Nigeria’s military is in distress. Once among Africa’s strongest and a mainstay of regional peacekeeping, it has become a flawed force. The initially slow, heavy-handed response to the Islamist Boko Haram insurgency raised serious concerns, and its human rights record underscores a grave disconnect with civilians. President Muhammadu Buhari has taken some steps to reverse the decline and has recorded significant gains against Boko Haram, but ongoing prosecution of former chiefs for graft have further deepened the military’s reputation as poorly governed and corrupt. The government and military chiefs, working with the National Assembly, civil society and international partners, need to do much more: implement comprehensive defence sector reform, including clear identification of security challenges; a new defence and security policy and structure to address them; and drastic improvement in leadership, oversight, administration and accountability across the sector.
The decline began during 33 years of military dictatorship that took a serious toll on professionalism, operational effectiveness and accountability. Return to democratic rule in 1999 raised hopes the institution could be restored, but successive civilian governments’ pledges of much-needed reforms proved largely rhetorical. Presidents, defence ministry and parliament lacked the commitment and expertise to implement significant changes. They left the military badly governed, under-resourced and virtually adrift. Administration and accountability deteriorated throughout the sector. Poor, indeed lacking senior leadership has been compounded by equally poor legislative oversight and defence headquarters coordination and planning.
Until recently, the military was under-resourced, with comparatively low budgets, disbursed irregularly and unpredictably. From 2000 to 2008, its budget was less than 3 per cent of overall government expenditure. From 2009 to 2014, it increased to an average of 7.2 per cent of government spending ($5-$6 billion); but, as in the past, this was still allocated disproportionately to recurrent expenditures, leaving very little for crucial capital investment.
Corruption is system-wide. Legislators often manipulate the appropriation process at the National Assembly to serve private business interests rather than benefit the armed forces. Dubious procurement practices, fraudulently bloated payrolls, poor financial management and weak auditing systems at the national security adviser’s office, the defence ministry and armed services headquarters often mean funds are diverted to private or non-military purposes; arms, ammunition and other equipment are sometimes substandard and not always delivered. Inadequate funding, corrupt procurement and poor maintenance result in serious equipment and logistics deficits.
For a country of over 170 million people, facing several security challenges – from an Islamist insurgency in the north east to a resource-based conflict in the Niger Delta – a military numbering less than 120,000 personnel (all services) is clearly inadequate. Under-staffing reflects poor planning and a dubious recruitment system, but also is further aggravated by over-stretch induced by deployments in over two dozen internal security operations. Training institutions are short of facilities and instructors, lack training modules, and because they are largely focused on conventional operations, somewhat outdated. Personnel are under-motivated due to low pay, poor welfare services and bleak post-service prospects.
The military’s poor human rights record has had a debilitating impact on effectiveness. Serious abuse of civilian communities, from the Ogoni (in the mid-1990s) to Odi (1999) and Zaki Biam (2001), and more recent extrajudicial killings, mostly in the context of countering militant and separatist groups from Boko Haram and the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) to the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), have alienated citizens, whose cooperation is crucial for successful internal security operations.
The cumulative effect is a military deeply challenged in its primary function of defending the country and its citizens. It has been able to reverse Boko Haram’s advance since early 2015 only with help from the forces of Nigeria’s poorer neighbours and support from foreign technicians and mercenaries.
Since assuming office in May 2015, President Buhari has appointed new and more competent service chiefs, relocated the military command centre dedicated to the fight against Boko Haram to the north east and probed past weapons procurement. These actions have had salutary effects, but the benefits will be short-lived unless they are followed by formulation and implementation of a comprehensive reform program that encompasses the entire defence management spectrum, including leadership, oversight and administration. Failure to implement such reforms would leave the military distressed and Nigerians vulnerable to the current and future security challenges.
International Crisis Group