Following recent military victory in the Sambisa Forest, Chief of Army Staff LT General Tukur Yusuf Buratai speaks on a wide range of current issues.
You look relaxed for a man who is leading a major war?
I must feel relaxed because the operation is progressing as planned. By the grace of Almighty God, it is moving the way we planned. That is not to say that I am resting on my oars. We are very much alert and will continue to pursue the fleeing Boko Haram terrorists wherever they are.
The capture of Camp Zero in Sambisa Forest has caused great excitement among Nigerians. What did it take to achieve that capture of what for many years Nigerians were calling ‘the dreaded Sambisa forest’?
It took a very long time, long period of planning, painstaking logistic build up and commitment to achieve the objective. Right from the beginning we had been planning and we had the first operation during which we entered the forest early last year. We wanted to quickly clear it before the rains started but by the time we entered around April, the first rains fell by the first week of May and the whole plan was disrupted. When we withdrew the first Operation Crack Down, we had to plan again and also ensure that those areas that we found challenging, we were able to address them.
It was a plan that included the ground troops as well as the air forces. After withdrawing, the planning continued. While the rains lasted, we took up some looking positions and we were able to get substantial intelligence both from the Department of State Services and also from locals which enabled us plan properly. The equipment that we used in the first operation, we reviewed them, refitted them and planned for the next operation which was conducted last month. We made sure that the logistic requirements were in place.
We made sure also that we motivated the troops, and very sound administration and the appropriate directive have been passed before the troops went in and the right forces were deployed and the leadership also at the tactical level were committed, they gave the right tactical direction and the tactical leadership for the troops to perform the way they did.
Sambisa is a forest reserve that was established a long time ago but was abandoned. There are certain facilities there and apart from the vegetation that has been left unattended to, there are also streams, rivers and gullies. There also used to be wild animals in the area. Apart from the entry of Boko Haram terrorists into Sambisa forest we also had dangerous animals, although they have reduced now because of human activities. Wild animals used to migrate from Sambisa up to Yankari and other forests up to the North-West.
It is thickly forested and the terrain is very difficult, which provided a very good haven for Boko Haram terrorists. When they got there, because of the concealed position, they were able to withstand and hold that place for this long. This forest is of interest not only to Boko Haram terrorists but there are certain other rebel groups, especially Chadian rebels in that forest.
Before the coming of Boko Haram, criminals and bandits used it as their hide out. That part of the North-East has always been infested by bandits, armed robbers and other criminals. It was a fertile ground for Boko Haram terrorists when they found it, for them to go in and hide. Suspected Chadian rebels are also interested in that forest.
Boko Haram terrorism is not only restricted to Nigerians. There are Chadians, Cameroonians, Nigeriens and others from other countries within the West African sub-region. There are also Libyans, Malians, and Burkinabes.
You found all of them in that forest?
They are members of the Boko Haram terrorist group. It is an environment that is conducive for all sorts of criminalities. Unfortunately, it is a place that was abandoned for quite some time, making it difficult to access. So our troops went in with the determination, patriotism and zeal to ensure that we got them out.
They went in – and they are still there. The forest is very big. Camp Zero is just one area within Sambisa Forest. We are still combing other areas and clearing other smaller camps, where probably they have now moved to. It is a big success, something we are proud of but we are not yet celebrating.
If you are to put a percentage to it, would you say with the capture of Sambisa Forest, Boko Haram has been degraded 70%, 80% or 90%?
This is not a strict science. Even if I give you a percentage, I’m only guessing because it is not something that you can see in black and white. It is only the results, that is when you rescue individuals or when you arrest and when you capture or when they surrender, based on your estimation of the possibility of their strength.
As it is now, we don’t have a complete figure as to say this is the strength of Boko Haram terrorists. So, if you say you have defeated them 80%, 90% it could be very wrong. Therefore, I don’t think doing that is ideal for us now because apart from Sambisa you can still see them within the fringes of the Nigeria-Cameroon border; you can still find them at the borders between Chad and Nigeria and in the Lake Chad waters as well as at the Nigeria-Niger border.
