By Samuel Malik
Despite successes recorded in the fight against insurgency in the North east, the Nigerian Army is leaving no stone unturned in its effort to rid the region of terrorists. The www.icirnigeria.org has learnt that five battalions involved in the fight against Boko Haram have been rotated, as the army seeks to inject fresh hands into the operation.
The rotated units include 192 Battalion, 103 Battalion, 72 Battalion, 311 Battalion, and Army Headquarters Task Force Battalion, AHQ TF Bn. This brings the total number of units changed from the North east so far to six.
Early this year, 243 Battalion, which had been in the operation since 2009 when the insurgency started, was replaced with 242 Battalion from Badagry in Lagos State. Also, in June this year, 113 Battalion was replaced by 145 Battalion from Ohafia in Abia State.
As part of efforts to quell the Boko Haram insurgency, the army concluded plans in January to replace troops who have spent more than two years in the operation.
“In order to rejuvenate and boost the morale of troops deployed for Operation Lafiya Dole, plans have been concluded to rotate troops that have spent upwards of two years in the theatre of operation in phases,” a document signed by YB Abubakar, a Major General, on behalf of the Chief of Army Staff, Tukur Buratai, a Lieutenant General, stated.
The document, dated January 20, 2016 and sighted by this website, added that due to the army’s desire to inject fresh troops into the operations, “all hands must be on deck to ensure a successful and hitch free exercise.” It also stated that the timetable for the rotation must be strictly followed.
Army spokesman, Sani Usman, a Colonel, explained that although rotation is important in troop deployment, it is equally vital that is it done strategically.
“Injecting fresh hands into the war is important and that is why it is not done abruptly, there is a gradual transiting. A lot of people will think it is slow but it is steady in the sense that it is just a matter of time before each and every unit is rotated. We have a tabulated timeline for the rotation, unless the security situation does not warrant it, and in that case it will be explained,” he said.
During his operational tour in June this year, the General Officer Commanding, GOC, 7 Division in Borno, Victor Ezugwu, a Brigadier General, had assured troops that the army was serious about the issue of rotation. He said four units would be rotated annually, one every quarter.
However, it seems the army is stepping up the exercise, with at least six units so far ushered out of the theatre in the last two quarters.
In more than ten locations Ezugwu visited, our reporter, who was given an exclusive access to troops, observed the strain of battle on the faces of soldiers. Most of them had given up hope of leaving the battlefield, with some spending more than four years in the frontlines.
Despite the excitement of seeing their commander, it was obvious they were desirous of going home to their loved ones. When some of the soldiers recounted their battle experiences to the reporter, it was not difficult to appreciate why rotation of troops is a morale booster for the army. They recounted incredible tales of what they had seen and gone through and it would not surprise anyone if some of them had lost their emotions or respect for human lives..
To shake off the strain of battle, some got married to locals, despite having families back home, and some took to drugs and alcohol.
Worst still, some lost control and took the lives of their colleagues and defenceless civilians and injured others. There were also others who deserted the army to be with their loved ones because they could no longer take the uncertainty surrounding their withdrawal from the operation.
“The fatigue of battle is beginning to reflect in the soldiers. So, they need to be relieved,” Emure T., a Captain and Operations Officer for 114 Task Force Battalion in Bita, a former Boko Haram stronghold, said.
“I am not too happy being away from my family. This is my four years here in this operation. We have to go to Pulka to get network and talk to our families,” Adedamola O., a Warrant Officer stationed at a strategic crossing point used by the insurgents to get to Pulka from Bama, said.
With Boko Haram largely decimated, it is obvious that the army is keen to prevent the loss of its troops to post-traumatic stress disorder. Thus, in addition to withdrawing them from the battlefield, the soldiers are made to go through a mandatory two weeks rehabilitation process at the Nigerian Army School of Infantry, Jaji in Kaduna State, before being allowed to reunite with their families.
“We keep them in Jaji for two weeks rehabilitation because of possible post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD. You have been in the northeast and seen what these guys go through. Their psychological makeup is a bit antagonistic, so it is pertinent that we do not allow them to go to their respective units without providing counselling and psychological treatment,” Usman explained.
“The whole essence of the Jaji exercise is to recondition the troops so that they fit seamlessly back into the society,” he stated further.
Some of the soldiers who spoke to our reporter applaud the army’s decision to rehabilitate them.
“When you see some of us, you know they clearly need psychological treatment,” one the soldiers said from Jaji on condition of anonymity.
Rotation gives the troops a new lease of life, and many savour the “leave” from battle fronts. A soldier explained what it means to be out of the northeast: “I now believe we are in Nigeria because we are now among real people. There is no more ambush, sentry and sleepless nights due to red alerts. In fact, as I speak with you, we have all submitted our riffles. Almost three years in the bush, you can’t imagine how happy we are. We are 500 percent happy. There is celebration in my house back home and I can’t wait to get back to my family.”
It was gathered that some of the activities the soldiers will undergo during their rehabilitation include morning and evening sports, lectures and orientation.
“We hear they will teach us how to treat people differently from the way we treated Boko Haram members, and also how not to misbehave as we mingle with civilians,” one soldier said.
According to military sources, the troops deployed to the North east as replacement for those withdrawn were about 1,000 drawn from different units, many of them just returning from a United Nations Peacekeeping Mission in Liberia.
Despite their experience in UN peacekeeping, the army believes the Boko Haram insurgency presents a different challenge to whatever they faced outside the country. Thus, they had to undergo two weeks training at the Special Forces Training School in Buni Yadi, Yobe State. This, Usman said, was to get them to acclimatise to the peculiar nature of what they would be encountering back home.
“The essence of Buni Yadi is that it is within the theatre of operation, so the issue of realistic training comes into play because it is not enough to just train the soldiers in their respective units. They need to be trained in the environment where they will operate,” the army spokesperson pointed out.
While troops celebrate their departure from the North east, some of them spared some thoughts for their successors. According to them, the best thing for all soldiers is for the insurgency to end.
“We are praying for the insurgency to end so that every soldier will go back home. My brother, it has not been easy,” a soldier said. This is certainly the wish of Nigerians they are securing by risking their own lives.