The Nigerian military has provided conflicting reports in the aftermath of a Boko Haram attack that the Associated Press reported resulted in 83 soldiers missing in action, offering national media significantly lower figures or refusing to publicize an official number.
The Islamic State-affiliated Boko Haram initiated a new wave of attacks this month after the release of several of the girls kidnapped from the northern town of Chibok, Borno State, in 2014. According to the AP, Nigerian officers confirmed that one of these attacks resulted in 83 soldiers being declared “missing in action.” “The soldiers were unable to fight back and fled because Boko Haram had superior fire power,” according to AP sources.
Nigeria’s Premium Times newspaper had also reported the number of missing soldiers at 83. The military rejected this report, however, with spokesman Col. Sani Usman telling a rival publication that the Premium Times report was “outrageous and not correct.”
“I declined to comment on the number Premium Times gave so that wherever they got that information, they should go and justify it,” Usman added.
While Usman refused to issue an estimate of the number of soldiers missing, Maj. General Lucky Irabor, the Theatre Commander of Operation Lafiya Dole in the north-east, told journalists that 39 soldiers were missing. Irabor later told the newspaper Vanguard that “a sizeable number” of those soldiers had returned to base. It is unclear whether Irabor and Usman were aware of each other’s contradictory statements, or whether Irabor was authorized to speak to the media.
The attacks and subsequent loss of soldiers follows the release of 21 Chibok schoolgirls in what sources have told multiple media outlets was a prisoner swap. If confirmed, the release of a number of high-ranking Boko Haram jihadists to save the girls would raise questions about the group’s renewed ability to stage successful attacks without using hostages as suicide bombers or child soldiers.
“Several top-level Boko Haram detainees were taken to a meeting point close to the Cameroon border under the supervision of the ICRC, the girls were then released and the militants were handed over,” an anonymous security official told BBC last week about the Chibok girls’ release. The government denied this report, with presidential spokesperson Garba Shehu, noting instead that the girls were released as “an outcome of negotiations between the administration and Boko Haram brokered by the International Red Cross and the Swiss government,” a statement that does not contradict the prisoner swap claim.
The persistence of Boko Haram in Nigeria has been a blight on the tenure of President Muhammadu Buhari, whose central campaign promise in 2015 was that he would eradicate the group from Nigeria entirely. In December, Buhari told the BBC that “technically, we have won the war” against Boko Haram, claiming the group was no longer active in Nigeria. For some weeks, Boko Haram attacks appeared limited to the other sides of Nigeria’s borders, Chad and Cameroon. But eventually violence returned to Borno state, and the government has appeared to have little response to it other than reiterating that Boko Haram has been defeated.