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Wednesday, 20 August 2014

5 Similarities between the Current War against Boko Haram and the ECOMOG Operations of the 1990s

For the referenced version of this article , click here

It is time we stop using the ECOMOG operations as the paradigm case of the military’s combat effectiveness – because they were not!

Soldiers paying respect to fallen heroes at the 2013 Armed Forces Remembrance Day Celebrations

In an earlier article I assessed the claim, often made by our military and political elites, that the Nigerian military “brought peace to Liberia and Sierra-Leone”. In this article, I will outline what I believe to be five compelling similarities between the military’s ECOMOG operations in Liberia and Sierra-Leone, and its prosecution of the current war against Boko Haram. 

Supply Shortages and Obsolete Weaponry

Footage from Boko Haram’s assault on Giwa barracks, which they filmed. The terrorist sect almost overran the barracks because a crucial but aging weapon system guarding the entrance to the sprawling military installation malfunctioned

In February this year, the Borno state governor alleged that Boko Haram fighters were “better armed … than our troops”. At the time, the comment was strongly rebuked by government spokesmen – Nigerian officials are legendary for their Ostrich mentality. Events have since proven him right. Reports that have made it to the public domain paint the picture of a military beset by logistical deficiencies. Stories abound of operations imperilled by ammunition shortages and inadequate weaponry.

The March 2014 assault on Giwa barracks, and the Chibok abductions a month later – both in Borno State – perfectly illustrate the incapacitating effects of supply shortages and obsolete weaponry. In the attack on Chibok, a shortage of ammunitions reportedly caused guarding soldiers to flee to the bush – allowing Boko Haram to cart off close to 300 girls, after laying waste to the community. In the assault on Giwa barracks – the largest military installation in the northeast – a large part of why Boko Haram nearly succeeded in overrunning the sprawling installation was due to the breakdown of an aging weapon that had been positioned to defend the entrance to the base. The defective weapon – the ZSU-23-4, also known as the “shilka” – is a 1960s anti-aircraft weapon (it is also an effective anti-personnel weapon hence its use against Boko Haram operatives) which Nigeria had acquired in 1980!

Nigeria’s ECOMOG operations in Liberia and Sierra-Leone were beset by similar problems. The soldiers were totally ill-equipped for the missions. In Liberia for example, there was such a dearth of helicopters that by 1995 there was only a single operable helicopter in the field. “Most of the equipment and guns deployed were unserviceable thereby rendering them useless”, commented one of the commanding officers on his experience in Sierra-Leone. Critical pieces of equipment frequently malfunctioned due to poor service condition. The Armoured Fighting Vehicles (AFV) and Armoured Personnel Carriers (APC) were in particularly pathetic shape and prone to breakdown.

This comes from the intelligence report of Brigadier Rafiu Adeshina (rtd), Brigade Commander of the 24th Infantry Brigade in Sierra-Leone, written to the ECOMOG commander informing him of the poor state of his brigade as they awaited an expected rebel attack: “[O]ur … locations have only rifles – no machine guns or AFVs. Out of 4 [AFVs] in the entire brigade, no one is presently functioning”.

Intelligence Failures and Communications Breakdown

Nigerian troops patrol Freetown during the RUF’s brutal operation “No Living Thing” in January 1999 (BBC). Listen to a BBC report which covered the RUF attack here.

There is no doubt the military has foiled many Boko Haram attacks. And for this they must be commended. However, the multiple attacks that Boko Haram has successfully executed point to serious gaps in the military’s intelligence and communications assets. The multiple bombings that have rocked Abuja this year alone illustrate these shortcomings.

By most accounts, the attack on Giwa barracks caught the military by surprise. That Boko Haram could nearly overrun a supposedly well-defended strategic military installation is bad enough. But the fact that Boko Haram could traverse hundreds of kilometres of open terrain in heavily armed convoys on their way to attacking the base without being detected and interdicted point to serious gaps in the military’s battlefield intelligence capabilities. The Chibok abductions raise similar concerns. With information now emerging that military high command was informed as much as four hours beforehand of an impending attack on Chibok; the fact that no reinforcements were sent to the area, nor the unit on the ground forewarned, highlights the communication problems which has bedevilled the military’s response to Boko Haram attacks.

Similar intelligence and communication breakdowns were prevalent in the military’s operations in Liberia and Sierra-Leone. Battlefield intelligence was often non-existent or patchy at best. Two examples best illustrate this wretched state of affairs: Operations “Octopus” and “No Living Thing”.

Operation “Octopus” was the codename for Charles Taylor’s attack on Monrovia, Liberia's capital, on the 15th of October 1992. While the operation failed in its objective of capturing the capital – the Nigerian-led counterattack repelled Taylor’s advance and devastated his rebel group – the complete surprise that Taylor was able to achieve in his initial assault was due to the total absence of battlefield intelligence on Taylor’s forces. So complete was the failure of intelligence that it would take ECOMOG forces a week to counterattack while they figured out what was happening. This was a tragic failure that was paid for in 3000, mostly civilian, lives – lives that ECOMOG had supposedly deployed to Liberia to protect in the first place.

Operation “No Living Thing” was the codename for the Revolutionary United Front’s (RUF) brutal assault on Freetown, Sierra-Leone’s capital, on the 6th of January 1999. Though the RUF similarly failed in their objective of capturing the capital – Nigerian troops reasserted control after bitter fighting – the very fact that the rebels were able to stage such a massive assault, and by some accounts almost succeed in capturing the capital, was the result of a colossal failure in intelligence and communication.