But by and large I know that we are in control, we have the initiative. Even if they attack us we would follow them to exactly where they are and this is what happened in Buni Yadi the day before yesterday (Saturday). As far as I’m concerned, unlike before, apart from the remnants that are within Sambisa Forest and the fringes I mentioned, we can say that we are in control of the operation and have initiative against Boko Haram terrorists.
If it is not 100%, it maybe just slightly below that because we have the initiative and there is nowhere that our troops cannot go. But the landmass is very wide and they are not in one place; they are running from one place to another. If they attack us here, we would follow them and if we hear they are in a particular place, we pursue them.
When soldiers storm such hideouts they often make startling discoveries. Did you make any shocking discoveries when you captured Sambisa?
As I said Sambisa Forest is a very difficult terrain. The discoveries (we made) in those places were not anything spectacular but Boko Haram’s ability to survive in that forest, despite the air and artillery bombardments, despite blocking them and restricting any movement in and out of that place, stopping any logistics movement, is one area where we really need to do further research. But by and large, the captives or those that have been abducted by them and even their fighters that we saw were in very bad shape. Hunger, starvation had eaten deep into them. But their resilience to still continue to fight is also something that is still baffling us. One other discovery is that before they finally left Camp Zero, they launched a final attack with a Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device (VBIED).
Luckily the troops were on the alert and they were able to knock out that vehicle before it reached their location. That was the last attack they launched before they scattered. So, how they were able to keep those vehicles, prime them or arm them with IEDs and bring them out is still something that we also need to do research on. But we have been getting some intelligence on the terrorists and those that escaped. we are still profiling them, getting information which would give us substantial lead to wherever they are or wherever they are running to so that we can get them arrested and prosecuted.
Is it true that you captured a white man in the Sambisa operation and where is he from?
We did not capture any white man but the troops in the process of the firefight, somebody who has a lighter skin, who was suspected to be a white man, was among those that were casualties. It could be that it is from that it filtered out that a white man was captured.
Even the picture they have been showing on social media was that of a German hostage who was rescued from Boko Haram by Cameroonian troops. Someone with a lighter skin was involved in the firefight inside Sambisa Forest and was killed along with others. That is the only information we know about somebody like a white man. Any other story is just a speculation.
We expected the fall of Sambisa Forest to come with news of the rescue of the remaining Chibok girls. Do you know where the rest of the girls are?
It was the expectation when Camp Zero was captured. We even expected to see the Boko Haram terrorists’ key leaders. They were able to slip out of that place and move to another location. The forest is very large but we are still searching for them. The troops are continuously carrying out clearance operations in other suspected locations. But the most important thing is that Camp Zero was the stronghold of the Boko Haram terrorists; it was their main headquarters where we suspected the key leaders were hiding.
It was a major breakthrough and definitely they cannot keep the Chibok girls within that location. They must have kept them somewhere within the forest probably, but we are still searching for them. Some of them have escaped, just like the one that was found a few days ago. We expect probably many of them have escaped also, so it’s the responsibility of everybody now, including our troops to search for them. Some of them may still be with escaping Boko Haram terrorists, some of them may have escaped alone. But these are still assumptions, so it is hoped that we would get them quickly. This is what we are doing.
When you promised that December was going to be the month of decision, we thought it was Army propaganda. How about the Multi-National Joint Task Force around the Lake Chad Basin? Should we expect action from there anytime soon?
We don’t make empty promises. We are not politicians. When we make a statement we mean it and we back it. We thank God that our intentions were well received and our prayers were well received by the Almighty God. The issue of the Multinational Joint Task Force is a major move by the countries providing the forces. They had the first operation, Operation Gama Aiki I and another one is being planned very soon to take care of those areas I earlier mentioned, especially northern Borno, bordering Chad and Niger.
It is a good idea that the Multinational Joint Task Force was created. It is helping a lot as the forces are brought together and the resources are also brought together for them to address a common challenge.
Nigerians were happy when the military presented Abubakar Shekau’s flag and Qur’an to President Muhammadu Buhari but they are also asking, ‘Where is the man?’
