…Speaks on the position of Lake Chad
Major General Leo Irabor is the new Chief of Defence Staff, appointed today, 26 January 2021, by President Muhammadu Buhari.
In July 2017, TheNEWS team, comprising Ademola Adegbamigbe, Ayo Oluokun, Abayomi Osoba, Dejo Adebisi and (photographer) Femi Ipaye met him at the Maimalari Cantonment, headquarters of North East Operation Lafiya Dole.
That time, Major General Irabor had just handed over as the former North East Operation Lafiya Dole Theatre Commander. He spoke about the war with Boko Haram
As you are departing as the Commander of the war against Boko Haram, what is your assessment of the state of the war of now?
I am sure we are all aware of Boko Haram terrorist’s activities which is a mixture of terrorism and insurgency which has been very devastating especially for Borno, Yobe and Adamawa States. The war has been raging for quite a while until about two years ago when there was a change of not only the government, but also in the military leadership which resulted in the establishment of the theatre and brings about a lot of changes which saw some of us coming in as commanders- I, as the Theatre Commander and some other officers were appointed to key positions. The operation was re-jigged and this led to a reversal of some of the losses that we have had in the course of the operations. So, as we speak, there is no known local government or enclave which Boko Haram had claimed to establish their caliphate hitherto that has not been liberated. So, all the local governments that used to under Boko Haram control have now been liberated.
We have complete dominance of the entire space which speaks to the effectiveness of the operations that we have conducted this far. You are also aware of the issue of the Chibok girls who were rescued during our operations and some others that were rescued which was a consequence of the military pressure that we mounted on the Boko Haram terrorist group. So, as we speak today, Boko Haram does not have the capacity to carry out the type of ferocious attacks they used to carry out. Of course, the challenge still remain along the Lake Chad area, you still have pockets of them that are also in that area and a few that are still running from hidden, isolated place to the other. That of course has led us to be conducting mobile operations and long range patrols to ensure that they did not regroup in a way that will make them as formidable as they used to be.
So, that in a nutshell is what we currently have as far as the issue of security in the North east is concerned. Let me also let you know that socio-economic activities are gaining ground. If you were not here two years ago, coming to Maiduguri now, you would think this is how it has always been. No. What you find now is a result of the operations that we conducted and the same thing applies to places where people had hitherto ran away, but are now returning to. It’s thanks to God Almighty and of course, the resilience of the troops that has kept those places safe for them to now return to resume their socio-economic activities.
As you hand over as the Commander of the Theatre of War, are there things that you feel should have been done under your leadership that you will want your successor to take on, do you have any regret(s)?
I do not have any regret at all. You know war fighting is a process. Peace and security is also a process. You do not have absolute peace, you do not have absolute peace. But, we, on the path of progress, we look towards what some have described as utopian state; absolute peace is more or less utopian concept. But then, the measures of what we’ve done are reflected in the increase in socio-economic activities across the entire space. To the extent that you have other stakeholders who are beginning to return to ensure that there is civil authority taking root in some of the local governments also attest to the fact that peace is returning. Because civil authority establishment cannot operate effectively where there is violence to the proportion that would warrant the deployment of the military.
To that extent, I believe that the target that one set for this operation has been largely achieved. Of course, there issues that one would have thought that should be a thing of the past- talk about the total release of the Chibok girls and a complete cessation of every form of hostility. What you know find is isolated attacks using improvised explosives devices with either persons of vehicles burnt which in a normal parlance is referred to as suicide bombers. For me, I believe that Boko Haram is defeated. We have won the war and I believe that my successor will do everything possible to win the peace.
That, of course, will take mult- sectoral engagements; it‘s more or less a civil heavy plan which means that other security operatives must show their presence in greater number and then issue of reconstruction, rebuilding must take the front stage. It is a whole lot of activities which must be developmental which in military parlance we will call stabilization operations. Of course, there will still be one or two places that will require strong military power. The civil populace must also know that they have a greater role to play- they must seize their own peace and in doing that, that perfect, absolute peace that we want, we will get closer to it.
The issue of troop’s welfare used to be a sore point before the advent of the current military leadership. Though there we still have one or two complaints, but there seem to be some improvement when General Buratai took over and you also became the commander of the theatre. What did you do differently?
You are right. At the point General Buratai came in, there were a lot of complaints regarding allowances of troops, issues of welfare, issues of equipment, ammunition and a whole lot of all that. That of course has been largely addressed. Today, you don’t hear troops talking of allowances, even the turnout of troops- you will see many of the soldiers in tatters in time past. But as you come to the theatre now, you can see a reasonable uniformity in our dressing. Then, our mobility platforms have been largely increased, ammunition used to be the issue and that has also been addressed. But what you must understand is that life itself is dynamic. There is no problem free society; problem free individual, or problem free institution. You would always have issues.
