Fighting Boko Haram: A Tale Of Courage, Pain And Death

Over a period of several months, our reporter, SAMUEL MALIK, interacted with many Nigerian soldiers in the North east fighting in the war against Boko Haram. In this report, he tells the story of the war against terror from the soldier’s viewpoint. Except where indicated, the names of the soldiers in the story have been changed


Ahmed Yusuf is a member of the AHQ Task Force Battalion that was first deployed to Lokoja, the Kogi State capital, in 2012 to deal with the Boko Haram cell believed to be operating there.

In 2013, his battalion was deployed to Borno State, where it has since been. In that period, he has spent less than three weeks with his family back home in Ilorin, Kwara State, and his two year old daughter could not recognise him the last time he was home.

“The last time I went home, she saw me lying in the bed next to her mother and she started crying and hitting me, trying to push me away from her mother. She thought I was a stranger. It was after two days that she became used to me,” he explained.

Another soldier, John Musa, was not so lucky. The home he left so he could fight for his country had been put asunder by the time he returned. He was informed in 2015 that his wife had left with another man, leaving their two children with a neighbour.

“He was first in Maiduguri in 2011 but in 2013 he was deployed again here. He suspected that his wife was cheating but he never expected her to abandon their children. He was called last year that she had left the barracks, apparently with a civilian, who people said was always coming to the house,” one of his friends recalled.

Musa was shattered and decided to leave the army to take care of his children.

“He told us he would use the money he saved to buy a car for transport business,” his friend said.

These are some of the indignities that Nigerian soldiers who are deployed to the North east to fight Boko Haram have to suffer away from their homes and families. The insurgency has broken many homes with some wives abandoning their husbands and soldiers abandoning their wives and children to marry women in their areas of deployment, fathering many children along the way.

Some women who could not cheat on their husbands or abandon them have had to join them in their places of deployment despite the risk involved. And, the risk is as much to the woman as to her husband. Our reporter was told the sad story of a soldier in Yobe State who was killed because he refused to leave his wife behind when insurgents attacked a village where he was stationed.

“Usually, the soldiers’ wives were hidden by the villagers but on that occasion, the man decided to go back for her. That was how he was killed and the woman almost went mad,” a colleague said.

Between 2013 and 2015, like Yusuf and Musa, many soldiers deployed to the North east spent more than the standard two years allowed for deployment and spent less than three weeks with their families in that period. This is understandable as this was a time when the Boko Haram insurgency was at its peak.

It was a low period both for Nigeria and the army as Boko Haram took control of territory after territory, leaving a trail of destruction, carnage, blood and death. As the terrorist group dealt with civilians, it also dislodged soldiers at will and overran their formations easily.

In some cases soldiers abandoned their posts before the invading insurgents arrived. It was a period Nigerians got used to the phrase “tactical manoeuvre”, which the army used to describe troops withdrawing from confronting Boko Haram.

It got to a head when 480 Nigerian soldiers escaped into Cameroon, having been overpowered by the insurgents on August 25, 2014.

Three months earlier, soldiers of 7 Division Nigerian Army in Maiduguri had shot at their then General Officer Commanding, Ahmadu Abubakar, a Major General, over the death of 12 of their colleagues in an ambush by Boko Haram.

According to soldiers, while their commanders sent them to confront an enemy rated ahead of ISIS as the deadliest terrorist group in the world by the Global Terrorism Index, they were not provided with the necessary firepower to do so. All they were given are just AK-47 and few rounds.

Ill equipped soldiers confront well kitted terrorists

AK 47 is the Nigerian Army's standard issued weapon

Many soldiers who spoke to our reporter confessed that, in the past, the biggest problem they faced confronting Boko Haram fighters were weapons. The insurgents always appeared to be better equipped and, many times, far outnumbered our troops.

The main weapon available to a Nigerian soldier is the AK-47, which is one of the most trusted assault rifles in the world due to its effectiveness and durability, including the ability to withstand all weathers.

However, despite the prowess of this rifle, soldiers took to their heels when they came face-to-face with the insurgents who had superior weapons.

