Saturday,18 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1300, (16 - 22 June 2016)
Saturday,18 August, 2018
Issue 1300, (16 - 22 June 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Reforming the Nigerian army

Under President Buhari, steps have been taken towards reforming the armed forces. But presidential oversight is not the same as civilian oversight, a new ICG report underlines, writes Haitham Nuri

Al-Ahram Weekly

As the Nigerian army achieves important victories against Boko Haram in the northeast of the country, with the assistance of forces from Chad, Cameroon, Niger and Benin, the International Crisis Group (ICG) has issued a report on reform of the Nigerian military establishment.

Since the reinstatement of civilian rule and democracy in the Nigeria in 1999, reforming the armed forces has been a priority for four subsequent presidents, but none has been up to the task, according to the report issued in early June.

Even so, Nigeria has made great strides in bringing the military under civilian control, despite prolonged military rule, which began in 1966, just six years after independence, and lasted until 1999. Throughout this 33-year period, Nigeria saw six successful military coups and two failed ones. Three alleged conspiracies were followed by trials that ended in stiff penalties for defendants, including death.

At least 117 people were killed in these coups, according to the report, while hundreds of officers were forced into retirement, especially between 1985 and 1993.

During the rule of the last general, Sani Abacha, from 1993 to 1998, Western sanctions were imposed on Nigeria, which had been a strong Western ally throughout the Cold War. The sanctions eroded the military’s capacity to modernise, develop and service equipment, mostly Western, which became apparent during the Nigerian military’s peacekeeping missions in Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Democracy returned after the mysterious death of General Abacha, but even then a former general was elected, Olusegun Obasanjo, who had ruled the country from 1976 to 1979 following a military coup.

Upon taking office, Obasanjo replaced senior officers with younger personnel who had no history of involvement in coups and retired some 100 officers who held public and federal positions under military rule, including ministers, regional governors and directors of public corporations.

Obasanjo also formed a presidential committee headed by a senior judge to investigate human rights violations by the armed forces and put standards in place to prevent them in the future. The committee submitted its report to the president in 2002.

The Court of Justice for the Economic Community of West African States issued a historic ruling awarding compensation to families of victims killed by Nigerian security services in a raid in September 2013. Eight people were killed when the military undertook a raid searching for Boko Haram elements in a suburb of Abuja. The court ordered the government to pay $200,000 to the family of each victim and $150,000 to the 11 people injured in the raid.

“This ruling is proof that Nigeria is on the right path and we have nothing to fear or hide,” said Khidr Abd Al-Baqi, professor of media at Kano University. “The president did not deny the existence of corruption when the British prime minister spoke about transparency in Nigeria because he wants to institute radical reforms regardless of the cost.”

President Muhammadu Buhari is known for his strong anti-corruption stance, even since his first period of rule in the mid-1980s, when he was brought to power by a military coup in 1983 and ruled for about 20 months.

British Prime Minister David Cameron recently called Nigeria a “fantastically corrupt” country. Offering no objection to the characterisation, Buhari said the British leader “knows what he’s talking about”.

According to the ICG report, measures taken by Obasanjo strengthen presidential control and oversight of the military, rather than democratic control.

When President Umaru Yar’Adua assumed office in 2007, military reform was not a priority. His focus was tension in the Niger Delta, which is rich in oil although the population lives in severe poverty.

Following Yar’Adua’s sudden death in 2010, he was succeeded by his vice-president, Goodluck Jonathan, who again made military reform a priority. But Jonathan was not an expert in military affairs and his reform agenda took a backseat as Boko Haram rose to prominence.

The battle against terrorism starkly demonstrated the weaknesses of the military establishment, particularly its sluggish response to the challenge represented by Boko Haram, which helped the extremist group gain ground in 2014 and early 2015.

President Buhari’s return to rule brought with it high hopes for military reforms, especially since Buhari has a long history with the army and was known as a fighter of corruption.

As one of his first decisions, Buhari transferred the General Command of the Armed Forces to the north, near the line of engagement with Boko Haram.

The terrorist group’s bloody reputation, which inspired fear in the local population in the absence of the military, began to subside as the Nigerian armed forces scored victories against it, supported by countries from the Lake Chad Basin (Chad, Niger, Cameroon and Benin).

“This victory would not have been achieved without major reforms of the army, but we still have much to do,” Abd Al-Baqi said.

The month of May marked one year of Buhari’s leadership of Nigeria, Africa’s biggest economy and most populous country, with a population of 170 million. While Boko Haram is tottering, “there are other challenges”, according to President Buhari. The territorial and separatist challenges facing the country will require a new kind of army, one with less of an iron grip than a strong hand.

In the south, there are problems in the Niger Delta, while in the southeast separatist tendencies, first sparked by the declaration of the Republic of Biafra (1967-1970), remain strong. In fact, political analyst Nnamdi Obasi thinks they are on the rise. The central belt of the country is witnessing escalating acts of violence between herders and farmers, which has left dozens of people dead and nearly 100,000 people displaced, a situation unprecedented since the country won its independence from Great Britain.

On top of all these tensions, there is the long-standing religious tension between Muslims and Christians. Although it has seemingly declined in the face of other conflicts, observers believe such tensions could again come to the fore in the right conditions.

In addition, the spectre of unemployment is alarming for any government. According to Obasi, when the police announced 10,000 vacancies, nearly one million young people applied for the positions. The government has initiated a national project to employ young people, announcing a half million teaching positions. Thousands of schools around the country are facing a severe shortage of instructors.

All of this compels the state to undertake swift, radical reforms of the military and other state institutions.

The ICG report makes seven recommendations for strengthening civilian oversight — not merely presidential oversight — of the military. It also recommends improving military funding and its sustainability. Under successive dictatorships, the military budget was reduced, in the hopes that cutting military funds would minimise the danger of coups.

But the lack of funding weakened the military’s capacity to confront terrorism and separatist calls, which was made apparent by the rise of Boko Haram.

The ICG report states that improving military training will strengthen the military’s capacity to confront separatism without violating human rights.

Putting down the separatist Republic of Biafra in the late 1960s cost more than one million lives, as well as injuries and population displacements.

Combating corruption in the military was a major recommendation of the ICG report. The Agency for Economic and Financial Crimes has already referred former Defence Minister Bello Haliru Mohamed to trial on charges of money laundering (300 million naira, the equivalent of $1.5 million).

The report recommends as well improving civilian-military relations, a source of chronic social and political tension in most Third World countries, where civilians fear the military and vice versa. The ICG report believes that the success of Nigerian reforms will be determined in large part by its international partners, particularly the US, UK and EU.

“Nigeria has made significant progress,” Abd Al-Baqi said. “But the problems are great. They need not only the effort of President Buhari, but deep commitment from the political elite, to become firm state doctrine regardless of changes of the people in power.”

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