The Mouse that Roared
What is to be made of the recent crisis in Nigeria that pitted the outgoing government of Goodluck Jonathan against Boko Haram? How is it that a rebel group consisting of a core of some 7,000 to 10,000 fighters using mostly small arms and bombs has been able to resist, and often rout, the largest army in West Africa? Why has this conflict lasted for close to six years? Why was the presidential election scheduled for February 14 postponed for six weeks, and why in the interim were foreign mercenaries brought in to do battle with homegrown insurgents?
The online military data source Global Firepower ranks Nigeria fifth in military strength among all African countries, not far behind such regional stalwarts as Egypt, Ethiopia and South Africa. With over 170 million people, Nigeria is the most populous nation on the continent. What’s more, roughly seventy million of its inhabitants are eligible for military service. Active military personnel are estimated at 130,000, with another 32,000 reservists at the ready. The military budget is given at $2 billion (USD) per annum. Its inventory of tanks, armoured fighting vehicles, aircraft and naval vessels is the biggest in West Africa. Oil production, estimated at 2.5 million barrels per day, far exceeds military requirements.
But the squandering of her resources through corruption, mismanagement and incompetence renders Nigeria’s military far less potent than would appear on paper. According to analysts at GlobalSecurity.org, the Army is capable of only defensive operations, and most of her watercraft and aircraft are inoperable. There has been an overall lack of investment in personnel and equipment. Millions of dollars in the defense budget have gone to line the pockets of corrupt senior officers while only a small percentage has been allocated to training and hardware maintenance.
Tellingly, the gutting of the armed forces began some fifteen years ago when the election of Olusegun Obasanjo ended decades of almost unbroken rule by military juntas. A former army general, President Obasanjo was keen on preventing men in arms from launching future coups. With a net worth calculated at $1.3 billion (USD) – this in a country where close to sixty per cent of the population lives under the poverty threshold of $1.25 (USD) a day – Obasanjo was understandably anxious to maintain a firm grip on the levers of power.
Among the costs of corruption and regional divisions has been a national security apparatus incapable of maintaining domestic peace and security.
Bring In the Mercenaries
Without signs of significant progress in the battle against Boko Haram, the prospect of President Jonathan’s re-election in February was not terribly bright. The government-controlled election commission called for a six-week postponement, ostensibly to render the terrorized northeastern region of the country safe for voting. But what could be accomplished in such a short period by an underequipped, ineffective military?
A first effort to boost firepower through procurement of weaponry from the United States met with failure, a small matter of human rights violations. Washington blocked the sale of Cobra attack helicopters by Israel for fear the Nigerians could not properly operate them. With time running out and few options left, Nigerian officials turned to mercenaries, mostly from South Africa, augmented by guns-for-hire from former Soviet states. Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Benin also joined the battle.
The introduction of outside forces, experienced, effective fighters who came accompanied by attack helicopters and armoured personnel carriers, turned the tide of battle in the government’s favour, at least for the time being. Boko Haram fighters hightailed it out of areas in the northeast they once controlled. Nigerian officials took credit for reclaiming a good deal of lost territory.
Six Years Too Late
The question that goes begging is why launch a military offensive now that surely would have cost fewer lives and less materiel had it been carried out years ago? Electoral politics certainly served as a catalyst. But why has the specter of Boko Haram been allowed to linger for so long? Why have the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians, the kidnapping of schoolgirls, the displacement of untold numbers met with such a feeble response?
According to one narrative, the army is simply incapable or unwilling to engage Boko Haram. There have been cases of desertion, mutiny and the execution of dozens of soldiers for refusing to fight. A startling report recently surfaced of armies from Chad and Niger liberating towns in the northeast to find not a single Nigerian soldier in the area.
