Too many generals, few soldiers fighting Boko Haram — Gen Ishola Williams (retd)

In the light of renewed deadly attacks by Boko Haram, a former Chief of Training, Operations and Plans of the Nigerian Army, Major-General Ishola Williams (retd), speaks on new strategies to be employed in defeating the terrorist group. He also offers his perspective on calls for the engagement of mercenaries.

The Federal Government said Boko Haram is technically degraded. But they keep launching deadly attacks, making it appear as if the tactics the Army is using aren’t working. What new strategies should be adopted in the light of renewed attacks?

There is a report by Eeben Barlow, the Chairman of a private military company known as Specialised Tasks, Training, Equipment and Protection International. I am sure the federal government has the report. I even sent a copy of the report through someone to the governor of Borno State, Zulum.

The report, which chronicled the experience of mercenaries with the Nigerian Army, faulted our army. And one of the things it said about our senior officers is that they abandon most of the jobs to the junior officers. It said the minds of our senior officers are in other places. Has it changed? If it has not changed, that is the first step in winning the war.

The report also explained the tactics that were used in recovering territories from Boko Haram when President Goodluck Jonathan employed their services. The governor of Borno State has also called for the usage of the tactics. The tactics simply means taking the war to the enemies consistently. Did the Army listen to him? Are the senior officers and junior officers motivated enough to want to defeat Boko Haram? It does not end with paying allowances and buying sophisticated weapons.

Their morale must be very high for them to get the job done. Is the Army focused on fighting insurgency alone? They are seen pursuing armed robbers and kidnappers all over the country. Is that their job? What is the job of the Mobile Police? Why can’t they focus on fighting insurgency in the North-East? Do they work with intelligence? If you want to defeat any enemy, you incapacitate the centre of gravity. For example, if you are fighting a man and kicks his legs, he would lose control and fall down.

You have to look for the centre of gravity of the enemy and identify where to hit to destroy him. For example, what did Chad do to Boko Haram that made them beg the Chadian Army? Boko Haram openly begged the Chadian Army after they inflicted massive defeat on them. Governor Zulum had even openly called for the return of the mercenaries who fought during the time of Jonathan. What does that say about our military high command?

President, NSA

The President and the National Security Adviser,NSA, cannot openly tell me that they don’t know what to do. The Vice President recently said they need local intelligence. This is what I have been saying since 2014. But they have not taken any step. If the Chief of Army Staff can feel comfortable organising a golf championship, it means everything is well.

Can you even imagine the Chief of Army Staff saying we might not be able to defeat Boko Haram in 20 years? He said if people want us to defeat Boko Haram, they will be defeated. Is the President reading all that? I don’t think we are serious about defeating Boko Haram. For me, people will get killed, people will make a lot of noise, and after sometimes people will forget and life goes on. It is because most of the decision-makers in authority do not have children who are soldiers.

Maybe most of their relatives do not live in that area. If the Zabarmari killings happened overseas, the Chief of Army Staff and NSA would have long resigned from their positions. In a situation like this, the Army and the Air Force are supposed to be working together. In the newspapers, the Air Force claimed to have destroyed many bandits and Boko Haram terrorists in the forest after which the terrorists would resurface.

What is interesting is that they operate on motorcycles. Very soon, I am sure people would not be able to go to many places. I don’t even think the northern governors are serious. Until they decide on what to do with themselves the situation would continue getting worse. They should know that the Presidency has run out of ideas.

Everybody knows that they don’t know what to do anymore. That is why I keep questioning what the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, wants the President to do on the floor of the House. Instead of the Senate and the House coming together to invite him, Gbajabiamila is inviting him alone. Nigeria is a very funny place. I don’t just understand what is happening anymore.

A retired top military officer in an interview with Vanguard suggested that some retired senior officers should be recalled to assist serving officers. He said such an arrangement can produce the synergy and tactics needed to defeat Boko Haram. Do you consider it a viable suggestion?

There are competent people in the Army at various ranks and various levels. In fact, I complained that there are too many Generals and a few soldiers to fight in the Nigerian Army because they keep promoting them every time. What normally happens is that retired officers always have an association. And they meet once yearly.

