Op-Ed: Changing Nigeria’s military leadership at the height of Boko Haram/ISWAP attacks is a tactical suicide

ROTATING military chiefs actively engaged in daily frontline battle-field operations at the height of Boko Haram and Islamic State of West Africa Province (ISWAP ) attacks against unsuspecting soft and hard targets in North-East Nigeria and beyond the Lake Chad basin, has the tactical potential to set the country and the region back from previous military gains since 2015, writes David Otto*.

A change of active frontline military leadership led by Lt General Tukur Buratai will, in the circumstances create a huge vacuum that Boko Haram and ISWAP will strategically exploit. This is a looming danger in Nigeria — Africa’s most populous country.

Citizens and politicians with the most basic knowledge of the fluid dynamics of asymmetric warfare must appreciate the need for leadership stability for service chiefs or risk plunging an already volatile situation in the Lake Chad and Sahel into perennial chaos — instantly killing any dreams of Africa Union’s pledge of ‘Silencing The Guns 2063’ in Africa.

One strategic lesson – often not openly expressed –  that emerged from the setbacks in the US coalition’s long war in Afghanistan and Iraq against the Taliban, Al-Qaeda core and now ISIS/ISIL in Syria and Iraq— is that frequent rotation of frontline and active military leadership at strategic, tactical and operational level creates a major tactical and operational void that is often exploited by terrorist groups and organised crime groups.

Lt-Gen. Tukur Buratai, Chief of Army Staff of Nigeria

Terrorist groups are known to take full advantage of any void and use it to quickly recover from previous defeats and displacements, re-organise themselves, recruit more fighters, treat their wounded, rearm and relaunch more deadly attacks against hard and soft civilian and military targets. The one thing that terrorist groups have in abundance is time – but those who are tasked to engage them are constantly staring at the clock. All terrorists need to do is wait for the right moment when rotation will create an opportunity for them to strike.

In an enduring and complex war between the Nigerian security services and the regional Multi-national Joint Task Force (MNJTF) against Boko Haram and ISWAP by the brave men and women in uniform, there should be no place for complacency, strategic errors and unnecessary distractions. Old conventions that regulate the rotation of leadership and frontline forces designed for conventional battles should be flexible enough to adapt to the new asymmetric war, one that requires building and maintaining long term relationships between security services in the frontline and multi-level community stakeholders.

Today’s war on terror is intelligence-led with community cohesion at the core of any form of long term strategic success with the enemy embedded within the local community. Personal, intra and inter stakeholder relationships are created to guarantee needed intelligence and field support and most crucially, winning of hearts and minds.

Since the days of conventional warfare are buried behind us, relationships created in the battlefield (communities) at all levels of engagement are hardly transferable to new leadership and operational teams, hence strategic, tactical and operational plans that often depend on these existing relationships, when transferred, they become difficult to be passed on from one leadership to another with a successful execution outcome.

In the war against Boko Haram and ISWAP jihadists, a constant is the ever-changing strategic, tactical and operational behaviour of these groups modus operandi, one that is very fluid and disorganised, as reported in recent terrorist operations in North-East Nigeria and the Lake Chad Basin.

‘The Fish Rots From The Head’

Winning the war against Boko Haram and the splinter faction ISWAP — groups that have survived for almost two decades with deep ideological roots, support and connections within the country — requires absolute focus at the strategic level of the Nigeria military, one that is totally void of uncertainty, given the military leadership the time and resources it needs for strategic planning and execution of its duties to protect the territorial integrity of the Federal state.

As long as the military leadership remains uncertain and under constant political pressure to hand over leadership – as the case has been since 2019— performance could be highly and negatively impacted against Boko Haram and ISWAP cells. The Commander-in-Chief, President Muhammadu Buhari, reserves the responsibility to continue to eliminate any existing doubts harboured by service chiefs and instil leadership confidence in these officers, who will, in turn, transfer same to the men and women on the frontline. Concerned citizens of Nigeria should be aware that faced with asymmetric warfare, changing the leadership goal post at the height of the insurgency is a dangerous blow to national security.

To win the war against terror in Africa and Nigeria, the collective love of one’s country in the form of patriotism must be expressed by a conventional culture of intra/inter-agency strategic, tactical and operational knowledge-sharing exercise. Everyone wins if ‘fresh-minded’ officers ready to take the mantle of leadership demonstrate their ability to do so by sharing strategic and innovative ideas with the current leadership. If Boko Haram, ISWAP and their criminal networks are successfully eliminated, deserving officers, who will eventually progress to the mantle of leadership, will have the glory to lead a peaceful country.

Nigeria needs a stable military leadership— far removed from state and Federal political distractions — to defeat Boko Haram and ISWAP to the barest minimum of operational effectiveness. Nigeria needs a battlefield experienced leadership that possesses the ability to rethink on practical methodologies to claw back lost trust and confidence from the local population. This follows gross human rights abuses by certain rogue elements in the frontline of the war against insurgents.

Service chiefs need to establish an effective close working relationship with other sister agencies including the Nigeria Police Force (NPF). All can be achieved by creating channels that promote practical coordination and collaboration and encourage positive competition in and outside the battlefield for all agencies involved. Service Chiefs should be encouraged and properly resourced to design strategic short, medium and long term achievable counter-insurgency plans.

These plans, if expertly conceptualised and designed, would open up priority areas of intervention for identified stakeholders. A comprehensive counter-insurgency plan will ensure that local, Federal, regional and international partners have the reference point to effectively support Nigeria’s counter-terrorism strategy from a tactical to an operational angle.

To paraphrase Thucydides, ‘Any Nation that chooses to draw a broad line of demarcation between the fighting men and the thinking men is liable to have its fighting done by fools and its thinking done by cowards.’ Let the wise fighting men and women make the right call. For the stability of Nigeria will surely signal the stability of Africa.

*David Otto is a renowned expert in Counter-Terrorism and Organised Crime. He is a Senior Consultant for Global Risk International Ltd and the Preventing Radicalisation and Violent Extremism Programme – Step In Step Out (SISO) – based in the United Kingdom. He is also a Certified Master Antiterrorism Specialist (CMAS) and a selected trainer for the Anti Terrorism Accreditation Board (ATAB). Follow Otto on Twitter.



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