Who Calls the Shots?: Boko Haram and the Legacy of Military Leadership in Nigeria

When Boko Haram operatives attacked a Nigerian military outpost near the village where I lived in northern Cameroon in 2011, locals condemned the assault. But they admitted that something had to be done about soldiers who, they said, regularly apprehended people and held them for ransom. Boko Haram’s tenor and tactics have grown increasingly radical and destructive since, but the early perceptions of the group highlight, in part, the relationship between corruption and instability. In that case, alleged military corruption directly contributed to violent conflict. Indeed, many analysts have drawn connections between government corruption and the rise of Boko Haram (see here, here, and here).

Transparency International has weighed in on the situation, as well, detailing how corruption has both continued to fuel instability and hampered the response to Boko Haram attacks. TI calls on the Nigerian government to “speak out against corruption and … invite civil society organizations to take part in developing an anti-corruption strategy.” Each course requires significant political will. Nigerian leaders’ historic relationship with the military may do a lot to explain why the requisite political commitment has failed to materialize within past administrations.

For the majority of Nigeria’s post-independence history, the nation’s leadership was determined by military coup. From 1966 to 1979 and again from 1983 to 1998, seven of the nine head-of-state transitions occurred by coup. The government embraced multi-party democracy in 1999 but General Abdulsalami Abubakar and former Lieutenant General (and former head of state) Olusegun Obasanjo led the country until 2007. Military hegemony is a broader trend in West and Central Africa. Government transitions have long occurred by coup in other Sahelian countries battling radical Islamists and rebel factions, including Chad (since 1982), Mali (since 1968), and Mauritania (since 1978). Coups come in different shapes and sizes and vary greatly by context but experts suggest the West and Central Africa region is particularly susceptible to this form of power transfer (see an interesting map generated from Jay Ulfelder’s data).

In these “democracies,” the most direct threats to leaders’ positions come not from the populace but from the military brass. Under such circumstances, the government has every incentive to favor army officials or passively turn a blind eye to their transgressions. By comparison, civil society and its shaming tactics are weak and command little respect from political elites. Although external pressure from international partners and donors might normally realign incentives, such pressure is less likely in a state of emergency like that in northern Nigeria. And officials in the recipient country may not yield to foreign-imposed conditions. Following the U.S. government’s recent refusal to sell attack helicopters to Nigeria out of concern for insufficient capacity and human rights abuses, President Jonathan terminated an American-led troop training program designed to target Boko Haram.

I won’t overstate the point: coups are rare occurrences and the period of overt military control in Nigeria is over. Moreover, there are a variety of extraneous factors that could explain a correlation between instability, military power, and corruption in certain countries. After all, in Rwanda, succession of leadership has been determined by coup since 1973 and it is one of the least corrupt countries in Africa. But the underlying point is that a small, elite, historically powerful military constituency figures prominently in presidential decision-making. Accordingly, it may be that in unstable countries where the military is particularly independent and powerful, the sector most in need of reform is the least likely to get it.

The 2015 Nigerian presidential election – controversially postponed until March 28 for security reasons – complicates this dynamic. In recent months, it has become clear that President Jonathan’s hold on power will be under attack from ex-military officers in an unusual setting: the ballot box. I’ll look at the rise of presidential candidate, retired general, and former head of state Muhammadu Buhari and what it could mean for Nigeria’s fight against corruption in my next post.

12 thoughts on “Who Calls the Shots?: Boko Haram and the Legacy of Military Leadership in Nigeria

  1. Thank you for this interesting analysis.

    I thought to weigh in with some admittedly subjective context.

    The 1966 coups were partly in response to the unrest after the British rigged elections leading to the first “independent” government in 1960. In 1998, General Abdulsalami Abubakar became military head of state, which we hoped would shepherd in a government led by M.K.O. Abiola, presumed winner of the 1993 presidential elections. Mr Abiola had been imprisoned by the infamous General Sani Abacha but died shortly after meeting with special US envoy Thomas R. Pickering and Susan Rice.

    My friend Olatoye, with whom I shared a link to your piece, articulates this clearly: “Corruption is clearly a proximate cause of the inability of the army to effectively fight Boko Haram. Of the military budget, only a tiny fraction is actually spent as budgeted. The vast majority disappears into the pockets of politicians, senior army officials and contractors. A common complaint from soldiers in the north east is the lack of ammunition, equipment and weapons, despite billions of naira budgeted for this purpose every year (the armed forces take the largest share of the budget of any sector, annually).”

