In what appears an attempt to muddle up information about the disappearance of 83 soldiers after a Boko Haram attack, two senior officers of the Nigerian Army have given uncoordinated and contradictory statements on the matter.
While the man who officially speaks for the Nigerian Army claimed the army would not release true figures of the missing soldiers, a major general several hundred kilometres away said only “39” soldiers went missing in action.
PREMIUM TIMES had reported how 83 Nigerian soldiers, including a commanding officer, went missing after a major attack by insurgents.
Several of the soldiers, who fled their station due to the superior firepower of the terrorists, were later feared dead from drowning in the River Yobe.
On Wednesday, at two different interactions with the media, Army spokesman Sani Usman, and Lucky Irabor, the Theatre Commander of Operation Lafiya Dole in the north-east, issued different statements to reporters about the number of missing troops.
While Mr. Usman, a colonel, told an online news platform, Pulse Nigeria, that the Army would not disclose the number of missing soldiers, Mr. Irabor told reporters in Maiduguri that 39 soldiers were missing.
In his interview, Mr. Usman told Pulse Nigeria the Army issued a statement after the attack, but deliberately conceal information on the number of missing troops.
“We issued a statement of what happened,” he said. “We did not mention the number of soldiers that were missing.
“Eventually, we went to the theatre of war. But they didn’t bother to ask us that we should tell them the number of soldiers that were missing.”
Despite being pressed about the specific number of those missing, Mr. Usman remained elusive.
Apart from deflecting questions, Mr. Usman also charged this newspaper to justify the missing persons — completely absolving the Army of the responsibility to give names and figures of the missing uniformed men.
“Yeah, but the figures Premium Times reeled out are outrageous and not correct. I tried to make them understand that look, all you have to do is ask for information, not speculate, not say that everybody is a criminal because that is the way it looks like,” Mr. Usman said. “I declined to comment on the number Premium Times gave so that wherever they got that information, they should go and justify it.”
On his part, Mr. Irabor was quoted by the New Agency of Nigeria as saying that the Army declared 39 soldiers missing.
“It is true that about 39 soldiers were declared missing,” the major general said even though his statement was the first official one mentioning a figure of missing officials.
Mr. Irabor added that some of the soldiers had returned, but declined to provide figures, NAN reported.
”I want to inform you that a sizeable number of our soldiers have returned to base,” Mr. Irabor said. “I think it is only a handful that have not been found.”
Mr. Usman had in a different interview maintained that the Army will not release the number of missing soldiers to avoid complicating rescue efforts.
Notwithstanding, PREMIUM TIMES stands by its reports that 83 soldiers were feared missing in the attack, which also left some soldiers dead.
As with the missing, the Army had been silent on the number of dead soldiers from the attack.
On Wednesday morning, this newspaper reported that the Army had launched a probe into the Gashigar attack.
A lieutenant colonel, who is among those missing, has since been replaced by a captain, who is acting as commanding officer of the affected battalion.
The army’s refusal to come clean on the fate of the soldiers appears part of efforts to manipulate information to the public on the happenings in the north-east.
In December 2015, the Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, asked the media to consider “national interests” when reporting Boko Haram attacks, a euphemism used by many governments to seek suppression of unfavourable reports.
“Acting in the national interest means not playing up reports of cowardly Boko Haram attacks on soft targets,” Mr. Mohammed said during a press briefing on Christmas Eve.
Also, following our exclusive report last Saturday about how soldiers were enduring months of unpaid salaries, with their allowances being held by their superiors, the Army hurriedly began paying them that same weekend.
A number of soldiers confirmed the development to PREMIUM TIMES.
Presently, family members of soldiers stationed at Gashigar are getting increasingly agitated because they had not been able to contact their loved ones.
PREMIUM TIMES learnt that telecom signals were not functional in the location, making it difficult for family members to confirm whether their loved ones were amongst those missing or not.