Nigerian Army Takes Over Anti-Boko Haram Operation

Andrew McGregor

September 6, 2013

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has authorized the creation of a new Nigerian Army Division dedicated to conducting operations against the Boko Haram Islamist militant group in the Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states of north-eastern Nigeria currently under a state of emergency. The new Division is taking over operations against Boko Haram from the multi-service Joint Task Force (JTF), a counter-terrorism force initially created to combat militants in the oil-rich Niger Delta, but whose deployment in north-eastern Nigeria during the current anti-terrorist offensive has been characterized as heavy-handed with a casual regard for the safety and security of civilians in combat areas.

The handover from the JTF to the new division took place on August 19 and marked a new stage in Operation BONOYA, a three-month old offensive against Boko Haram terrorists operating in northeastern Nigeria near the unsecured borders with Chad, Niger and Cameroon. With its headquarters in Maiduguri, the new division will be under the command of Major General Obida Etnan, former commander of the Army Garrison Headquarters in Abuja (Nigerian Tribune, August 18).

Three armored brigades currently based in the northeastern states of Bauchi, Borno and Adamawa will form the core of the new division along with the 241st Reconnaissance Battalion in Yobe, which brings the Nigerian Army to a strength of six divisions with headquarters in Maiduguri, Kaduna, Jos, Bradan, Lagos and Enugu (Daily Trust [Abuja], August 19; Nigerian Tribune, August 18). Some 900 Nigerian troops that were prematurely withdrawn from their mission in Mali will also be directly assigned to the new division (Leadership [Abuja], August 19; for the Nigerian withdrawal from Mali, see Terrorism Monitor Brief, July 25).

Chief of Army Staff Lieutenant General Onyeabo Azubuike Ihejirika

Earlier this year, Chief of Army Staff Lieutenant General Onyeabo Azubuike Ihejirika created a new counter-terrorism training center in Kontagora (Niger State) where Nigerian troops could receive advanced training for operations against Boko Haram. The director of the training facility, Brigadier General TK Golau, said the course included training in house entry and clearance, urban patrols, unarmed combat, arms skills, the creation of road-blocks and checkpoints, recognition and disposal of IEDs and “the dynamics of terrorism and insurgency as they relate to Boko Haram, among others” (Leadership [Abuja], February 21). 

The creation of the new division came a day before General Ihejirika made a scathing speech before various commanding officers in which he criticized the army’s mode of operations against Boko Haram and complacency in the officer corps that was allowing infiltration of the military by terrorists (Channels TV, August 19). The remarks were a counterpoint to President Goodluck Jonathan’s more optimistic views: “We are consistently adapting our security architecture to deal with terrorism which has become a challenge to the whole world. Boko Haram is being progressively weakened but we are not resting on our oars. We will continue to do everything possible to achieve greater security for all who reside within our borders” (Guardian [Lagos], August 31).

However, despite his efforts to improve discipline in the Army’s ranks, General Ihejirika has come under accusations of nepotism and ethnic favoritism from other senior officers who have gathered under the banner of the Group for the Salvation of the Nigerian Army (Osun Defender/Punch [Lagos], September 4).

Meanwhile, attempts by the civilian population to assert themselves against Boko Haram terrorists through the formation of vigilante groups backfired on August 31 when roughly 100 members of a Borno vigilante group joined what they thought was a group of uniformed Nigerian troops on their way into the forest to apprehend Boko Haram members. The men instead led the vigilantes into an ambush in which 24 were killed (AFP, August 31; Reuters, August 31).

The vigilante groups are typically poorly armed (often bearing little more than machetes and clubs) but have played an important part in intercepting Boko Haram movements, making the vigilantes and their families a target for retribution.  However, there are fears that the formation of vigilante groups from unemployed youth in the region will open the door to their use as private militias by various politicians (Nigerian Tribune, September 1).

This article first appeared in the September 6, 2013 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.