Will moving army to Maiduguri help Nigeria against Boko Haram?

By Tomi Oladipo
BBC Africa security correspondent

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari (left) shakes hands with officers in NigerImage source, AFP
Image caption,
President Muhammadu Buhari says he wants a quick end to the Boko Haram conflict

Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari has hit the ground running after assuming office, meeting his military chiefs and the leaders of neighbouring Niger and Chad, countries which have been helping in the fight against Boko Haram.

In his inaugural speech Mr Buhari expressed his resolve to tackle the militant Islamist group. He announced the relocation of the military command and control centre from the capital Abuja, 800km (500 miles) to Maiduguri, the main city at the heart of the insurgency, until the conflict is resolved.

The aim is to centralise operations close to the action, cut the bureaucracy and speed up decision-making.

The policy and administrative arms of the military have been accused of being detached from the reality of soldiers on the frontline.

Complaints from troops about inadequate supplies of equipment and poor welfare have often been denied, downplayed or ignored by the authorities.

On occasion, disgruntled soldiers refused to fight, and one group of soldiers was convicted after shooting at their own commanding officer.

However, the new strategy has not gone down well with some top military men, who view it as a ymbolic, populist move by President Buhari, attempting to set himself apart from the previous administration under Goodluck Jonathan.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Nigeria says the move to Maiduguri will improve its response to Boko Haram

There are also concerns it could further complicate existing operations on the ground.

Maiduguri is already home to the 7th Infantry Division, set up in 2013 specifically to fight Boko Haram.

Its 8,500 troops have fought in a conflict that has morphed from urban-based warfare in Maiduguri, to a territorial struggle across the outlying towns and villages of the expansive region.

'Feel the heat'

But a presidential spokesman told the BBC that the Nigerian army was by its own assessment "ill-equipped and poorly trained, and even lacks the commitment and the will to fight".

"If you are not in the kitchen, you will not feel the heat," Garba Shehu said, referring to the fact that military chiefs have been based in Abuja, far from the front line.

Image source, Boko Haram video
Image caption,
Boko Haram has already launched several deadly attacks since Mr Buhari came to office

Mr Shehu criticised the previous system, where "issues of basic supply to the troops had to be referred to Abuja, several hundred miles away".

And we do not yet know how this new strategy will change the way the army tackles Boko Haram on the front line.

The army insists this new command will add vigour to the counter-insurgency campaign, and a similar centre is also being set up in the town of Yola, from where air force operations are being launched.

The president's announcement also coincides with recent significant successes on the front line, inspired by the issuing of much-needed advanced equipment.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
In the last few months, much of the area under Boko Haram control has been retaken

One reason often given for the failures against Boko Haram was the decision by the US to withhold military support following reports of alleged human rights abuses by Nigerian soldiers.

Amnesty International recently released a report saying the alleged abuses amounted to war crimes.

Unlike the military, which dismissed the allegations, Mr Buhari's office says it will look into the report, which indicates a desire to improve the image of Nigeria's men in uniform both at home and abroad.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
President Buhari has vowed to make tackling Boko Haram a priority

Closer proximity to the fighting might improve co-operation with the regional forces, who have complained that Nigerian troops were slow in arriving for the handovers of towns liberated from Boko Haram.

So far their collective efforts have driven the jihadists from most of their strongholds.

Meanwhile, Boko Haram has stepped up its attacks in commercial centres in the north with a series of attacks, including bombings, reminding the new government of the huge threat it still poses.

The existing heavy military deployments in the region have not deterred the group so far.

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