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Sacking service chiefs won’t end Boko Haram, says Buratai

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Tukur Yusuf Buratai, lieutenant general and chief of army staff, says President Muhammadu Buhari should not be pushed into sacking his service chiefs “because he knows where the problems are”.

There have been calls by federal lawmakers and other Nigerians on the president to sack the service chiefs following what appears to be the resurgence of Boko Haram.

Buratai, speaking in a special interview with TheCable and THISDAY/ARISE in Lagos on Tuesday, said while not questioning the wisdom of the national assembly, the solution is not the removal of service chiefs as Buhari “knows where it pinches” and is the right arbiter.

“I am tempted not to comment on this particular issue because I am directly involved. However, I want to believe that whatever happens, the commander-in-chief is the right arbiter, and he knows where it pinches, he knows where the problems are. I think the decision should be left to him. He should not be pushed or prompted in this regard,” he said.

Buratai said “we are into a very serious issue which should not be taken lightly”, adding: “This is why when you say a particular crop of leaders in the military should be removed for whatever reason, it sounds very odd because we are not addressing the issues. I am not saying this because I am the chief of army staff and I do not want to leave. No, that is not the issue. It is beyond that because this is a national issue, an issue of national pride and national interest. Those who would cry loudly against the service chiefs are within, and they are the ones who should be more vocal in the things that are not going right.”

The army chief also said contrary to the notion that Boko Haram started in 2009, the “brainwashing and indoctrination” started over 30 years ago, thereby making it difficult to totally wipe out terrorism.

He said the military has nonetheless won the war against insurgency as the Boko Haram militants do not control any territory in Nigeria.

Buratai said, however, that the war against terror will continue because the terrorists now feast on attacking soft targets “for the sake of propaganda”.

He advised the media not to help the terrorists ventilate the propaganda.

Below is the part one of the interview. All photos by Kunle Ogunfuyi/THISDAY.

“The president and commander-in-chief saved the territorial integrity of this country from falling into the hands of foreign interests… we would probably be negotiating with the terrorists”

Why does it appear so difficult to defeat or decimate Boko Haram?

This is a complicated question in the sense that you heard the pronouncement of the technical defeat of Boko Haram. Before we know where we are now, we must understand where we were before the present situation. Let me start by making this point very clear. As of 2015 and up till the time the Multinational Joint Taskforce (MNJTF) was established, when the operation of the operations of MNJTF started to contain the insurgency of the Boko Haram terrorists, at that point, the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Nigeria was at stake. This is within the background of the concept of the operations of the MNJTF.

You must know that the establishment of the MNJTF has many stakeholders within the Lake Chad Basin Commission if you start at that point with countries such as Chad, Niger, Cameroon, and Nigeria. And later on, the Republic of Benin joined. The African Union also has an interest. The European Interest and other European countries such as France, Britain, and the United States of America all had the interest to contain the menace as they foresaw it to be detrimental to their interest in the sub-region. At that point, the conceptualisation of the MNJTF operations envisaged that a peacekeeping force must be established and deployed within the Nigerian territory.

It is common knowledge that once an intervention force is established, the territorial integrity and sovereignty would be infringed upon. That was the idea. Specifically, the MNJTF had three initial sectors. We had Sector I in Cameroon, which was deployed far into northern Cameroon province with headquarters at Mora. The location of Sector II gives an idea of what I mentioned earlier as regards sovereignty. Chad was deployed to the northern part of Nigeria with Dikwa up to the stretch of Gamboru-Ngala, Marte, Bama, and some parts of Gwoza. These areas were to be under the Chadian troops. Sector III, which is Nigeria with headquarters at Baga, was to be stationed in Baga in conjunction with Nigerien forces. They were to operate from Baga with the mandate to defeat Boko Haram terrorists, to rescue abducted persons, including the Chibok girls, and also to facilitate humanitarian activities and to ensure the restoration of law and order by bringing back the civil administration in those areas. That is the principal mandate of the MNJTF.

So the question is: at what point did everything change? I was privileged to command the MNJTF and I have the concept of operations at my fingertips. I realised the dangers of having an intervention force deployed in one’s territory. The MNJTF concept provided for the functioning of the armed forces of those countries within their region. But that of Nigeria was an exception because the Chadian troops were in territory, as well as the Nigerien troops, although partially not until the fourth sector was created and stationed in Diffa. So these are complexities, and if we had allowed the foreign forces to be in our territory, that country would be divided along that line. Clearly, the adversaries and the terrorist boundaries would be defined as against our national and sovereign territory. This is key in the war against terrorism.

When the president came into power and saw the implications and I, having been appointed as chief of army staff, my priority was not to allow the full implementation of that concept of operations where the Chadian troops would be on our territory permanently. What action did I take? Within the first two months, we were able to take over Dikwa and Gamboru-Ngala, and that is where we now said that the other forces from Chad would have to find alternative locations within their territory. This is a significant achievement of the president and commander-in-chief, whereby he saved the territorial integrity of this country from falling into the hands of foreign interests. If that action was not taken, we would probably be negotiating with the terrorists. That is quite dangerous, and it would have seen us fighting from so many fronts. I think Nigerians must be grateful to the president and commander-in-chief of the armed forces. By extension, they should also be thankful to the armed forces of Nigeria for keeping our territorial integrity, and we are glad we have been able to safeguard that constitutional responsibility.