One month prior to the assault on Freetown, Nigerian positions in the north and east of Sierra-Leone had been overrun in a lightning rebel advance. Given such dramatic developments, the information reaching Nigerian commanders in Freetown about the resurgence in rebel activity should have spurred them into bolstering security around the approaches to Freetown. Unfortunately no significant additional measures were taken. A false sense of security pervaded the capital throughout this period. Nigerian commanders, in a tactic that has become all too familiar in the current fight against Boko Haram, set about falsely reassuring the worried population of Freetown that “all was under control”. Due to this lackadaisical attitude to intelligence, when Freetown was attacked, Nigerian commanders were caught napping, resulting in the near-loss of the capital. To quote Brigadier Adeshina (rtd): The attack “caused pandemonium and almost resulted in the capture of Freetown”.

Further quoting the Brigadier at length on the general lack of intelligence which characterised Nigerian operations in Sierra-Leone: “Most of the operations I conducted in Sierra-Leone had no intelligence input at all… Not much information about the enemy was available throughout except for those we got from captured rebels which often proved misleading or unreliable… Often times, intelligence information was not taken seriously by higher headquarters in Freetown. For example when it became evident that the rebels were going to invade Freetown ... no action was taken to prevent this invasion”.

Close Operational collaboration with Militias    

At a CJTF checkpoint in Maiduguri, Borno State (Sunday Alamba/AP)

The rise of the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF) – a loose band of primitively equipped vigilantes – has so far been one of the defining features of the war against Boko Haram. By many accounts, CJTF has brought some measure of stability to areas where they have an operational presence. The CJTF are frequently used by the military in combat support roles (such as providing intelligence and manning checkpoints etc.), and often times their operatives join soldiers in conducting raids on, or defending against, Boko Haram – thereby taking on direct combat roles.

Nigeria’s operations in Liberia and Sierra-Leone were similarly characterised by a heavy reliance on militias to perform crucial combat support roles. In many cases, they also fought as allies in direct combat. In Liberia the militia which Nigerian forces mostly collaborated closely with was the Armed Forces of Liberia (despite the formal sounding name, the AFL had long before the war ceased to function as a formal institution and had mutated into an ethnically based militia). Often times, though not as consistently as with the AFL, Nigerian forces also closely worked with two other rebel militias: the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL, a breakaway faction from Taylor’s rebel group, the NPFL) and United Liberation Movement of Liberia (ULIMO, formed in 1991; the group split along ethnic lines in 1994). Despite periods of tension with ECOMOG forces, the AFL, INPFL, and ULIMO often provided critical aid, both in combat support and in direct combat, to Nigerian forces in the fight against Taylor – an enemy they all shared.

In Sierra-Leone, the Civil Defence Forces (CDF) played a central role in the Nigerian military’s operations. The CDF was a loose coalition of ethnic militias; the most powerful of which were the Kamajors. Much like the CJTF against Boko Haram, and the AFL, INPFL, and ULIMO against Taylor; the CDF – especially the Kamajors – often fought alongside Nigerian troops in both offensive and defensive operations. Given the weakness of its combat intelligence capability on the ground, as indicated by Brigadier Adeshina in the previous section, the CDF to a large extent functioned as the primary combat intelligence arm of the Nigerian army in Sierra-Leone.


A Guard of Honour of the 7th Division being inspected by a former Chief of Army Staff (Nigeria Army)

On the 14th of May 2014, soldiers within the 7th Division based in Maiduguri, a hotbed of insurgent activity, raised their rifles against the passing convoy of their divisional commander and sprayed it with bullets – allegedly with the intent to kill him. According to press reports the rebellious soldiers were pushed to such an extreme by the death of 12 of their comrades who had been ambushed by Boko Haram the previous night; deaths they believed were avoidable, and blamed on the divisional commander. It is also alleged that some of the underlying reasons for the mutiny were poor service conditions, irregular payment of salaries, and the strains of going into battle inadequately armed against a determined and bloodthirsty foe.

In Sierra-Leone the same combination of fury at the death of comrades and plummeting morale would produce one of the more dramatic acts of rebellion that I have come across in Nigeria’s ECOMOG operations.

In April 1998 after a particularly fierce battle for a village called Yigbeda in the east of Sierra-Leone, the battalion that had borne the brunt of the casualties rebelled and nearly mutinied when they heard their battalion commander was to be replaced for command failure. To quote Brigadier Adeshina (rtd) at length: “[B]ecause of the clear evidence that the CO (Commanding Officer) [of the] 5th battalion had lost control of his men, I relieved him of command of the unit… The soldiers of the battalion instantly protested and told me to my face that nobody would remove their CO and that the casualties they sustained were my fault not that of the CO. They shouted at me that we had no business in … Sierra-Leone – while pointing at the pick-up truck loaded with the corpses of their colleagues who were killed during the encounter. As I sensed that a mutiny was about to take place on a battlefront and far away from Nigeria, I rescinded my order and asked the CO to continue with his unit”.  

The same 5th battalion rebelled again on the same day not long after the first incident. The battalion had been ordered to stay behind to guard a just captured village and provide rear-defence to its parent unit, the 24th Infantry Brigade, as it moved forward to capture a major town. Soldiers of the 5th flatly refused, unwilling to have to confront the RUF alone in case of a rear attack. Again, quoting Brigadier Adeshina (rtd): “I directed them to hold a defensive position in the [village] and remain there until we captured Koidu… [M]y directive was rejected by soldiers of this battalion… I furiously directed the removal of the CO there and then for the second time… The soldiers again refused the order. All the pleadings I made with them … that the location was too dangerous to be left unoccupied was rejected by the soldiers. When I realised that … the boys could simply kill me with nothing happening to them back home in Nigeria … I [again] rescinded my order”.

