Nigeria’s real security vote

By Tolu Ogunlesi in Lagos, with additional reporting from Patrick Smith
Posted on Friday, 17 April 2015 16:00

Each year, the federal government allocates some $7bn to the country’s security agencies – the armed forces, the intelligence services and the police – and that helps to ex- plain the primacy of security in political calculations in Nigeria.

until you have video evidence showing these people engaged in combat, you cannot call them mercenaries

Another factor is the long history of military rule in the country and the mutual suspicion – but sometimes common interests – between generals and top civilian politicians.

This year’s election has a new twist. It pits Goodluck Jonathan of the ruling People’s Democratic Party, a civilian president overseeing a surprising military turnaround, against the former military leader General Muhammadu Buhari, who is burnishing his credentials as a born-again democrat for the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC). He wants to talk about the future, not his military past.

Complicating the picture ahead of this year’s national and state elections is the jihadist insurgency in the north-east led by the fighters of Boko Haram, who by January were in control of 20 of the 27 local government areas in Borno State.

Security experts predicted that Nigeria’s military could be locked in battle with insurgents for years, if not decades, drawing parallels with countries such as Pakistan.


Attahiru Jega, chairman of the election commission, announced that the February elections would be postponed six weeks until 28 March and 11 April, respectively, for security reasons.

Specifically, Jega said that national security adviser Colonel Sambo Dasuki had warned him that the military was about to launch a massive counter-offensive against the insurgents and therefore could not spare its soldiers to guarantee election security.

That claim was met with widespread scepticism. In a public statement, APC spokesman Lai Mohammed asked: “Is it not curious that the same president who has stood by while Boko Haram decimates a whole section of the country over the past six years has suddenly realised there is something he could do to crush the sect in six weeks?”

Sudden realisation or not, President Jonathan was telling the BBC on 19 March that all of the territory seized by Boko Haram would be retaken within a month. That followed a series of strikes against the insurgents by Nigeria’s military, aided by troops and airpower from Chad, Niger and Cameroon.

“We are winning the war against the insurgents in the north-east,” boasted Murtala Nyako, governor of Adamawa, which was one of the worst-hit states.

According to Dimieari Von Kemedi, a special consultant to President Jonathan, the military’s offensive had been some months in preparation and was not just an electoral stunt.

Two factors are enabling Nigeria’s military to turn around the fight against Boko Haram, according to Von Kemedi: “The role of President François Hollande in persuading our Francophone neighbours to collaborate with us against the insurgents was critical in shutting off Boko Haram’s escape routes.”

The other factor, argues Von Kemedi, is that the military now has the right equipment, particularly the latest generation of attack helicopters. Such kit has to be ordered many months in advance and getting it onto the battlefield “is not just a matter of money, but it’s about production and delivery schedules and training programmes,” he says.

As for claims that mercenaries from South Africa and Ukraine are playing a major operational role in the campaign, Von Kemedi argues there was “nothing sacrosanct to say that all equipment procured by Nigeria’s armed forces has to be operated by its personnel.

The core issue was that all equipment must be under the command and control of Nigerian officers.”

Short-term solution?

Freedom Onuoha, a research fellow at Nigeria’s National Defence College, says the role of foreign military personnel – whether advisers or technicians – has been exaggerated: “They are not in any command and control positions,” he says.

“And until you have video evidence showing these people engaged in combat, you cannot call them mercenaries.”

Instead, he says, the foreigners are involved in providing “technical support” – servicing and maintaining the newly acquired hardware and training Nigerian forces.

The anonymous Nigerian military blogger Beegeagle describes the role of the foreigners as a “low-level involvement which in broad outlines did not transcend training and mentorship but which was conveniently blown out of proportion.”

Yet the APC’s Mohammed says the opposition had been quiet on the use of mercenaries: “Nigerians today are united on one thing: the need to get rid of Boko Haram. Whatever means are being employed might not be important to them.”

But for politicians, Mohammed explains that there is a matter of credibility: “The President is lying – he has not come to admit that mercenaries are in the country.”

Although the use of foreign military specialists might be effective in the short term, it raises bigger questions, argues Mohammed: “The long-term solution is training and equipping our forces. Mercenaries have no rules of engagement. The same mercenaries fighting for you today can turn around and fight against you tomorrow.”

How the military operates is a key political issue this year. In February, the National Human Rights Commission, chaired by Chidi Odinkalu, released a report on election-related violence outside the troubled north-east.

The commission reported more than 60 cases of election-related violence between December 2014 and January 2015 involving the killing of 58 people. It pinpoints Lagos, Kaduna and Rivers States as having “the three most worrying trends and locations predictive of a high likelihood of significant violence during the 2015 elections.”

There are other key zones of conflict that could see clashes during the elections, the report explains. Most import- antly, the Niger Delta is a testing ground for both the ruling party and the opposition.

“The APC have to show they can win substantial votes in the Delta if they want to claim they are really a national party,” says Von Kemedi.

Jonathan has kept an uneasy peace in the Delta for the past four years through amnesty programmes for the fighters at the grassroots and multimillion-dollar contracts for their commanders.

Accordingly, most Delta militant groups are heavily invested in a Jonathan victory.

In the Middle Belt, battles to control land are growing fiercer. Nomadic Fulani herdsmen have in recent decades pushed southwards, as the encroaching desert consumes the once fertile grazing grounds in the far north. That has triggered clashes with the farmers in the Middle Belt.

As The Africa Report went to print, tensions were spreading to the south-western corner of Nigeria, including Edo State. This region was likely to be the most contested in both the presidential and state elections.

In what were set to be Nigeria’s closest-ever elections, both parties were trying to seize whatever advantage they could from local disputes. So politics were more likely to be part of the problem than the solution. ●

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