But what is important is that when there are issues, what plans do you have address those issues? What foresight do you bring to bear in your mind management such that you are able to forecast what the problem is likely to be, then, take measures to ensure that it is addressed? I think the aggregate of all of this is what has resulted to the status that you now find- high morale of troops. The troops are able to put up the kind of fight that we have witnessed in the last two years and among other things has helped us to make the progress that we have made.
Still on welfare, are there some international best practices that you have applied to tackle the challenges as related to the rank and file?
International best practices are relative and sometimes, it is vague. The Nigerian military is a professional Army and that means that there are standards which you must keep to. In our arrangement, we have organization and equipment, we also have SOPs- Standard Operating Procedures for different areas, for logistics, operations, administrations and for issues that in general parlance we referred to as welfare. So, these are the standards we try to keep. Again, standards are there to guide- so, when you set standards, there are a lot of factors to also consider because resource is a major issue and could be an inhibiting factor if it is not available in the quantum that would make you to live up to the standard that you have set or even surpass it. But by and large, we have been able to accommodate all the needs within the resources that were made available and I think that so far, I can beat my chest to say that we are good.
There is the constant complaint by soldiers of being left in the war front for too long, contrary to the practice of rotating them constantly after some months by taking them out and replacing them with others. How far has this complaint been addressed now?
You are very right. That challenge is true, but rotation has started, but of course, it is a progressive thing. We have commenced the rotation of troops and of course, as we speak, there are also those that have been inducted into the theatre and they are doing in-theatre training to rotate others. But what you must also understand is this- this war that we are fighting is an internal war; a war that we are fighting on our own territory, so there are units that are here. So, there will be soldiers that will always be here even when this war is over. And there are units that have been here even before the war started. There are the various divisions, even though we created 7th Division and within the period, we created 8th division, a task force division.
But again, there were units that were here before in Maiduguri, in Bama, Monguno and would you now say they should move them out? But that doesn’t imply that because of battle fatigue, you cannot rotate individuals who form part and parcels of this unit. That is what we have done over the period. And then, there is the technical support unit or elements that have been part and parcel of personnel for this war and the various corps of the Nigerian Army have made efforts to rotate them periodically. So, it is from holistic point of view that we are addressing that. But I must also not fail to admit that there are those who have been there for quite a while. Even, I as an individual, I have been here for close to four years cumulatively. I have been in the Northeast since 2013.
I only left for about eight months and then came back in this capacity. But I am also leaving, but I am not leaving the war, I am leaving for something that has connection with the war. From your perspective, outside of the military, you may say they have ‘overstayed,’ but ‘overstayed’ where? It is like saying you have ‘overstayed’ in your country, where are you going to go to? It doesn’t actually make sense and when people say ‘rotate’ them, rotate them to where? Given the need to reduce battle fatigue, of course, personnel are being brought from other locations and used to rotate them and I think it is a continuous process- it is not in the context of what is being bandied around. We take cognizance of the fact that the troops need to be relieved- let them go to refresh and then come back. That is our position.
The insurgents seem to still be holding some territories in some areas like in the Lake Chad region, Banki and some other areas despite the claims of the military that all of Nigerian territory has been liberated from the insurgents?
There is no territory within Nigeria that is being held. Now, the Lake Chad- if you know the geography of Lake Chad waters, there are four countries that have some parts of the water- namely Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon. In fact, part of the Lake Chad waters that is in Nigerian territory I think is about second to the smallest. Chad has the largest part, followed by Cameroon and of course, Nigeria and Niger. You have islands in them, and in the islands you have Nigerians, Chadians and of course, the Buluma tribe that are in hundreds. These are the places that we are talking about. In terms of the hinterland, there is no territory under the control of Boko Haram.
The Banki that you are talking about has huge a IDPs camp and a large troop presence. Kalabalge that is also to the east with Cameroon is also populated by our troops as well as the IDPs. When you talk about Northern Borno, the farthest is Malam Fatori and we have our troops there. I won’t give you the number, but we have a composite unit there and we are even about to completing a bridge that links up MalamFatori with Niger Republic. That bridge is about 98 per cent completed and our operational vehicles are already traversing that bridge. That is just to tell you that it is comprehensive thing and I am hoping that in time to come, you will be given excursion to go to those places for you to appreciate the countryside and of course, the need for development- when we say some places have been left ungoverned, what it actually means, so that we can take measures to prevent such this re-occurring in the future.
