Operation Northeast Theater Commander Hadin Kai, Major General Christopher Musa, in this interview with DOGARA BITRUS, provides an update on the counterinsurgency operation in the region, successes and challenges as well as insecurity in the country could affect the 2023 general elections.
The Tukur Buratai Institute was attacked by Boko Haram/ISWAP insurgents. What is the extent of the damage caused by the insurgents?
I visited afterwards and found out that what had happened was just propaganda. Insurgents have a hard time dislodging a unit, so what they do is find easy targets.
School was on vacation. Only the general manager and a few staff members which were no more than five people were present. They came in less than fifteen minutes, operated and left.
The only place they burned was a place they burned that caught the plastic roof that’s all they fired sporadically and when the troops advanced towards them they took off and unfortunately for that same group, if you remember the Waka Biu attack a few days later, they came back and we took them all out. It was the same group.
What was the insurgents’ ultimate goal in attacking the military training institute?
They wanted propaganda. They came with drones, shot them, took pictures and fled. It’s just the propaganda they use. That’s what they want. You know ISWAP is funded by ISIS and they have to show they are causing destruction before they can access the funds, so they use propaganda and recycle old videos to prove to their financiers that they are active.
How can you describe the counterinsurgency warfare in the Northeast by the military?
I can say that we have a better understanding of counterinsurgency operations. We renamed Operation Hadin Kai because we need everyone on board. We have contacted people who we know are stakeholders in this region, the traditional rulers, the market leaders, the transport workers, the vigilantes, the hunters, the CJTF, all the other paramilitary agencies are all on board and everything what we do, we have a better understanding even of the communities.
So generally people saw the sincerity of the purpose of our actions and we were very cautious. We treat everyone humanely, safeguard human rights and I think those things have gone down really well with the locals. I think those are the things that changed their way of thinking.
Combat gear has been a challenge for troops in the Northeast. How were you able to cope with this?
You know the current army chief of staff, General Faruq Yahaya, I succeeded him as theater commander. While he was here he understood the challenges here so when he became COAS it made things much easier.
Earlier this year, when we launched Operation Desert Sanity, we moved into the Timbuktu Triangle, Sambisa Forest, Mandara Mountains and other areas.
We’re trying to dislodge them from all of their camps, from the enclaves where they previously thought it was impossible for troops to enter, so we’re running global operations to make sure we clear all those areas.
The insurgents appeared to have been downgraded as their attacks have diminished lately. How have you been able to achieve this with the challenge of the shortage of personnel carrying out the operations?
As soon as I took over, the army chief of staff gave us a directive that he wanted us to do some mine clearance that would completely degrade these guys, and then we had several meetings .
We have three commands under Operation Hadin Kai – Maiduguri, Damaturu and Monguno. All the sector commanders are major generals who simultaneously conduct independent operations, so it is not that they will find a place to flee because if they run towards Timbuktu they are pursued from there.
The Air Force is pounding in the Lake Chad region. The Maritimes and the Navy follow up. In the cities, the police and the DSS follow up. Everyone plays their own role in the theater.
Groups including parents, wives and children of detainees linked to the insurgency have protested that their relatives are still being held, albeit wrongly, in Giwa barracks and other military detention centers since years, but the army refused to release them even though they had no connection with the terrorists. . Why is the military still detaining these people while releasing the terrorists?
I don’t know who these groups are or what they are talking about, one thing I do know is that there is no one being denied access. I can tell you that on a daily basis the NGOs come in and see things for what they are, how they live, how they eat and things like that are constantly monitored and they go back to writing their independent reports, if there were any something like that, they would have written against us. And then when they say illegal arrest, you see, those who surrendered came out on their own. Now most of these guys who are in Giwa, it was during the conflicts, during the fighting that arrests were made and brought. Which means you have to sort them out and because they don’t have any marks to know it’s Boko Haram and it’s not, which became a problem, so we had to do that sorting and that’s laborious.
Now, one thing I want people to understand is that this is not the problem of the armed forces, all we do is just secure them.
