Sunday, 13 September 2015

Nigerian Army Chief narrates lives in former Boko Haram enclave

How we witnessed several attacks by Boko Haram insurgents.... The border town of Gamboru, a town in North-Eastern Nigeria, has witnessed several attacks by Boko Haram insurgents. Apart from attacking the village and sending residents fleeing to nearby communities including Fotokol in Cameroon, Boko Haram also occupied Gamboru and for about a year lorded over the area.

However on Wednesday, one week after Nigerian soldiers recaptured the town after fierce battles with the insurgents, the Nigerian Army chief, Tukur Buratai, vowed the town would never fall to insurgents again. In an unprecedented move, the army chief not only visited Gamboru to fraternise with soldiers, he slept in the quiet town.

In a display of strength, Mr. Buratai, a Lieutenant General, also ordered the hoisting of Nigeria’s flag that was a taboo during the Boko Haram conquest.

For anyone that saw what the terrorists made of the once bubbling and economically vibrant Gamboru, having a army chief pass a night there would be one of the craziest things a top soldier would consider doing.

The Trip

The trip from Maiduguri to Gamboru is just 145km. But it took about 12 hours to get there, as the Explosive Ordnance Department of the Nigerian Army had to sniff every inch of the route for land mines. Many land mines buried by Boko Haram were unearthed and defused by the bomb experts. But one went off, injured some soldiers and destroyed one of the Armoured Personnel Carriers.

The Chief of Army Staff alongside other top army rednecks arrived Gamboru at about 5 p.m. on Wednesday. PREMIUM TIMES and other journalists were also part of the trip.

Mr. Buratai’s first  task after addressing cheering soldiers was to hoist Nigeria’s flag in the liberated territory. Boko Haram had forced the residents of Gamboru to flee their homes for many months now. Most of them are still taking refuge in Fotokol, about 500 meters away. Nigeria and Cameroon are separated in that area by a river, which has a concrete bridge across it.

PREMIUM TIMES observed that when the Chief of Army Staff and his troops arrived near the bridge to hoist the Nigerian Flag, the quiet area almost turned chaotic as over 3000 Nigerians taking refuge in Fotokol went wild in excitement,  hailing the soldiers from the bank of the river on the Cameroonian side. The mood caused tears from some observers especially as the poor villagers, who had spent months looking at their devastated hometown from across the river, continued to chant ‘Sai Baba Buhari, Sai soldier (meaning ‘all hail President Buhari, all hail Nigeria soldiers).

How Nigerian Army Chief spent night in former Boko Haram enclave
After a brief ceremony and statement from the army chief , everyone at the venue sang the Nigerian National Anthem in high pitch, as a soldier who was the last bearer of the flag after it went through the hierarchy of command from the army chief, hoisted the Green-White-Green flag. The villagers, chanting from across the river bank, provided a rhythmic melody to the national anthem. Even the generals shed tears as, once again, Nigeria’s territorial control and integrity was restored in the Gamboru area.

General Buratai’s words echoed from the loudspeaker over the desolated  town of Gamboru and into Fotokol as he delivered a brief speech at the flag hoisting ceremony.

“We are here today to observe this significant and symbolic ceremony of hoisting the Nigerian national flag,” he said.”If you could remember, this town of Gamboru was occupied by the Boko Haram terrorists for almost one year ago. The Chadian troops came to help recapture it but could not hold the town, so they later withdrew and the Boko Haram returned again.

“In line with my vision which is to have a professionally responsive Nigerian Army that is abreast of its constitutional roles, and one key underlying phrase in my mission is the constitutional role,  today, under my command, we are here to discharge and redeem our territorial integrity as enshrined in the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

“Today we are hoisting our flag and we will never allow any bunch of criminals in the name of Boko Haram to come and take an inch of our territory again.”

Mr. Buratai thanked soldiers who partook in the operations to recapture the town.

“I will like to commend officers and soldiers of the Operation Lafiya Dole, especially the officers and men of 7 Division and indeed the 7 Division Strike Group, who have proved to be resilient, dedicated and highly patriotic. Nigerians are proud of you, Nigerian Army is proud of you and indeed Mr. President is very proud of you.