When we have such a situation, they come together to brainstorm. Their colleagues who are in uniform would come and brief them in camera during the workshop. At the seminar, they will tell us the true situation. In fact, such a meeting can even be hosted by the Borno State governor in Maiduguri. After the meeting, they would submit a report on how to handle the battle tactically and in other areas.

The Army has a centre for war gaming. The tactical suggestions can be tested in a war gaming situation at the gaming centre to see whether it will work in theory. It can also be tested in the training center in Kaduna and translated into what will happen in the battlefield. I have never seen that happen in Nigeria.

I have tried to organise my colleagues but they said “who will listen to you?” They said we can make all the noise but nobody will listen to us. They said any attempt to contact the people that should listen to us, would be rebuffed. It is just because they believe you are criticising them. I don’t see how they can improve without being criticised.

The NSA is a retired military officer. The President is a retired military officer. The Minister of Defence is a retired military officer. What again do we need? The Department of State Security Services, DSS, is not living up to expectations because what we are experiencing is a fallout of intelligence failure.

The proposal for the usage of mercenaries is becoming a central issue. The Army even came out to speak on it last Thursday. Can we know if such open debates on mercenaries do not speak on the integrity of Nigeria’s security agencies…

They are not called mercenaries anymore. They are called private military companies. They are hired and given a contract. We used mercenaries during the administration of former President Jonathan. The report I cited is on what they did when they were hired by Jonathan before they were kicked out by Buhari in 2015.

They worked with the Nigerian Army and gave their report. There was one I read, which I cannot lay my hands on anymore. It was done before the Norwegian Staff College. The Americans and Europeans have a copy of it and they have interviewed the head of the private military company, Eeban Barlow.

The man has spoken all over Europe and America. What is bad about inviting him back to Nigeria to share his experience and speak on what can be done? What is shameful in that one? It is obvious that questions are being raised about the integrity of the Army. That is why they were pushing the matter back and forth in their statement. If you are a military force, well trained and have the right equipment, you don’t need a private military company to help you.

Nothing stops them from asking the Chadian Army to work with them as part of the multinational task force. But the Chadian Army said Nigerian Army is not even interested in working with them. When the Chadian Army sacked Boko Haram from Nigerian territories, they called on the Nigerian Army to take over from them.

The top officers of the Nigerian Army are not sitting down to reflect. I do not blame them. It is because the NSA and the President do not demand it. Nothing stops them from inviting the leader of the private military company we used to come and talk to them. They feel too proud whereas their integrity is at stake.

If they invite mercenaries, won’t it amount to an admittance of incapability?

They are capable. However, it is one thing to be capable and also another thing to be ready to use the ability. They have got the weapons and have got the training. So, they are capable. The question is: are they ready? Have they got the morale to defeat Boko Haram? They don’t care about the suggestion of retired officers.

As a retired officer, who probably would have acted differently if the insurgency happened in your time, how do you feel about what looks like the inability to defeat Boko Haram?

I feel very concerned. If I was not concerned about the matter, I wouldn’t be writing all the papers I have been writing since 2014 and I wouldn’t be talking to you. There are so many other retired officers who are doing the same. But nobody has called us as a group on the way forward. Maybe they called their friends. We are just too sensitive to criticism in Nigeria. What we just believe in Nigeria is that if there is a problem, money should be thrown at it. But money alone cannot solve insecurity. We need serious changes and reforms.

Now that Borno people have become soft targets, how can they be protected?

There was a time I suggested that the governor invite retired officers from his area. They should advise him on how he can use the hunters and vigilante groups to protect the people. In doing that, their focus should be to protect the people first. Under this kind of arrangement, they won’t be reporting to the Nigerian Army, they would be reporting to their people. That is what the governor needs to do but he continues to tell them to be working with the Nigerian Army, which is not getting them anywhere. All the states in the North-East, need to come together to design a security model like Amotekun. Except the governor of Borno does that, I won’t empathise with him anymore.


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