It turned out that the AK-47 was no match for Boko Haram’s Anti-Aircraft guns, popularly called AA, Rocket-Propelled Grenades, RPGs, General Purpose Machine Guns, GPMGs and the Armoured Personnel Carriers, APC.

“There was no way a soldier with only AK-47 could withstand insurgents coming with AA and APCs. When we fought and exhausted our ammunition, we were left with no choice than to withdraw,” Ado Ghali, a Warrant Officer and Regimental Sergeant Major, RSM, for 21 Brigade in Bama, explained.

The lack of support weapons such as AA artillery, GPMG, RPGs and so on proved fatal when soldiers came in contact with the enemy.

Now soldiers have support vehicles
Now soldiers have support weapons

“When we deployed to Gombe in 2015, there was no single support weapon. It was just we and our rifles and when Boko Haram came, they came with trucks mounted with AA. Mind you, the effective range of AA is more than double that of AK-47,” a soldier, who deserted the army following the attack and did not want to be mentioned, said.

By the time reinforcement came, including air support, more than 20 soldiers had been killed, according to him.

In addition to its superior fire power, Boko Haram also did not have regard for the rules of engagement, the soldiers said. They could use an RPG on a single soldier.

“(For instance) you may see 30 of them all carrying RPGs and they are willing to use an RPG on one person. RPG is an area target weapon. It is not meant to target an individual but these guys do not care. So, if a soldier comes in contact with such a situation, what does he do? And going by the way they operate, they prefer capturing a soldier alive in order to slaughter him,” Hamza Usman, a Major, noted.

Boko Haram, a well-trained, sophisticated army

According to the troops, they were surprised at the level of coordination and sophistication Boko Haram fighters displayed. Besides being able to operate different kinds of weapons, they engaged in tactical intelligence gathering and carried out reconnaissance and laid ambush.

“We thought these guys were the normal almajiris (child beggars) until they came out and we saw that they were so sophisticated. I believe other forces are behind them because the way they carry out attacks, you know it is beyond the talent of an ordinary almajiri. We thought it was an issue the police could tackle until the government had to deploy soldiers because of their sophistication and mode of operation,” Usman said.

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“From my encounter with Boko Haram, I saw that they were well trained and coordinated, suggesting they were given military training,” another member of the AHQ Task Force Battalion said, adding that the insurgents had a penchant for launching night attacks.

Explaining a situation where the insurgents displayed their tactical knowhow, he cited how Nigerian troops were dislodged from New Marte on April 5, 2015.

Apart from their MOAB (Massive Ordinance Air Blast) and Sergei (a Soviet 23 mm anti-aircraft twin-barrelled autocannon, also known as ZU-23), the soldiers depended on their rifles.

“The bastards came around 6:35pm through some quarters shouting Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar. We engaged them and killed many of them. When it became dark, they sent their first suicide bomber, which demolished our MOAB. The second one was later sent to target our Sergei because that was where the highest volume of fire was reaching them from.

“Meanwhile, we had suspected they might target it after the MOAB. So, we moved the Sergei to another location and replaced it with some scrap metal. Before we knew it, the suicide bomber had rammed into the irons and exploded, killing two soldiers instantly. A staff sergeant had his both legs blown off and the soldiers with him could not carry him due to the intensity of gunshots. He was killed there while two other soldiers could not be accounted for,” the soldier narrated.

He added that they had to withdraw when it was obvious that the insurgents were getting reinforcement in droves.

A soldier who was part of the battalion dislodged from Bama on September 1, 2014, explained that the insurgents made sure to block the major roads leading into or out of the town.

He who fights and runs away, lives to fight another day

Within these two years, soldiers got so used to attacks like this that they mastered the sounds of all weapons used by Boko Haram. They used this knowledge to stay alive. In the war front, one wisdom nugget that kept many soldiers alive was to tactically withdraw when the enemy’s firepower is superior.

