Bita on fire
May 21, 2014
SaharaReporters, New York
On May 12 2014, a group of soldiers selected from the Special Operations Battalion of the Nigerian Army headquarters were asked to proceed on an operation in Bita, Borno State. The mission, according to military sources who spoke to SaharaReporters, was informed by actionable intelligence showing that Boko Haram militants had been sighted in the area.
The village of Bita had witnessed numerous attacks by Boko Haram insurgents to the point that the residents had fled since February of this year to other locations, abandoning their community to the militants.
The selected soldiers had been taken from their operational base in Mubi, Adamawa State, and made to join some soldiers from the “213” battalion from the newly created “7 Division” of the Nigerian army stationed inside Maimalari Barracks.
SaharaReporters sources said the soldiers deployed on the mission were only instructed to pick up their gear, without being told the location where they were headed. The secrecy around their mission was due to suspicions within the military that some soldiers working in cahoots with the militants might tip them off about the impending attack.
When the soldiers arrived in Bita, which is a short distance from the now infamous Sambisa forest where Boko Haram might be keeping close to 300 abducted schoolgirls, the insurgents had “fled,” our sources said. After combing the nooks and crannies of the village without finding any Boko Haram militants, the soldiers set the village on fire and made to leave.
To the soldiers’ surprise, a lone militant hiding in a bush at the back of one of the huts fired at them. The soldiers stormed the bush, shot and wounded the gunman, and began to interrogate him. Before he died, the wounded militant told his interrogators that Boko Haram insurgents had been informed of the military operation three days before it commenced. The information had enabled them, the militant told the stunned soldiers, to evacuate the small town.
The soldiers waited for a few hours but saw no signs of any Boko Haram retaliation. But then, a few minutes after the soldiers boarded their buses to leave, the unexpected happened. They came under heavy artillery fire that some of the soldiers said they had never been seen since the insurgency began. They fired back, but they were soon overwhelmed by the insurgents who came out in large numbers and kept firing and advancing aggressively towards the soldiers.
The battle lasted for at least two hours. By the time the smoke cleared on the battle scene, the Commanding Officer of the “213” Battalion, one Captain Akintola, and one Lieutenant Abdullahi as well as 30 soldiers had been killed in the fire fight.
The commanding officer of the Special Operations Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel B.M.G. Martins managed to survive the battle.
Several days after the battle, several soldiers were sent to the scene to retrieve the bodies of the dead soldiers.
Our sources said about 10 bodies could still not be recovered because the Nigerian soldiers sent to retrieve the bodies were too scared to go near the Sambisa enclave of Boko Haram.
10 of the soldiers were buried in Yola, Adamawa State yesterday.
The loss of the soldiers has further deepened suspicion within the ranks of the army. Several soldiers who spoke to us wondered how the insurgents knew three days in advance about their impending arrival when they themselves did not know where they were headed.
The death of the soldiers on May 12 and the ambushed killing the next day of 70 soldiers returning from Chibok so infuriated soldiers at the Maimalari Barracks that they staged a mutiny against their commander, Major General Ahmadu Mohammed.
SaharaReporters broke the news that angry soldiers fired shots at the general’s car during the burial of some of the dead soldiers. The protesting soldiers said they and their colleagues are ill-equipped and often owed allowances. The army replaced Major General Mohammed the day after the mutiny.
Several soldiers who spoke to us disclosed that the Nigerian army commanders had yet to give orders to them to go into Sambisa Forest to rescue some 237 students kidnapped by Boko Haram militants on April 14 2014.