Nigeria’s new military chiefs face uphill battle

Nigeria’s newly appointed service chiefs have a brief window of opportunity to change their strategic approach, embrace reform and move beyond past failures before old habits set in.

Expert comment Updated 7 July 2021 Published 10 February 2021 3 minute READ

President Muhammadu Buhari’s recent decision to appoint new leaders at the head of Nigeria’s military has put the spotlight on the shortcomings of the country’s armed forces. Nigeria is perhaps more insecure now than at any time since its civil war raged in the late 1960s. The Council on Foreign Relations conservatively estimates that conflict across Nigeria has killed 38,000 in the past 5 years, while the UN assesses that the Boko Haram conflict has displaced over 3.4 million civilians across the deeply impoverished Lake Chad region. Even Nigeria’s once-placid northwest is experiencing an unprecedented wave of violence, crime and kidnapping.

The military have performed poorly against this formidable range of security threats. As a result, Africa’s largest economy and most populous country faces increasing risks to its long-term stability, socioeconomic health, investment climate and relationships with key external partners. Change was desperately needed.

A decision long overdue

The appointment of new military service chiefs typically takes place every 2-3 years or when a new president takes office. Yet Buhari clung onto the outgoing incumbents for over 5 years, despite their repeated strategic and operational missteps, and a series of high-profile security failures and battlefield defeats.

The president’s unshakeable confidence in his top brass – especially former army chief Lieutenant General Tukur Buratai – eventually became a lightning rod for domestic and international criticism that intensified with every mass kidnapping and terrorist attack.

Buhari also shielded army leaders from accountability in connection with gross human rights violations. Incidents such as the 2015 killing of over 300 people by rampaging soldiers in Zaria and the 2020 Lekki shootings – in which troops opened fire on unarmed civilians during the #EndSARS protests – were especially shocking.

Nor has Buhari ordered the army to close its detention centres in which thousands of detainees, including children, have died from torture, starvation and neglect over the past decade. The removal of Buratai, who proved unwilling to implement reforms or rein in corruption and human rights abuses, gives the army a chance to mend its ways.

A chance for a fresh start?

His successor, newly promoted Lieutenant General Ibrahim Attahiru, inherits a broken institution more skilled at profiteering and producing propaganda than planning and sustaining effective counterinsurgency campaigns. To succeed, he will need to pursue incremental reform, notably tackling procurement-related corruption and quelling interservice rivalries, while also bringing new strategic vision and energy to the army’s many internal security operations. Whether Attahiru and new Chief of Defence Staff General Lucky Irabor have the vision, skills and resources to push forward change amid deteriorating security conditions remains an open question.

Further, both men enjoy close ties to Buratai, who groomed them for their new roles, and so may be reluctant to dismantle the patronage networks that he constructed during his unusually long tenure. Both also previously served as top commanders in northeast Nigeria, directly overseeing counterinsurgency operations. Attahiru, however, was sacked after seven months, after underperforming in the role. Why this did not disqualify him from being promoted to army chief is unclear.

It is perhaps no surprise that initial indications are that Attahiru may be as reluctant as his predecessor to cooperate with disillusioned but doggedly loyal security assistance partners. To reboot its international relationships with longstanding partners like the United States and the United Kingdom, the army would – at a minimum – need to soften its standoffish attitude toward accepting international help and substantively address human rights concerns.

Until top officers like Irabor and Attahiru acknowledge the army’s deficiencies and embark on much-needed reforms, international military engagement likely will remain as contentious, intermittent and unfruitful as it has in recent years. And Nigeria’s escalating security crises will only get worse.

Piercing the echo chamber

However, the roots of the malaise crippling the Nigerian security sector run far deeper than individual corruption or incompetence. Most fundamentally it is due to a dogged refusal to engage with the realities of Nigeria’s situation at the most senior levels, including President Buhari himself. Buhari’s claims that the army has ‘technically defeated Boko Haram’ and that the outgoing service chiefs recorded ‘overwhelming achievements in our efforts at bringing enduring peace to our dear country’ are representative of a set of ‘alternative facts’ about the causes and consequences of insecurity that are endlessly recirculated by Nigeria’s political and military elite.

Questioning such claims is treated as an attack, with the army routinely decrying its critics as unpatriotic, terrorist sympathisers or instruments of foreign powers, and even blaming them for deteriorating security conditions in the country. It has also accused respected international humanitarian aid organizations of ‘aiding and abetting’ Boko Haram. And just days before its soldiers opened fire on #EndSARS protestors demonstrating against police brutality, an army spokesman labelled them ‘subversive elements and troublemakers’.

To succeed, Nigeria’s new service chiefs will need to dial back this rhetoric, step out of their echo chamber and work to regain public confidence and the trust of international partners. On his part, President Buhari will need to provide leadership, clarity and realism in his assessments of both the strategic challenges facing his country and the performance of its top military leaders. Failure to do so will see Nigeria become increasingly unstable and ultimately ungovernable, squandering rather than benefitting from its enormous human and economic potential.