By Pamela Dockins
WASHINGTON — A Nigerian soldier says he has witnessed incidents that suggest some Nigerian military commanders are working with Boko Haram, an Islamist militant group blamed for thousands of deaths since 2009.
In an exclusive interview with VOA’s Hausa service, he described how his military unit, based in the northeastern Borno State region, was ambushed by Boko Haram fighters.
The soldier, who did not want to be identified, said the commander of a nearby military unit, based in the town of Bama, recently sought assistance from his unit in carrying out a raid.
The soldier said when the two military units joined up, they were given different uniforms. The Bama unit commander gave his own troops green uniforms. The soldier said his unit received tan “desert camouflage” uniforms.
When the troops reached the battle area, the soldier said the commander of the better-equipped Bama unit suddenly withdrew his forces, leaving the remaining troops to fend for themselves against Boko Haram fighters.
Speaking in Hausa, he said, “We had only light arms and our men were being picked off one after the other.”
The soldier also said he recognized some of the Boko Haram fighters as his former military trainers in Kontagora, a town near the capital, Abuja.
“We realized that some of them were actually mercenaries from the Nigerian army… hired to fight us,” he said.
This soldier and others have said that too often, commanders have pocketed money that was supposed to be used to help equip units.
Government has no comment
VOA has made repeated attempts to get reaction from the Nigerian government for this story but no officials have been willing to speak on the record.
However, in a January 2012 speech, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan said Boko Haram members have infiltrated his government’s executive, legislative and judicial sectors, as well as the police and armed forces.
Jonathan has declared a state of emergency in three northern regions where Boko Haram is active, and launched operations to destroy the group’s camps. Despite those efforts, though, large-scale attacks have continued.
Soldier’s account “credible”
Atlantic Council Africa Center Director Peter Pham said the soldier’s account could have merit.
“It certainly would not surprise me that it is happening,” said Pham.
Pham said the goal should be to figure out how and why collaboration between military officers and terror groups could happen.
“What’s critical is to understand, if there is this collusion, to understand whether it is a collusion born of corruption, born of desperation simply to avoid combat that would result in casualties for the men under your command, or if it is born of ideological sympathy with the insurgents,” he said.
Apart from some well-trained elite units, Pham said most of Nigeria’s military is “woefully underfunded and under-resourced” in terms of equipment and training.
Effects of “systemic corruption”
E.J. Hogendoorn is deputy director of the International Crisis Group’s Africa program. The group recently released a detailed report about the Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria.
He said Nigeria’s military disfunction is part of a broader problem of systemic corruption extending through most government sectors.
Hogendoorn says “drivers,” such as bad governance and the inability of state institutions to provide basic services, help create a pool of unemployed youth “ripe for radicalization.”
“We argue that even were Boko Haram to be defeated, if you don’t deal with those drivers, you are not going to be able to stabilize either northern Nigeria or the entire country,” he said.
Hogendoorn said in order for change to occur, the Nigerian government needs to address corruption and poor governance in a systematic and sustained way.