Air Marshall Alex Badeh is Nigeria’s 15th Chief of Defence Staff. His appointment came at a time the war on insurgency in the Northern part of the country entered a new phase. A brilliant military officer, Badeh’s meteoric rise to the topmost position in the armed forces is not a surprise having had a distinguished career in the air force. With over 6000 flying hours on several aircraft types in the Nigerian Air Force to his credit as well as extensive international flight operations experience, Badeh who is the immediate past Chief of Air Staff, had previously served as National Defence College’s Director of National Military Strategy. In this interview with THISDAY Board of Editors, he speaks on the ongoing campaign against terror in the Northeast, the challenges facing the military, the controversy over state of emergency and the collaboration with foreign partners. He also speaks on the abducted Chibok schoolgirls. Excerpts
Where are we today in the war against terror and is it winnable?
The war on terror is ongoing and the war is certainly winnable.
Few weeks ago, you told the world that the key defining issue of this war was the abduction of over 200 girls and you told the world that you knew where they were but you didn’t want to use force to rescue them. Are you likely to use the latest ‘Obama doctrine’ with the Taliban or what other steps are you taking?
As at the time I made that statement, you know what was happening, the military was being bashed left, right and centre for inaction and of course we have our own sources. Some people said I was being too hasty by saying I knew where the girls were. But to bring down the temperature that time, you sometimes have to give little information, and that was what I did. We gave out little information, but all the cards are on the table on how to get our girls back. The president has said we should step up to the plate but we know we can’t go ahead and use force to extricate those girls from where they are. It’s impossible, if you do, you endanger their lives and have us facing more problems.
Is that to imply that the girls are still safe where they are being kept? Can you assure Nigerians of this fact?
I don’t want to commit myself to say that they are safe or not. We just know where they are, from information gotten from different sources, it’s still assumed that the girls are safe.
So when are we likely to see a rescue of these girls whether from negotiations or other means, because it is not enough to know that they are safe, we want the girls brought back home?
I don’t want to commit myself on that. As I said, all things are on the table. We are working with our international partners, the people who have offered us help, we are discussing and building things up.
The bigger issue for some people is not just that the abduction happened but the rate of response. What do you have to say to that because the people of Chibok said that they gave notice and there was no response and many days after there still wasn’t any response, and that the parents themselves had to embark on a personal rescue journey and all of that?
You see, when you are going for military operations they don’t just tell you that the enemy is in there, just go and meet him. You don’t just go, you have to assess what the enemy has before you go and if we had gone immediately into that forest, where they were probably trying to keep the girls, what would have happened? It will be an all-out war and fight, and then you endanger their (the girls’) lives instead of rescuing them. We are not saying we should go and rescue the girls and get 20 or get 180 out of the total figure of girls that had been taken. We want all of them out.
Before the kidnap, there were worries that Boko Haram was on the way to Chibok, but the Army did not respond on time. We were told that we had 15 men on the road block but these insurgents came in their hundreds?
When they said they were going to Chibok, we didn’t know exactly where they were going to in Chibok. So people couldn’t have mobilised themselves to go and lay siege to the school because you know any town they go to, they do massive killings, lots of looting. Therefore, if so many of them came, it will be suicidal for you to face, maybe, a hundred people armed to the teeth that want to die. If you kill them, to them it’s gain, if they kill you, well, they haven’t done anything. If you are not deployed in number, you don’t get up to go to war. And because they are in Borno, which is so large, you can’t possibly cover the whole state. You see the kind of war we are fighting is something that people never contemplated. When you form an army, it is to go and face other armies, not to go and face every village in a state as big as Borno. Therefore, because we are covering such a vast area, you can’t deploy in number. Don’t forget that the people we are fighting they see us, count us in numbers, but we don’t know them. They know how many people are deployed in a particular place, they go and prepare and come back with 20 times more people than you have.
Therefore, are we likely to win this war or do we just give up?
No, God forbid, we cannot give up, we will win.
I cannot say. I gave out information (on Chibok girls and April deadline) and you saw the outcome. So now we keep things under wraps and we are planning.
If you say that they (Boko Haram) are seeing us (Security forces) how come they see you, is there some form of infiltration?
That is not what I mean. When we deploy, because you don’t know where they are, you are deployed at a particular place to defend a town, and then the number of those in that town can be ascertained, then they are passing information. Don’t forget that in Borno State, there are too many sympathisers in the communities.
So how can we win the heart of our communities where we are operating?
Government did it last year. Federal Government gave lots of food aid to the three affected states. I remembered the army trying to win hearts and minds (of the people), went and dug boreholes, gave the people good water. Unfortunately, Boko Haram came and destroyed all the boreholes that we dug. So it’s not going to be a quick fix thing, but gradually as we take over our communities, we give them what they require.
There is also a school of thought that there are many sympathisers of Boko Haram because there are several extra-judicial killings in these communities?
Someone who kills without uniform and runs into a house, but you know him, if you go inside, and see him with a rifle that unknown to you might be loaded or not, what step would you take? But that is what we are facing. They hide in civilian clothes, have guns, and of course, anyone who takes up arms against the state, and is killed, is a combatant.
