The Chief of Army Staff, Tukur Buratai, has circulated a set of operational guidelines warning Nigerian Army commanders of grave consequences should they abandon their positions in the face of firepower from Boko Haram insurgents.
The 180-word memo, sent to all commanders at all levels, formations and locations in the nine-year-long war against Islamist militants across Nigeria’s North-east, was a direct response to the recent killing and maiming of soldiers and officers by terrorists, amidst renewed fears of a resurgent Boko Haram.
At least two officers and 43 soldiers have been killed in Boko Haram attacks on military targets between July 13 and 26, a shocking setback that sent the country’s top military brass seething.
“Recent occurrences in” ‘Operation Lafiya Dole’ “where units abandon their positions cowardly in the face of action” from Boko Haram terrorists “without reasonable resistance is worrisome,” Mr Buratai said in the July 27 memo to all commanders, adding that it “portrayed” them as “incompetent and cowardly”.
“It also has the potentials to rubbish all the laudable gains made” in the war against Boko Haram
“Consequently,” Mr Buratai, a lieutenant-general, said any commander who “abandons his position in the face” of enemy fire “leading to avoidable death of troops and loss of equipment will be subjected” to harsh punishments as enumerated in the Armed Forces Act.
“All should be reminded that the law recommended any officer or soldier found guilty of cowardly behavior ‘shall on conviction by a court martial be liable to suffer death or any less punishment provided by the Act,’ depending on the circumstances of the case.”
Multiple military sources authenticated the document to newsmen, days after political activist Deji Adeyanju first disclosed its content to his followers on Twitter.
A spokesperson for the Nigerian Army would not comment on the memo, but commanders and other soldiers on the field said they found it “intimidating, distracting and disturbing.”
The troops, who spoke under strict anonymity to avoid being punished for unathorised interaction with the media, said Mr Buratai completely failed to discuss the real triggers of the recent killings of soldiers and the general resistance of Boko Haram fighters.
“He’s supposed to provide strategic intelligence to the troops,” a commander said. “But had severally informed them and the world that BH is completely defeated.”
The commander, who noted that Mr Buratai would likely start with officers found wanting in the recent attacks on a military base in Yobe and another in Jakana, Borno State, said the troops lacked adequate supplies. Between July 21 and 26, 17 soldiers were killed and 18 wounded in multiple Boko Haram attacks.
“All the armoured vehicles and T72 tanks brought by former President Goodluck Jonathan (which this gov’t refused to sustain) have broken down and in a state of disrepair,” the officer said.
The officer said reinforcements for detachments under attacks are often late, when they come at all. This has led them having to beg for support from neighbouring countries.
“Imagine Cameroonian soldiers had to come 60 kilometres into Nigeria to support us in Sambisa,” he said. “We keep begging them to support us becuase they have the equipment that we don’t have.”
“Same thing being done with Chad at the Lake Chad region, it is really sad,” the officer said before quoting the apocryphal saying that defines insanity as doing the same thing over and again while expecting a different result.
Since July 13, at least 45 soldiers and commanders have been killed in confrontation with Boko Haram.
The terrorists also stormed military brigades to kill troops and cart away equipment and supplies, including food items in large quantity. At least 50 were wounded in critical conditions.
The sudden surge in attacks on troops followed months of remarkable drop in Boko Haram attacks on soldiers.
While civilians were still being regularly killed, and some troops being lost in intermittent ambushes, whole-scale attacks targeting military formations and detachments were rare since the October 2016 killing of scores of soldiers in River Komadogou Yobe.
Although military commanders and soldiers affected by the attacks at the time told newsmen inadequate supply of food, equipment and arbitrary deductions in their allowances were to blame, the Army launched a probe into the incident without disclosing its outcome.
A few weeks after in December 2016, some soldiers attempted to lynch Victor Ezeugwu, the commander of Nigerian Army 7 Division headquartered at Maimalari cantonment, after he left them on the battlefront for two days without food supplies.
In an incident as recent as last November, soldiers on the battlefront complained to newsmen they were going weeks without allowances, which they had long decried as inadequate in the circumstance.
Another source said Mr Buratai’s apparently premature victory lap, largely drawn from the position of President Muhammadu Buhari, has given troops a false sense of the complexity of the war, as well as the timeline of the withdrawal.
“So, it is not only the problem about lack of food or equipment to fight Boko Haram or even the small allowances but everyone is relaxed that Boko Haram had been defeated,” another military commander said.
But Mr Buratai’s warning was silent on whether the troops would see an immediate improvement in their welfare, equipment and supplies and air support that would boost their morale on the battlefield.
It only said that Section 47 of the Armed Forces Act would be activated against soldiers who retreat in the face of Boko Haram attacks.
Although the section prohibited troops from abandoning their outposts in the face of enemy fire, it also contains clauses that allowed troops to preserve their lives under clear conditions.
“It shall be a valid defence under this section if the surrender or abandonment of a place, post or thing by a person charged with its defence is justified by reason of superior order, the utmost necessity such as want of provisions, water, logistic support, the absence of hope or relief, inability to offer further resistance or the certainty or extreme probability that no further efforts could prevent the place, post or thing falling into enemy hands,” the law said.
Security analyst Mukhtar Dan’Iyan told newsmen the law was balanced enough and Mr Buratai’s threats would only further worsen the situation unless they are immediately reversed and the working conditions of troops prioritised instead.
“Mr Buratai is only following the footsteps of Alex Badeh who said they would kill troops who run from enemy fire and bury them on the field,” the New York-based analyst said. “That did not turn out well because it was not the best approach to take.”
“It is still not the best approach to take now because we all know Nigerian soldiers are brave they want to fight to win,” he said. “But you cannot do that when you are facing superior firepower, that is a suicide mission.”
The expert said Nigerian soldiers are not contracted to die on the battlefronts but to help defend the territorial integrity of their fatherland from internal and external aggression.
“Nigeria is not Iran which found young persons and sent them to the battlefield and died during the Gulf War,” he said. “Our soldiers are supposed to help their country but they are not sent to deliberately die there. They are not getting the support they need to boost their morale and be successful.”
“We can only hope that Mr Buratai would relax on his anger on his men because it is not going to make them fight hard, but would only demoralise them further,” Mr Dan’Iyan said.
Experts also drew a connection between the harsh conditions troops face in the Boko Haram war and the growing rate of suicide amongst those deployed in the North-east. Last November, a captain on active deployment was gunned down by a sergeant.
In June, another captain committed suicide after undergoing initial examination for mental health symptoms. The military said the incidences would be investigated, but it was unclear whether anything was done to forestall a repeat.
Political and security analyst Chris Ngwodo said Mr Buratai should be interrogating the apparent and remote causes of the renewed Boko Haram exploits that suggested the insurgents have regrouped after months of relative success by the military.
“The narrative was that the war was being gradually won,” Mr Ngwodo said. “The issue is what has changed to create the kind of attacks that we are seeing now?”
“What has changed that contributed to the low morale of our soldiers, who have been commended for their gallantry,” he said. “Why are they now being called cowards by their leadership?”
“These are the issues that must be interrogated,” the analyst said in Abuja. “I do not think that is the most effect way of turning around the performance of the military in the North-east.”