Thursday, April 24, 2014

State of War

Nigerian authorities have been reluctant to describe the ongoing counter-insurgency campaign against Boko Haram in the northeast as a war. This reluctance is by no means unprecedented. Right up till the moment federal forces invaded Biafra, the federal government was still describing its mobilization against the secessionist regime as a “police action.” The tendency to understate security challenges is the state’s way of projecting an unflappable comportment; to reassure the public that “there is no cause for alarm” and that “the situation is under control.”

In this instance, the critical data defies understatement. Conservative estimates place the number of lives claimed by the insurgency at over 4, 000 since 2009. According to the UN High Commission for Refugees, the fighting has internally displaced 470, 000 people in Nigeria with another 60, 000 forced to seek refuge in Cameroon, Niger and Chad since 2013. More than fifty percent of the refugees are women and children. The closure of federal government colleges in the region has affected over 10, 000 students – a number that increases exponentially when the closure of other schools is factored in. The “talibanization” of the northeast is in progress as evinced by Boko Haram’s targeting of schools and preying upon girls.   

Since 2011, Boko Haram has struck the national police headquarters, army and air force bases in the northeast and the State Security Service headquarters in Abuja where inmates attempted a jailbreak last month. It has also attacked public schools including federal government colleges where young Nigerians of diverse faiths and ethnicities are educated. Its hatred for pluralism as embodied in the Nigerian state is unalloyed. Having moved from seeking virgins in paradise to snatching young girls for sexual slavery, the group’s ideological bankruptcy has been exposed. All that it has left is nihilistic sadism as evidenced by its murderous focus on soft targets. This makes it all the more dangerous.

President Goodluck Jonathan has not been able to rally the country against this threat; nor has he articulated a theory of the case that explains our current national security challenges and a grand ideological and strategic response to non-state actors. Instead, his administration has shown itself willing to use the conflict for political ends notably as a means of smearing political opponents. For its own part, the opposition is incapable of nuanced critiques of terrorism and sees an opportunity to promise miracles if elected. We are in a time of national crisis and statesmanship is in short supply.

The administration suffers from a massive credibility deficit. Jonathan’s serial broken promises to end the insurgency have been damaging. Continuing attacks on soft and hard targets such as military bases have undermined public confidence in the armed forces and security services. This is a shame because the military and the security agencies have worked hard to degrade Boko Haram. They have perhaps been undone by a predilection for “truth-bending.” Propaganda is a customary element of warfare but it has to be properly executed. Public impatience is understandable, more so, in the light of a political class that is largely considered insensitive to the plight of the poor – the insurgents’ victims of choice.

The administration has also failed to provide a coherent narrative timeline that explains the origin and evolution of Boko Haram. In January, Aliyu Mohammed Gusau was appointed minister of defence ostensibly to coordinate a new approach to the counter-insurgency. Gusau was National Security Adviser (NSA) from 1999 to 2006. Having been appointed again to that position by Jonathan in 2010, Gusau has been NSA longer than anyone else since 1999. An inquest into the origin and evolution of Boko Haram must surely ask questions of what he knew and did about the current threat when it was still at an embryonic stage in the early to mid 2000s. Gusau’s appearance before the senate for his confirmation hearing provided the opportunity to pose such questions. The senate instead afforded him the luxury of exemption from questioning. The fact that the senate failed to question a nominee penciled down to head the defence ministry in a time of war aptly demonstrates its dereliction of duty. 

The failure to produce an official biography of Boko Haram has been a boon to conspiracy theorists who tap into popular but false narratives to explain the insurgency. Some of the most colourful theories posit nebulous conspiracies starring either the president or his political opponents. However, in this instance, Nigerians are attributing to malice what is largely a consequence of incompetence. When a system long crippled by corruption, mediocrity and dysfunction is confronted by a protean, highly adaptive and asymmetrical threat, it is asking too much to expect an immediate nimble and strategically efficient response. These conspiracy theories continue to cloud the public mind at a time when national consensus is required.

Some of the measures that need to be taken – mass relocation of tens of thousands students to safer places for schooling or the establishment of protected camps for half a million refugees require competent leadership and a  strong state but the Nigerian state is weak and political actors are unwilling to lead.     

