On 13 July 2015, President Muhammadu Buhari appointed new service chiefs for the Nigerian Army, Air Force, and Navy; as well as new Chief of Defense Staff, new Chief of Defense Intelligence and a new National Security Adviser (NSA). One month later on August 13, while swearing in the new military commanders into office, the president gave them three months within which to crush the insurgency that has, in the last five years, claimed thousands of lives of Nigerians while rendering millions homeless. The insurgency has ravaged the Northeastern part of Nigeria and was threatening to spill over to the rest of the country. The three months presidential deadline will expire on November 13, forty-three days from today.
Although the insurgency, variously referred to as terrorism or Boko Haram, is an unconventional war and cannot therefore be subjected to the conventional analytical instruments for measuring success or failure in a war, it is nevertheless a war which devastating impact is so glaring that no complex matrix is needed to determine its movement one way or another. In other words it is possible to observe and say with near certainty whether or not the insurgency is growing or diminishing; or whether it is deadlocked, stagnant in one place, with no clear winner or loser. Interestingly, the president and commander in chief, on whose shoulder rests the responsibility of securing the lives and property of 160 million Nigerians, has given us an even more precise and unambiguous yardstick by which to gauge his government's performance in the war against terror. Invariably, the president had also wittingly or unwittingly handed a very portent weapon to his critics to use ruthlessly against him if, God forbid, he should fail to meet his own target. Because whether the president was motivated by anger or passion or conviction; or by a combination of all three, the declaration that Boko Haram will be dismantled in three months is a categorical undertaking; and because the nation's security is beyond politics, when that deadline expires, both supporters and critics alike will hold him accountable.
Now that we are half way through to the 90 days deadline, how close is the president's army to meeting its objective? A look at some of the raw indicators:
Buhari was sworn into office on 29 May 2015. Less than a week later, on June 3, he took off for Niger and later Chad, two neighboring countries whose cooperation is key to the successful prosecution of the war on terror. He then went on to Cameroon and Benin republic a few weeks later, on the same mission. His trip to France in September was to cap a shuttle diplomacy exclusively to garner support for ending the war on terror. This in no small way re-energized the Nigerian troops, and reassured the Nigerian and international publics that at last somebody is approaching the problem from the basics. The Sambisa forest, which is the insurgent's strongest hold straddles these neighboring countries and with over 1,500 illegal entry points along our borders with those countries, we cannot think of winning the war without the full cooperation from our neighbors. The president's diplomatic shuttle was an excellent starting point, a psychological weaponry in its own right. As a fallout, leaders of those countries have since returned the visit, further sending clear signals about the resolve of the entire neighborhood to restore peace to the region.
The next sign of seriousness in fighting the insurgency is less tangible, but no less significant. Historians, political scientists and military scholars all agree that in war, truth is usually the first casualty. Nigerians have since established this theory to be absolutely true. Since the insurgency became full blown in 2012, Nigerians have been fed conflicting information about the nature of the insurgency to the extent that they didn't know who or what to believe anymore. From all kinds of groups popping up from nowhere to claim that they were the leaders of the insurgents, only to melt away after allegedly duping gullible would-be government negotiators, to bizarre reasons being advanced as the motive of the insurgents which, all things considered didn't add up (how do you establish an Islamic state by brutally murdering Muslims, women and children?); to the repeated claims by the military that it had killed Abubakar Shekau, the notorious leader of the insurgents only to have him "resurrected" to thumb his nose at the government; the propaganda had been such that nobody truly believes anything the government says any more. At one time, a former director of defense information, a certain Brig. Gen. Chris Olukolade once told the whole world that the nearly 300 Chibok school girls whose brazen abduction by the insurgents jolted the conscience of the world had been found; only for the military to have to eat its words and lamely admit that the information was false!
Such had been the manner the war on terror was been prosecuted that the nation's military became the subject of demoralizing jokes across the world. But in the last three months, this insincere, mediocre display has given way to a very determined, sincere and convincing performance by the military in the way the war on terror is being prosecuted.
This in essence will be the first victory for the military under Buhari as the new commander in chief. The nation seems to tacitly accept that in the prosecution of the war on terror, there is more than enough reason for cautious, if not outright, optimism. Truth from the war front has been resurrected, and trust between the people and the government as far as the war on terror is concerned, has been restored.
The new service chiefs, who, by the way, appear to have fully relocated in body and in soul to the centre of the operations in the North-east, can, at the very least, claim credit for restoring credibility to the military as an institution and to the prosecution of the war on terror. Last week for instance when the military claimed that it had recaptured the economically strategic town of Banki from the insurgents, AlJazeera reported the news with visual images of the recaptured town, and did not add:"However this is not the first time that the Nigerian military will be announcing the retaking of a town from the insurgents only to have it..."