Fluid Stalemate

Nigeria's gallant, but beleaguered, warriors on their way to recapture Damboa town in Maiduguri

The most striking and worrying similarity between the current conflict and the operations in Liberia and Sierra-Leone is the fluid stalemate that has now developed between the military and Boko Haram. By this I mean that on the one hand the insurgency is now in strategic stalemate – Boko Haram’s aspiration of an Islamic State in Nigeria remains a pipe dream; similarly, a comprehensive military victory against the sect seems unlikely for now. On the other hand however, battlefield conditions on the ground is characterised by tactical fluidity. The frequent loss and recapture of towns and villages by the military, and Boko Haram’s ability to move heavily armed operatives in large convoys with impunity in significant sections of the northeast illustrate this fluid and rapidly changing situation on the ground.  

The outcome of Nigeria’s armed interventions in Liberia and Sierra-Leone can also be described as fluid stalemates. In neither country was the military able to achieve its strategic objective of breaking the rebels’ war-fighting resolve. In both countries while the Nigerian army controlled the capitals; in Liberia the rebels controlled the rest of the country, whilst in Sierra-Leone it was the northern half by December 1998. And in both missions, despite the strategic stalemate – i.e. neither the rebels nor the Nigerian military completely vanquished the other – the tactical situation on the ground was highly fluid as battlefield fortunes ebbed and flowed.

Reasons for Optimism and Concern


Perhaps the title for this subsection should have been “Reasons for Tentative Optimism and Serious Concern”. This is because my optimism is much less sanguine and concern much more worrying than the title conveys. 

Despite the grim picture of a terrorist group rampaging through a sizeable section of the country, the biggest cause for tentative optimism is the fact that the Nigerian state, and consequently the military, still holds at least two significant advantages over Boko Haram. The first is territorial. The central government still controls the strategic territorial core and economic heartland of the country. Absent some political calamity – such as a coup or some other destabilizing event – this is unlikely to change anytime soon. Unlike in Liberia and Sierra-Leone where the government’s writ didn’t extend beyond the capital, or even in Iraq and Syria (to take two contemporary examples) where insurgent forces now control up to 40 percent of those countries; the Nigerian state, though beleaguered, is unlikely to collapse from Boko Haram’s pressure alone. At least for now anyway.

The second is cause for cautious optimism is the legitimacy deficit of Boko Haram. The Nigerian state, despite its dysfunctional mode of governance, enjoys far more legitimacy amongst the general population than any alternative Boko Haram is proposing. Boko Haram’s dogmatic (and heterodox) beliefs, and the freewheeling way with which its operatives have butchered anyone who crosses their path has repelled the very same constituency they profess to be fighting for, Nigerian Muslims. This point is very important as without popular support it will be very difficult for Boko Haram to entrench itself within society, hence theoretically easier to uproot.


The reasons for optimism I outlined above are tentative for a reason. This is because the advantages could very easily be eroded.

The advantage associated with territorial control could rapidly evaporate should Boko Haram extend its terrorist attacks to the south of the country. By this I mean, even if Boko Haram's territory doesn't increase, should the group develop the capability to perpetrate terrorist attacks – suicide bombings, car bombings etc. – in the south with the same level of impunity and frequency as they have done in the north, this will in all probability lead to the raising of armed militias in the south. A development that will only result in the further fragmentation of the country.

As for the legitimacy advantage, the Liberian and Sierra-Leonean conflict has shown that even insurgents with little to no popular support can collapse a state once state structures are enfeebled enough. And of course, there is always the danger that Boko Haram may “wise up” and begin to place greater emphasis on “hearts and minds” and governance in areas they control. Such a development will dramatically erode Nigeria's legitimacy advantage and allow Boko Haram to embed itself more effectively in northeastern communities given the savagery and unbridled violence with which Nigerian security forces have fought this war, as shown in a recent Channel 4 documentary.

My other reasons for serious concern relate to the implications of the CJTF and the mutiny which occurred on the 14th of May.

While government officials have interpreted the CJTF phenomenon as a sign that the indigenes of the war-ravaged northeast are at last “taking ownership” of the insurgency in their region. I view it as the disgraceful failure of the Nigerian state to adequately provide for the security of its civilian population. The true meaning of the CJTF phenomenon is that the state has effectively subcontracted its fundamental duty to a group of mostly semi-literate locals armed with nothing more than cutlasses, machetes, and primitive homemade guns. This ill-disciplined and grossly ill-equipped force is now co-responsible with the armed forces for securing the territorial integrity of the Nigerian State. What a shame! As we’ve seen from other conflicts, militias formed and primitively armed at the beginning of a conflict, inevitably acquire more sophisticated weapons as the conflict drags on, and eventually become security problems in themselves when the conflict phase subsides.  

The widely reported mutiny within the 7th Division, and the fact that mutinies are recurrent features in Nigeria’s military operations, indicate weak command and control capabilities. No military force can long survive the erosion of its command and control capabilities – i.e. the ability of officers to exercise authority over their troops. The mutiny also suggests problems of poor morale and mission weariness. These two are problems that must be viewed with utmost seriousness as soldiers who, even if adequately equipped, lack belief in a mission and are debilitated by poor morale will likely buckle in the face of a determined enemy. The tale of the Iraqi army’s ignoble collapse earlier this year as Jihadi warriors surged into the north and west of the country underscore this point. 

 “Shine your eyes”. This is the phrase a Nigerian often uses when he wants his interlocutor to open his eyes and see the truth for what it is. The same sentiment undergirds this article. It is time we recognise the Nigerian military for what it is: A hollowed out and enfeebled force. Only by acknowledging this fact can we recognise that a comprehensive reform of the military is a necessary part of any long term strategy for defeating Boko Haram and restoring peace to the northeast. 

