Nigeria’s last line of defence

By Tolu Ogunlesi in Lagos and Patrick Smith in Washington DC
Posted on Tuesday, 12 August 2014 10:54

Two bomb blasts near a fuel depot at Apapa port on 25 June in the commercial capital of Lagos sent shockwaves across business and the political class. Although local officials insisted at first that it was an accident involving a gas canister, security officials and the manager of a nearby container depot said it was a terrorist attack involving a car carrying a bomb that rammed into a petrol tanker.

There is a perilous over-reliance on cheap four- wheel-drive trucks […] where there is a huge threat of IED attacks and ambushes.

Some reports say a female suicide bomber was involved. Two people were killed in the blast. Had it been about 20 metres closer to the fuel depot, it would have set off a chain reaction that could have killed hundreds of people.

In a triumphalist video released on 14 July, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau announced: “A bomb went off in Lagos. I ordered the bomber who went in and detonated it.” Whatever the truth behind the bombing, an extension of the terrorist campaign to Lagos could frighten off fickle investors and spark more chaos ahead of next February’s elections.

President Goodluck Jonathan’s entourage is convinced the Boko Haram crisis is exaggerated by his political enemies. No coincidence, they say, that the three states worst hit by the group are controlled by the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC).

A national problem

That shows the desperate political competition between Jonathan’s People’s Democratic Party and the APC alliance. Each side accuses the other of sacrificing lives ahead of 2015 elections. Boko Haram’s Islamist insurgency, which many link to mainstream politicians, is exacerbating those political battles.

“There is no consensus about the rules of the game,” laments Ibrahim Gambari, a former foreign minister and under-secretary-general at the United Nations. “What is happening in Nigeria is a national, not a regional, problem that cannot be confined to the north-east,” he argues.

Boko Haram’s insurgency and clashes in the Middle Belt and the Niger Delta threaten next year’s elections, Gambari told a conference on security in Nigeria organised by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC in July.

Citizens feel vulnerable and frustrated as the threats mount, professor Jibrin Ibrahim of the Centre for Democracy and Development told the Washington conference: “The parents of the Chibok schoolgirls [who were kidnapped in April] came to Abuja to ask why no members of the security forces had come to their town since the abductions, despite the international campaign and publicity.”

The string of attacks by Boko Haram – killing more than 3,000 people this year in the north-east, bombing the Nyanya motor park in Abuja twice and then a shopping mall in the city centre – have put the insurgency and questions about treacherous politicians and security agents centre stage in politics.

No longer a haven from local realities, Abuja is on edge. People avoid crowded places, and taxis refuse to pick up passengers carrying heavy bags. Such precautions help only so much. “Even in the light of increased security within the Nigerian capital, Boko Haram still has the operational capabilities to bypass such measures and execute sophisticated mass casualty attacks,” says Ryan Cummings of red24, a Johannesburg-based crisis management consultancy.

Bad lieutenants and schadenfreude

Much blame has been directed at the military, which has scaled up its operations exponentially. The security commitments in this year’s national budget topped $6bn, but it is more than a numbers game.

“Corruption has eaten deep into the heart of the security agencies, as has politicisation, sapping the will to fight,” says Ibrahim. Nigeria’s feisty press is full of stories about badly paid, under-equipped soldiers and mounting discontent in the ranks.

Major Debo Bashorun, an aide to military leader General Ibrahim Babangida in the late 1980s, blames the military’s performance on bad commanders: “They collect money for armaments, [but] they won’t buy them. You should see what the soldiers are being fed. We talk to them – everybody is suffering and smiling. They cannot talk. Only those of us outside the system can talk. With all the defence budget, why haven’t we got GPS capability, [or] night-vision equipment?”

Boko Haram’s repeated attacks on army bases and armouries point to disarray in the senior ranks, says Bashorun. Its attack on the Maiduguri air force base in December 2013, which destroyed several aircraft, was “a disgrace to anybody who served in the military”.

Corruption has eaten deep into the heart of the security agencies, as has politicisation […]

Major General Chris Olukolade, the spokesman at defence headquarters, categorically rejects such critiques. Strict accounting procedures make it “difficult” to embezzle funds, he insists. Softly spoken and with a professorial air, Olukolade argues that false reports of corruption are damaging morale.

Incidents such as a botched mutiny in Maiduguri in May, when some soldiers shot a senior officer, have their roots in sensationalist reporting, Olukolade insists. “Soldiers [are] reading newspapers and believing funds are being stolen,” he argues.

Some reports are entirely fictional, Olukolade says, citing one about 10 generals facing court martial for associating with Boko Haram. “There is nothing like that. The most senior rank being tried is a lieutenant colonel, and it’s not related to Boko Haram,” he adds. “If a country has 10 generals under a court martial, that country is finished […] The military is the last line of defence for any country.”

Some officials complain about inter-service rivalries and a reluctance to share information. Nigeria’s police, a main target of the insurgents, are sometimes given to schadenfreude when army operations fail.

‘Beegeagle,’ an anonymous blogger who reports on Nigeria’s military strategy, argues that equipment – not “training and competence” – is the military’s Achilles heel. “There is a perilous over-reliance on cheap four- wheel-drive trucks, such as the Ford Ranger and Toyota Hilux, where there is a huge threat of IED [improvised explosive device] attacks and ambushes. They need more mine resistance and ambush-protected vehicles,” Beegeagle said in an emailed response to questions.

Olukolade insists the army is taking the fight to Boko Haram’s heartlands in the Sambisa Forest and the Mandara Mountains. A Western intelligence source tells The Africa Report that the “blanket excoriation” of the Nigerian military is “unfair and inaccurate. There are some highly effective and committed middle- ranking officers now in the north-east, but their success depends on strong logistical support.”

Political support and affiliation still count hugely in this fight. Jonathan’s top team all had senior posts under General Babangida’s regime in the 1980s and 1990s. President of the Senate Brigadier David Mark was Babangida’s communications minister, while defence minister General Aliyu Mohammed Gusau, national security adviser Colonel Sambo Dasuki and Jonathan’s chief of staff, Major General Jones Oladehinde Arogbofa, all occupied positions of authority.

Security tactics have been changing since Dasuki’s appointment in June 2012. Dasuki’s counter-terror strategy is based on “preventing our people from becoming terrorists in the first place,” he explained in March. Also in 2012, the office of the National Security Adviser hired Fatima Akilu, a psychologist, as director of behavioural analysis and strategic communications.

Blogging and tweeting

With local and international backing, she is working with sports coaches, Muslim clerics, prison officers, art therapists and social workers on programmes to counter violent extremism. Much of her work focuses on the youth in the north, promoting vocational training and inter-faith dialogue while overhauling teacher training and school curricula.

Although few sympathise with Boko Haram’s blanket rejection of Western education, many northern Muslims are wary of teaching art and music, but not mathematics and physics, in schools. Dasuki and Akilu are planning a major regional conference on education curricula.

Some 500 civil servants are to be trained in strategic communications over the next two years, Akilu adds. “A central part of war is communications and information management. Boko Haram has been very sophisticated in its communications, in many ways it has made us play catch-up,” she says.

The communications fightback has already started at defence headquarters. Down the hallway from Olukolade’s office is a door with a fancy nameplate – Defence Digital Information and Strategy Centre. Inside, staffers sit at computers, blogging and tweeting about news releases and photographs from the war front. ●

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