“When you are in a battlefield, it is important to read the battle. If the firepower from the enemy supersedes what you have, you have to manoeuvre and during the manoeuvring, you all cannot escape. Someone must pay the price either with their life or injuries,” a member of the AHQ Task Force Battalion said.

“From the sounds of firepower, you know the type of weapons your enemy has, whether it is AK-47, Anti-Aircraft, MG 4, MG 3, RPG, etc. If you don’t have what it takes to match or counter what your enemy has, it is foolhardy to remain or continue to engage them.”

Soldiers in the war front lived by the day, knowing that the day’s battle might be their last, with many constantly staring death in the face. Some went to battle wearing civilian clothes under their uniforms to aid their escape.

“Most of us would wear mufti inside our uniforms and when the attack became too severe, we would remove the uniforms and bury them with our riffles and blend in with civilians to find our ways out of town,” a soldier who eventually deserted the army said.

Soldiers and the trauma and stress of battle

 

Living in the frontline is a hard life
Living in the frontline is a hard life

The constant fighting, daily near death experiences, killing of the enemies and losing of colleagues all take a toll on the soldiers, with many suffering from post-traumatic stress. Some lose their minds and have to be hospitalised

Earlier this year, Mohammed Ibrahim, popularly called Danfulani, a member of AHQ Task Force Battalion stationed at Gajiram in Monguno, shocked his colleagues when without provocation he opened fire on them, killing one and wounding another.

“The soldier killed by Danfulani is Lance Corporal Onate Emmanuel while Lance Corporal Etim was shot in the head and is now in the hospital,” a colleague disclosed.

The saving grace for others is that there was a jammed round in Danfulani’s rifle chamber which stopped it from firing and made it easy for him to be subdued.

Instead of getting angry, his colleagues had pity on him because, according to them, they understood his frustration.

“He was a calm guy who suffered some misfortune. He had not been able to spend time with his new wife and claimed that he was denied promotion by the army. He got into drugs while here,” a colleague said, adding that if attention was paid, Danfulani, who is now in detention, would have been saved.

What Danfulani’s colleagues did not know is that he might have been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. In fact, many of them might have been unknowingly battling the same mental and emotional disorder.

Post-traumatic stress is a mental health disorder that is triggered by either a tragic occurrence or a shocking experience such as the ones which soldiers constantly have in the battlefield.

When the battle gets too tough, some just ‘up and go’

Desertion, hardly heard of in the army in the past, was rife at the height of the Boko Haram insurgency. Some soldiers claimed they left due to inferior weapons they were given to confront well-armed insurgents. One soldier said that they were virtually sent to the war front to commit suicide daily as they never had the weapons to deal with Boko Haram fighters. Thus, they watched daily as the insurgents massacred their friends and colleagues.

But for others, the pressure from loved ones was just too much to ignore.

Musa, mentioned earlier, was said to have left the army to take care of his children after his wife eloped with her lover.

A soldier from 121 Battalion left the army after learning that his unit was heading to Gwoza after capturing Bama in March 2015.

He said he started having doubts about the sincerity of the army when initially they were each given seven rounds and sent to capture Bama under terrible conditions.

Even though they had support weapons, particularly one he called 50-barrel launcher, soldiers were exposed to danger. They were later given 50 rounds before advancing to Bama.

“We were detailed with 122 Battalion for the operation. In my unit, there were about 180 of us, out of about 300, that did not have fragmental jackets,” he explained.

“We camped in a Federal Road Safety Quarters along Konduga road and were there for three days. Those three days was hell. Getting drinking water was difficult and three people were required to share a sachet of water (also known as ‘pure water’).”

In spite of the 57 rounds the soldiers had, they were able to capture Bama with the help of support weapons after several hours of battle that lasted all through the night. Many soldiers lost their lives, most of whom were those that had no fragmental jackets, the soldier explained.

After this victory, the troops were to deploy to Gwoza but some of them left the army because of the Bama experience.

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“My parents had said I should come home but I refused. After Bama and seeing some of my friends leaving, I changed my mind and joined them.”