The military has scored moderate successes in its campaign at great human cost. Its casualty figures, while closely guarded by the defence establishment, are significant enough to warrant a national memorial and greater effort to commemorate the supreme sacrifices being made by the troops. However, the military is hamstrung by a deficit of numbers with which to adequately cover a theatre of operations which due to the nature of the enemy is highly fluid; a limited intelligence support structure and arguably, a resource deficit that adversely affects its ability to effectively hold ground. These deficits have to be surmounted.

But the military also suffers from being the only instrument in the toolkit favoured by politicians; it is, by definition, a broad sword when, in many instances, what is required is a scalpel. A purely military approach that is apparently devoid of preemptive policing, adequate intelligence gathering and psychological warfare components is bound to have limitations. For instance, the failure to protect moderate clerics that have been targeted by Boko Haram and to deploy them as a first line of defence against extremist ideologies in the communities is a tactical error. The army is also overstretched by its deployment across the federation putting out fires that are really within the purview of the police. The risk of mission fatigue is high.  

The National Security Adviser, Sambo Dasuki, recently unveiled a broader strategy that incorporates non-military options in the counter-insurgency toolkit including greater efforts to win hearts and minds and to address the socio-economic conditions of the northeast. This will require time to work. The administration has also outlined the Federal Initiative for the North East (FINE), a raft of economic, infrastructural and agro-allied rehabilitation measures. Given the region’s scale of ecological, socioeconomic and infrastructural degradation, federal intervention is necessary. But until a suitably hefty security and military footprint is established and order is restored, rehabilitation and reconstruction will be impossible.

From all indications, this will not end soon. Counter-insurgency campaigns are notoriously long drawn-out affairs. This administration has been burned badly in the past by an imprudent eagerness to declare the imminence of victory. However, the nature of the enemy and the nature of its terrain which includes vast ungoverned spaces straddling borders with Cameroon, Chad and Niger, call for a reassessment of what ‘victory’ means. Both the public and the troops on the frontlines will be ill-served by premature triumphalism. Conversely, an open-ended military commitment with no timelines or performance indicators is untenable and carries its own risks. Prolonged militarization with ample occasion for human rights violations and scorched earth tactics will surely radicalize occupied communities and boost Boko Haram’s recruitment drive in the area. This dynamic, at least partly, accounts for Boko Haram’s resilience.  

Boko Haram lost the first phase of the war in 2011 when its attacks on churches failed to elicit widespread reprisals that could have ignited a broader sectarian war in which it would then have postured as an Islamist defence vanguard. Much of the conflict is now contained in the northeast but if the northeast is “abandoned” or “forgotten”, either by reason of paucity of resolve or resources, it would rapidly become a base for the insurgents to regroup and eventually launch attacks on other parts of the federation. The northeast frontier is usually on the fringes of the national consciousness but as the gateway to the Sahel and the Maghreb, it is an area of vital importance where the insurgents must be denied refuge or breathing space. We cannot afford for this to become a forgotten war. At this point, international assistance is necessary to augment the joint military operations by Nigeria and her neighbours. National pride should not stop Nigeria from seeking external help even as it continues build capacity.

In an age of attacks on soft targets, there also needs to be fresh thinking on how to secure public spaces – parks, bus stations, markets and schools. Strategies for this must involve the cooperation between security agencies and the citizenry. Terror is tragically the new normal and we must adopt a permanent posture of vigilance.

Given the foul opportunism of politicians in a pre-election year, it can be easy to forget who the real enemy is. The indiscriminately ecumenical range of Boko Haram’s victims on April 14 in Nyanya, Abuja should serve as a reminder. 

(All Images Sourced online)      

Monday, April 14, 2014

Nigeria's Geostrategic Blind Spots

Nigeria’s most pressing national security concerns are of transnational dimensions. They range from the resilience of the terrorist insurgency in her northeastern frontier, a long neglected region vulnerable to subversive currents from the Sahel and the Maghreb to endemic oil theft and piracy in her southern coastal waters now ranked the world’s second most dangerous maritime sector after the Gulf of Aden and with the potential to disrupt the broader maritime economy in the Gulf of Guinea; and the influx of Sahelian pastoralists displaced by climate change, and in search of wetlands, a migration that is fueling conflict between farmers and herders over scarce land.

