By Obi Nwakanma
The recent attack, and killing of Nigerian troops by Boko Haram insurgents in Metele throws up a number of questions which both the government in place, and the general Nigerian public are actually not yet asking? And that question is, what is the current status and mission of the group we generally call “Boko Haram”? It is now not simply enough to say, Boko Haram is fighting an insurgency because they want to occupy a particular site in Nigeria called “Borno.” This is no longer true.
Those who are fighting this insurgency, first of all are no longer Nigerians. They are sworn to overthrow the Nigerian state. It is therefore a terrible kind of folly to keep calling them, “Nigerians” who must be dealt with as Nigerians. That is, pussyfooting.
Secondly, according to latest reports, these fighters operating now in the Nigerian territory, have been joined by thousands of other highly trained, foreign military fighters and Jihadists, intent on destabilizing and taking control of the states in West Africa. They are trying to establish the Islamic Sultanate or Islamic State of West Africa. This is a very, very dangerous development. From a small, ragtag group of fighters the “Boko Haram” has snowballed into a huge, sophisticated army of highly trained, and technologically savvy operators, now capable of taking on the Nigerian military, and quite clearly threatening now the Sovereignty of the Nigerian state as never before. Nigerians often think that history stopped yesterday.
As a result they do not often factor in their analysis, currents that make history a continuous event in the development of the material and dialectical condition of man. Inability to understand or comprehend this often leads to a complete failure of analysis that should produce a complete, untrammeled picture. That ought to situate historical phenomena to the currency of those actions which we must then understand as emergent and in play. I think Nigeria is in play for the Islamic State which now sees it as weakened, and vulnerable; a “low hanging fruit” to be taken in small, firefights. It seems that the Boko Haram question has now grown into a larger question, and demands fresher answers and fresher strategies. It is now a larger movement with an internationalist dimension that has implications not only for Nigeria but for West Africa.
There are actors seen and unseen, shaping that movement, aiding and abetting it, while closely embedded in the service of the governments of Nigeria and its neighbouring states. These are called “sleeper agents.” Much of its funding and much of its intelligence comes from this “sleeper agents” embedded deep in the Nigerian government – both in its civil bureaucracy, its National Intelligence apparatus, and in its military and political leadership. Nothing else can logically explain the resilience of the Boko Haram Insurgency, apart also from the fact that War makes men rich.
There are the contractors and suppliers of war material, who trade in war and war intelligence; there are the profiteers, the smugglers, and the soldiers of fortune who trade in looted artefact, property, and other forms of war booty. For this, and we have plenty of them in Nigeria today, war is good. The insurgency must therefore go on, and the national security situation, often built around fear and insecurity, and the threat of wellbeing must continue to yield profit. Today, we budget more for this unending war than we budget for the health of Nigerians.
Now, Metele is not an accident. It seems like a very strategic operation to clear out the Nigerian military, currently doing what they call “stabilization” operations in that part of the North East of Nigeria, between Chad and the Cameroonian borders, leading in an archway into the Central African Republic. These are all areas in the gunsight of Boko Haram – now called the “Islamic State of West Africa” – an alliance that is growing with significant bulge since the 2014 agreement of an alliance and a declaration of loyalty to the ISIS. West Africa is at play, and the Sahara, that rich, mysterious, open plain which with untapped resources – clean ground water stored in ancient aquifers, oil, and other minerals, and with the possibility in fact of long term regeneration of the Chad basin, a great human treasure, is now the subject of a transnational firefight.
This area, vast and spectacular was once the epicenter of the very vast, ancient Kanem Bornu Empire, one of the world’s most magnificent ancient empires, stretching as far afield from Nigeria to Southern Libya, including parts of Niger, Chad, and the Sudan, with its capital in Njimi, by the Lake Chad. It is important for Nigerians to examine the connections between the development of Boko Haram and a nationalist movement to restore the Kanem Empire, given the dynamic developments, with the pressure from the Fall of Ghadaffi’s Libya, and the defeat of the Islamic State in the Middle East.
As these fighters flee and converge at the borders of Nigeria, Chad, Niger and the Cameroons, a West African Sultanate, using the foothold of one of the ancient, desiccated African kingdoms seems at play and probable. But what are the analysts at the Nigerian National Intelligence Agency saying? What pictures are they providing both to the National Assembly, and to Defence Headquarters who must provide the president with an actionable picture? What does the president know, and how is he managing this war, and this development? Very clearly, Metele is a wakeup call.
But let us leave the larger, more conceptual issues alone, and go for a moment to the basic, nitty-gritty question of the operational management of this military campaign, for clearly, Nigerian troops are in harm’s way, and according to Defence Headquarters, finally owning up to the facts after much dawdling, 35 troops were killed, and 65 others injured in the Metele attack. Three important developments following this devastating incident struck me, and ought to raise the hackles of Nigerians: first is that in trying to manage its outcomes, the president issued a plea (in the inappropriate language of the Nigerian media a “warning”) that Nigerians should not “politicize” the death of the soldiers killed Boko Haram. And my question: is President Buhari for real? The death of Nigerian troops engaged in a military operation is already a political issue and must be interrogated politically. Fact is, aside from the political dimension to all war, one other question is, what did the Commander-in-chief do or fail to do, to prevent this tragedy? That is a political question.
It is about the ability of the President to lead. The second question is, how is this president managing this war against Boko Haram which his administration made bold once to say is “technically degraded?” The evidence before Nigerians is that (a) if ever Boko Haram was ever “technically degraded” it was not by this government apparently, given the time and occasion of that declaration. They were riding the headwinds of the success of the Jonathan led administration which had forced Boko Haram into retreat and pleading for amnesty by the time it left government.
Since Buhari’s administration, Boko Haram has rekindled its effort, taken on new strength, become emboldened, and is operating even deeper in Nigerian territory using guerrilla tactics, even though it seems it controls no apparent territory. The truth is that it is controlling more territory now than ever, because it is operating in wider invisible circles, and is able to move in and out, behind and ahead of Nigerian troops at will. It controls the territory- basically, the hearts and minds of wherever they occupy invisibly.
It is able to recruit and replenish its stores, using local population support, and it is running circles around Nigeria’s very formal military formations. And the fact is (b) the troops came complaining openly about the lack of equipment to fight, in spite of billions already allegedly spent on procurement of these tools by this government and the previous; the soldiers are increasingly thus unmotivated to fight, and are accusing their commanders of corruption. This is serious, and yet President Buhari asks that the deaths of these soldiers should not be politicized. Even so, his Chief Spokesman, Garba Shehu answering related questions said that there should be no need for a presidential investigation into the death of the troops in Metele at the hands of Boko Haram. This is weird.
As a matter of fact, Nigerians should insist, not just on a presidential commission, but a broad Legislative inquiry into the death of Nigerian soldiers in Metele. Questions must be asked and serious answers provided on whether there is corruption in the procurement of National Defence tools, and whether the soldiers were given the right tools and training to fight this insurgency. Secondly, what led to these deaths? Was there a failure of intelligence? Was there subversion? Key military security analysts continue to emphasize that there is too much that does not add up. There is for instance, too much information leaking at the Nigerian end, and very little intelligence acquisition at the adversarial end. This is serious.
The National Assembly needs to exercise its investigative powers and give Nigerians answers, and establish very clear oversight on this war. That is why they were elected and sworn in as legislators. This war with Boko harm is calling into question the competence of the political and military leadership currently engaged with protecting Nigeria and its neighborhood. It is time to expand the doctrinal and operational principles of this war with the Islamic State of West Africa. A lot more seems at play than is obvious.