The federal government, through the attorney general’s office, is responsible for that. They are the ones who do the investigation, who get the facts, whoever has a case that will be prosecuted before that one and then will go to trial. So ours is just to secure them until the court system takes place.
Whoever has a case, the facts are there to judge them, the attorney general sends them to court to be judged.
Was the army prepared for the sudden and massive surrender of the Boko Haram insurgents?
Not only are we prepared, but we are doing it. These operations, ISWAP and Boko Haram both surrender.
What is the level of casualties on the military side as it is a known fact that some soldiers have paid the ultimate price in this counter-insurgency war?
This is a war we are fighting so there must be casualties but let me tell you even we are amazed because this is the first time we are waging a war that our casualty rate is less than one for hundred. Where we have casualties, mostly improvised explosive devices and that remains our biggest threat and why is that because the roads are unpaved. So they come and implant improvised explosive devices when a vehicle passes them, it blows up everyone in the vehicle. This is why we call on the government to repair these roads. We opened the road from Maiduguri Damboa to Biu but as the road is unpaved they are still placing improvised explosive devices.
Between January and February, we removed more than a hundred IEDs on this road. Asymmetric warfare, the people you fight don’t wear uniforms, they easily blend in like anyone else. This kind of fight is hard and we can’t go and bomb everywhere because it will come against us so we have to be selective so sometimes if we are not sure it’s better to let them go than to kill innocent civilians but if it’s a normal conventional war, everyone goes, so those are the issues that make war very difficult.
Are the operations in the North-East in synergy with other operations in other areas given the models of operations of the terrorists in the North-West and the Center?
A division is in charge of the North-West, the Brigades of the Guard are in charge of the Center-North. There is another command which is in charge of Lokoja and general areas.
So we have commands that are in charge. Actually 8 div. is in charge of the Northwest directly.
Terrorists take advantage of forests to do most of these things. Unfortunately, we let our forests empty. No country in the world lets its forests empty without rangers. From the start they would have prevented it because it’s better than sorry but we took it for granted and now it’s given them cover that’s why we’re stepping up our own operations here maybe at the moment where we degrade them further, we may now be able to support other areas.
You also said that some of the terrorists have migrated to other areas like Taraba State and parts of the North West. The Kaduna state government has sounded the alarm that the terrorists have embarked on massive recruitment. Is there a similarity with their operations in the Northeast?
Those who fled headed north-central and northwest. They went to join bandits.
Those in Kaduna have changed their name to Ansarudeen and they are recruiting heavily from Birnin Gwari and Igabi LGAs in Kaduna. That’s why we said the non-kinetic system is what caused these things, it has to be governmental. Why do they recruit – poverty, unemployment, illiteracy?
These are not things for the military. So you see, good governance is the thing we need and then good policies. These are remedies that we need to put in place.
With the state of heightened insecurity in the country, do you think the general elections of 2023 will be able to hold?
How it’s handled, I don’t see those insecurities jeopardizing the 2023 general election. If it’s handled the way the military is holistically going about it, I don’t think it will create a problem, unless politicians take advantage of it. Politicians take advantage of every situation, some of them when they feel they are going to lose, then everyone should lose, that’s the point. They can go and give them more money and empower them to do more destruction, but I don’t see anyone disrupting the 2023 election.
Let’s talk about the welfare of soldiers. There have been complaints about poor welfare benefits for combat troops. What is the situation now?
Soldier welfare used to be a challenge, but not anymore. You see what we are trying to do, with the chief of staff that we have, we have no fear, you can talk to any soldier. Any soldier who has a problem is taken care of, you get your salary, you get your allowances, you are well fed, you are given your kits, yours is just for doing your own job. There can be problems from time to time, you know the banking transactions. We’re not losing sleep over it, but there’s nothing deliberate about it.
When you hear soldiers complaining about not getting allowances or something like that, most of them left without permission. So there is a procedure, when you run, you leave your post, there is a procedure, after three days they report, after seven days you are declared AWOL, a letter is sent to the general staff of the Army.
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