Against this backdrop, we have to rethink our foreign policy architecture which has been in stasis for some decades. Foreign policy thought has not significantly progressed from the buoyant days of Jaja Nwachukwu, Joseph Garba and Bolaji Akinyemi. From the 1960s to the 1980s, these foreign affairs ministers essentially based foreign policy on the doctrine of Nigerian primacy in Africa and defined her role as the chief opponent of neocolonialism and apartheid. However, since the collapse of apartheid in South Africa, Nigeria has not reinvented this role. Afrocentric activism is still a nominal pillar of our foreign policy but this has also been supplanted by a less confident, more beggarly comportment in the international space – a tragic reflection of the domestic lack of elite consensus and internal coherence.

Admirably, Nigeria has continued to contribute significantly to peacekeeping efforts in West Africa, and also under the auspices of the African Union and the United Nations. But these commitments seem to be pursued independent of any overarching foreign policy framework. The closest to a unified field theory to explain our human and material investments in the Africa is that they demonstrate our role as a “big brother”. Yet, uncritical beneficence is hardly the stuff of serious foreign policy.     

Revising our foreign policy calls for a decolonization of intra-African diplomatic relations. Many African countries are diplomatically closer to their former colonizers than to each other. Britain and Spain are thousands of miles away but we are far more familiar with them than with their erstwhile colonies, Ghana and Equatorial Guinea which are in our neighbourhood. One consequence of this dynamic is the perception of Foreign Service postings to Washington D.C. or to the Court of Saint James as being more important than those to “backwater” nations in our region. But in national security terms, our contiguous neighbours like Niger and Chad are far more important than say Canada or Italy. Equatorial Guinea, with which we share a maritime border, is more important than Spain. Instability in our neighbours immediately impacts millions of Nigerians far more than trends in Britain and the US.

A realistic ranking of nations in a hierarchy of strategic value would prioritize, in descending order, our contiguous neighbours, our major trading partners and nations that are home to Nigerians in diaspora who constitute a vital national resource. Thus far, West Africa and the Gulf of Guinea have been in our geostrategic blind spot but they actually constitute Nigeria’s near abroad – a zone over which she must act as regional gatekeeper. The sovereignty-deficits of our northern and southern neighbours mean that Nigeria cannot comprehensively deal with her national security challenges without projecting influence in her near abroad.

Nigeria is an Anglophone giant surrounded by francophone states of varying degrees of institutional fragility; a weak state surrounded by even weaker states. Economic troubles have forced France to slash military spending and curb her appetite for interventionism in Africa. France led a brief and measured NATO-supported intervention in Mali two years ago but has shown scant inclination to similarly intervene in the Central African Republic, a country where it has a long history of involvement. Decreasing French support leaves our francophone neighbours reeling from an influence vacuum. Nigeria’s main foreign policy challenge is to fill that vacuum. As a regional powerhouse, she is eminently positioned to do so. Given her transnational security challenges, it is absolutely imperative that she does so. An activist engagement in our sphere of influence would involve creating a common security umbrella with countries equally afflicted by non-state actors, deepening our intelligence infrastructure in the regional neighbourhood and working towards mutual economic prosperity.   


The campaign for permanent membership of the UN Security Council strikes nationalistic chords at home but it is even more important to reinvigorate our membership of apparently unglamourous bodies like the Gulf of Guinea Commission and the Niger River Basin Authority. The latter, for example, oversees transnational water resources in nine member countries. It approves dam projects that could have consequences for food security and the national economies in the Sahelian region as well as adversely impact Nigeria’s hydroelectric power capacity. Given the effect of climate change, the management of diminishing transnational water resources such as the River Niger and Lake Chad will be matters of increasing international disputation in the coming years. The Gulf of Guinea’s hydrocarbon riches have made it an area of interest to global actors. Its security challenges make it imperative for Nigeria to develop blue water naval capabilities to secure its maritime interests. Nigeria must also lead the international effort to impose law and order in the Gulf.

Ultimately, Africa needs Nigeria to assume her rightful role of leadership. The country’s search for internal coherence will have to proceed quickly. The security of an entire continent may well depend on it. 