Fear? The bullet that will bring you down, you don’t hear the sound

Fear is a constanct companion to be brushed aside
Fear is a constant companion to be brushed aside

Speaking to some of the soldiers, it was obvious that they knew what they were getting into when they joined the army, including the likelihood of death.

For this set of troops, colleagues’ deaths can serve as galvanising force. For them, there was no going back.

“In such unfortunate situation, there is no point tearing yourself up. All you need to do is pray for the repose of the fallen colleague’s soul,” George Nwamana, a Staff Sergeant, said.

For Usman, every soldier is trained to fight, even though the thought creeps in that any deployment could be one’s last.

“Going by our training, we are ready for these kinds of things but the fact that we are human beings and blood runs through our body, there is that fear. The only thing one may battle with is the thought of what happens to their wife and children if they are killed in action,” he said.

Another soldier, Austin Karfe, a Staff Sergeant in Bama, said it is normal for a soldier to be afraid of dying but the first sound of gunshot helps to dispel any fears.

“When we are asked to deploy or go for an attack, it is normal for one to have that fear but there is a secret, the moment you hear the first gunshot, the fear disappears. The shot you hear is not yours and it means you are alive. The bullet that will bring you down, you don’t hear the sound because it is not meant for you,” he explained.

Another soldier likened the feeling of losing a colleague to being drunk.

“At that moment, I am usually not myself and it is like I am drunk. All I care about is to sight the enemy and rain bullets on them. I am usually hypersensitive during this time,” the soldier noted.

Allegations of extrajudicial killings

At such moments, is it possible that emotions can becloud a soldier’s judgement so much so that he can get reckless and go beyond the bounds of rules of engagement? Can such emotional crisis, these moments of mental and psychological torture, explain or justify accusations of extra judicial killings levelled against Nigerian soldiers?

International human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Right Watch in recent reports have accused security agencies in Nigeria, including the army, of extra judicial killings.

Many soldiers question such reports and refute allegations of extra judicial killings by Nigerian troops. According to Nwamana, who frowned at such accusations, the only way human rights organisations can get the true picture of events is by going to the frontline to get their information first-hand.

He narrated an instance where a soldier shot a Boko Haram suspect who tried to disarm him. In such a situation, Nwamana said, sympathisers relaying the incidence may paint it in such a way that puts the soldier in bad light.

“As a trained soldier, what do you do in such a situation? You have to defend yourself and your weapon. If that insurgent succeeded in taking the gun from the soldier, what do you think would have happened to the soldier and others there? Now, in a situation where sympathisers saw this and wanted to report it, they will paint it in such a way that tells that the soldier committed human rights abuse,” he explained.

But Usman is realistic and concedes that that a number of factors are responsible for soldiers’ behaviours regarding human rights issues. He said in the past soldiers were not grounded in rules governing warfare when dealing with civilians and unarmed enemies.

Another reason, which soldiers agree with, is as a result of the trauma resulting from their experiences with the insurgents.

“Going by the havoc wrecked by Boko Haram on soldiers, most soldiers saw how the insurgents slaughtered their colleagues. So, while not trying to excuse the soldiers’ actions, you cannot rule out that pain and misdirection of anger from some of these soldiers,” he explained.

Goodluck Jonathan laid the foundation for the success against Boko Haram

The shape of the war against terror changed sometime in early 2015. When former President Goodluck Jonathan postponed the 2015 general election by six weeks citing insecurity, many saw it as a political gimmick. But results would prove it was not a wrong move after all.

The six weeks window proved decisive in the fight against Boko Haram, even though it came a little too late for Jonathan, who lost to President Muhammadu Buhari.

Supported by 72 Mobile Strike Group, which was a team made up of South African mercenaries and Nigerian soldiers, and Belarus-trained soldiers of Special Fighting Forces Battalion, the military went after Boko Haram with so much force that in no time, the insurgents were losing territories far more easier than they captured them.

As our findings showed, majority of the towns in the North east hitherto controlled by the insurgents were recaptured before Jonathan left office on May 29, 2015.