Why I asked that question was that the Chibok girls that were released, they brought them from the general Banki area…People are saying if all the Nigerian territories have been liberated from Boko Haram, where did Boko Haram bring out those girls from..
We are in Banki, interestingly, the two releases (of Chibok girls) were done during my tenure and I know what happened. So, let’s leave that. Let’s not go there. But what you must understand is that they handed them over in our presence, we were there. But this might not be a forum to discuss that.
What was you major challenge as a commander of the war against Boko Haram?
The major challenge is to get support of the public and of course, the cooperation of the media. The other challenges that more of internal are things that once you know what to do militarily, things shake up- equipment of course, talking to the troops, improving their welfare, administering their welfare, and reorganizing your operational plans. The major support, because asymmetry warfare is more or less intelligence operations and intelligence does not just come from the blues- you must relate to the public. So, the greatest challenge was having to get that public support for our operations because that was key and I think, by and large, with the plans that my colleagues and I put together, we have been able to get that partially.
It is on the upward trend and I am glad that we went through the route that we did. Also, for you colleagues in the media, we set up a lot of interactions regularly to ensure that a transparent view of our operational engagements and in the areas that we need them to exercise caution. Why? Because issues of national security is not just about the military. It is about the entire populace and so, to that extent, we have been able to make the progress that we have made. I would say the fact that we have made progress gives me joy, that you move around, not just in Maiduguri, you go to Dikwa, you go to Gamboru Ngala, you go to Damasak, Gubio, Monguno, people are retrurning to their normal activities.
If you go to Baga, fishing activities are taking place and then, to also know that roads have been opened. Looking at the number of commuters who play these roads give me joy. And beyond that, even the people themselves are getting to know that the Nigerian military is their own, the troops belong to their own Army, they are their own soldiers as supposed to what used to happen in the past when they see us as those who come from a different space. They now identify with us that we are from the same space with them. I think that is something of joy which I believe we will sustain.
What are those areas you will want your successor to focus on?
I don’t think it is right for me to set an agenda for him. In any organization, change is constant and when change comes, the whole essence is to have a driving force that will propel the organization to a higher level. And I think that Ibrahim is well suited to drive the current setting in the theatre to a higher level. I believe that he is well informed to be able to do that. I wouldn’t want to set a benchmark for him.
Are there aims that you set for yourself that you could not achieve…
There is a political strategic mandate which of course came from the Commander –in Chief himself which is that the Chibok girls should be rescued and I think that within the purview of Operation Lafiya Dole, it is something that would certainly be done because it is not concluded yet. That of course remains something that he, in my view would pursue. And of course, for those living in the iDPs camps now to return to their homestead, once that is done, this operation will be wound up.
To facilitate the return, is there anything the military is doing to help tackle the problems of mines planted by Boko Haram and unexploded ordinances which have been identified as a major danger to people who want to return to their communities?
Let me say one thing. First and foremost, war is not only fought by the military. And for me, as the Theatre Commander, I was there to implement the military line of operations. There are other lines of operations if you look at our campaign schematics. With respect to the unexploded ordinances which you talked about, you will always find such things. Of course, there are also the ones that the Boko Haram terrorists have laid. For us, we have taken measures to ensure that wherever we declare safe for civilians to return, all the unexploded ordinances have been taken care of. We do not open roads except we are sure that there are no IEDs planted. We have also taken delivery- thanks to the Chief of Army Staff who procured some equipment for demining.
Apart from those equipment assisting us in our operations by ensuring that the terrain becomes easier for us to traverse, it is also meant for such long term stabilization of the environment, making it safer for civilians to go back to their communities. But of course, you also know that there other stakeholders who are engaged in demining activities. And I believe that in due course, they will also be involved and the government will also come up with other measures beyond the military.
But most times, we want to put all these problems on the head of the military which is not right. But we have undertaken them. And if there are capacity gaps, it is in our place to make up for it because we have the understanding of what needs are to close up those gaps and I think that is what we are doing. Going forward, I believe that there will be something that will be more comprehensive in terms of addressing that specific need. And I do not think the problem would be to the extent of what you find in Vietnam or Congo DRC for instance. In my view, what we are doing or capable of doing should be able to meet the needs.
You detention centers are brimming with Boko Haram suspects…
You would always have that in war
Why is it difficult to bring them to justice …
You have to reserve that question for the Minister of Justice. Why should I go to court? I don’t prosecute. The Police and the Ministry of Justice should know what to do with them. Mine is that when I catch them in combat, I bring them to the detention centres and from there, someone else takes it up. Of course, there are enabling instruments that would be applied for them to be brought to justice.