“We have to maintain the momentum and from now on you must maintain an aggressive posture to constant patrols along this routes and all other routes into this area.”

More Work Needed

The Army Chief lamented the ability of the insurgents to still lay mines in territory in control of soldiers.

“The incident of mines being laid along the routes must be stopped! Troops are not here to come and sleep at night while Boko Haram bury mines on our roads.

“We still have a lot to do. The war is not over. The terrorists have changed their tactics from moving out from their camps to attack communities to now moving in pockets, planting IEDs via humans or vehicles.

“On our way to this place, we saw how some IEDs were uprooted from the road by our troops and unfortunately one of the mines got detonated and affected our vehicles, from which some soldiers got wounded.

“We once again, thank Mr. President for reposing his confidence in us to help deliver his mandate. We are making progress and definitely we would achieve that mandate within the time given by Mr President. On this note I have the singular honour and pleasure to present the Nigerian Flag to the Commander Operation Lafiya Dole for hoisting and never to come down again.

Shortly after the flag had been hoisted, Mr. Buratai moved across the bridge to address the Nigerian refugees down the bank of the river in Cameroon and spoke to them in the local language of the area – Kanuri.

The atmosphere went electric, as the people applauded every assuring word of Kanuri being uttered by the number one soldier.

Soldiers danced and exchanged pleasantries with their counterpart from Cameroon.

At night, the senior officers simply took their seats in one of the destroyed fuel filling stations that momentarily became the makeshift Army Headquarters and continued to interact with the gallant officers and men in the field.

At about 7:30 p.m., the army chief had a private chat with non-commissioned officers and soldiers for about two hours during which he personally took down the complaints and suggestions each soldier made.

Residents fleeing to nearby communities welcome army troop 
The dark night was even more petrifying as some of the soldiers informed PREMIUM TIMES reporter that “there is 50/50 chance that we may be attacked by the Boko Haram because that is what they do every day. But we are ready for them; and that is if they will be bold enough to come here after how we dealt with them days back.”

Meals were cooked and two rams were slaughtered and barbecued for soldiers and journalists.  Then the army chief led other officers and soldiers to ignite a burn-fire that lit the bushy surroundings. Soldiers danced wildly as they sang at the top of their voices – chanting different lyrics that ridiculed the Boko Haram.

“They (Boko Haram) are hearing us even now that we are here singing”, said an excited Corporal.

The excitement was paused midway for the decoration of a gallant Major, Muhammed Abu Ali, to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. Mr. Abu Ali, an officer in the Nigeria Armoured Corps, actively took part in leading most of the recent operations in the most dangerous Boko Haram camps. His colleagues described him as the panacea to Boko Haram when he drives his War Tank (T72). The Army spokesperson, Colonel Sani Usman, described him as “hero of our time”.

After the burn-fire, the celebration went on until a heavy rainfall began. There was no shelter for both officers and soldiers except the building of the filling station. Soldiers on sentry stood their grounds to ensure no Boko Haram crept nearby, while others took shelter in their vehicles.

Mr. Buratai and other officers like the Theatre Commander of Operation Lafiya Dole, Major General Yushau, the GOC 7 Division, Lamidi Adeosun; the Commander, Multi- National Joint Task Force, Major General Iliya Abba; a Cameroonian Colonel, Fonkon Djio Venerd Richard; and Chadian Lieutenant Colonel D’ Aviation, Mohammet Yahaya, continued to chat with journalists and some of the soldiers.

Sleep was an option many would rather not take. Some that tried sleeping only did so for about three hours before the officers asked everyone to board their vehicles at about 5:30 a.m. on Thursday for a return to Maiduguri, shortly after the morning prayers.

The Return

The 145km return journey that started at 6 a.m. from Gamboru ended 13 hours later. The convoy had to move at snail speed, about 12km per hour, as soldiers of the bomb detection unit, sniffed the route on foot ahead of the convoy.

At the destroyed Gamboru bridge bombed by Boko Haram in 2013, the convoy spent two hours manoeuvring the bridge.

There was apprehension during the remaining part of the journey after the bridge – through Dikwa, Logomani and Mafa – as soldiers had to charge their way through likely flash points for ambush.

Everyone arrived Maiduguri safely, except for the soldiers that suffered the blast from one of the land mines.