TROOPS are in Sambisa forest – the bulwark of the fundamentalist Boko Haram sect – in an effort to retrieve the abducted Chibok girls.
The over 200 girls are believed to be in captivity in the forest. They were abducted from their hostel in Chibok, Borno State, on April 15.
The government has been under pressure to bring them back.
The Defence Headquarters (DHQ) said yesterday that troops were in Sambisa forest, which was, however, silent on the next line of action, even as it stressed that only the military has a “major plan” in the offing.
It said that contrary to insinuations, Nigerian soldiers are trained for counter-terrorism.
The Director of Defence Information, Maj.-Gen. Chris Olukolade stated this at a session with editors and Defence correspondents, which was organised by INigerian Initiative, a non-governmental organisation active in the redefinition of Nigerians’ perception of their country.
He said: “What makes it difficult to get to Sambisa forest? All of it is strategic, gentlemen. We are not even completely out of Sambisa forest as I am talking to you. We are in Sambisa forest and we are in places contiguous to it.
“But we have a major plan in mind, which I should not be disclosing now. We are not weak; we have the capacity.”
“Sambisa Forest is over 6,000 square kilometres. It is not true that the place was re-taken by Boko Haram. There is freedom of movement in Nigeria and so, people move about freely. Do you know that there are village settlements and communities in the Sambisa forest and that is another limitation to bombing?”
Concerning foreign interventions to rescue the Chibok girls, Gen. Olukolade simply said: “On a diplomatic level, I will say all is well.”
He said Boko Haram had been attacking some towns and villages because the sect was carrying out its “last battle” in desperation.
He went on: “The truth about recent attacks by Boko Haram is that all the places that they thought were their bases have been taken over by the military and so out of desperation, they are scattering everywhere. What they are doing is like a last battle for them.
“There had been occasions when the terrorists were reported to be using helicopters in their attacks whereas it was the Nigerian military helicopter that was flying to attack the rebels.
“Nonetheless, we are still committed to securing the civilian population at whatever cost. We are still committed in ensuring that we degrade their ability to continue their activity and eventually eliminate them”,
He said Boko Haram was joking by laying claim to any part of the country, adding that the military would soon sweep off the insurgents in any part of the country, including Gwoza.
Gen. Olukolade said: “I will reaffirm what I said that no portion of this country is available for terrorists to occupy. If they appear to be doing so, it is just a joke. With respect to this location, everything is being done to ensure that everywhere in Nigeria is safe and secure. “
“The goal of Nigerian military and security forces at the moment is to deny the terrorists the resources they need to continue to hold our citizens to ransom. We want to defeat them so decisively that every Nigerian can live in peace and be able to pursue his economic and social activities.
“We want to counter terrorism to the point that their coordination and their ability, their future effort to destabilise and cause instability in our country will be negligible or non-existent. We also want to ensure that haven the military will continue to contribute to the development and progress of our country’s democratic state.”
The DHQ spokesperson debunked the notion that Nigerian military was not trained to embark on counter-insurgency.
He added: “I do not agree that we are not trained for this period. Even before the advent of terrorism, our training doctrine has factored in counter terrorism right from the beginning. It’s only that the intensity may differ but everybody has knowledge of counter terrorism operations. It’s just that it’s only now that we are practising it in reality.”
On the alleged extra-judicial killings by troops, Gen. Olukolade explained that a probe panel had invited Amnesty International officials to substantiate their claim.
He added: “The probe of the Amnesty International’s video clips is ongoing. The team that we mentioned is already going round, calling on people who can assist them. They have even invited officials of AI to help them verify what they presented.
“I was with the team two days ago and I know that they are working frantically to produce their report and they are not leaving anything untouched.
“We just hope that those who made the allegations will also have the level of respect for that body (investigation panel) to tell them what they know.
He denied allegations of corruption and human rights abuses against the military.
The general said: “Those series of allegations of corruption are unfounded; the series of allegations of cowardice are rather demoralising and other forms of insinuations in various forms only tend to give the impression the Nigerian armed forces is not capable of managing the situation.
“Unfortunately, this has remained the source for the international community that held us in very high esteem to begin to have a rethink. But the Nigerian armed forces has not been sleeping; we have been available in putting our expertise at the service of other nations. We have more of this in which we can put into the disposal of our country at a time like this and all we would need are encouragement of our fellow countrymen and their understanding.
“We can only assure them that we mean well. The officers that are put in charge of these men are trained to be leaders. We should let them do the job in times like this. The integrity of everybody is at stake, and the time has come when we should rather reduce the level of accusations that are meant to demoralise and discourage.”
The DHQ spokesman also said the military has a lot of information on the Zaria incident in which three sons of a Shiite leader, Ibrahim El-Zakzaky, were killed.
He said: “For the cleric, if you study our posture, we do not want to engage him. We have a lot of information as well but they must be verified. They are too sensitive for public attention at the moment.
“This issue should not be handled carelessly and that informs all the restraint in responding to some of what is being said. But that is not to say the authorities are ignoring it. Not at all.”
Earlier in her remarks, the National Coordinator of Inigerian Initiative, Ms Ada Stella Apiafi, urged security agencies and the media to be partners in national development and be seen as working towards the same goal.
She said: “We should be wary of individuals and groups that may have their own selfish agenda and want to scuttle our national development by devastating selfish interest.”