Nigeria’s Special Forces from the Army’s 7th Division have sighted and narrowed the search for the more than 250 abducted Chibok schoolgirls to three camps operated by the extremist Boko Haram sect north of Kukawa at the western corridors of the Lake Chad, senior military and administration officials have said.
“It has been a most difficult but heroic breakthrough,” one senior military official said in Abuja.
That claim was supported by another senior commander from the Army’s 7th Division, the military formation created to deal with the insurgency in the Northeast. The 7th Division is headquartered in Maiduguri, the Borno State capital.
The breakthrough comes at a critical moment for the Nigerian military that has faced cutting criticism over its handling of the kidnapping of the girls more than a month ago.
The news is also key for the Maiduguri-based 7th Division a week after a humiliating mutiny by troops of its 101 battalion who fired at the General Officer Commanding the division, Ahmadu Mohammed, a Major General.
Maj. Gen. Mohammed escaped unhurt, but has since been redeployed. The soldiers blamed him for the deaths of at least four of their colleagues killed near Chibok, a remote community in Borno State where the girls were taken captives April 14.
But military insiders said Mr. Mohammed was targeted for daring to arrest the growing indiscipline within his troop.
The abductions have sparked international outrage, with the United States, United Kingdom, France and Israel, providing intelligence and surveillance assistance.
Nigerian military officials coordinating the search and other officials in Abuja said Boko Haram insurgents split the girls into batches and held them at their camps in Madayi, Dogon Chuku and Meri, all around the Sector 3 operational division of the Nigerian military detachment confronting the group’s deadly campaign.
Another source said there is a fourth camp at Kangarwa, also in Borno State. That claim could not be independently verified.
“Our team first sighted the girls on April 26 and we have been following their movement with the terrorists ever since,” one of our sources said.
“That’s why we just shake our heads when people insinuate that the military is lethargic in the search for the girls.”
The location of the abducted girls – north east of Kukawa – opens a new insight into the logistic orientation of Boko Haram, responsible for thousands of deaths in a five-year long insurgency. President Goodluck Jonathan said the group has killed at least 12,000 people so far – that’s minus the hundreds killed in a car bomb on Tuesday in Jos and the about 10 murdered on Sunday in Kano in a suicide bombing.
But the details established by the military shows that while the world’s attention is focused on the Sambisa forest reserves, about 330 kilometres south of Maiduguri, the terrorists mapped a complex mission that began at Chibok, and veered north east of Sambisa, before heading to west of Bama and east of Konduga.
With the sighting, officials fear that Boko Haram militants may be seeking to create new options of escape all the way to Lo-gone-Et Chari in Cameroon to its Southeast, Lake Chad to its east and Diffa in Niger Republic to its north, providing a multiple escape options in the event of hostile ground operations against it.
Notwithstanding the sighting, the government is said not to be considering the use of force against the extremists, a choice informed by concerns for the safety of the students.
But with growing local and international pressure, a likely option may be for the authorities to enter into talks with the group, whose leader, Abubakar Shekau, in a May 12 video broadcast, called for dialogue and “prisoner” swap with the government.
The government has ruled out that option in the open but knowledgeable sources in Abuja hinted at a possible “twin track” approach that includes open rejection and a closet engagement.
“That option is not as bitter as you think in the face of the alternatives confronting us,” the source who has deep insight on the thinking of the administration, said.
“Government is working hard to free the girls in less than one week, possibly before end of this week,” the source said.
Defence spokesperson, Chris Olukolade, a Major General, told PREMIUM TIMES he would not comment on the ongoing rescue operation.
“You don’t expect me to tell you that the girls have been sighted or have not been sighted,” Mr. Olukolade said. “I will only say our team are working hard and taking note of every information provided to ensure that our girls are rescued without delay.”
Civic leader Shehu Sani who fired a letter to the Sultan of Sokoto and leader of Nigeria’s Muslim, however told PREMIUM TIMES that what must be done urgently is for the Sultan to summon all the influential Islamic clerics with credibility in the north and use them to reach out to the insurgents to release the girls.
“As far as I know this has not been done and to expect the committee [headed by former army intelligence chief, Major General Sani Bako] now working to determine the situation of the Chibok abduction to help on this will be a waste of time,” Mr. Sani said.
HOW FAR WITH FOREIGN ASSISTANCE
PREMIUM TIMES checks indicate no significant help has so far come from the horde of military experts that flew in from the UK, Canada, France, Spain, the United States and Israel to help Nigeria in the search for the girls.
For the army, according to inside sources, the critical needs now, to contain the insurgency, are airlift helicopters, armoured tanks, and protective gears, but the foreign military presence is not leading in that direction.
President Goodluck Jonathan disclosed at the just concluded World Economic Forum on Africa, in Abuja, that the administration had recently approved USD1 billion to spend on military hardware and that more funds were needed.
PREMIUM TIMES reliably gathered from army sources in Maiduguri and Abuja that foreign military assistance has so far been greeted with some ambivalence or perhaps distractions.
“Foreign military assistance you speak about has been largely in the media and for international public relations value that is almost certainly not likely to end up in boots on the ground or badly needed weaponry to assist us here,” one of our sources said.
One arm of the foreign assistance cell of the United States with about 30 men and the UK with 10 men have been largely based in Abuja holding “endless meetings” with local officers.
Local officers in Maiduguri say they “haven’t as much as seen even the slightest intelligence from our foreign friends.”
This claim belies the widely held views of military cooperation at the intelligence levels, since the US Air Force (USAF) Beechcraft MC-12W Liberty aircraft, based in Niamey in Niger, began flying over the north east region, according to reports from the Jane’s Defense magazine, quoting U.S. government sources.
Niamey is also base to the USAF General Atomics MQ-1 Predator UAVs but they have not been reported to be participating on the northeast mission against Boko Haram.
Jane’s magazine also reported that the USAF base in Niamey will soon be joined by the Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) flying from US Naval Air Station Sigonella on Sicily.
If the foreign forces triggers into active mission, the French, which deployed two General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles to Ndjamena in January, and which keeps a large detachment of Dassault Rafale and Dassault Mirage 2000 fighters as well as Boeing KC-135FR tankers, will be the most influential on account of their proximity to the location sites of the abducted girls near the Chad borders.
Last Saturday, May 18, the UK deployed the A Raytheon Sentinel R.1 Airborne Stand-Off Radar (ASTOR) aircraft from its base at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire to Accra.
The overall air operation by the United States, United Kingdom, and France that is concentrated on building the information picture of the crisis zone and coordinating airborne ISTAR, satellite imagery, and signals intelligence assets to bes