What many people from Borno have said is that immediately after an operation, the army will come in and round up people and they also profile people based on how they look, and they take them to some places and execute them, of which there have been human rights reports and reports of other bodies. That in a sense, some people will prefer to cover Boko Haram than the military that comes and assumes that one of them is Boko Haram?
That is their words against our own. You know that anything that happens they just call BBC or Aljezeera and report all manner of things that have no truth and you know what they want to do is to paint us black.
You are from a Northeast community, so you are a member of the Northeast even as an individual, and your community (Mubi) was attacked only a few days ago. How can you win back the confidence and trust of the people of the Northeast?
I don’t want to be drawn into this. Fighting this war is not for the Federal Government alone, it is also not the lone function of our armed forces. It is everybody’s fight. Every state has a government and local government, what are they doing? Because all we hear about is the President. The governor said that the Federal Government is blind, deaf and dumb. Is it possible? It has to start with the people, the people see us as enemies and we are not. We are there to protect the state.
There is disparity between your office and that of the Finance Ministry about the budget that is needed to fight the war against terror. Have you resolved that or is there still a problem with budgetary allocations?
The military is part of Nigeria, and everybody goes to the same pool to go and get money. Whatever we are given we use it judiciously for the purpose of which it was given. There is no government money that is released and people don’t follow it up and find out how it is being used. So we make judicious use of whatever we get.
In the last census, where there were 100 million Nigerians, we had about 200,000 members of the Armed Forces, but as at today, we are at about 170 million Nigerians, we have 130,000 members of the armed forces. Without equipment can you really function with your hands tied to the back? Why don’t you tell Nigerians what the issues are?
I know that the military have equipment and we are making the best use of it. The President yesterday said; “We are doing more for the armed forces”. This is in terms of equipment. In terms of numbers, the armed forces don’t go to build barracks, barracks are built by government. We are no longer in the days where we are 250,000 with 200,000 living in batchers and then 50,000 living in good accommodation. We are much more civilised now. We are looking to improve the number of soldiers that we have and we are recruiting as well. The Air Force is training, the Army is doing recruitment, and as they are recruited, they will have to be accommodated.
This means that there are challenges facing the military?
I don’t want to say that it is a challenge. Soldiers always say obey before complain. So we recruit, somehow we accommodate them, and we are doing what we are doing.
You said the soldiers are now more enlightened and more civilised, and have a measure of good life. Is that the reason why there are rising cases of complaints about funding and soldiers’ welfare?
We have been fighting in Niger Delta for a very long time, since 2002, and soldiers have lost their lives, did anybody complain? We got to Maidugiri and everyone is complaining about shifting bases and being posted on peacekeeping. We didn’t come into the military to sit in offices; it was part of the attestation that they had signed prior to their appointment. If it means sacrificing your life in defence of your fatherland, you will. This is serious times, the people complaining about welfare, from the defence headquarters, we give soldiers their allowances in advance, but you don’t expect that the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) will go to every unit to supervise what every Commander is doing.
Can you help us make a sense out of the foreign support. Can you tell us how many groups, what they are doing and how much response are we getting?
Since we brought them on board, they have been here, and as a matter of fact, the head of the United States Assistance Team visited and they understand the situation better and we also understand what they are doing better. They are working harmoniously. We are getting information from them, which we are using, but I think we need to go a step further, and that is what he is going to take to his political masters.
There are series of reported cases of attempted mutiny but not yet defined as such. There is an allegation of sabotage and infiltration on the part of soldiers, whereby they release information to the enemy, part of which resulted in the last unfortunate event. There is also the issue of selling of uniforms to the enemy. So I want you to respond to these series of allegations especially that of the top military mutiny?
The term mutiny in the military is a very big word; the implication is so grave. So I don’t want to use the word mutiny or anything that the people are insinuating. If there was mutiny, we would not be fighting. It’s just people’s perception. On infiltration, I also do not want to believe it. We might have one bad element or the other, but it’s not something that have gotten to our attention. If it ever happens, we will get the people and deal with them. Selling uniforms, uniforms are the cheapest things to buy in the whole world. Do you know how many times customs have arrested container load of uniforms. They are sold in the market because these are materials that can be bought. How many uniforms do our army have that you go and sell yours? You have what you need for your operations. We are not saying we have not lost people, if the enemy starts using the uniform of the dead, there is nothing you can do about it.
Why can’t you storm Sambisa forest? Why can’t we have such a major entry into Sambisa like the D-Day landing in Normandy or the way we did it in Liberia in the early 90’s?
You might have heard of what we call pyrrhic victory, but you come out worse than you entered, and you wish you didn’t even start it. On the D-Day, do you know how many lives were lost because there was attack from everywhere – both land, air and in the sea? You storm Sambisa and then lose everybody, then what have you done? The aim (of rescuing the girls) is not to lose anybody. In fact, let those people (terrorists) die for their own cause, we don’t want to die (for their cause). Yes, you could storm Sambisa but what are you going to meet? If you don’t know the weapon of the enemy can you prepare for it? So it’s going to be gradual. Nibble by nibble we will enter into the forest.
