country. We have agreed to work together, based on understanding, and for them to give us the support needed towards a successful execution of our mandate. And to bring insecurity in the country to the barest minimum. This is the key issue we all agreed to pursue; and let everybody go about their normal businesses.
We are aware that you are outstretched in almost all the states in the country; did your discussion address the issue of manpower shortage in the army?
Some of the issues of specifics are strategic. These are issues we would continue to address without even being prompted or getting unnecessary tension or misunderstanding. These are issues that have to do with strategic and operational issues. The issue of internal security is not primarily the responsibility of the military; we are called in to support the police, and that is the grand norm. We always come in to support the police, and we are doing that.
The issue of manpower is something we have always addressed as it comes. There is a difference between the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and now. So we would not see the issue of manpower as anything that has to do with fighting insecurity. This is because we have so many force multipliers that would facilitate whatever shortcoming we have in manpower. And that’s very important. The issue of manpower is not something you would start today, and tomorrow you say you have sufficient.
It requires time to train and equip the person you trained, as well as organise further training, which is the most important aspect of it. Anybody can have basic training for one week, two weeks, one month, six months, but that is not enough. So personally, I don’t see the issue of manpower as something that is too critical to affect what we are doing on the ground. But it is important. If we are relating insecurity to manpower we may not get the solution, but it is important.
We understand that there is difficulty in getting the required equipment, especially from foreign countries, is it also affecting the capability of the troops in fighting insurgents and other operations across the country?
Like the issue of manpower, equipment are very important and quite strategic. We can have all the equipment we need, you can also have all the resources you need to fight insurgency or any war, but if you don’t utilise it well you cannot achieve the needed results. People are talking about equipment and relating it to the resurgence of insecurity; they are also linking both equipment and manpower to the resurgence of insecurity.
This has always been the issue. If there are challenges that crop up at a time, people complain that equipment and troops are not enough. This has always been the trend. I am not saying that these are not the issues; they are quite cogent and important, but we have achieved so much with the present level of equipment we have. From 2015 till date, we have achieved a lot. Let’s cast our minds back to 2015 and 2014 and you would see the extent of damage that Boko Haram was doing. But when we entered 2015, 2016, 2017 you can see that the level of apprehension virtually fizzled out. Your correspondent in Maiduguri cannot say the same thing in 2015 is obtainable today.
He can say the same thing for Damaturu, Mubi, Gwoza, Buni Yadi and so many other places. We achieved that with the same equipment we have. The point is that we are not fighting a regular adversary; we are fighting an irregular enemy. Even the United States, one of the world’s super powers, with all the array of arsenal and equipment in their inventory, cannot say they would win every war.
When it goes to asymmetric and non-conventional warfare, this is what we are facing. Surely, we need more equipment, including booths on the ground. Those are the basics and very important, but we must follow it up with training. We must do tactical and communication training.
We must also get training on equipment and troops operations. We must also get those force multipliers like intelligence equipment, drones, surveillance equipment. Then we have support from the Air Force, the police and government. These are force multipliers and all factors that will lead to success.
We also need support from the press, so you don’t talk of tactical issues. We relay such issues that are organizational, and strictly remain within that narrow perspective, to say this is the cause of the issues, or this is the cause of the insurgency, or this is the cause of the insecurity we are facing. It is far beyond that. As strategists we must always find the way and look for the means to achieve our goals. These are critical.
We are here as strategic leaders, we are not talking of the equipment, we are not talking of manpower, but they are also very critical. What we are doing is to prioritise the men on ground. We prioritise the deployment of equipment, then we now talk of the best use of the space we have. That is what we have been doing, and that is what has brought us to this stage. Yes, on pedestrian interpretation you would just be talking about manpower and equipment, but we are missing the main point, which is critical. We need them in a good number, we need them sufficiently to be deployed to cover key areas. But we must train, which is very important. And we have been doing that, as far as I am concerned.
You don’t believe there is resurgence?
It is a minimal resurgence. If you say resurgence, it means in the overall perspective that you guys cannot even stay here. Nobody would stay in Maiduguri. So tell me the intensity of resurgence and in what perspective. I just came back from Maiduguri last week. You may have watched the documentary. In the same period I opened the road from Maiduguri to Damboa and Biu, but social media was saying no road was safe in the whole of Borno State.
