/ 16 February 2023

Nigeria’s military is broken

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Issues flagged: With an election coming up, a major concern is the reform of Nigeria’s military, which is plagued by corruption, policy problems and indiscipline.

Late last week, more than a hundred people were killed in fighting between armed bandits and a vigilante group in Nigeria’s northern Katsina state.

The Nigerian military, tasked with maintaining security in this part of the country, was nowhere to be seen. Instead, citizens were told to fend for themselves. 

“People should learn to be courageous enough to confront the devils,” Katsina’s secretary to the state government, Muntari Lawal, said in the aftermath of the attack. 

“Don’t wait for government. Before government intervenes, the damage has been done. So, organise yourselves to confront them.”

It is not just local government officials who have lost faith in the military’s ability to execute its responsibilities. From within the military itself, there is a growing chorus of concern over the state of Nigeria’s armed forces.

One of the critics is Major General Olusegun Adeniyi, the former theatre commander of Operation Lafiya Dole, which is the military operation in northeast Nigeria aimed at flushing out Boko Haram and Islamic State militants (in Hausai, Lafiya Dole means “peace by force”). 

In March 2020, he appeared in a video surrounded by his soldiers. Some lay on the ground, wounded; others were mourning the deaths of their colleagues. 

Speaking directly into the camera, and addressing the generals in Abuja, he gave a bleak assessment of the battlefield situation. He said that his unit could not match Boko Haram’s firepower and he asked for better equipment, weaponry and intelligence.

Adeniyi did not get what he asked for. Instead, he was court-martialed and found guilty of violating the army’s social media policy.

Another prominent critic is President Muhammadu Buhari’s national security adviser, Babagana Monguno, a retired major general. 

In a BBC Hausa interview in March 2021, Monguno raised the alarm about corruption in the military. He said money meant for the procurement of weapons — weapons that could have helped Adeniyi and his troops on the front lines — was unaccounted for by former defence chiefs, some of who now enjoy cushy ambassadorial roles.

“Corruption is one of those deeper problems because it erodes the capacity and capability of the troops,” said Matthew Page, a specialist on Nigeria with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 

“It also is a distraction because it becomes a purpose for perpetuating the conflict and an end for some of these corrupt senior officials and top military officers. 

“Instead of their choices and strategies being structured around peace and the rule of law and fighting the conflict in a sustainable and constructive way, they’re looking for short-term gains, especially as some of these senior officers are in a position for a year or two.”

According to a 2020 Transparency International report, the ministry of defence’s finance directorate and the supreme audit office, which is supposed to enforce financial transparency, is too weak to do so effectively.

The influence of the military on the institutions, psyche and politics of the country can’t be overstated. Out of 14 heads of state, eight were from the military.

All told, for the nearly three decades of post-independence, the country was a de facto military dictatorship. Indeed, its current president was once a military dictator, from 1983 to 1985, before reinventing himself as a democrat.

The military is also one of the country’s largest employers, with 223 000 personnel as of 2018, according to the World Bank.

But, its influence is not necessarily matched by effectiveness. 

“What the military is suffering from is corruption, policy misdirection and a lack of commensurate training for modern purposes and indiscipline,” said Confidence MacHarry, an analyst at SBM Intelligence.

These problems have been starkly highlighted during the years-long prosecution of its war in the northeast, which has failed to eliminate the threat from the various militant groups operating in the area.

The military campaign has been accompanied by a litany of well-documented human rights abuses in which the armed forces have been implicated, including aerial bombings of refugee camps; massacres of civilians; rape and torture as weapons of war; illegal detentions, including of minors and, most recently, an illegal mass abortion programme in which at least 10 000 pregnancies were forcibly terminated in an effort to prevent the birth of future “terrorists”.

In the decade between 2006 and 2016, the Nigeria Watch research group found that roughly the same number of people were killed by Boko Haram (16 666) as by the country’s security forces (16 182), calling the military’s role as a protector into question.

All this comes at a hefty cost to the Nigerian taxpayer, with the budget allocated to defence spending increasing rapidly in recent years. In 2021, the national government spent $4.5 billion on the armed forces, according to Business Day, which is 56% more than in 2020.

On 25 February, Nigerians will vote for a new president. Amid stiff competition, the most pressing challenge for the successful candidate will be how to reform the military.

The leading presidential candidates have proffered different solutions to the country’s insecurity challenge. Not one, however, has addressed how he would handle the foundational issues plaguing the military.

The ruling All Progressives Congress candidate Bola Tinubu, a former governor of Lagos State, has repeatedly mentioned recruiting more soldiers into the army — as if that would solve the problems. 

He wants to create anti-terrorist battalions; upgrade tactical communications and transport; upgrade weapons systems and improve salaries and troop welfare.

In his manifesto, former vice president Atiku Abubakar, who is contesting under the People’s Democratic Party banner, traced many of the country’s problems to the military. 

He wants to increase transparency and accountability around the spending of the defence budget and improve the welfare of personnel in the armed forces. He also wants more soldiers.

Peter Obi, the Labour Party presidential candidate, whose popularity among young Nigerians has made him a surprise contender, said he would refocus the military to handle external threats and border protection and let the police deal with internal security threats.

Obi has also promised to reorganise the country’s security architecture, which might offer scope for serious reform, although it is not clear exactly what that reform might look like.

Whoever wins, it is clear that their success or failure in dealing with Nigeria’s military will determine the success or failure of their time in office.  

This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper produced in partnership with the Mail & Guardian. It’s designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy at mg.co.za/thecontinent.