Nigeria's military under fire over Boko Haram response

Nigeria's military under fire over Boko Haram response
A screengrab taken on July 13, 2014 from a video released by the Nigerian Islamist extremist group Boko Haram and obtained by AFP shows the leader of the Nigerian Islamist extremist group Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau (C).

LAGOS - When Nigeria's new chief of defence staff was appointed earlier this year, he promised a swift end to the deadly violence being waged by Boko Haram Islamists.

"If we do our work cohesively, I can tell you we will finish that thing (the counter-insurgency) in no time," Air Marshal Alex Badeh said at his investiture on January 20.

Eight months on, Boko Haram look stronger than ever, having seized towns and villages in Nigeria's northeast at a rate which has drawn comparisons to Islamic State militants' rapid gains in Iraq.

The military in contrast seems far from cohesive: some soldiers have reportedly refused to deploy, complaining they are ill-equipped to fight the better-armed rebels.

Hundreds of others are said to have shouldered arms and fled their posts; salaries have reportedly gone unpaid; and soldiers left without proper food. The military denies the claims.

On Thursday, US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Linda Thomas-Greenfield warned that the worsening security situation must be reversed.

"The reputation of Nigeria's military is at stake," she told a bilateral security meeting in Abuja. "But more importantly, Nigeria's and its children's future is in jeopardy.

"Failure is not an option."

'It is shameful'

Africa's most populous nation and leading economy also has one of its largest militaries.

There are 80,000 personnel on active service and 82,000 paramilitaries, according to the International Institute of Security Studies' "The Military Balance 2014".

Out of this year's federal budget of 4.962 trillion naira ($30 billion, 23 billion euros), 968 billion naira or nearly 20 per cent went to defence - the highest since the 1967-1970 civil war.

Boko Haram is estimated to have between 6,000-8,000 fighters and is largely reliant on criminality for funding and looting the places it attacks, including military barracks.

Why the militants appear to have the upper hand has left many Nigerians baffled and politicians demanding answers.

"This is not the military that we used to know," said one former officer, who participated in Nigeria's first military coup in January 1966.

"How can a rag-tag group of dissidents overpower trained Nigerian soldiers? It is shameful," he told AFP. "Our military are just wallowing in self-denial."

Years in the making?

Nigeria's military woes are all too predictable for some.

Former army general-turned-lawmaker Ahmed Saleh believes the rot set in after a failed coup attempt against military ruler Ibrahim Babangida in 1990.

Babangida got rid of experienced senior officers and handed more control to the military high commands in Abuja, leading to "decay" in the ranks in terms of training and skills, he said.

Front-line operations were impossible without weapons and ammunition shortages, he was quoted as saying in Nigeria's media on Friday.

"We have a duty to rebuild the armed forces and unless we understand these basic facts, we are not going anywhere," he added.

The IISS said that despite refit and repair programmes in recent years, much of Nigeria's defence equipment is "unfit to be deployed for prolonged periods of time".

Procurement has not focused on counter-insurgency while analysts blame widespread graft and management failures for the lack of improvement, despite the increases in defence spending.

Some reports have said less than $100 million of the nearly $2 billion defence budget actually gets to deployed troops.

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