The national assembly passed two resolutions with the house of representatives calling for the service chiefs to be replaced and the senate calling for a state of emergency. What is your response to these resolutions? 

We are not questioning the wisdom of the national assembly. I believe they also have their sources of information; they drew their analysis and came to that conclusion. But in reality, they have to look at it within the context of what are the responsibilities of the executive arm of government, as well as the mandate of the legislative arm of government. I am tempted not to comment on this particular issue because I am directly involved. However, I want to believe that whatever happens, the commander-in-chief is the right arbiter, and he knows where it pinches, he knows where the problems are. I think the decision should be left to him. He should not be pushed or prompted in this regard.

“The issue is far beyond the equipment and the number of troops”

However, the issue I see is not with the service chiefs because they are not thinking about the service chiefs as I want to believe because we are leading troops, deploying equipment in the quest to safeguard our territorial integrity. In that sense, if the members of the national assembly have been to the Theatre of Operations to witness the efforts that have been taking place and with casualties recorded, I think they should look at what role have they played to resolve the issue because it is not just military action alone, but an activity that requires the participation of every segment of the society.

The whole of government approach in solving insurgency is indeed relevant because countries that have experienced such insurgency have been contending with it for as many as 50 years and so on. So no one is averse to change, and we are ready for any change as well. But the excuses that have been given as regards what is on the ground I believe are not tenable. I am not joining words with anybody, but that is the reality on the ground, and I expect that they should send words of encouragement to the troops and everybody because you can’t divorce what has been done on the field from the commanders who are deployed in the headquarters.

The most important thing is that the challenges are quite enormous, and the troops are facing them daily. If there were no actions despite all the challenges in the resurgence not only in the north-east but across the country, if there was no responsiveness to tackle the terrorists, then one can say yes, there is a leadership challenge because the leaders are not meeting up with their responsibilities. I recall that I did mention in one of my interviews that the issue is far beyond the equipment and the number of troops.

One popular phrase that we often hear is security architecture. On many occasions, the military has told us about rejigging the security architecture. At one point, there was a national security strategy document. What are the specific challenges? 

I think people are used to using semantics to confuse or project some distorted ideas that many people do not understand what security architecture is. You must be able to differentiate between security and national defence. In these two concepts, although interrelated, there are distinct roles that you have to identify. Security, which can be seen as the umbrella, has been defined by different sectors. The issue of national security is our main contention, and the question is, who is responsible for internal security? It is the civil police. It is not the army, navy or the air force. It is indeed the entirely the responsibility of the civil police, and the military comes in at a point where the civil police are overwhelmed, and this is what we have been doing. It is not our primary responsibility. So if you lump the security architecture to include defence sector, you are making a huge mistake.

Let us see it from this perspective. If we say why it is so that in every aspect of security, even in elections, the military is called out, it’s because the civil police cannot handle it. You and I know the complications and the intricacies, and you would agree that the military institution holds its head high in terms of integrity and professionalism, and we do ensure that we are not distracted. But that is not to say that there are few deviations. That is natural and common in every society. I can tell you that 99 percent of the Nigerian military is professional and up to its responsibilities and carrying out its assigned task as enshrined in the Constitution.

Anytime we come in to support the civil police, we do such professionally through constant training. We also conduct exercises, and we carry out operations. I believe the overall point is that we are not resting on our oars by working day and night, and this should be appreciated. If we are to adopt how other security agencies conduct their operations, nobody would talk about service chiefs or even the military but finding a way to secure oneself. But we are doing our best, and this is why some individuals have the time to talk and condemn what people are sacrificing their lives for in the fields.

“The overall point is that we are not resting on our oars by working day and night, and this should be appreciated”

What foreign countries are behind the insurgency? There was a report about Turkey arming the insurgents and other countries and is thus making your job more difficult… 

When you talk about the international dimension, it is complicated because you must have concrete evidence against any country or group of individuals before you can categorically state this. Even if we have all the facts, there are diplomatic approaches that must be followed, and it is not for you to come and say country A or B is behind the insurgency. Investigations would be carried out regularly, and as far as the military is concerned, we would be on the ground. Anyone that sponsors these terrorists and criminals under whatever guise would meet us on the ground. I think it’s a complex issue, and we would try to avoid joining words with any international organisation. We know we have well-meaning countries that are supporting us in terms of training and materials, and we are relating very well with them, and this is very important. I believe that and foreign interference or funding can be handled at the diplomatic level.

Many believe that the porosity of our northern borders makes it difficult to win the war against insurgency. Would you agree with this? 

