Sunday Alamba / AP

Nigeria's undersized, undertrained military under fire

Analysis: Kidnappings in Nigeria expose a pattern of military inaction in the face of Boko Haram threats

The kidnapping of some 276 schoolgirls by radical Boko Haram rebels has thrust Nigeria’s security crisis into the global spotlight and even spurred calls for Western intervention. Once seen as the most powerful force in West Africa, Nigeria’s military has been embarrassed first by its failure to protect innocent girls in Nigeria’s violence-ridden northeast and — three weeks into the feckless search to bring them back — evidence that it knew about the plot four hours in advance.

But the kidnapping, from a school in the remote town of Chibok, is merely the latest instance of military incompetence in Nigeria that helps explain the government's inability to quell an insurgency now in its fifth year.

Chibok was not the first time Nigerian soldiers have failed to act when given forewarning of attacks on the country’s north, where Boko Haram is strongest. Just two days before the kidnapping, gunmen slaughtered hundreds in the nearby town of Kala Balge, in Nigeria’s northeastern Borno state. The state’s senator said the closest military post knew of the attack but chose not to respond to a distress call because the area was “not within its jurisdiction.” There have been many other such reports.

“The Chibok issue has delineated that what many have found alarming about the incident is actually par for the course in Nigeria,” said Ryan Cummings, chief Africa analyst for crisis management company red24.

On the one hand, Nigeria’s inability to clamp down on Boko Haram, which seeks to establish its radical interpretation of sharia law in northern Nigeria, is a simple numbers problem. Decades of military coups in post-colonial Nigeria instilled a fundamental mistrust between the central state and the security services, even after 1999, when a civilian, democratic government took over. That mistrust, coupled with the notion that a large standing army in peacetime posed a mutiny risk, spurred the civilian government to slash the military to a size analysts say is inadequate to subdue such a diffuse insurgency. Nigeria, the world's eighth largest country by population and Africa's biggest economy, today has one of the lowest military personnel-to-population ratios in the world, Cummings noted.

But the apparent unwillingness to respond to threats is harder to explain. Chris Ngwodo, a Nigerian political analyst, diagnosed the problem as one of “conceptual orientation.” Over the years, he said, “the military and security forces were designed to protect the head of state and his government from coups, not protect national security. That continues to paralyze our response to security issues. It is the fundamental problem.”

The impotence in the face of Nigeria’s national security crisis was underlined again in tragic fashion this week. A police source told Reuters that a Nigerian fighter jet flew over the town of Gamburu on Monday while a group of gunmen, believed to be Boko Haram, were slaughtering more than 125 people. But the rebels, aware the military lacked the capacity to target them while they were scattered in a densely populated area, or mobilize a defense force in time to stem the flow of civilian blood, reportedly “didn’t flinch.”

Some point to the lack of counterinsurgency training among Nigerian troops in the north, who have never faced an insurgency of this magnitude before. Others say morale is low and soldiers are not paid enough. Rampant corruption reportedly eats away at the country’s security budget, which, at $6 billion per year, is considerable.

The diverse ethnoreligious makeup of Nigerian personnel deployed in the predominately Muslim north might be another obstacle. There are suspicions that ethnic and religious fragmentation within the army has fueled occasional collusion with Boko Haram, though that has not been proven.

What is clear is that the military has lost the trust of citizens in the north, who alternately accuse soldiers of being lethargic in the face of Boko Haram threats and heavy-handed when they do respond. At the same time as northern politicians allege President Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian, has turned a blind eye to the largely Muslim north, instances of mass extrajudicial assassinations of suspected Boko Haram have strained the military-civilian relationship.

“There has always been mistrust between civilians and the military," said Cummings. "When doing counterinsurgency, you need the civilian population on your side. That isn’t the case in the north.”

Meanwhile, Boko Haram appears to have grown stronger. Since 2009, guerrilla fighters have waged a violent campaign across the country, killing more than 4,000 people in machete attacks and car bombs and displacing nearly 300,000. Though they have little in the way of popular support, their grievances about government incompetence and corruption may have begun to resonate with some.

Under domestic and, increasingly, international pressure, Nigeria has been forced to accept nominal assistance from the U.S. and U.K. — something it has been reluctant to do in the past. Jonathan has repeatedly insisted Nigeria was winning the war against the radical Islamist group, saying in a public address Friday that he believed "the kidnap of these girls will be the beginning of the end of terror in Nigeria."

Nigerians have their doubts about that, said Ngwodo, but the consensus is that Western intervention is not the answer.

“The idea of American boots on the ground stokes fears of Western imperialism," he said. "In Nigeria right now, there’s a lot of talk about Iraq, Pakistan, etcetera and people are wary of what intervention might lead to.”

National pride is also on the line. With Jonathan facing the prospect of re-election in 2015, the last thing he wants to do is admit his government needs foreign guns to keep Nigeria safe. 

That might be beside the point, because it will be very difficult for the U.S. to justify sending in armed forces (even though a chorus of congressmen are calling for that step). As former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson noted in a recent conference call, the U.S. is limited under the Leahy law from providing major security assistance to a military body as mired in rights abuse allegations as Nigeria’s.

"The human rights violations committed by the Joint Task Force in northern Nigeria have resulted in restricting the personnel and the units to which the U.S. is able to provide security assistance," said Lesley Anne Warner, Africa analyst at the CNA corporation.

Instead, analysts say, the focus needs to be on cobbling together a regional response to an insurgency that has begun to lay its roots in neighboring countries. There is evidence that Boko Haram has found safe haven across Nigeria’s borders in Cameroon, Niger and Chad, and on Saturday, Nigeria's army announced it had posted two divisions to the northeastern borderlands to help with the search for the missing girls — who may have been taken into any of those countries.

Many experts on the global Salafist movement believe Boko Haram has staged high-profile and unspeakable acts of violence in recent weeks to prove its credentials as a viable Islamist insurgency, perhaps in a bid for more funding from Al-Qaeda and other groups.

In the short term, however, the group has already begun to expand its footprint beyond Nigeria’s borders.

“If the government wants to deal with the insurgency in its entirety, it’s going to need to engage in some multilateral, multinational counterinsurgency operation,” said Cummings. “Boko Haram won't just be Nigeria’s problem for long.”

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