(All images sourced online)  

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Rebasing Saga

 I posted this on my Facebook page two nights ago:

“Education is a disgrace: according to the World Economic Forum,” the country “ranks 132nd out of 144 countries for its primary education and 143rd in science and maths. The unemployment rate, officially 25%, is probably nearer 40%; half of” its nationals “under 24 looking for work have none. Of those who have jobs, a third earn less than $2 a day. Inequality has grown…and the gap between rich and poor is now among the world’s largest” …The ruling party “has sought to undermine the independence of courts, the police, the prosecuting authorities and the press. It has conflated the interests of party and state, dishing out contracts for public works as rewards for loyalty…This has reduced economic competitiveness and bolstered a fabulously rich…elite. As a result too little wealth trickles down…Young people who fail to find work by the age of 24 will probably never have a full-time formal job…Because the stakes are so high, competition for power is bitter and sometimes bloody, particularly at the local level”… The ruling party “has more money than any other party. It can afford to go to townships days before elections and hand out food parcels.”

“This is an excerpt from a report by The Economist from two years back. Can you guess what country it is about?

This report actually refers to South Africa. It was published in The Economist (October 20th – 26th 2012) highlighting South Africa’s decline. According to the report, “…South Africa, though still a treasure trove of minerals with the most sophisticated economy on the continent, is on the slide both economically and politically. By some calculations Nigeria’s economy, messy as it is, will overtake it within a few years.”

It seems that both South Africa and Nigeria have their challenges as well as their strengths. What is fascinating is how so many of us, both Naija-pessimists and Naija-optimists alike (including people I met personally), assumed that the report was referring to Nigeria. One overwrought respondent even scolded me for “always finding fault” with Nigeria – a strange assertion since he was the one who was willing to believe entirely without proof that the report applied to his country.  

Is it the case that we are too willing to believe the worst about our country; that we have come to believe that any set of negative statistics is applicable to Nigeria? Has our pessimism become so ultimately chronic and self-defeating that positive news about Nigeria is no longer intelligible to us?  

The rebasing of Nigeria’s GDP which has provoked so much needless disputation is essentially a statistical adjustment factoring in dimensions of her economic life that were previously not included in the measurements of her economic progress. It is a statistical reboot not an economic miracle. It is quite similar to a man who decides to revalue his assets or to recalculate his worth factoring in assets that were not included in previous valuations. His worth will rise but that does not mean that he has a greater quantity of raw cash at his disposal. So, the arguments about how an increased GDP puts money in our individual pockets, while understandable, miss the point.

In summary, the rebasing of the GDP is a good thing; it is not a bad thing. It is an economic map that profiles our strengths and weaknesses and is therefore a valuable tool for data-driven economic planning. It isn’t something for which we should break out champagne and caviar; but in no way does it call for sackcloth and ashes. There is neither need for triumphalism nor negativism. It just puts our economic progress in perspective. What matters is how we respond to this new data; whether we rest on our oars in a self-satisfied stupour or consolidate on it and strike out boldly to enhance our strengths and remedy our weaknesses. There is much work to be done.

A nation is always more than one story; it is a multitude of narratives. This is more so when dealing with a population of over a 100 million people, with diversities, frictions and fault lines of race, religion, ethnicity or culture. India, for example, is one of the emerging market success stories of the past decade but is also dealing with multiple insurgencies and security threats including those posed by Hindu extremists, Jihadists and Maoist guerillas.

The United States has about five percent of the world’s population and has 25 percent of the world’s prison population. Its criminal justice and penitentiary system disproportionately “targets” African-Americans and Hispanics. Yet for all of this it calls itself “the land of the free.” We will find similar contradictions in Brazil, China, Indonesia and Malaysia; in short in any country that is growing with the burden of managing the aspirations of millions.

Nigeria’s most readily recognizable narrative is of a place rife with corruption, poverty and violence but there is also growth and opportunity. Being cognizant of the former need not blind us to the latter. Remember, a nation is always more than one story. There is more to this country at this moment than Boko Haram or corrupt politicians; there are also millions of people who are creating, inventing, teaching, peacemaking, trading, curing, innovating; and addressing our challenges in a variety of ways. They too are Nigerians even though their feats rarely make the daily headlines.

The history of a nation is not the history of its government alone; it is also of its people. And more than anything else, it is the exertions of Nigerians since 1990 that have altered the face of the Nigerian economy. It is the exertions of Nigerians that will continue to propel our progress not only in economics but also in our politics. 