Another narrative paints a picture of a financially-robust south indifferent to the plight of the economically-backward north. In the financial centres of Nigeria, cities like Lagos and Port Harcourt, where the country’s oil wealth is concentrated, it is business as usual; local industry is humming and foreign investment continues unabated. It is as if the northeast region is a separate country of little significance to the commonwealth, its impoverished people relying mostly on agriculture and trade with the Sahel.
The north is also home to the Hausa and Fulani (President Jonathan is an Ijaw, people of the Niger Delta), and Boko Haram, according to a third narrative, is their problem. Had the Hausa and Fulani governors of the northeast addressed local economic ills more effectively, Boko Haram would not have become the threat that it is. According to the media and among governing circles in the southeast and the south-south, Boko Haram is a northern ploy to destabilize the country. Jonathan stated in public his concerns about saboteurs and Boko Haram collaborators in his government. This narrative is particularly true among the dominant Christian Igbo people, whose worldview continues to be deeply affected by memories of internecine bloodletting with Muslims during the Biafra War some thirty-five years ago.
Were it not for the electoral challenge facing the President, it is not inconceivable that the status quo in Nigeria would have remained essentially unchanged. Make no mistake, the rise of Boko Haram is only partly about religious antipathy; after all there are sizeable numbers of Muslims among the Yoruba in the southeast. Rather, it is about ethnic divisions and gross economic disparities that balkanize the country, a situation made worse by rampant corruption and the wholesale looting of national assets.
Bad governance at home also has international implications. As a regional hegemon, Nigeria was relied on to secure peace in her neighbourhood. She was the leading force in West African peacekeeping missions. She enjoyed the trust and support of the UN, the African Union and major western powers. She was lauded for taking on the difficult tasks of maintaining peace in the region, and bearing the attending burdens. Her status has changed. In fact, some argue, her position as the go-to peacekeeper has been eclipsed by Chad, which backed by France, has become the premier fighting force in the region. Its leader for twenty-five years, Idriss Déby, dubbed by the New York Times as “the West’s favorite autocrat” currently leads a battlehardened army backed by fighter planes, light tanks, Hind gunships and other mobile attack vehicles.
A “contracted out” campaign against Boko Haram, no matter the triumphant pronouncements of the government, is a slap in the face of the once proud Nigerian military. More disturbing, the failure of Nigeria’s major institutions is once again on display for the world to see. Nigerians see it on a daily basis, when paying armed guards for personal security, buying up scores of generators for electricity, or suffering the glaring deficits of virtually every public institution, including those entrusted with the provision of education and health care.
Post-election, Plus Ça change…
This election has been a watershed in Nigeria’s history, the first transfer of power from one civilian government to another, the hallmark of a mature democracy. Nevertheless, it bears mentioning that an incumbent with a proven record of ineffectual leadership is being replaced by a former military dictator, Major-General Muhammadu Buhari, whose 1983-1985 tenure as head of state has been described as a “reign of terror.” In a recent piece in the Guardian, Nigerian author Chika Uniqwe describes Buhari’s rule as follows: “His government was characterized by human rights violations, a clampdown on press freedom, secret tribunals, executions under retroactive decrees, and a ‘War against Indiscipline’ which saw men and women whipped, slapped and humiliated.” We are told that Buhari is a convert to democracy. Be that as it may, his loss to Jonathan in 2011 unleashed days of rioting by the general’s followers resulting in eight hundred fatalities and the displacement of tens of thousands.
The Jonathan loss, although definitive, will not prevent his supporters from crying foul. It is to be hoped they will not resort to violence and bloodshed as well, that the declaration in January by some of his young supporters from the Niger Delta to “go to war” should his re-election bid fail was just hyperbole. Still, the north-south economic, sectarian, political divide will be hard to paper over. And even with a strongman in charge the fundamental structural flaws in the Nigerian system will give rise to future insurgencies. The causes are as much about corruption, misrule and contending historical narratives as about the allure of creed, the last being exploited by political entrepreneurs to gain control of the country’s riches. Pity the people.
Originally published by the Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Institute