Dozens of Nigerian soldiers have refused to deploy for an offensive against Boko Haram Islamists until they receive better weapons, several of the mutineers told AFP on Wednesday.
The troops said they had been ordered to move out of their barracks in the northeastern city of Maiduguri towards the Gwoza area of Borno state, where the insurgents have reportedly seized pockets of territory.
But one of the soldiers, who asked not to be named, said: “We have vowed not to move one inch until our superiors provide us with all necessary weapons to effectively confront and dislodge Boko Haram, who have far better arms.”
The troops said they had set up a camp on the outskirts of Maiduguri.
Defence Ministry spokesman Chris Olukolade insisted there was no mutiny in Borno, saying in a text message that Nigerian soldiers “are too disciplined and patriotic to indulge in this dangerous offence”.
But he did not categorically deny that some troops had refused to follow orders.
Any such move by soldiers must be “properly tried in a military court” before it can be classified as a mutiny, he said.
In a statement posted on the Defence Ministry’s website, the military called an alleged mutineer interviewed by the BBC an “imposter”, adding that “no soldier has been sent on any mission without being armed”.
But one soldier told AFP that ill-equiped forces were being gunned down by Islamist fighters with heavy firepower.
“We are being killed like chickens by Boko Haram because we are not given the required weapons to fight,” said the soldier, also requesting anonymity. “We say enough is enough.”
– No ammunition –
Some officials and independent experts have backed the accusations that Boko Haram fighters are better armed than Nigerian troops.
Borno’s Governor Kashim Shettima was fiercely criticised by the military after he made such a claim in February.
Residents in towns raided by the Islamists have said the insurgents are often armed with rocket-propelled grenades and anti-aircraft weapons mounted on trucks and, in some cases, armoured personnel carriers.
Soldiers by contrast have at times reportedly lacked ammunition for their AK-47 rifles and been sent out to the bushlands to fight without basic communication equipment.
Military wives earlier this month protested at the gate of a military base in Maiduguri trying to stop their husbands from deploying to Gwoza until they were properly equipped.
One of the mutineers said the group was compelled to revolt following an operation to retake the town of Damboa, which Boko Haram seized last month.
“We took over Damboa at a huge cost because the enemy had better weapons,” said the soldier.
President Goodluck Jonathan has asked lawmakers to approve a $1 billion (750 million euros) foreign loan to upgrade the capacity of the military.
Parliament did not vote on the bill before breaking for recess but many saw Jonathan’s request as a tacit acknowledgement that his military is being out-matched by the Islamist rebels.
Boko Haram has been blamed for more than 10,000 deaths since 2009 but the scale of their attacks appears to have escalated in recent months.
Entire villages have been razed across the northeast this year and the relentless violence has forced more than 600,000 people to flee their homes.