In a small hospital in the Diffa region of southeastern Niger, a roomful of Nigerian soldiers wait patiently for medical workers to change their bandages. Their bullet wounds seep blood on to the floor of the whitewashed chamber. The air is heavy with the smell of disinfectant.
These are just a handful of the roughly 300 Nigerian forces that retreated across the border in November 2014, after militant Islamist group Boko Haram attacked the town of Malam Fatori in Nigeria’s northeast.
Now, lying three to a bed in a foreign country, they are silent and defeated. A stronger image for the hopelessness hanging over the nation’s army could scarcely exist.
Fifteen years ago, Nigeria’s military was regarded as one of the most proficient in Africa and served as a stabilising force in the region. Today corruption and limited resources hinder its ability to respond to the growing threat posed by Boko Haram, which wants to establish a caliphate in Nigeria. Mutinies and retreats like this one have become common among poorly-armed soldiers scared for their lives.
The army’s strength dates back to Nigeria’s civil war between 1967 and 1970. As the government fought to prevent Biafra’s secession, the country’s forces grew from about 10 500 at the start of the war to 250 000 by 1970, according to globalsecurity.org, a military portal.
Subsequently, a series of military governments, large oil revenues and ambitions to be a regional power have all been cited as factors contributing to the country’s military strength. This culminated in successful interventions in brutal civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Understanding exactly when the decline began is difficult, even for the government.
Its proud military culture means those on the inside are unwilling to expose the army’s weaknesses. But it was the deployment to Mali in 2013 – as part of the African-led international support mission organised by the Economic Community of West African States – that first exposed its problems to the world.
Nigeria was one of several West African countries that sent 3 000 soldiers to help regain control of Mali’s north from Islamic extremists. “When the Nigerians said they’d send troops, we all breathed a sigh of relief,” recalled one Western diplomat based in Abuja, the capital, who requested anonymity. “But they turned up – quite literally, in some cases – without boots or guns. That was a real wake-up call.”
Since then, the Boko Haram insurgency in the northeast has shone further light on the military’s problems. “It is unarguable now that there is a rotten core within the army,” the diplomat said.
Nigeria’s army faces a litany of problems and its forces are spread too thin fighting them. Although about 100 000 serve in the military, its priorities are divided among fighting Islamist insurgents in the north, controlling militancy and oil theft in the southern Niger Delta and calming tribal conflict in the country’s middle belt, said Kayode Akindele of pan-African investment management firm 46 Parallels.
These competing interests have limited deployment in the northeast to about 15?000 troops, Akindele said. This may not be significantly more than the number of rebels fighting for Boko Haram, according to Jacob Zenn, an analyst for the Jamestown Foundation, a United States-based think-tank.
Weapons are another major constraint. Maintenance is poor and commanders report that supplies of functioning equipment have plummeted since the 1990s. Until 2014 the air force had no helicopters equipped for night operations, Akindele said.
Funnelling of funds
On paper, funding is not a problem. In 2013 Nigeria spent $2.4?billion on defence, an almost fourfold increase since 2005, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. But paltry oversight of military spending means funds designed to buy hardware, or pay soldiers’ salaries, are routinely misappropriated, it has been claimed.
Officers in charge choose what to do with the money, a second Western diplomat said. “In the north, soldiers are not getting paid or fed and are not receiving ammunition. That’s a by-product of corruption.”
Boko Haram’s hit-and-run tactics are also hard for a standard military force to counter. “The army is built for face operations [traditional front-line warfare], not for this type of guerrilla warfare,” Akindele said.
Nigerian soldiers also lack their jihadist enemies’ fierce ideological motivation.
Morale among Nigerian troops is at rock bottom: the press has reported several rebellions in the past year and armed forces regularly retreat across borders to escape the better equipped and more determined insurgents.
“Every time there is a fight on the frontier, we see them here,” said a doctor tending to wounded Nigerian soldiers in Niger’s Diffa region.
In August 2014 nearly 500 troops withdrew into Cameroon, according to Cameroonian military reports.
Ethnic and religious sympathies, as well as personal interests, appear to have bred some collusion with Boko Haram.
In August independent Australian hostage negotiator Stephen Davis, who attempted to secure the release of the abducted Chibok girls, accused Nigeria’s former army chief of staff, Azubuike Ihejirika, of funding the sect.
The Nigerian government has charged various soldiers and commanders with desertion, mutiny or involvement with the Boko Haram. In September a military court in Abuja convicted 12 soldiers of mutiny and attempted murder after they opened fire on their commander in northeastern Borno state. They were sentenced to death.
London-based watchdog Amnesty International has accused Nigerian forces of multiple human rights abuses, ranging from the arbitrary arrest and detention of the wives and family of senior Boko Haram members to the murder of civilians.
“The same communities are now being terrorised in turn by Boko Haram and the military alike,” Salil Shetty, Amnesty’s secretary general, said in a report released in August 2014.
Western nations, including the United Kingdom and the US, say these allegations limit the military assistance they can provide to Nigeria. In response, the Nigerian government argues that it has been forced to turn to nontraditional partners such as Russia to procure weapons, according to media reports.
Although many of these behaviour and resource problems have plagued the Nigerian army for several years, they have only recently been brought to the fore thanks to the attention focused on Boko Haram.
To curb the risk of rebellion, leaders have intermittently withheld funds from the armed forces. For example, military leader Ibrahim Babangida cut funds to the air force after the failure of a rumoured coup in 1985 involving planned aerial bombardments, according to Akindele. When former military leader Olusegun Obasanjo became head of the new civilian government in 1999, he sacked hundreds of officers who had benefited politically from the previous military regimes, Akindele recalled.
“A lot of capacity was taken out in that one fell swoop – which, you could argue, they have not been able to replace,” he said.
The government and armed forces are slowly trying to reform. The military trials of recent months are “unprecedented in Nigerian history”, Akindele pointed out.
In January, the country’s president, Goodluck Jonathan, replaced the leaders of the air force, army and navy, as well as the heads of the federal police force and the State Security Service, the country’s secret police. This major overhaul of the military high command suggests that the government is “looking for people they are confident are telling the truth”, the diplomat said.
Sadly, no quick solution to Boko Haram’s bloody insurgency looks likely. But it will certainly require much more than a purely military response.
Part of Boko Haram’s motivation lies in protest against the official neglect of Nigeria’s desperately poor northeast, a situation that shows little sign of abating under the current leadership. The most likely solution to the insurgency would be a government that delivers, is transparent and performs proper oversight of military spending.
For many, though, it is too late.
“In Nigeria, when I hear guns I am afraid, because I know … the army will not protect me,” said Rekia Abakar, a middle-aged refugee who fled fighting in Borno state and has settled in Niger with her children.
“Here I feel better, because I am protected.”
This article first appeared in Africa in Fact, the journal of Good Governance Africa – gga.org