To the gallant Officers and Soldiers of the Nigerian armed forces who have given their lives to keep our country one despite being repeatedly let down by our indolent military and political leaders!


Adebajo, A. (2002), Building Peace in West Africa: Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea-Bissau. London: Lynne Rienner.

Adebajo, A. (2002), Liberia's Civil War: Nigeria, ECOMOG, and Regional Security in West Africa. London: Lynne Rienner.

Adeshina, R. A. (2002), The Reversed Victory: Story of Nigerian Military Intervention in Sierra Leone. Ibadan: Hienemann.

Gberie, L. (2005), ‘Liberia’s War and Peace Process: A Historical Overview’ in F. B. Aboagye and M. S. Bah (eds), A Tortuous Road to Peace: The Dynamics of Regional, UN and International Humanitarian Interventions in Liberia. Pretoria: Institute for Security Studies.

Mutwol, J. (2009), Peace Agreements and Civil Wars in Africa: Insurgent Motivations, State Responses, and Third-Party Peacemaking in Liberia, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone. New York: Cambria Press.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

A Guide to the Islamic State Group and 3 Lessons for the Future

This article briefly describes what the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, now known as the Islamic State is; what its goals are; how historically unique its method of "State-building" is; and what dangers it poses to the Middle East State system. It also briefly suggests at least three pertinent lessons that countries in a similar situation to Iraq can learn.

Islamic State fighters take part in a military parade along the streets of their proclaimed capital, the Syrian northern province of Ar-Raqqa (Reuters)

What is the Islam State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) now known as the Islamic State (IS), and what are its goals?  

The Islamic State Group believes itself to be a sovereign State; hence its reference to itself as such. It is a movement led by a man called Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi which aspires to re-establish a type of polity known as a Caliphate – an Islamic form of government underpinned by Shari’ah which first emerged in the 7th century after the death of the Prophet, and was abolished in 1924 with the end of the Ottoman Empire. The group is a Jihadi organization in that it ideologically believes the Caliphate can only be re-established through armed force (i.e. Jihad). And finally it is an extremist sect in that, as we have seen, it doesn’t shy away from using mind-numbing violence to impose its narrow minded interpretation of religious tenets. 

Its stated goals are the: 

·         re-establishment of the Caliphate – which it believes it has already fulfilled

·         expansion of the Caliphate across the Levant (Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine) – hence the “al-Sham” in its original name (al-Sham is the Arabic term for the Levant area)

·         and the eventual spread of their Caliphate across the whole world.

How unique is its method of “State-building”?

From an historical perspective, there is nothing unique or new in states being born violently, and augmenting their power through expansion and conquest. While it may seem shocking to contemporary eyes that a “new state” – whether it will endure remains to be seen – is being born through war, and has set about expanding its territory through conquest. In actual fact this has been the “normal” process of state-building from an historical perspective.

The overwhelming majority of states today are the products of violent creation and conquest – even post-colonial states, whose borders were after all created through the conquest and destruction of pre-colonial polities by the colonial powers. As the leading scholar on Europe’s state-building process, the late Charles Tilly, famously said when commenting on Europe’s violent past: “War made the State and the State made war”.

Similarly from a religious perspective, there is nothing wrong in principle with the establishment of the Caliphate through war and conquest. The Islamic Caliphates and Empires of the past were established, and dissolved, through exactly that process.

There are major problems with the way the IS has gone about establishing its State however.

The first is the wanton butchery with which Baghdadi’s followers have gone about their business of “state-building”. It’s one thing when the violence unleashed is a product of the war being fought to establish the State – i.e. battlefield deaths. It is quite another thing entirely when that violence is transferred wholesale beyond the battlefield and is used to indiscriminately kill captured prisoners of war – as IS openly boasts of doing – or to ethnically cleanse captured areas by forcing the civilian population to flee on pain of Genocide – as we have seen with the Yazidis, for no other reason other than because they belong to the wrong ethnic group.

Not even history and religion can shield them from the deserved condemnation of the world on this count. There is a reason why Genghis Khan’s name is still mentioned pejoratively some 800 years later! And to my mind, it is the atrocities more than anything else that will eventually doom IS’ Caliphate to destruction. It will not only repel potential followers and supporters, it will also provoke the Major Powers into taking military action against it – as seems to have happened now with the US’ decision to conduct airstrikes against it.

The second major problem with the IS Caliphate is the fact that it has been rejected by the majority of Islamic scholars. Ironically, the IS Caliphate has also been rejected by other Jihadist groups. The rejection by the majority of Islamic scholars, including scholars respected within Jihadi circles, is not to be underestimated. Under Islamic law, a Caliphate can only be established in one of two ways: when there is a broad consensus amongst scholars that the time is right for it, or through war. Baghdadi has obviously settled for the latter, hoping that battlefield success will legitimate his claim. Whether he succeeds or not, remains to be seen. As for me, I am highly sceptical of his chances.

Do they pose any danger to the peace and stability of the Middle East and by extension the world?

To the Middle East, absolutely they do; to the whole world, in the long term potentially yes. The IS has made it quite clear that it aims for the destruction of the Middle East’s state system – which they view as the artificial construct of Europe’s colonial powers. Their erasure of the Iraq-Syria border, the declaration of a proto-state which straddles the two countries, and the very immediate danger they pose to Jordan and Lebanon is the most visible manifestation of this territorial threat. To the extent that the Middle East is punctuated by weak states, this threat will endure for as long as expansion and conquest remains the driving force of Baghdadi’s State.