Again in the last few months the military has announced cheering developments that the nation and the international community are watching with rising hope.
Since May, for example, the Nigerian military has recaptured territories held by Boko Haram insurgents from Mafa in Borno State, up to the border town of Gamboru Ngala. This includes other towns such as Dikwa, Ajilari, Logomani and Gamboru Ngala itself; while lately the military claimed to have recaptured Banki town. Taken together, these recaptured towns of Dikwa, Gamboru Ngala and Banki constitute the economic nerve center of a huge population of citizens from Nigeria, Chad Cameroon and the Central African sub-region.
Simultaneous with these feats, the military also announced that it has re-opened, cleared and secured roads previously held by the insurgents which include Biu-Buniyadi-Damaturu road, Biu-Sabongari-Damboa road and Gwoza-Yamteke road. The military, with the help of local vigilantes, also located and demobilized factories where the deadly improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were manufactured; this according to military sources was responsible for the drop in the number of suicide bombings which were almost a daily affair before now. With supply routes identified, and couriers captured, the military appears to be closing in on the insurgents, a situation that led to more than 200 of them surrendering in the aftermath of the recapture of Banki town.
But nobody is assuming, or even suggesting, that this internal insurrection is over. Moreover because all of this cheering information is coming from military sources, it is possible--and understandable--if some Nigerians decide to view the situation as another set of propaganda all over again. But it is not, for at least two reasons.
One, because unlike in the past when similar claims were made, this time the insurgents do not reappear to carry out counter offensive that will put the lie to the military authorities' claim. Of course there will always be the risk of the unexpected attacks mainly aimed at soft targets; but these, apart from becoming relatively less deadly and less frequent, are far and and away very different from the audaciously deadly raids by the insurgents, whereby villages, towns and even military barracks were overran and the insurgents moved in convoys of dozens, if not hundreds of battle-ready vehicles, destroying with reckless abandon everything that stood on their way. We also cannot gloss over the unfortunate twin attacks in Kuje and Nyaya, two satellite towns of Abuja which happened last Friday night and which claimed the lives of at least 15 innocent Nigerians. Deadly and demoralizing as they are, these attacks should not make us despair and should take nothing away from the exploits of the military in the North-east; the attacks have however placed a huge challenge on the offices of the NSA, the DSS, the Director of Defense Intelligence and the police. It is a dangerous internal security challenge that only diligent intelligent operations can stem and Nigerians will be waiting to see how the new NSA, who coordinates the operations of these offices, and who, according to insiders, enjoys the confidence of the president, responds to this.
Second, unlike in the past when mere announcements were all that the nation had as evidence of the military's exploits, this time visual images show evidences that convincingly support the military's claim. Eye witnesses, some of them freed from captivity are brought to provide candid account of how they were rescued and how their towns were liberated by the military.
And there is also one more significant indicator: The opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) which has something bad to say about everything is conspicuously silent on the gains on the war on terror. Never mind Mr. Olisa Metu's pathetic attempt at criticizing the government's performance in this regard. Nothing that clown says is of any significance to serious minded Nigerians. Mr. Metuh is simply impossible to categorize. I stopped paying attention to anything he says on the day he blurted out that the APC had a "Janjaweed" manifesto. Clearly the man didn't bother to look up the word "Janjaweed" on the internet; if he had, even he would never have made such a silly, ignorant statement. That was when I knew that if intelligent, or even sensible, propaganda and public relations were to play any role in the last elections, the PDP had lost it with Metuh as its spokesman; a situation that was later compounded with the choice of a garrulous, bitter, uncouth and foul mouthed unrestrained hater known as Femi Fani-Kayode as the party's presidential campaign spokesman. Kayode, the more desperate of the duo has taken off the mask and has now resorted to open hate campaign against imaginary oppressors. Metuh is still being Metuh, using words purely for their onomatopoeic value and waiting to be applauded. Their combined attitude can only mean that in spite of itself, the PDP is tacitly admitting that the military's claims are credible. Under the circumstance, and with the chief of air staff himself leading the air assault on all known insurgents' location, effectively taking the war to the insurgents in their fortress deep in the Sambisa forest, it will not be reckless to assume that there is indeed hope in the air; and that by November 13 when the presidential deadline will expire, the war on terror, less the occasional solo attacker, the kind that even the USA which has the greatest army in the world could not annihilate, Nigeria's war on terror could be effectively over. Or at the very least the beginning of its end would have commenced.
It must be pointed out though, that this rather highly optimistic narrative is predicated on three assumptions: that the commander in chief is on top of the situation; two, that his field commanders are completely loyal and completely honest with him; and three, that all the information coming from the military authorities to Nigerians is the truth, and nothing but the truth.
Happy Independence anniversary everyone!
Garba Deen Muhammad
Editor-at-Large, The SUN.