We are relying so much on terrorist propaganda. It is bad to kill one person, but the rate at which the propaganda goes out is so alarming. Go to Maiduguri today, nobody is bothering himself. If commuters are attacked on the road, the whole world would hear it and it would overshadow every other peaceful moment enjoyed this period. People are drawn back to pre-2015 challenges.
During that period, every day we had bombings in mosques and churches in Maiduguri; at times three to four times every day. But the attacks started going down. Yes, there was an attack in Limankara and Madagali; there were also abductions and killings by terrorists, but all those things are limited to Borno State.
Why is there a threat on the Maiduguri-Damaturu road?
In 2016 there was no threat on that road, and people were plying it. In 2017 there was no threat and nobody asked that question. In 2018 there was no issue of abduction along that road and nobody would ask that question. It was the same thing in 2019 until around December/January when they started attacking. But people have not asked why that road has not been closed. All these years, there was no threat to anybody on that road; it is only within these three months that everybody is raising the alarm, and it has overshadowed previous efforts, even the ongoing efforts in other places.
When we introduced this Super Camp concept we had some opposition. I don’t know why anybody would be interested in operational or tactical issues. You are not a military man or tactician; you are not a strategist in military doctrine, but suddenly a strategy was adopted and you said no. When we adopted this Super Camp strategy, we were completely in a different mode of operation and needed to realign and redeploy our troops, units and formations to those identified gaps. It took us time to identify these gaps. When we bridged those gaps, a seemingly peaceful road is no longer tenable to the Boko Haram terrorists.
It caused a serious threat to their activities. They were used to crossing and moving about, but what they are doing now is using abductions to force the troops to leave that area. They are no longer finding it easy, but they would do anything possible to dislodge the troops there. But as at today, it is not possible for them. It is just a matter of time.
We have gone this far since 2015 and we are moving. Insurgency is not what you defeat and it would just fizzle out; they would revert to other tactics. That is terrorism. They will promote propaganda, to the effect that all the institutions of government would be seen to be ineffective. This is what they are doing. They are exploiting the fault lines in our economic and political endeavours to expand the gulf of so-called discord and acrimony amongst various ethnic and religious groups. Why are they doing this propaganda, blocking the road and capturing individuals because they are of a particular religion? Unfortunately, they murder those individuals and send it to the world. These are propaganda strategies of the terrorists. You need to study the terrorist propaganda way of operation and see how things are. These individuals may be living with you and you would not know they are terrorists. They have a series of informants and logistics suppliers. They have a series of leadership strata that live in the communities and towns nearby. They pass information and organise those that are hidden along the borders in remote areas or communities who come, attack and go back. They also have a series of recruiters. Looking at it from this perspective, you would see that it is a complex operation you cannot wish to just go. At the National Assembly today, I said indoctrination of the citizens did not start in 2009, it started much earlier. And it grew until it reached that point where they took arms against the state. It is an indoctrination that has taken roots between 10 and 40 years back. And for you to de-radicalise an individual to bring him back to sanity, you think it would just take you three years, four or 10 years? These are people that were brain-washed to believe that when they die they would go straight to heaven. And you think they would believe in you to bring them back to mix with people they refer to as unbelievers? You have to look at this context. How long have all the terrorist activities happening across the world been going on? We must understand this thing. It is an issue of existential threat we are facing as a nation-state. When they were in Kano, Sokoto, Kogi, Niger, Abuja, Jos, Kaduna, Gombe, Adamawa and started penetrating other places, nobody took them seriously. We will continue to wish that they would not attack the next town. You guys can count how many locations they attacked in Abuja, including the Force Headquarters. Does it take a little indoctrination for somebody to load explosives and go to the Force Headquarters and explode? And people are looking at it as merely between the military and insurgents. It is not a war between the military and insurgents, it is between Nigeria and the insurgents.
Some experts are saying that if you want to successfully counter this insurgency, its leadership must be eliminated. It is believed that this would help reduce the confidence their foot-soldiers have in their course and bring the organisation down. There was a story that some of the Chibok girls were sighted in Sambisa forest. Last week, there was a negotiation, after which they released one of the captives. Since you know where all these people are, when do you think you would be able to eliminate some of the top commanders of these insurgents?