While the territorial danger is real, we shouldn’t overestimate it however. To my mind, the IS has probably reached its furthest extent. It may still secure some tactical gains – a town here, a city there – but the big sweeping strategic advance that catapulted it to the limelight earlier this year seems unlikely for now. Everywhere, the IS Caliphate looks boxed in to me. To the south lies Baghdad, a prize Iran, and for that matter the Americans, will not let fall to the IS. To the north are Kurdish territories which the Americans, with the announcement of a supply of weapons to the Peshmerga (Kurdish militia) to better defend their areas from the IS, have practically committed themselves to protecting. To the east is Iran, one of the Middle East’s few strong and capable states. And to the west are Jordan and Saudi Arabia, countries which due to their strategic relations with the US, means the US would probably unhesitatingly defend should their territories be comprehensively threatened by IS forces.

The biggest long-term danger the IS poses to the world is through the material support and training facilities it could offer to other terrorist groups. The IS is now listed as the world’s richest terrorist group, with billions in cash and gold bullion; and it now controls a vast swath of territory straddling two countries. These are obviously resources that could be used to plan and support devastating terrorist attacks against adversaries. While precautions should always be made, I however don’t believe any international terrorist operation to be among Baghdadi's top list of priorities for now given that he is still trying to consolidate his territory. Any terrorist spectacular against especially Western countries will only draw those countries into taking more aggressive military action against the group.

What lessons should countries in a similar situation as Iraq draw from its troubles?

It seems to me that there are at least three pertinent lessons that they should draw from the tragedy that has befallen Iraq.

No State lasts forever

Iraq may yet survive the IS assault and emerge with its State intact. But for now, and probably for the foreseeable future, the possibility of stitching back together the broken societies of that traumatised country will remain a distant prospect. A country that was once a regional player in its heyday has now become a playing field for all the regional powers to act out their ambitions. With Iraq’s ruling elites having botched the opportunity to reform their country’s badly dysfunctional polity, when the forces of disintegration came knocking at the door, their enfeebled State simply collapsed.

 As for politically unstable countries with fractious elites, they should soak in for a while the stories of an Iraq in turmoil. It will have a powerfully clarifying effect on the dangers they face should they fail to get their acts together. States don’t stay together because they have a “sovereign right” to. Rather, States stay together because the societies over which they govern have decided to stay together, and have decided to act purposively towards that goal. They stay together because the leaders and the elites of those societies have decided to set aside all parochial interests to forge a common destiny, and a common vision of a shared political community.

The fact is when unbridgeable fissures are allowed to emerge and fester within any political community; it provides the space for the forces of decay and disintegration to thrive. Not even a Kingdom of God on earth can escape this fundamental law of political reality.

No one will save you when you are unwilling to save yourself

This is a particularly pertinent lesson for countries with the misfortune of being governed by indolent and short-sighted elites. As the Iraq example has amply shown, when a State is faced with existential challenges, the drive for survival must come from within. Absent this internal drive, disintegration becomes inevitable. It is a brutal world out there. And no amount of appeals to brotherly solidarity will convince neighbours, or the wider international community, to lift a finger and save a dysfunctional state from tumbling over the precipice.

Despite the Iraq crisis now having dragged on now for a while, the US only decided to act when a community was facing the real threat of Genocide (in other words not because the State itself was collapsing), and when it became clear that IS forces were encroaching further into Kurdish held territory. Given that the US has strategic installations and personnel stationed there; it felt compelled to respond to contain the IS advance. As for Iraq’s neighbours, what have they done to aid the country as it floundered to contain the threat of the IS? Well, they have contented themselves with watching the drama from afar; unwilling to act lest they provoke the beast now tearing Iraq apart.

A demoralised and politicised army can’t fight

Iraqi army collapse as IS forces surged into the north and the west of the country earlier this year was stunning. Faced with about 800 Jihadi warriors bearing down on them, two entire divisions of the army – roughly 30,000 men – simply buckled and fled. This comical, were it not so tragic, performance didn't happen because the soldiers were ill-equipped – the soldiers were actually relatively well-equipped compared to the Jihadist and insurgent forces. Rather it happened because the soldiers were demoralised and, in a process known as “coup-proofing”, the officer core had been gutted; competent officers were replaced with politically pliant ones. This meant that when it came time to actually fight, the soldiers were simply not willing to sacrifice their lives for a mission they didn't believe in. Neither were their officers competent enough to restore military discipline once it began to break down.

This is a very important lesson particularly for my countrymen, Nigerians, to ponder on as we battle our own determined group of violent extremists intent on imposing their narrow (and heterodox) vision of Islam. While it is now no secret that Nigerian troops are dangerously ill-equipped. The “mutiny” of the soldiers from the 7th Division on the 14th of May, and the often reported stories of soldiers fleeing at the sight of Boko Haram fighters, should be seen as warning signs of creeping mission weariness. It should also be seen as a problem arising not only from poor weaponry, but also from low morale and the erosion of command and control capabilities – i.e. the ability and competence of commanders to exercise authority over their troops.

If there is anything we can draw from the Iraq experience on this issue, it is that, even if adequately equipped, soldiers debilitated by poor morale, lacking belief in the mission they are meant to risk their lives for, and led by incompetent officers, will likely flee when faced with a determined adversary!

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Did the Nigerian Army Actually Succeed in Ending the Liberian and Sierra-Leonean Civil Wars?

For the referenced version of this article, click here.

Just how true is the often heard claim that the Nigerian army brought peace to Liberia and Sierra-Leone?

