With just two years left in President Buhari’s tenure, can a new approach defeat the militants and bandits who are killing, kidnapping and traumatizing Nigeria’s people?
DAKAR, Senegal — When a former military ruler, Muhammadu Buhari, was first elected president in 2015, many Nigerians thought he would deliver on promises to defeat Islamist militants in the country’s northeast and ratchet down the violence.
But today, the Boko Haram insurgency and its offshoots continue to bring terror, displacement and hunger to millions of people. Across Nigeria, gangs of kidnappers are taking hostages in ever greater numbers. And thousands of herders and farmers have died in a spiraling conflict that began over access to land.
So when on Tuesday Mr. Buhari ousted all four of the country’s military chiefs, many Nigerians breathed a collective sigh of relief. But others said that nearly six years into his tenure, it was too little, too late.
“Without political will to fight the insurgency, all these changes and appointments will only benefit those involved and not us, the poor victims,” said Ibrahim Mamman, a former fish trader who lost everything when Boko Haram attacked his town and he had to flee, his 6-year-old son strapped to his back.
“Action, they say, is louder than words. Let’s see the service chiefs in action first and rate them accordingly.”
The chiefs of the overall defense staff, the army, the navy and the air force all resigned and retired from service on Tuesday. The army chief, Tukur Buratai, was replaced by a commander he had himself fired in 2017.
Many Nigerians took to social media on Wednesday to demand that General Buratai stand trial for his alleged role in the killings of members of a Shiite Muslim sect in 2015, pro-Biafra demonstrators in 2016, and peaceful protesters at a tollgate in Lekki, a suburb of the economic capital, Lagos, last year.
In his first meeting with his new military chiefs, Mr. Buhari admitted for the first time that Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa, was in a “state of emergency.” The 78-year-old president has little more than two years to do something about it before his second and final term expires.
Hopes were high that the new commanders could bring change, particularly to the fight against Boko Haram, one of the country’s deadliest and most prolonged security crises. The new chief of defense staff, Lucky Eluonye Onyenuchea Irabor — better known as Leo Irabor — led a major operation against Boko Haram called Operation Lafiya Dole, which means Peace by Force. He then headed the Multinational Joint Task Force, also countering Boko Haram, at a regional level.
“I am optimistic that there will be light at the end of the tunnel,” said Alhassan Ayuba, a market trader in Maiduguri, the northeastern city at the heart of the Boko Haram crisis.
In recent years the Nigerian military has adopted a defensive strategy in the northeast, retreating to garrison towns that it has christened “super camps,” digging trenches around them and waiting to repel Boko Haram attacks rather than going on the offensive against the militants in their hide-outs.
The change of leadership presents an opportunity to scrap the super camp strategy, said Ahmed Jaha, a member of Nigeria’s House of Representatives from Borno state, and one of those pushing for change.
The super camp strategy was “a deliberate attempt by the Nigerian Army to shield themselves from Boko Haram attack, thereby exposing harmless, unarmed civilians,” Mr. Jaha said.
He represents a constituency that includes Chibok, where in 2014, hundreds of schoolgirls were abducted from their dormitories, causing global outrage. More than 100 of the Chibok girls are still missing, and many of their parents have since died, Mr. Jaha said, putting their deaths down to the stress and trauma they had been through.
“To deal with insurgents, you have to be taking the battle to their doorsteps. You cannot remain in a camp and claim that you are fighting insurgents,” he said. “The idea of super camps is not going to finish this war.”
Another of the military’s toughest public critics was the governor of Borno state, Babagana Zulum.
“The Nigeria Army has failed us,” he told local reporters in December after 35 people were abducted on a short stretch of road that led to Maiduguri, the state capital. He said that soldiers and the police were “harassing and collecting money from innocent travelers” instead of doing their jobs, adding: “I cannot foresee the capacity of the army ending this insurgency any time soon.”
But Mr. Zulum was effusive in his praise of the fired chiefs on Tuesday evening, and welcomed their successors. “They know all the issues and I am sure they will hit the ground running,” he said.
It is not merely the conflict in the northeast that they will have to resolve, however; the country has lurched from one security crisis to the next. Piracy is increasing off Nigeria’s Atlantic coastline. Militancy continues in the oil-rich Niger Delta. Protests against police brutality came to an abrupt halt last year when the military killed peaceful protesters.
And banditry, as one of Nigeria’s many complex conflicts is known, has wracked even the president’s home state, Katsina, where more than 300 boys were abducted last month. They were later released, but had to take part in a public relations exercise for President Buhari before they could see their parents.
Mr. Mamman, who fled his hometown, Baga, with his child on his back in 2015, said he now lives “a dependent life” in Maiduguri, and would like nothing more than to go back home. He used to have a thriving fish business there and farmed rice, corn and chili peppers, employing 25 people.
But to return requires peace. And even with the military shake-up, peace remains a distant dream.
“We will only celebrate when we fully settle back in our ancestral communities,” he said.
Ruth Maclean reported from Dakar, Senegal, and Ismail Alfa from Maiduguri, Nigeria.