Your guess is as good as mine because as we are planning, he too was planning. He could not withstand the advancing troops into that location so he moved and we are still going after him. As for the items that were recovered in Camp Zero which we strongly believe belong to the terrorist, these were evidence to show that our troops have been there. These criminals that have been staying in that place are no more in that location.
Let me correct one point. It was not the Holy Qur’an that was found there, it was Sahih al-Bukhari, one of the Hadith collections. It also signifies that the dreaded Sambisa is no longer dreadful. We have entered it, it has been captured and the seemingly impenetrable fortress has been penetrated by our troops. It is something that is symbolic and it is the climax of our Operation Lafiya Dole. Any other thing would just be clearing and clearing and also pursuing them to the finish. Definitely, they can’t come back to that Camp Zero. Very soon the Army would go back to that Camp Zero and hold exercise.
What does the recent Boko Haram attack on an army battalion in Buni Yadi, Yobe State signify? We were surprised they could attack a battalion there.
You may be surprised but it is not unexpected. They are on the run. they have been chased out of their stronghold and apart from running, probably also to get replenishment, to get arms and ammunition from wherever they can get and probably also to continue to show relevance, that they are still present. They saw that Buni Yadi is a big garrison so they planned to come and achieve these objectives.
Despite the attack, they have been dealt with. Immediately that attack happened, they were followed up to their camp. We may continue to have such isolated attacks but we are taking appropriate measures to prevent them. Buni Yadi was the first route that we opened before we opened Damaturu. It is supposed to be the safest but it would seem that they misjudged the capability of the troops. They dare not come to that area again.
Before you became the Army Chief there were challenges that had to do with military equipment and troops’ welfare. Has that changed and what have you done differently from what your predecessors did?
It is just the approach. At the political level, the political direction and the perception at the political level of the whole conflict was different from what the present administration has done and is still doing. Sentiments were allowed to come into the fight against Boko Haram terrorists, which shouldn’t be. Now what was the strategic political direction? Yes, the desire to safeguard the country was there, but how this should be done, to prevent, deter and defeat Boko Haram terrorists seemed to lack any political direction.
But when this administration came in, from the onset it said, ‘We must defeat these Boko Haram.’ Even the campaign promises had been tailored towards security, the defeat of Boko Haram and rescue of abducted persons.
In terms of the military strategy and operations, this is where I come in. if you talk of equipment, equipment management is also another issue. While we have real shortage of equipment, how have you managed the ones that you have? I think there was a gap in that. New equipment was being expected but when that equipment arrived, were they managed properly? That was another issue.
Welfare of the troops was a challenge. If you are not with the troops you would never understand what they were facing. if you go to Maiduguri or you go to Yola, in fact Damaturu as at that time was a no go area. The issue of going there did not even arise at that time. So if you don’t go to the theatre and you don’t get the correct feedback from those on the ground, even if you get reports from the field commanders, as long as you are not there, you can’t appreciate the challenges they are facing. So we said, ‘No, we cannot sit back here, we must be with them.’
This is what informed me always being in the theatre of war. I meet with them one on one, listen to their challenges. Some of the problems I resolve there and then, while some I directed to this place [Army Headquarters] and when we come back, we resolve them. We have a political direction; we have the appropriate mindset on our part and the will and the plan and strategy and how to manage our equipment properly and to also cater to the needs of the troops. We have gone the extra mile to not only give them the basic requirements but to also do more. The terrain is quite a challenge; the vastness in itself plus the distance involved. You have equipment management problems; if you have 10 vehicles and you just dump them in the theatre or the field, you don’t try to probably give them sufficient maintenance or go beyond what should be done, then you would have problems.
But we adopted a very good maintenance management. The old equipment that was left for over 25 years without maintenance, we were able to bring them back into service and they are doing very well. We were given money by the President and we were able to saturate the theatre with enough vehicles, which we service regularly. Just about a week or two ago we got some of the spare parts for the fighting vehicles and we are working on them. Before I came, at times even to carry troops from one location to another was a problem, so if you cannot move how can you fight? That’s the truth.