Monguno, Bama, Pulka, Gwoza, Madagali, Gulak, Michika, Askira-Uba, Bita and others were all liberated before May 29 2015.

The routing of Boko Haram

Upon assumption of office, one of the first actions President Buhari took was to order the relocation of the command and control centre of the counterinsurgency operation to Maiduguri, the epicentre of the battle. He followed that with the sacking of the service chiefs and appointment of new ones in July, 2015.

With the appointment of Tukur Buratai, a Lieutenant General, from the Multinational Joint Task Force, MNJTF, the army aggressively moved to consolidate on the gains recorded by his predecessor, Kenneth Minimah, now a retired Lieutenant General.

One strategic move was the renaming of the operational slogan from Operation Zaman Lafiya to Operation Lafiya Dole.

“Under Operation Zaman Lafiya, Boko Haram was dislodging us in some areas and having upper hand against us. But, by the grace of God, since we changed to Operation Lafiya Dole we have been the ones seeking out Boko Haram from wherever they are to destroy them. The hunter is now the hunted,” Victor Ezugwu, a Brigadier General and General Officer Commanding 7 Division, said.

This tactics has worked in the favour of the military, as Boko Haram’s ability has been seriously degraded.

What happened in the past was that when soldiers captured a town from the insurgents, they remained contented with such victory instead of going after the insurgents. As a result, the insurgents regrouped, came back and dislodged the troops.

An example was New Marte in Monguno, where AHQ Task Force Battalion was deployed. When Kirinua, Gamboru-Ngala and Dikwa fell to Boko Haram around August 2014, the battalion retreated to 5 Brigade in Monguno to fortify the town.

However, the insurgents stormed Monguno on January 25, 2015 and captured it, with several soldiers only escaping with the uniforms on them. After three weeks, Monguno was recaptured by government forces and the battalion returned back to New Marte on March 4 only to be dislodged again on April 5.

Under Operation Lafiya Dole, the strategy is not only to capture and defend a territory but to take the battle to the insurgents.

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“Don’t hold any territory for me. Take the fight to them wherever they are because the best form of defence is attack. I want you to attack them till they are forced to embrace peace,” Ezugwu, told soldiers of 251 Task Force Battalion and 81 Battalion at Bulabulin.

Brig. Gen. Victor Ezugwu on the field
Brig. Gen. Victor Ezugwu on the field

Bulabulin is key in the fight against Boko Haram because it separates Sambisa Forest, which is the insurgents’ camp and Alagarno, their spiritual and logistics headquarters.

This tactics was used in capturing Bita, a former Boko Haram stronghold. The insurgents captured it when it overran 81 Battalion on May 6, 2015, forcing the soldiers to abandon their weapons and protective gears. So, the army sent 114 Task Force Battalion, which recaptured the town nine days later.

The battalion has since been able to foil over 30 attacks, as Boko Haram tries to retake it. Rather than just hold Bita, the battalion made sure that the surrounding villages were cleared of the insurgents to prevent them from regrouping.

“While we held Bita, it was necessary for us to conduct other offensive operations to clear all camps at least within 15 kilometres radius. So, we have cleared Manawashi, Bulajilin, Bulagaji, Sasawa, Tikunbere, there are a lot of them,” Emure, a Captain and operations officer for 114 TFB, told the icirnigeria.org.

This tactics has worked, as the insurgents find it difficult to come near troops.

“For four months now, we have not had any attack. When we go on patrol, we only see few of them and the moment they see us, they scamper away but we chase after them,” Monday Daniel, a Corporal, said with a smile.

Unlike in the past, soldiers now conduct patrols, including laying ambushes. The results have been impressive, as improvised explosive devices making factories, training camps, hideouts, etc. are destroyed. This has also led to a near-stop in suicide attacks, as the insurgents are now on the run. As a result, no single territory captured from Boko Haram within the last one year, has been retaken by the insurgents.

Also important to troops’ morale is the operational tours conducted once in a while by military commanders, something they learned from Buratai, who visits soldiers in the frontline whenever he is in the northeast.

