Armed ViolenceNews

‘We’re Tired’: Soldiers Fighting Boko Haram Without Break Since 2016 Cry Out

Soldiers deployed for counterinsurgency operations in Borno State, northeast Nigeria, complain that they have overstayed their mission and have not been allowed a break in nearly five years.

Officials of the 3 Battalion in Gamboru/Ngala and Rann informed HumAngle they have been inducted into the operation since February 28, 2016, to fight Boko Haram insurgents.

“This is our fifth year fighting in the theatre and we have not been changed from this operation. Some soldiers who came after us have been changed,” said one operative who asked not to be named because it “will be very bad” for him. 

He said they had complained several times to the General Officer Commanding (GOC), Commanding Officers (COs), and other visiting senior officers but nothing had been done yet. The troops are currently under their third commanding officer.

“All the officers we came with have been changed. Even the ones who met us here have been changed. Is it not the same blood that flows in their body that flows in ours?” the frustrated officer asked. 

“They don’t have feelings for us or our families,” he added. 

“Please, we the 3 Battalion beg the Chief of Army Staff to do something about our situation. The morale we came with is no longer there. 

“We do not find it easy here in Rann and Gambaru Ngala, sir. We are really tired of this place. We want to go back to our unit and meet our families.” 

He also appealed to the Borno State governor, Babagana Zulum, to wade in. 

According to the officer, a signal from the Army Headquarters stipulated that all soldiers in the northeast who are there for over two and a half years have overstayed their presence and should be rotated. HumAngle could, however, not verify this claim.

“They have been doing it. They have rotated people from 2016 and 2017,” he said.

“Now, they are about to rotate 2018 and their signal is out. That is why I started wondering what is really going on.” 

Chidi Nwaonu, a former army officer who now runs a UK-based security consulting firm, Peccavi Consulting, says he believes soldiers are expected to be rotated every year in Nigeria.

In most armies, he explained, there is a guideline for this practice but then the army can naturally extend a soldier’s assignment if necessary.

“It’s not exclusive to Nigeria. In the early days of Iraq (War), I met Americans who were extended from a year to 18 months to two years,” Nwaonu explained. 

“The US government could also prevent you from leaving the military through a process called stop loss. However, they sorted out their manpower issues in about two years, unlike Nigeria that still hasn’t figured it out 10 years later.”

For soldiers engaged in the counterinsurgency war in the northeast, he suggested ways through which the military could keep their spirits high. 

These included adequate and regular compensation, support for their families, ensuring that all casualties are evacuated on time, ensuring that no soldier spends more than a year out of every three in theatre, training and equipping them sufficiently, and finally honouring their sacrifice.

An officer in Kala/Balge Local Government Area, in an interview with HumAngle, lamented that many homes and relationships had been destroyed as a result of their prolonged absence. 

The soldiers are constantly in danger of getting killed, injured, or abducted, and have witnessed the death of their colleagues in battle.

“Even last month, we lost one soldier. We have lost over 20 soldiers since we got here,” the operative said.

“Some soldiers have even run away because they thought this thing won’t end again. 

“Even our pass; they said they would be giving us pass every three months. Some of our soldiers, for one year and six/seven months, they have not been given a pass. Are we the only soldiers in the Nigerian Army?”

Various studies have found a relationship between the likelihood of developing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and long duration of Nigerian soldiers’ stay in mission areas.

But the effects of prolonged deployment and low morale are not only felt after a soldier has returned to the barracks, they also affect the performance of the operatives during battles. 

The Chief of Army Staff himself, Lt. Gen. Tukur Buratai, recently traced setbacks faced by the military to “insufficient willingness to perform assigned tasks or simply insufficient commitment to a common national and military course by those at the frontlines”.

Earlier this year, 356 soldiers, mostly those assigned to the northeast, applied for voluntary retirement, giving “loss of interest” as their reason.

Nextier SPD, an international development consulting firm, urged in a report released in July that the military should embark on reforms focusing on “deployment and leave, structural imbalances, remunerations and welfare benefits for soldiers and their families”.

“There should also be periodic psychosocial support for active personnel to help them through the travails of the war,” the organisation added.

“Boko Haram’s ideological war may be a difficult battle, but it becomes even harder with disenchanted soldiers, insufficient weaponry, among other inherent challenges.”

Though psychosocial support is provided for soldiers once they leave the theatre at a facility in Jaji, Kaduna, some of the soldiers at the frontline believe they are more than due for the therapy sessions.

“Everything is just poor here. You can’t just imagine,” said one member of the 3 Battalion.

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'Kunle Adebajo

Head of Investigations at HumAngle. ‘Kunle covers conflict alongside its many intricacies and fallouts. He also writes about disinformation, the environment, and human rights. He's won a couple of journalism awards, including the 2021 Wole Soyinka Award for Investigative Journalism, the 2022 African Fact-checking Award, and the 2023 Michael Elliott Award for Excellence in African Storytelling.

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