There was underrating the will of the Boko Haram terrorists, which is another major problem. We also underestimated the size of the North-East. All those things should have been put into the calculation and more resources should have been pumped in and more equipment planning carried out. So when they (troops) saw me spending the Sallah with them, spending Christmas with them, going to their trenches, eating with them, breaking the fast with them during the Ramadan, all these contributed in raising their morale.
When I went to one of the locations, one of the soldiers said he was very happy that since they had been there, they had not seen any senior officer. At one point, even the uniform was a problem. But now you go there, everybody has new uniform and boots.
Did you change the operational directives to take care of the challenges you met?
Yes, the military then was concentrating only in Borno State but they (Boko Haram) were consolidating in Yobe, on the borders between Adamawa and Borno as well as on the Cameroon borders and in Sambisa. Sambisa was completely not considered; that is why they had time to consolidate and become stronger and use Sambisa as their training ground.
So when I came, I said it is not possible, so we reinforced, brought new troops, new units and formations and moved the tactical headquarters of the 3 Division from Jos to Damaturu, to be permanently there, and then we created the 8 Division in northern part of Borno. Hitherto we were concentrating to clear southern Borno before going to the north but I discovered that it may take time, so we simultaneously opened the northern front and created the 8 Division.
That was what delayed us from going to the northern Borno, because we wanted to take it in phases, to clear the central and southern parts, including Sambisa. On coming in, after opening the 3 Div headquarters in Damaturu and after changing the name from Operation Zaman Lafiya to Zaman Lafiya Dole, we went and took Dikwa. Dikwa is very close to Maiduguri and is their main route from the North to the South.
So when we took Dikwa, we started crippling them. The next town was Gamboru Ngala, that we must reach the border. After two months we went to Gamboru Ngala and opened it.
On the occasion of the Armed Force Remembrance Day, one of the questions people are asking is, the military is heavily engaged in many internal security operations all over the country. Is the Army overstretched?
I would not say that we are overstretched but definitely we are involved in several internal security operations which traditionally are the responsibility of the police. It is only when they overwhelm the police that we should come in to support the police. But over the years, we have not been left out on ensuring internal security of the country. The constitution also provides that we come to the aid of civil authority when called upon to do so. And we’ve been called out to do this role and we are constitutionally bound to support the civil authority in maintaining law and order, along with the police and other security agencies.
We are deployed in almost all the states of the federation. We have units and formations all across and as long as we have such formations and they have that responsibility for internal security, we would be able to handle them appropriately. But primarily, we are to provide support to the civil police. Frankly, we would be much happier if the police take over all these responsibilities. But since it is not so, we are also duty bound to do that and we are capable and we are doing it. Manpower is key but it is not everything. We must compliment it with the necessary equipment and mobility and other supporting elements for us to function appropriately.
We would love to have more in terms of strength for the Army, maybe having seen the vastness of the country, the population and challenges of the country. We recently got approval from the Army Council on the Nigerian Army Order of Battle (Orbat), and units have been earmarked for Southern Kaduna and other places. These we are going to implement and hope the presence of the Army in that location would help in reducing tension and conflicts. We would do our best and make sure that we keep everybody safe in conjunction with other security forces, especially the police, and we are also planning the first quarter military exercise in Southern Kaduna. We already have troops deployed there but a major exercise will be held there in the first quarter.
You have a statue of an Egyptian cobra on your table.
I don’t know where it came from [Laughter].
Is it because you own a snake farm? How did you get into snake farming and what kind of snakes do you have there?
I have had strange encounters with snakes all my life. A snake once entered my room and I once found a snake in my staff car. I was a Major then. Then sometime when I was in Angola, on the last day I was to leave and come back, I almost stepped on a snake while jogging along the road and had to jump over it. In addition to those ones, there were three or four other incidents with snakes.
And when I went to Zimbabwe on a holiday in 1993, I went to one of the tourist attractions, a very popular snake park in Zimbabwe and I saw the way they kept them and how people were interested in coming to see them. It was very interesting. They had different species of snakes. So, I said, ‘It is a good idea and why can’t I gather all those ones I have been encountering and keep them?’ – Daily Trust.