Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari urged troops to show more commitment in fighting Boko Haram despite scores of losses in a recent assault as he visited the key northeastern city of Maiduguri on Wednesday.
The visit came a day before Buhari heads to N’Djamena for talks on the conflict with his regional counterparts in a fighting force against the jihadists.
Addressing delegates at an army conference in Maiduguri, the epicentre of the jihadist insurgency, Buhari acknowledged the military had done much to secure the volatile region.
“There has been a remarkable improvement in the security situation in the northeast since 2015 when this administration came to power and you are part of it,” he said.
But defeating Boko Haram was “a must-win war,” insisted the 75-year-old retired general who will seek a second four-year term in February’s elections and who has previously said the Islamist militants were “technically defeated”.
“Our troops must not be distracted. They should be committed to the task of eliminating Boko Haram from the face of the earth.”
The conference had initially been due to take place in Benin City in the south, but it was moved to Maiduguri to honour soldiers killed 10 days ago in an attack on a nearby military base, he said.
There has been an upsurge in deadly attacks on both military and civilian targets in recent months, prompting fears of a resurgence and further attacks as elections approach.
AFP has reported at least 17 attempts to overrun army bases since July. Many have been claimed by Boko Haram faction the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP).
In the latest attack on November 18, at least 43 soldiers were killed in Metele, according to security sources, although troops who survived put the toll at more than 100.
IS said it had killed 118 troops in five operations in its self-styled West Africa province — Nigeria and Chad — between November 15 and 21, without specifying the exact locations.
After weeks downplaying the attacks, the army on Wednesday acknowledged there had been a “series of attacks by large numbers of Boko Haram terrorists” against soldiers.
It said 16 military personnel were killed and 12 injured in attacks on four bases between November 2 and 17 but said the attacks were “successfully repelled”.
On the attack in Metele, it said 23 Nigerian soldiers troops deployed as part of the MNJTF were killed and 31 others injured.
Buhari praised the fallen soldiers for their “heroic sacrifices” and pledged to work with partners in the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) to end the conflict.
The MNJTF comprising Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Benin was set up to fight the Islamists in the Lake Chad region at the height of the conflict in 2014.
At the time, Boko Haram had captured swathes of territory in northeast Nigeria and also launched cross-border attacks into Niger, Chad and Cameroon, whose borders meet on Lake Chad.
Buhari’s office said Central African Republic had also been invited to the one-day meeting, which would “review the security situation” in affected areas.
It would also “adopt measures to enhance the capacity of the Multinational Joint Task Force to meet the challenges of securing the areas,” it said.
Nigerian Defence Minister Mansur Dan-Ali flew to Chad and Niger this week for talks on Boko Haram amid concern about the effectiveness of the coalition.
Brigadier General Sani Usman, for chief of army staff Lieutenant General Tukur Buratai, said in a statement that Boko Haram had been “systematically downgraded” since 2015.
But he added there had been “daring moves” in the last two to three months, including “increased use of drones against our defensive positions and infusion of foreign fighters in their ranks”.
“These potent threats require us to continually review our operations,” he added.
Security analysts tracking the conflict have indicated a renewed focus on Nigeria by IS-affiliated groups as well as persistent coordination problems within the MNJTF.
Dan-Ali said the task force would address the circumstances leading to the Metele attack and come up with “new ideas and strategies” to prevent a recurrence.
Security analysts say there must be a change of tactics if the counter-insurgency is to be successful.
The Boko Haram insurgency has killed more than 27,000 since 2009 and some 1.8 million are still homeless, as aid agencies battle a humanitarian crisis in the remote region.