Soldiers stand in front of the Remembrance Arcade during a military ceremony to honour Nigerian war heroes in Lagos 15/01/2011. (Akintunde Akinleye/Courtesy Reuters)
Soldiers stand guard during a military ceremony to honour war heroes (Akintunde Akinleye/Reuters)

Boko Haram’s five-year long insurgency shows no sign of abating. With the group now seemingly capable of seizing and holding territory, questions over the military’s competence have grown louder. To rescue the army’s wounded pride our military and political leaders often point to what they claim is the army’s “stellar credentials” in bringing peace to war ravaged countries. The ECOMOG missions in Liberia and Sierra-Leone in the 1990s, which the Nigerian military led, is often presented as the prime exemplar of the army’s competence in combat. I've lost count of how many times I've heard something like “our boys brought peace to Liberia and Sierra-Leone” whenever questions are raised over the badly mishandled war against Boko Haram. But just how true is this claim?

Nigeria’s commitment to restore peace and stability to the two West African countries was undoubtedly commendable – about $8 billion allegedly spent on the missions; up to 12,000 soldiers deployed; and approximately 1,500 killed-in-action, including Brigadier General Maxwell Khobe. By most estimates Nigeria provided 90 percent of the funding and about 80 percent of the total troops for both ECOMOG missions. This praiseworthy commitment notwithstanding, the fact is the military’s interventions in Liberia and Sierra-Leone failed to dampen the civil wars that ravaged those two countries.

 Brief background on Nigeria’s ECOMOG Interventions


The civil war that destroyed Liberia lasted eight gruelling years, 1989-1997. The human toll of the conflict was shattering. Out of a pre-war population of 2.5 million, 200,000 – mostly civilians – would die, and 1.5 million would be scattered into neighbouring countries as destitute refugees.

On Christmas Eve 1989, Charles Taylor crossed into Liberia from Cote d’Ivoire with 168 armed fighters. Calling themselves the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), their stated aim was to overthrow Samuel Doe; the country’s dictator who had himself seized power in a bloody coup in 1980. The ranks of Taylor’s rebels rapidly swelled in number. Doe’s repressive and brutal decade long rule meant a significant section of the country was already seething with discontent by the time of Taylor’s incursion. The Liberian army, long crippled by decades of corruption, ethnic favouritism, and political manipulation buckled in the face of this motley band of ill-disciplined, Libyan trained, international rebel force (the nucleus of the NPFL reportedly consisted of mercenaries from an assortment of West African countries including Burkina Faso, Sierra-Leone, Gambia, Cote d’Ivoire – many of whom had received rudimentary training in Libya).

As the NPFL raced to Monrovia, the Liberian capital, they butchered civilians along the way – especially targeting Doe’s ethnic kinsmen and other ethnic groups they believed had done well under Doe. By the end of July 1990, the Liberian state had practically collapsed. With roughly 90 percent of the country under Taylor’s control, with Doe besieged in his Presidential residence, and with the NPFL and other ethnic militias having free rein in the capital, a generalized state of insecurity prevailed in the country. The Western Powers however, showed scant interest in the tragedy unfolding in Liberia; leaving West African states to scramble a sub-regional response.

In May 1990 at the behest of Babangida, Nigeria’s military ruler at the time, a five-member Standing Mediation Committee (SMC) comprising Nigeria, Ghana, Gambia, Mali, and Togo had been formed within ECOWAS to negotiate a political resolution to the crisis. Several rounds of mediation however produced no tangible results. Charles Taylor felt he was on the cusp of military victory; hence he had little incentive to commit to any political settlement that may have resulted in a power sharing arrangement. Under diplomatic pressure from Nigeria, the SMC recommended the deployment of a sub-regional peacekeeping force to intimidate the warring parties back to the negotiating table.

On the 7th of August, ECOWAS established ECOMOG – the sub-regional force that was to enforce a ceasefire – initially comprising troops from Nigeria, Ghana, Gambia, Guinea, and Sierra-Leone. On the 24th of August, the ECOMOG troops were inserted into Liberia: 3,000 initially, rapidly augmented to 6,000 within a month. ECOMOG forces would eventually peak at 16,000 in 1993, before tapering off to around 11,000 by early 1997. Nigeria, however, dominated the force – providing both the overall commander and between 75-80 percent of the total troops. Thus began Nigeria’s quest to pacify Liberia.


It didn’t take long for the Liberian conflict to spill into Sierra-Leone. Sierra-Leone was a troop contributor to the ECOMOG mission in Liberia – with about 700 troops – and it had been a strong supporter of Nigeria’s muscular approach to the Liberian crisis. Sierra-Leone’s only international airport also served as the Nigerian military’s primary staging post for operations in Liberia. Charles Taylor therefore, keen to exact his revenge, facilitated the creation of a Sierra-Leonean rebel group known as the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). In March 1991, the RUF invaded Sierra-Leone from Liberia – igniting a brutal civil war that would consume the country for the next eleven years. By 2002 when the war ended, 50, 000 civilians had perished and 2.5 million people had either become internally displaced or had fled to neighbouring countries.

The RUF incursion prompted calls within Sierra-Leone for the redeployment of the country’s ECOMOG contingent for internal security duties at home. But Babangida, keen to blunt perceptions of ECOMOG being a Nigerian show (there was already considerable disquiet within West African capitals over Nigeria’s overwhelming dominance within ECOMOG), offered to deploy 1,200 Nigerian troops instead in return for Sierra-Leone’s continued commitment to ECOMOG’s Liberia mission.

Nigerian policy however was limited to bolstering the security of the capital city, Freetown. This insulated Nigerian soldiers from direct participation in the escalating civil war ravaging the countryside. Events in May 1997 would finally drag Nigeria into the Sierra-Leonean vortex.

