For many years, the Nigerian military was regarded as the most proficient in West Africa. It was commonly seen as the guardian of the nation, and was remarkably free of the ethnic and religious divisions that have bedeviled Nigeria as a nation. The downside of this proficiency was that as “the guardian of the nation” the military was regularly involved in coups and ruled the country most of the time between 1966 and 1999.
Subsequent to the restoration of civilian government in 1999, the Nigerian military performed credibly in numerous peacekeeping missions sponsored by the United Nations, African Union, and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). But successive civilian governments starved the military for resources, reduced its size, and politicized its senior leadership, in part, at least, to preclude future coups. In private, senior military figures have said to me that the military now reflects many of the same ethnic and religious divisions as Nigeria as a whole.
Of late, however, the military has suffered repeated blows to its prestige. There has been criticism of its peacekeeping performance in Darfur, and in Mali its contribution to the ECOWAS peacekeeping effort was very poor: there were credible reports that the Nigerian troops were so badly trained and so poorly equipped that they could be used only to man checkpoints. Even more serious, the military, in conjunction with the national police and the State Security Service, has been unable to counter the Boko Haram insurgency in north east Nigeria. There are reports of the Nigerian military being outgunned by Boko Haram and actively avoiding engagement with them. There has even been a mutiny, with troops firing on a general. The military response to the Chibok kidnapping of up to three hundred girls has been widely criticized within Nigeria and internationally. U.S. Department of Defense witnesses have profiled the shortcomings of the Nigerian military in Congressional testimony.
It is no surprise that this criticism is getting under the skin of the Nigerian military leadership. The Nigerian chief of defense staff, Air Marshal Alex Badeh told a Nigerian NGO, Citizen Initiative for Security Awareness, that the military now knows the locations of where the kidnapped girls are being held. The military is working on how to secure their rescue without endangering their lives. He then defended the military by recalling its role in the 1967-70 civil war and its peacekeeping deployments in Liberia and Sierra Leone. According to the media, he reaffirmed the military’s commitment to the constitution and to democracy.
On Boko Haram, the Air Marshal’s comments were curious, at least as reported in the Nigerian press. He reiterated the now standard line that Boko Haram is a dimension of al Qaeda: “I know people from outside Nigeria are in this war. They are fighting us, they want to destabilize us. But this is our country and some people in this country are standing with the forces of darkness. We must salvage our country we must bring sanity back into our nation.” The war, he said could not be fought by the military alone, but by all Nigerians.
He also acknowledged, however, the struggle against Boko Haram is something of a civil war, with the military fighting its fellow brothers: “We are not happy at all because we are killing our own and we are killing mostly youths. We cannot afford to eliminate our youths. Who are we going to handover Nigeria to? We can’t continue to kill them.”
The Air Marshal’s remarks have a defensive quality. The international spotlight on Nigeria, and particularly the military, because of the kidnapping of the schoolgirls risks a backlash. On the other hand, international assistance might galvanize the security services to work together more energetically and effectively. International involvement can be a two-edged sword, especially in a country that prides itself as being the giant of Africa. As the U.S., British, Canadian, Israeli, and other governments seek to assist Nigeria, they must bear in mind the potential unintended consequences of their presence and participation. Initiatives by Nigeria’s friends should be governed by the principle of “first, do no harm.”