The Air Force is heavily dependent on air power and we have the best trained by this country in air warfare, why are we not deploying our air assets against Boko Haram?
We are deploying our assets against Boko Haram. The issue is that they are spread all over, and in small groups. So if a bomb is thrown at them from air, do you know how much a bomb cost? It cost a lot of money. More air assets are going to join in the fight. The use of air power in counter-insurgency is very difficult. You don’t want to talk about throwing bombs indiscriminately but targeting the enemy infrastructure. You want to go and destroy the factory where they are making their weapons and all their means of survival. However, the challenge is that there is none there like that. It’s humans that they are chasing and this involves the use of helicopters.
The state of emergency was declared last year in the northeastern states. However, most people and the governors of this affected states are saying that it’s of no effect?
What is state of emergency? What does it deprive the people of? Apart from curfew if things get bad, every other activities are carried on normally. And the CDS have not asked for any financial support from the states. Therefore, when you say that state of emergency is not working, it is because it allows the security forces to be able to carry out duties, make arrest without charging you to court and can detain for interrogation for 24 hours. We can search your house without court permit. So it just gives us power to search. Other than that, there is absolutely no infringement. If state of emergency was that bad it would not be in the constitution. In the constitution, it says a governor can ask the presidency to declare a state of emergency in his state. So if those who crafted the constitution knew it was bad, it wouldn’t have been in the constitution.
There are people who have noted that the military is not as effective as it should be because they don’t have total control over the state, meaning the governors should have been removed and in its place have sole administrators. Do you support that?
The military are defenders of democracy. So when people are saying go and remove state governors so that you have total emergency, what is total emergency? The constitution doesn’t talk about the removal of governor. There is nothing like total emergency. It is alien to our constitution.
You mentioned that fighting insurgency is a community warfare, that it is not what soldiers are traditionally trained for, but this is what we have to contend with. What has been done to bring up to speed with this kind of warfare?
Working with our international partners, we do lots of training on counter terrorism and fighting in difficult places and we do courses and training for the sake of human rights, lots of arm conflict. But as you said, its alien to us. We were never trained to fight our brothers within a particular place. So it’s something that is totally new. If a soldier gets scared and does something wrong, that is what we call tug of war, but we are learning. Don’t forget that several conflicts are involved in fighting insurgency. It’s not something you wish away in one day.
People believe that the military does not have incentive to win this war and as long as this continues more money will be appropriated?
Yes, more money will be appropriated. It’s not going into personal pockets, it’s used to get back equipment lost in the cause of fighting this insurgency. The Value Added Tax isn’t coming to me also, it’s going to the government.
You are aware of this allegation of corruption and the National Assembly have claimed it is difficult to carry out an oversight on the defence budget, what is your response to that?
I have been reading it, but corruption according to who now? We have always made our requirements known. Any penny due to us, there are people who look at it and monitor it. I was at the Presidential Air Fleet (PAF) in 2002 and that was when I started going to the National Assembly to defend budget and budgetary expenditures.
In the past weeks there have been consistent attacks especially in particular corners of Borno State all constituted around the Cameroonian border and all the reports keep insisting that the soldiers were not on ground. Why hasn’t the military changed its strategy by trying to deploy a bit more soldiers to those areas since there seems to be a concentration of insurgents who go there to attack the place?
You know if you move soldiers from other places to these areas, they will now change base. By the way, we don’t have to deploy in numbers, and we have seen from the air where three vehicles went to Michika and started killing people, of course it was in the night and we didn’t have soldiers there to monitor all that they where doing. When they finished, we followed them up (with surveillance) to their houses. The next day after knowing their abode we went and picked them up.
In the fight against Boko Haram, what will be your response to it? Can we get real time information of their operations?
What those people do to people they consider have given information is shocking. Human intelligence is very difficult in that area; we have caught people, even those that would not strike you as leaking information to the enemy.
What is your message to the Nigerian people? Should they have more confidence, should they be prepared for the worse?
The government of Nigeria is doing everything it can to ensure peace and security as charged. Daily killings happen everywhere in the world, it’s just that the number that is given is the difference. In other countries and in major cities, they kill up to 500 people in a day but they don’t report it, but in our own case because of the freedom (of information), anything that happens is being voiced out. By the way, all the numbers being put out as death casualties, who has ever verified it? In fact, the veracity of such information sometimes are questionable. (For authentication) we even wait to hear if the governor has gone there. If he has, then we know something serious has happened, if they don’t go we just probably assume that it’s a ruse.
You just get reports from journalists in Maidugiri not on a war front, giving figures even from international media. Why is the military information machinery not giving information or balancing those facts, because that is what is reported globally? What are you doing to bring the facts to the people?
When we lose our people, we tell the exact numbers we lost. However, we don’t have control of the casualty figures the enemy gives out. I don’t think Nigeria will be at peace if such facts are given out.
Is there something you think the Nigeria military would have done better that is not doing?
No! Of course, any day you go to school you learn something.
How are you going to get the equipment to fight this insurgency?
Government is doing a lot for the armed forces, we have heard that from the President and we are looking for more and government is providing more. That I can tell you.