Questioning the military’s adaptability

A Nigerian army general and three soldiers were killed on Saturday, 13 November during an attack by Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) militants in Borno State. ISWAP split from Boko Haram five years ago and pledged allegiance to Islamic State. Since then, it has been fighting against the Nigerian armed forces and has focused its attentions on building a proto-state in the Borno area.

Here is where it gets interesting: Army spokesman, Brigadier General Onyema Nwachukwu, said that troops had encountered ISWAP fighters in Askira Uba Local Government Area, where a fierce battle took place and several militants were killed. Askira is about 150 kilometres south of Borno state capital Maiduguri and lies along the fringes of Sambisa Forest, the operational base of both Boko Haram and ISWAP.

“Sadly, a gallant senior officer Brigadier General Dzarma Zirkusu and three soldiers paid the supreme sacrifice … as they provided reinforcement in a counteroffensive against the terrorists,” Brig-Gen Nwachukwu said. By the following Monday, the army claimed to have killed “50 senior ISWAP commanders in Askira Uba in retaliation for Gen Zirkusu’s death.”

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It is important to note that Brigadier-General D Zirkusu is the highest-ranking serving officer to be killed in an insurgent ambush, a tactic that ISWAP has favoured, but the manner in which he was killed is depressingly familiar. Since 2019, at least 336 other soldiers have been killed in ambush attacks by various groups in the North-East and North-West of Nigeria. A total of 569 people have been killed in such ambush attacks carried out by terrorist groups since 2019, including 337 military personnel, 29 policemen and 92 terrorists.

The pattern is as follows: there is an attack on a base. Reinforcements rush in to respond to distress calls and end up in the middle of an ambush while trying to get to the location of the initial attack. Over and over again.

In September 2020, the army lost Colonel DC Bako in Damboa in Borno in an ambush set by ISWAP which followed a similar pattern. A few days after that, another officer, Lt-Col MZ Manu, was killed in similar circumstances, in Unguwar Doka in Katsina State. It seems to me that the insurgents have adapted to the military’s tactics while the military is yet to change its way of doing things. This brings up questions about the military’s adaptability, something that any Nigerian would be familiar with, the use of the same tactics over and over again.

As an example, the introduction of mine-resistant armoured protected vehicles (MRAPs) has limited the casualties from mine explosions and roadside bombings. But the insurgents have adapted to it and taken to raiding bases and stealing such vehicles. We saw that even in the North West within the last two weeks. On the Army’s part, the innovation that forestalls deaths from ambushes appears to be lacking.

Then there is the repeated failure of intelligence which hurts not just the army, but the police as well as my earlier figures show. This intelligence failure comes from both the lack of standby aerial surveillance equipment which is essential to marking out enemy positions and probably more importantly, a lack of inter-agency coordination. The former Army Chief, Turkur Buratai hinted at it two years ago when he talked about the need for the army to have its own air wing so it would not need to keep reaching out to the Air Force.

It is an embarrassing situation for the military which, as I mentioned earlier, responded by claiming to have killed about 50 ISWAP fighters on Monday, 15 November, in what I see as a typical response that does little to move the needle and is instead more likely to turn more of the local populace against the Nigerian state.

These repeated events lead to questions about whether Nigeria’s military high command cannot rewrite basic battle doctrine after over a decade of fighting this insurgency. The failure of the military’s high command in addressing these circumstances would prove even more fatal for more officers in an army that is already experiencing war-weariness. It also remains to be confirmed if indeed the army had killed the new ISWAP leader, Mallam Banu, and how much it will change the tide of the war. Considering that ISWAP is still able to carry out attacks after the loss of two leaders in quick succession, it appears those operations have neither significantly altered their structure nor reduced their operational capacity. Without any of those factors shifting in favour of the Nigerian state, this will remain a bloody, unending game of whack-a-mole.

Nwanze is a partner at SBM Intelligence

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