The recent tour of over 10 locations by Ezugwu, and his decision to go by road had a major impact on the troops.

“It is visits like this that boost troops’ morale. Seeing the GOC face-to-face gives the soldiers the encouragement that they are being thought of,” Adedamola, a Warrant Officer and crew commander at Banki Junction, a strategic crossing point used by Boko Haram to reach Pulka and Gwoza, said.

Boko Haram pinned to a corner

The courage and daring the Nigerian soldier was noted for seemed to have returned. This was no doubt what Ezugwu had in mind when he visited troops in the frontline.

“I can assure you that when we finish with Boko Haram and Nigeria becomes free and regains its place as one of the most powerful nations in the world and history is being written about those who defeated terrorism, defeated insurgency, especially with Boko Haram tagged the most deadly terrorist group in the world, you will be remembered and regarded as some of the greatest soldiers on earth,” he told them.

The soldiers also showed their appreciation by roaring their commander’s nick name “Zuma, Zuma”.

This camaraderie between the army leadership and soldiers is one of the two reasons soldiers said are responsible for the victory against Boko Haram.

“The motivation has been that sometimes you see the brigade commander in front of you leading an attack with his riffle. What motivation is better than that? This is one of the main things that have motivated troops,” Nwamana told the reporter.

Aside the commanding officers leading from the front, soldiers have also been motivated by the provision of support weapons.

With the capture and deployment of troops and patrol operations in Bama, Banki, Banki Junction, Gwoza, Askira-Uba, Damboa, and Bulabulin, the military has succeeded in caging the insurgents within the dreaded 80 square kilometre Sambisa Forest by forming some sort of circle round it.

In addition to these, the capture of Alagarno, Kumshe and Kala Balge proved a fatal blow to the insurgents while the recently conducted Operation Crackdown around the Sambisa general area involving 21 Brigade, 25 Brigade, 26 Brigade, 28 Brigade, and 7 Division Garrison further confined them to the forest.

The Motorcycle Battalion launched in February this year has also played a key role in securing major highways, especially the Maiduguri-Damboa-Biu road, which was opened four months ago. In the past, travellers had to go through Damaturu, Yobe State, sometimes spending about eight hours for a journey of three hours.

No regrets running away from Boko Haram

Soldiers are now happy to confront the insurgents knowing they have the right equipment that answers at the right time and the results are what Nigerians are seeing now, as Boko Haram has been rendered a spent force.

Do they regret turning their back on the enemy? They said they would do it again.

“People say as soldiers we have signed to die at any time but they fail to add that all human beings have signed to die at any moment once they are born. In the case of soldiers, you cannot say it is their destiny when they die at the hands of Boko Haram as a result of their leaders looting money meant for the purchase of weapons to help them confront a better equipped enemy,” a soldier explained.

According to the soldier, it is for a reason that the saying, “he who fights and runs away lives to fight another day”, exists.

But as it would now seem, Nigerian soldiers have not only lived to fight another day, but they are now taking the battle to the insurgents who are now the ones fleeing.

Problems persist on the home front

Far away from home
Far away from home

Even though many of the soldiers who spoke to us were in high spirit, many of them still worry about their families back home, sometimes to the point of distraction.

In addition to dealing with the stress of fighting insurgents, soldiers deployed in areas where there are no network services find it difficult to communicate with their loved ones. They sometimes rely on friends who are going to town to call their family members.

“Sometimes it was an amazing experience because the woman you are telling that her husband was fine does not believe you. She would ask why you got the chance to go to town and not her husband. Sometimes you hear her crying on the phone and do everything to assure her that all was fine. Some other times, it was a funny experience because the woman did not speak English and you did not speak Hausa but still you found a way of conveying the message,” a soldier explained.

Other times, the family members would just have to endure.

But now, army commanders have made it easier for soldiers to keep in touch with loved ones by providing Wi-Fi in military bases. In addition to chatting, they are allowed to make calls at least twice a week using social networks like Facebook, WhatsApp and IMO.