It is not only the northern borders. We are talking about the whole borders, including the maritime domain, [they] are porous, and the recent closure of the borders has brought to light the complexities that we are facing in terms of our security as well as our economy. It is a crucial aspect that I think the government has taken a very bold step to ensure that the boarders are controlled and managed so that we minimise the security challenges we are facing. It is crucial, and I believe sometimes the government would come out with a clear border policy that would address this. We have had reports of cross-border banditry, smuggling of arms, trafficking of human beings, and goods, and it is a fundamental issue that must be seen in its totality and the national security architecture as well as the internal defence planning. These are very important.

In December 2016, we celebrated the capture of Camp Zero, and you presented the Boko Haram flag to the president as well as the Quran that was used by Abubakar Shekau. What changed along the line? 

There has been no change as we are still very much on course. The symbolic presentation of the flag and the recovery of the Holy Quran are pointers to show that the troops are determined and doing their best to ensure that we dominate the areas we are operating, we secure our country and also to contain the menace of the Boko Haram terrorists. Tactics and operational acts are not a straight-jacketed approach that you would hit one place and call it off, and that is the end. You must continue to move into more areas and locations and just like what is happening in the Middle East and so on. They continue to move around, and at any point in time, you see them reassembling and coming back to their enclaves and so on. This is the complexity of the overall operations. The regular intelligence is needed; the routine clearance is also required and, most importantly, is the issue of intelligence which we are working very hard to get them resolved.

When you capture a territory, you are supposed to go to the next territory and leave the civil police to hold it. Is this not a failure of policing? 

Well, the question of asymmetric warfare is complicated because there is no defined territory. This is one area that [analysts] missed the point generally because they see the conflict as if there is a line drawn between the adversaries and the troops. There is no defined line, and if you look at it from that concept, the issue of policing would also become complex because right inside the population and inside the towns and villages and communities, there have been sleeper cells, and this brings me to the issue of indoctrination.

We all believe that Boko Haram started in 2009. That is wrong… 2009 was a phase in the Boko Haram insurgency. The second phase of the campaign was to establish their domain and caliphates. And now, we are in the third phase. The first phase started before 2009, probably 20, 30, or even 50 years back. It didn’t start overnight. They had been indoctrinating in the countryside in the villages, hamlets, and communities, in townships, schools, and mosques, on the streets, markets and motor parks. They had been indoctrinating people and convincing people for years before 2009, and you say overnight, you want to re-radicalise them within a short time and assume that is the end?

“We have entered a challenging period of the insurgency that everybody must put hands together to ensure that we work and get the job done”

And you are aware of the Maitatsine, the Taliban, and other smaller groups had been operating. All the process of indoctrination and brainwashing. So if you look at it from that perspective, you would agree that we are into a very serious issue which should not be taken lightly. This is why when you say a particular crop of leaders in the military should be removed for whatever reason, it sounds very odd because we are not addressing the issues. I am not saying this because I am the chief of army staff and I do not want to leave. No, that is not the issue. It is beyond that because this is a national issue, an issue of national pride and national interest. Those who would cry loudly against the service chiefs are within, and they are the ones who should be more vocal in the things that are not going right.

The second phase of Boko Haram started effectively in 2009 when they took up arms against the state and killing everybody irrespective of religion and tribe and regardless of your social or political association. And that is what led us to this point. The devastation of communities, mass abductions, etc is the second phase of the Boko Haram insurgency. Globally, scholars of terrorism and insurgency believe that once you defeat the terrorists or the insurgents, he now resorts to terrorism by hitting soft targets, carrying out bombings, suicide acts, and many others. That is the weakest part of the terrorists or the insurgents. So when you relate it and say why this war is still waging, the answer is that we have entered a challenging period of the insurgency that everybody must put hands together to ensure that we work and get the job done.

Massive re-radicalisation, massive re-indoctrination of the youths… otherwise, they would continue to do that, and we would continue to have recruiters that would recruit the youths to join their fold. As such, we have to look at it holistically. It is not the responsibility of the military alone. It is a totality of national efforts for war is not a responsibility of the military alone; it is a national war and conflict. Now, what is the present situation? We are in phase three, which is characterised by massive bombings, murders, attacking soft targets like what happened recently in Maiduguri, where vehicles were parked on the roadsides, not even close to our checkpoints or deployment areas. They were within the communities, and the Boko Haram terrorist came out from the bush or even from the community.

The Intel report we had was that some of them were from the community where they started attacking and burning the vehicles there. Would you call that military action? It was a civil action, and the civil police were supposed to take full control of the situation. How many are we? How many soldiers can defend every house or community or vehicle? How is that possible? This is the complexity that everything is heaped on the doorsteps of the military that we failed to defend communities. How is that? These people belong to the community they are there, and they don’t wear uniforms like us and only those that come to fight us directly from their enclaves or fringes.

In the real sense, what we are facing is not only terrorism but also, to some extent, our territorial integrity and sovereignty are being threatened in the sense that these people bent on establishing their territories. As it is now, it is not possible but they would attempt to demoralise the troops, demoralise the populace to make people feel the government is ineffective and not able to protect the people to achieve their aim. Meanwhile they are working continuously to sabotage and subvert our country.

In part two, Buratai speaks on public apprehension about “growing insecurity”, misconduct of soldiers, and allegations that Boko Haram controls local governments in Borno state, among other issues.

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