Why Nigeria needs a ‘Grand strategy’

Fola Aina
By Fola Aina

Fola Aina is a political scientist and a doctoral fellow at the African Leadership Centre, King's College London. His areas of research interest include peace and security in Africa, grand strategy, governance for development and public policy. He can be reached on Twitter via @folanski

Posted on Monday, 12 September 2022 12:08

Members of the Nigeria Labour Congress protest during a rally on closure of Nigerian Universities at the National Assembly complex in Abuja, Nigeria July 27, 2022. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

Faced with multiple national security threats, the Nigerian state continually struggles to maintain its legitimacy as a political entity capable of guaranteeing the safety and security of its citizens.

With the rise of armed bandits wreaking unimaginable havoc in Nigeria’s Northwest region, a situation which is further complicated by the re-emergence of Boko Haram’s first breakaway faction Ansaru, in the troubled region, the stakes could not be any higher. Mass killings, kidnappings for ransom, thefts and sexual violence against women and girls have also led to the displacement of over 1 million people in the Northwest region.

Recently, violent extremists staged an attack on the Kuje medium-level prison in the Federal Capital Territory, Nigeria’s political capital, releasing several terrorists, including Khalid al-Barnawi, the mastermind of the UN headquarters bombing in Nigeria in the year 2013. 2,600 people died in 2021 as the result of armed bandit activity, according to ACLED.

In the Northeast, which has witnessed a protracted conflict, now in its thirteenth year, the onslaught inflicted on innocent civilians by Boko Haram and the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) continues unabated.

In the Southeast region, the activities of proscribed secessionists under the banner of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) especially through its paramilitary wing, the Eastern Security Network (ESN), have claimed the lives of hundreds and the destruction of several properties. The emergence of organised criminal groups such as kidnappers, cultists and “unknown gunmen” has resulted in the deaths of many. A recent example is the Owo killings, where innocent worshippers were murdered in cold blood at a catholic church.

An economy in peril?

This is particularly worrying given that Nigeria’s monolithic economy is largely dependent on oil. According to the World Bank, Nigeria now has the highest rate of multidimensional poverty in the world, attracting the label of “poverty capital of the world”. Unemployment in Nigeria has also risen from 27.1% in the second quarter of 2020 to 33% in the first quarter of 2021. Recurring nationwide strikes such as from the Nigerian Medical Association and the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) have contributed in no small measure towards crippling the effective functionality of the Nigerian state.

So far, the Nigerian state has mostly responded to both internal and external challenges in a reactionary rather than a proactive way.

While the federal government and the sub-national entities have come up with several measures, including military and non-military approaches, the problem of insecurity persists. Stretched beyond its limits Nigeria’s military has been deployed across the country to quell the fast-deteriorating insecurity situation. Its multiple internal security operations across the country’s six geo-political zones have recorded some successes but have also tended to overmilitarize the problem, which, in reality, stems from underlying socio-economic and political issues.

In Zamfara state, for instance, telecommunication services were temporarily shut down to disrupt the activities of criminal groups. Protracted armed conflicts emanating from the activities of violent extremist groups within Nigeria’s sphere of influence in West Africa, particularly in the Lake Chad Basin and Sahel regions add to the many insecurity threats confronting the sub-regions hegemon.

Response time

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Nigeria demonstrated decisiveness on matters related to its national security with its provision of geostrategic leadership through the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). This was the case during the Liberian civil wars and the Sierra Leonean civil war, both of which threatened regional peace and security at the time. Through a combination of military interventions and diplomatic and mediatory efforts, Nigeria played a major part in restoring regional peace and security, thereby averting the effects of a spillover that would have otherwise had dire consequences for the Nigerian state.

So far, the Nigerian state has mostly responded to both internal and external challenges in a reactionary rather than a proactive way. Rather than responding to the threats to its national security in an isolated way, Nigeria’s response must be such that it considers the broader linkages to other aspects of its national life. Most Nigerians feel that the state is incapable of guaranteeing their safety. The consequences are that it continues to erode the state’s legitimacy, potentially pushing disenchanted citizens towards seeking alternative means of ensuring their survival.

‘Grand Strategies’

Across the world, nation-states have adopted various grand strategies that reflect their core national interests. Some of these strategies include “restraint”, whereby attention is mostly accorded to the need to survive thereby prioritising building up and strengthening military capabilities. “Deep engagement” which is another type of grand strategy used by national states is anchored on the utility of international institutions such as the United Nations and the World Bank to the advantage of a regional superpower. The goal here amongst other things is to be able to deter threats to the homeland, long before they even occur.

In adopting a grand strategy that reflects the collective will of Nigerians, policymakers must ensure that transparency and accountability are a top priority.

Another type of strategy adopted by some states has been identified as “liberal internationalism.” Here multilateralism takes precedence. This type of grand strategy gives recognition to other potential great powers without trying to undermine their influence within the international system. The focus here is on the spread of democracy and globalisation towards guaranteeing global stability. The fourth type of grand strategy is “conservative primacy” which seeks to favour the spread of democracy over authoritarianism in a way and manner that does not erode the hegemon’s legitimacy within the international system.

In adopting a grand strategy that reflects the collective will of Nigerians, policymakers must ensure that transparency and accountability are a top priority. This is particularly significant in getting Nigerians on board with addressing issues that concern their country. At the peak of Nigeria’s geostrategic interventions, the country’s grand strategy was driven by a liberal internationalist posture, whereby Nigeria relied on multilateral instruments such as ECOWAS which was paramount to building legitimacy in the use of force. In deciding how best to appropriate its scarce resources, Nigerian policymakers must be able to determine introspectively and realistically what resources are available to be deployed and how best to go about doing so.

Two decades into its Fourth Republic, Nigeria must recalibrate its core national security interests both at home and abroad. Doing so sooner rather than later is central to ensuring its stability as well as that of the rest of the West African sub-region, the African continent, and the world at large. The urgency of this cannot be over-emphasised especially given the multiple threats it’s confronted with internally and externally. As events in Nigeria unfold over the next decade, the rest of the world would be closely watching to see if West Africa’s regional hegemon can overcome its challenges, while also providing much-needed geostrategic leadership for the rest of the region and Africa. The stakes are too high, and Nigeria cannot afford to let itself, Africa and the world down.

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