Much like Liberia, Sierra-Leone had suffered decades of predatory rule which had caused state institutions, including the military, to decay to the point of collapse. By the mid-90s, Sierra-Leone resembled a “phantom state” devoid of any institutional capacity and utterly dependent on others to preserve its territorial integrity. Nigerian forces protected its capital from being overrun by the RUF, while a South African mercenary firm and a tribal militia made up of local hunters battled the rebel threat in the countryside.

On the 25th of May 1997, taking advantage of the departure of the mercenary firm – their contract had been terminated in January by President Tejan Kabbah following international pressure – and barely one year into the country’s nascent democracy – Kabbah had only been elected the year before – a handful of semi-literate corporals and sergeants calling themselves the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) seized power in a coup d’├ętat. Announcing their intention to bring an end to the civil war, they invited the rebels to come and join them in a coalition government. Given such a dramatic turn of events, Nigeria, being the Kabbah government’s protecting power, simply couldn’t allow such a humiliating affront to go unchallenged.

After an initially botched attempt to retake Freetown and reinstall Kabbah’s government on the 2nd of June; Nigeria reinforced its forces in the bits of the capital it still controlled, worked to diplomatically isolate the AFRC/RUF regime, and with UN backing imposed a naval and air blockade on Sierra-Leone - all in a bid to force the usurpers from power. With the AFRC/RUF regime proving recalcitrant and unwilling to yield to these pressures however, Nigeria’s patience finally snapped. On the 6th of February 1998, in a well-coordinated assault lasting about a week, Nigerian forces dislodged the AFRC/RUF regime and expelled the rebels from Freetown. The victory was nothing short of stunning. Buoyed by triumphalism, the victorious soldiers were ordered to pursue the RUF into the hinterland and militarily defeat them. Thus began Nigeria’s quest to pacify Sierra-Leone.

Why Intervene and Did It Succeed?

Why Intervention?

Babangida initially hoped to achieve two objectives by sending Nigerian troops into Liberia: Force the warlords to commit to a political settlement, and contain the conflict from spreading to neighbouring countries. When it became clear that Taylor’s ambition of seizing state power for himself was the biggest obstacle to peace, two new objectives gradually took shape: Crippling Taylor’s war machine, and blocking his ascent to the Liberian Presidency. The reasoning being that with Taylor’s military machine broken and his ambition frustrated, he would be more likely to commit to a political solution.

In Sierra-Leone however, Abacha, Nigeria’s then military ruler, initially had a limited objective when he authorised Nigeria's direct intervention in the country’s civil war: Overturning the May 1997 coup and reinstating Kabbah to power. After Nigerian troops routed the rebels in February 1998 and restored Kabbah’s government, perhaps flushed with the impressive victory, a new objective emerged: Defeating the RUF and pacifying the entire country. There was also a secondary objective which led Abacha to opt for intervention. In the 1990s Nigeria was under limited sanctions due to Abiola’s incarceration and the hanging of Ken Saro Wiwa and his colleagues. Therefore to improve the battered image of his regime and stave off the threat of more stringent sanctions, Abacha, a military dictator at home, decided on military intervention to safeguard a fledgling democracy abroad.

A further implicit reason which powerfully shaped Babangida’s and Abacha’s decisions to commit Nigerian troops in Liberia and Sierra-Leone has been attributed to a deep-rooted belief, shared by most Nigerians, in the country’s destiny as West Africa’s leading power. The interventions were therefore meant to demonstrate that Nigeria could police its turbulent neighbourhood and shape the security environment of the sub-region.

Did the Interventions Succeed?

Geopolitically, the interventions improved Nigeria’s image. The attempts to pacify Liberia and Sierra-Leone through the near unilateral use of military power enhanced Nigeria’s claim to sub-regional leadership. Many commentators saw the country’s leading role in ECOMOG as an indication that Anglophone West Africa finally possessed what the Francophone sphere had in France for decades: A hegemon with the power and resolve to stabilise weak regimes and reverse the tide of collapse in failing states. Without Nigeria’s diplomatic and political leadership, and military and financial commitment, the ECOMOG missions to Liberia and Sierra-Leone would have never gotten off the ground. The geopolitical achievement however, should not obscure the fact that Nigeria failed in its political and military objectives.


Nigerian artillerymen in action in Liberia (Patrick Robert/Corbis)

In Liberia, all four objectives of (1) forcing the warlords to durably commit to a political settlement, (2) containing the conflict from spreading, (3) crippling Taylor’s war-machine, and (4) denying him the presidency were not achieved. On the first objective, while many peace agreements were signed, the agreements merely bought the warlords time to recuperate for the next round of fighting. Hence, each failed not long after being signed. On the second objective, the spread of the Liberian conflict into Sierra-Leone put paid to that hope. On the third and fourth objectives, Nigerian forces was neither able to decisively break Taylor’s war-making resolve, nor perpetually frustrate his ascent to the Liberian presidency. In fact Nigeria, recognising it couldn’t militarily defeat Taylor, eventually reconciled itself to a Taylor presidency.

Abacha, who came to power in 1993 and therefore inherited Babangida’s Liberia mission, reportedly didn’t share the same antipathy that Babangida had for Taylor. The lack of personal animosity between the two men paved the way for Taylor’s visit to Nigeria to meet with Abacha in June 1995 to settle differences. This rapprochement eventually culminated in Taylor’s election to the Presidency in 1997 with Nigerian acquiescence – thereby bringing an end to Liberia’s first civil war. Many observers were left wondering what exactly had been achieved: Taylor was exactly where he would likely have been seven years ago without ECOMOG’s intervention. Taylor himself, commenting on the outcome, wryly observed: “If we had been allowed to win on the battlefield, we would have finished the war in six months in 1990”.