Decapitation operation is key; and it is in our plan. It may work, and it may not work. Look at Al-Qaida, a group that has taken attention across the world. All the anti-terror operations were focused on eliminating Osama bin Ladin, with the belief that once he was eliminated Al-Qaida would end. But what happened? We had several others that came up after him. It has not stopped.
Back here in Nigeria, it is the same thing. It was believed that when the leader of Boko Haram, Mohammed Yusuf was eliminated (although it was not a government policy), the movement would stop. But another leader came up, Shekau. The Shekau group also split into different factions, and within the two camps they have been trying to eliminate each other. They eliminated one of their leaders.
Recently, Al-Baghdadi was eliminated and they brought up another leader. Instead of being discouraged, they have even been getting stronger. But that does not mean it would not work in certain areas. If there is consistent targeting of the leadership, at a certain point they just have to capitulate. But it has to be comprehensive. I want you to also take note of the difference between military operations and the intelligence line of operations. These two must work together. As far as leadership is concerned, our effort is still working on identifying where they are because you can say they are in Abuja; but where in Abuja. You can say they are in Kaduna, but where in Kaduna? You can also say they are in Falgore forest; which Falgore forest? When you say they are in Sambisa forest, do you know the size of the forest? It requires extensive and intensive surveillance arrangement, very good intelligence to pinpoint and identify all those issues. Nobody is resting on his oars. All these things are being done in search of all other captives, including the Chibok girls. The process is still ongoing, it has not been closed. These are issues that have to do with asymmetric warfare, counter insurgency and intelligence operations, some civil-military activities, and purely civil line of operations, which can lead to so many results.
If you are targeting the head to decapitate, you must have been on their tracks; how close have we ever gotten close to eliminating Shekau?
This is a military operation. Late last year, there was a report in which the Air Force bombarded their camps and many of their leaders were eliminated. Even the attack on Damaturu, about two of their commanders were eliminated. In Goneri also, one of their commanders was eliminated. We will continue to target them individually and as a group until we narrow the overall leader. It requires some intelligence.
As I said, this insurgency did not start yesterday; it started over 40 years back.
What about international collaboration?
Just recently, Chadians withdrew their troops from the theater; how is it affecting operations? There is this misconception that Chadian troops are withdrawing from the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) operations, No! They are not withdrawing; the MNJTF headquarters is in N’djamena, the capital of Chad. The Lake Chad Basin Commission is also in N’djamena, so the mission of the headquarters and the command element of the MNJTF are all there.
The MNJTF usually organises operations periodically to identify a particular threat area and all the forces come together, operate and go back to their territories. This was done in 2016, 2017, 2018 and even last year, up to early this year.
They only completed their operations and withdrew to their territory. It was after Operation Yancin Tafki. So they are not withdrawing from the MNJTF. In the real sense, they were not here before the Operation Yancin Tafki; they came for a particular task. And they completed the task and went back. They are not blocking any other area. We had been on ground before they came and we would continue to remain where we are and do our operations without any external force.
Did their exit open a corridor for the terrorists to operate?
That’s what I have just said. Which corridor? They have not blocked anywhere, that’s what I said. They came around and were to go back around July. They left and came back around August or September, so there is no gap left.
They left some weeks ago and we have not felt any negative impact since then. Our troops are there and effective. The Islamic State of West African Province (ISWAP) carried out some major attacks in Niger Republic, which led to the loss of over 100 soldiers. The attacks raised the question about our level of preparedness.
What assurance would you give Nigerians that the ISWAP would not set root in Nigeria?
What happened in Niger was unfortunate. That area is the border between Niger and Mali. That place is one of the ungoverned spaces. It is a complex environment where there is a lot of movement and foreign countries operating. There are complex operations, with different types of militias, militants, bandits and terrorists. We will do everything possible to protect our troops and our people. We have to increase surveillance across our borders. We have to increase the awareness of troops, as well as the people, to know that any threat being seen would have been envisaged. We are in a good position to counter any of such happenings, and I believe we would not give them that room. We will try to build more confidence in our troops.
When you met with the National Assembly today, did the issue of your resignation come up?
No comment on that.