Nigeria’s Military Is Part of the Problem. It’s Also the Solution.
Soldiers don’t belong on the streets—and the army is uniquely placed to pressure the government for police reforms to tackle rampant insecurity.
Nigeria is once again in the headlines for the wrong reasons. In addition to the Boko Haram insurgency, the country has been rocked by multiple outbursts of banditry, kidnapping, and violence this year. Approximately 600 students were kidnapped between December 2020 and March of this year alone.
Then, a few days ago, unknown gunmen shot to death a member of the ruling All Progressives Congress party. Nigerians are aghast and appalled that the government of Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari (who was elected partly on his pedigree as a retired general and promises to crush insurgents) has been unable to suppress the insecurity. However, the causes are long term and have their roots in the country’s era under military rule in the 20th century. Nigeria’s military is ironically the cause of, and the solution to, many of the country’s security problems.
Although Nigeria transitioned to democracy 22 years ago, the consequences of decisions made by prior military dictatorships still influence events in contemporary Nigeria. Discontent regarding economic inequality, corruption, and the overly centralized structure of the Nigerian state has simmered for decades, but prior military governments kept a lid on them—through ruthless force rather than by addressing their underlying causes.
During its three decades of military rule from the 1960s to 1999, the military appropriated responsibility for more and more facets of daily life. It also sidelined the police, first by excising its intelligence gathering department and then by underequipping and underfunding it. Thus, when the military left government in 1999, the incoming civilian government inherited an under-policed society and a police force with almost 40 percent of its officers engaged as escorts or guards for VIPs. Instead of protecting the public, many police officers spent their time protecting VIPs from the public.
A presidential committee report on police reform bluntly stated the police were “saddled with a very large number of unqualified, undertrained and ill-equipped officers and men, many of whose suitability to wear the respected uniform of the force is in doubt.”
Democracy ironically opened avenues for violence, and the policies of civilian governments perversely incentivized violence. Divisive and incendiary arguments, such as the need to equitably share the country’s national resources and the apportionment of power between the federal and regional governments, which the military previously suppressed, have now erupted in the less repressive environment of democracy.
Nigeria’s post-1999 democratic governments have adopted unconventional responses to crime and insecurity. In 2009, the government ended an insurgency in the oil-producing regions of the south (where most of Nigeria’s wealth is obtained) by granting amnesties to more than 25,000 insurgents, including monthly cash stipends and training provided by the government, in exchange for them agreeing to lay down their weapons.
Although the amnesty program seemed like a creative solution to end the violence and allow the resumption of oil extraction, it created a dangerous “cash for guns” precedent by adding insurgents to the government’s payroll. Nigeria’s past military governments would never have contemplated, let alone granted, amnesty for insurgents.
However, the genie of paying people to not be violent is already out of the bottle. To the horror of its victims, some have also lobbied the government to implement a similar amnesty program for Boko Haram and other bandit groups. As corporations and other Nigerians have paid ransoms to secure the release of hostages, further precedents have been set that create the impression that crime and violence pay. Rewarding violence has led to the commercialization of crime and kidnapping.
Kidnap gangs are well organized and demand huge ransoms for the release of hostages. Kidnappers are now so brazen that they have kidnapped high-profile Nigerians, such as the mother of Nigeria’s former minister of finance and the father of then-captain of Nigeria’s national soccer team. The families of middle-class and working-class hostages often borrow or crowdsource money from friends, employers, and their communities to pay the ransoms.
After the release of their family member, the money they raised is then converted into a loan they must repay. This often sends them into a spiral of economic vulnerability where they are simultaneously financially burdened by debts they have to pay and also vulnerable to more kidnappings since the kidnappers are now aware they are willing to pay ransoms.
If there is a solution to this insecurity, the military is likely to provide it. With the police overwhelmed, the military has been tasked with acting not just as an army but as a proxy police force. The army is currently deployed in at least 30 of Nigeria’s 36 states. However, the army does not want the job of substituting for the police. A retired general lamented “in Nigeria today, the armed forces are the ones doing the duties of the police.” Yet the military is not blameless. There are good reasons for arguing the solution to Nigeria’s insecurity is to reduce military presence on its streets rather than sending out more soldiers.
The frequency of its deployment in civilian spaces has amplified civil-military conflicts and human rights abuses as well as degraded its professionalism. However, the military’s wide deployment across the country gives it leverage and makes it part of the solution. Despite its frequent brutality and being reviled by many of its compatriots, Nigeria’s military is ironically one of the few Nigerian institutions committed to the country’s unity.
Last month, Nigeria’s army chief and 10 other senior military officers died in a tragic plane crash. The appointment of Maj. Gen. Faruk Yahaya as his successor a few days ago is one of the most important appointments of Buhari’s presidency. Nigeria needs an army chief who has the courage to tell his government some hard truths and remind it the military’s personnel are soldiers, not police officers. Both the military and Nigeria’s society need an exit strategy to withdraw soldiers from Nigeria’s streets.
Part of the reason why so many soldiers are on the streets is because they are less prone to the sort of extortion police officers routinely practice on the citizenry they are supposed to protect. Giving guns and ammunition to underpaid police officers is extremely dangerous. Rather than throw more money at the police, which may never reach officers on the beat due to corruption, the solution may be to change how officers are paid.
Potential solutions include giving them perks, such as preferential banking, housing, loans, and mortgage facilities, to encourage recruitment and retention and to discourage corruption. Another more ambitious reform would be to overhaul the Nigerian criminal code by introducing a distinction between federal and local police, allowing locally recruited police to investigate petty crimes with a separate elite federal police force devoting itself to more serious violence.
Nigeria’s government already has representatives from perhaps the most influential constituency in Nigerian society. Both Nigeria’s national security advisor and the minister of defense are, like the president, also retired generals.
Nigeria’s group of retired generals is like its own private members club. Their word is likely to carry more weight with the president, and they can use their influence to convince Nigeria’s leaders to address the huge elephants in the room the country has been ignoring for decades: the country’s militarized society and exploding population of more than 200 million people as well as its youth bulge, which keep churning out national security threats on a regular basis.
As an institution that has the ears of the president and whose sudden absence from national life would cause chaos, the military is best placed to lobby the government to stop throwing money and security problems at the military but to instead invest in strengthening the police.
It is Nigeria’s great irony that very little moves unless the military is pushing it.
Max Siollun is a Nigerian historian and the author of the books Oil, Politics and Violence: Nigeria's Military Coup Culture 1966-1976 and Soldiers of Fortune: A History of Nigeria (1983-1993). Twitter: @maxsiollun