This peace however would prove illusory. Within a year of his coming to power, Taylor, citing sovereignty concerns, told ECOMOG to leave. And within two years, his repressive rule would eventually plunge Liberia into another civil war which would last four years, 1999-2003. Abandoned by former allies and faced with encirclement by two rebel armies, Taylor finally relinquished power in August 2003. If anything, it is the outcome of this second war that is the source of Liberia’s current peace. And Nigeria played absolutely no military role in it – save for sending peacekeepers to monitor the ceasefire which concluded the war. So the notion that the Nigerian army won the Liberian civil war and brought peace to the country is simply false.


Nigerian reinforcements arriving in Freetown, Sierra-Leone (Getty Images)

The army’s efforts in Sierra-Leone were met with similar disappointment. The main objective of defeating the RUF was not achieved. In fact reading Brigadier Adeshina’s (rtd) The Reversed Victory, one gets the distinct impression that Nigerian forces came within a hair’s breadth of strategic defeat.

After dislodging the rebels from Freetown and restoring Kabbah’s government in February 1998, Nigerian troops met with initial success as they probed deeper into Sierra-Leone to seek out and destroy the RUF. As the troops advanced, the rebels melted before them. In April, Kono District, the main diamond producing centre and the country’s economic nerve-centre, fell to Nigerian troops. Many other cities similarly fell to Nigerian troops – often after a token defence by retreating RUF forces. Outright military victory seemed imminent. What was happening however, as has been chronicled by Lansana Gberie, a leading scholar on Sierra-Leone’s civil war, was that the RUF “avoided confrontation” with Nigerian troops during this phase. Having been badly mauled earlier in the Freetown battle, the rebels instead retreated to their forest redoubts to rejuvenate and rebuild their shattered force. And the Nigerian army, lacking in “counterinsurgency training, failed to pursue the rebels to their hideouts, preferring conventional assaults against towns”. 

As the rebel strength recovered, their attacks on Nigerian positions increased in intensity and frequency – first only hitting isolated outposts with hit-and-run attacks, eventually mutating into conventional assaults on supposedly well dug-in Nigerian positions. By October, the momentum had palpably shifted in favour of the RUF. In December, now with the wind in their sails, the rebels mounted a lighting month-long offensive which saw them reconquer the northern and eastern portions of the country. According to Brigadier Adeshina, so total was Nigeria’s collapse in the north and the east that in some sectors the rebels captured strategically vital towns “without firing a shot while pursuing our boys”.

On the 6th of January 1999, just under a year after they were forcibly dislodged from the capital, the RUF stormed Freetown again, intent on reconquering it. In a bruising battle lasting just under a month, Nigerian troops managed to expel the rebels and reassert control over the capital city. As the rebels retreated, leaving carnage in their wake, the belief that Nigeria could win a decisive military victory on the Sierra-Leonean battlefield evaporated.

Lansana Gberie perfectly captures the surprise which many felt at the revival in the RUF’s military power, particularly as it was believed they were on their backs just a couple of months ago: “The spectacular resurgence in rebel activities caused much bewilderment. How was it that a group that had been routed from power without much resistance, that had seen its control of nearly 70 percent of the country reduced to scattered and isolated parts of northern and eastern Sierra-Leone, and had been all but pronounced dead, resurge with such power and destructiveness?”

The Sierra-Leonean President who, during Nigeria’s early successes, had initially resisted calls for a political settlement to the civil war bowed to reality. He signed a controversial peace agreement with the rebels in July 1999 which granted them blanket immunity and cabinet positions – the leader of the RUF was made Vice President and minister of natural resources. The UN was called in to monitor the newly agreed ceasefire and co-administer with ECOMOG the disarming and demobilisation of the rebels.

This proved a false dawn. The RUF, rather than disarm and demobilise as per the peace agreement, instead harassed UN peacekeepers – in many cases stripping them of their weapons, and occasionally holding them hostage. Concluding that the UN peacekeepers and ECOMOG forces were too weak and demoralised to confront them, in May 2000 the RUF massed for yet another assault on Freetown. The deployment of British troops finally stabilized the volatile situation, and forced the rebels to disarm and demobilise. This was what created the condition for durable peace to return to Sierra-Leone.

Commenting on the outcome of Nigeria’s intervention, Gberie delivers this withering verdict: “Almost every observer concluded, after the January 1999 attack on Freetown, that the Nigerian-led ECOMOG force had failed, and failed disastrously. And no one failed to notice that it was the robust presence of the British troops that prevented the total collapse of the UN mission and a relapse into violence”. In reality, though a highly commendable effort, Nigeria's ECOMOG-led mission to Sierra-Leone failed to quell the civil war and restore peace to the broken country.

The less than impressive outcomes in Liberia and Sierra-Leone, and the current challenges in the fight against Boko Haram, underscore the urgent need for comprehensive military reform.

For me the most important lesson to be drawn from the ECOMOG missions is the urgent need for comprehensive and far-reaching reforms of the military. For anyone familiar with the military’s operational history, the current failures in the fight against Boko Haram will come as no surprise. For example, many of the deficiencies which hampered the effective use of military power in Liberia and Sierra-Leone – lack of combat readiness, poor planning, command failure, obsolete weaponry, supply shortages, corruption etc. – have also blunted the military’s operational effectiveness against Boko Haram.  If the same maladies that afflicted the military in combat operations twenty odd years ago still characterise its operations today, this tells me that the organisational rot in the armed forces is deep and pervasive. Without looking at the military’s operational history objectively, we will never recognise the need for urgent military reforms. And without comprehensive military reforms Nigeria will always struggle to deploy effective military power, whether abroad or at home.