(All images sourced online) 

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Real World Order

In recent weeks, watching Western leaders denounce President Vladimir Putin for Russia’s military incursion into Ukraine has been a surreal experience. Russia’s annexation of the Crimea has been called “a violation of international law”, a throwback to an era of imperial land grabs. In the 21st century, countries that want to be taken seriously simply do not go about bullying smaller nations. Such thuggish behaviour supposedly violates some geopolitical ethic that most of the world could be forgiven for being ignorant of. In response to Western sermonizing, one can easily imagine Allende, Mosadegh, Saddam, Gaddafi and Lumumba and many others in the Valhalla of imperially-liquidated heads of state gasping incredulously at the self-righteous blather emanating from White Hall and the White House.

To be sure, Russia is guilty of aggression towards Ukraine. She has violated the latter’s territorial integrity and is definitely a bully towards her Eastern European neighbours. But Putin’s conduct is hardly novel. International law has long been the protean plaything of great powers, and invoking it in this case may have had impact were it not for the long list of international incidents in which the US and her allies gave it short shrift. Invocations of international law suggest a global legal order in which all nations are bound by the same rules. Instead it masks an order defined by American exceptionalism and the primacy of Western interests in which America operates as a lone-ranging super sheriff that is above the law.

Military intervention in sovereign nations has long been common international practice despite the shock that many nations profess when it is perpetrated by others. From the Falklands Islands to the Suez Canal to Kosovo, major powers have remorselessly forced their will on weaker countries to advance actual or perceived vital interests.

In 1983, the US invaded Grenada claiming that it was necessary to protect Americans and cited as legal basis for the invasion, a request by the little-known Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS). It ignored the Organization of American States (OAS) which handles matters of collective security in the region and which was formed expressly to protect the principles of noninterference and national sovereignty. The US used its veto power in the United Nations Security Council to kill a resolution condemning the invasion as “a flagrant violation of international law and of” Grenada’s “independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity”. President Ronald Reagan’s position was that the US can and may use force to challenge regimes that threaten American security. It is possible to transpose the rhetoric and the justifications used by America on that occasion with those deployed by Russia for its recent aggression against Ukraine. They are virtually the same, and for good reason. Russia is not an outlier. It has acted imperially as her fellow major powers often do. Indeed, Russia possesses as much belief in her uniqueness as America does in her own exceptionalism.  

The problem of the international order goes beyond Russian expansionism or American vigilantism. The big five of the UN Security Council exercise special prerogatives in similar ways. Russia sees the former Soviet republics and chunks of Eastern Europe as her sphere of influence just as the US sees Latin and Central America as her own geostrategic backyard. Britain remains prepared to use military force against Argentina to keep hold of the Falklands which is almost 13, 000 kilometers away from the British Isles and only about 160 kilometers from Argentina. China projects its power in South East Asia. France looks upon its erstwhile colonial possessions with Napoleonic affection.

An international law that equally binds all nations is far from evident. Russia bullies Ukraine and Georgia. America bullies Venezuela and Cuba. Britain bullies Argentina. China bullies Taiwan and Tibet. France relives her imperial heydays with interventions in Africa. In fact, France’s longest land border is not with Germany or Spain but with Brazil due to her colonial territory of French Guiana.  

With regard to Ukraine, Russia is in a strong position. She is Europe’s major energy supplier and under Putin is intent on restoring the lost glory of the Rodina. The West is war weary, exhausted by exertions in the Middle East and Central Asia. Western publics are not as credulous as they were over a decade ago when George W. Bush and Tony Blair sent their armies into protracted wars at great cost and for uncertain ends. The austerity measures undertaken after the global financial crisis and accompanying defence cuts have also dented national confidence on both sides of the Atlantic. There is no enthusiasm for military confrontation, least of all with the Russian juggernaut. As the American political scientist, Michael Mandelbaum once sardonically observed, “The worst possible maxim to follow in geopolitics is ‘Pick on someone your own size.’” The feeble sanctions imposed on Russia by the West indicate the latter’s impotence.    

The lesson from the Ukrainian debacle is that an international order based on American supremacy or the primacy of the big five is no longer sustainable. The challenge is not Russian expansionism; it is an unequal international order that permits imperial exceptionalism and vigilantism. Until a genuine global democratic order emerges, in which all nations are treated equally, the world will continue to witness unilateral military actions. Emerging powers will be tempted to execute military solutions in furtherance of their strategic interests and without recourse to international institutions which are often no more than the talk shops of the impotent.  The 21st century’s main geopolitical challenge is the democratization of the international order. 

(All images sourced online)