    Yet, as Olatoye agrees, this same “hopelessly corrupt military” fought in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Darfur and elsewhere. This is why I think the 1999 purge theory offers more explanation to the weak military theory.

    In 1999, President Olusegun Obasanjo dismissed leading members of the Nigerian military who had held political posts during previous regimes. It was described as a sacrifice to protect Nigeria’s young democracy: soldiers who had held unaccountable political offices would more likely be inclined to steal power. This action probably saved the wobbly transition to another democratically elected government after the disappearing President Yar’Adua phase.

    A political military is a threat to democracy not Nigeria’s elected leaders. For example, President Obasanjo poorly conceived attempt to extend his term was quashed by popular opinion – of the Nigerian people.

    I think that it is this same popular opinion that most directly threatens President Goodluck Jonathan – that of the people, who want change, and backed by external pressure. Not incentive-based styled external pressure but those that join in echoing of the already popular sentiment for change. For many Nigerians, Buhari is an imperfect choice but change now, means the ability to demand for change in 2019 if he fails the Nigerian people.

    And despite its young democracy, Nigeria has a free press.

    That a small historically powerful military constituency still figures prominently in Nigeria’s presidential decision making is unfortunately, linked to its sad and shameful military history. As in Nigeria and many countries, historical advantages give an edge in power play. This is why some families would continue to have generations in political offices.

    The idea of a democracy is messy, filled with people who can scream loudest. But it works. I’m more optimistic about this – which of course has a lot to do with me being Nigerian.

    • Thanks a lot, Funmi. All of this is very enlightening. I’m glad you’re optimistic, as you, of course, understand Nigeria’s domestic political scene much better than I do. I think it is unfortunate that the first truly competitive election is between Buhari and President Jonathan but I really like your point that this cycle could be precedent setting.

      On another piece of your argument: would you say that President Obasanjo’s move to dismiss the political-military leaders was for the best? Do you think the army became less corrupt in the aftermath? Or was the move largely symbolic, with turnover undermining capacity without the concomitant reduction in the level of corruption?

      • Thank you for your response, Liz.

        I am not sure I would describe the 1999 elections (Obasanjo v. Falae) or the 2003 run (Obasanjo, Buhari, Ojukwu) as uncompetitive. The 2007 elections are difficult to label.
        But Nigerians chose President Goodluck Jonathan in 2011 – which is pretty significant given popular assumptions of ethnic lines. The 2015 elections are more like a referendum on President Jonathan’s service.

        On the dismissal of the military, I can only speculate. But I think it was prudent. Our military had become politicalized and unaccountable, and dismissal was as practical as symbolic. Today’s messy situation is probably due to the failure to develop and nurture what was left after 1999.

        • Thank you Fummi, for your thoughts on this subject. My question is to you is how did the Nigerian military get to this point, from being an organization that was highly respected to one whose members turn tail and run at the first sign of the terrorists’ presence. They either don’t show up after receiving reports of impending attacks or run for the hills along with everyone else. What has happened to them? This is really shameful

  2. Your overall point about leaders who are more concerned about the high-up people around them than the public being more likely to lead to corruption seems true; if you as the leader are more worried about the military (or other elites or political figures or functionaries) than the public, you’re less likely to respond to public concerns. I wonder as well, though, if there’s also something kind of like the reverse causal relationship that can be true. In other words, if you’re a leader with authoritarian tendencies, maybe it behooves you to foster a culture of corruption around you if it then forces people to rely on individual patronage relationships to you (instead of, say, good regular paychecks), and therefore become more invested in seeing that you remain in power than that democratic, rule-of-law based institutions take hold (in which case they might risk losing their additional income, if not jobs). Maybe the two relationships work together in some places, in a kind of feedback loop?

    • Oh, it’s also a real tangent, but your reference to Rwanda has definitely made me wonder if there’s anything fruitful to be drawn from comparisons between Nigeria and Rwanda. Different in a lot of ways, of course, but both have had post-coup leaders who have a predilection for ignoring human rights when they get in the way, but then made very different choices (and had very different results) in regards to corruption…or maybe there’s something to be drawn from looking at Rwanda in contrast to its neighbors.

      • On your first point, I agree that it’s a two-way street that self-perpetuates the problem. But leaders everywhere (including – especially? – the U.S.) traffic in influence so I think they would continue to hold the upper hand even in a cleaner system. And I wonder, really, how quickly leaders “lose control” of the patronage system, becoming the puppet rather than the puppet master. You make a good point, though, that it’s probably not like these presidents are desperate to introduce systemic reform, leave office, etc.

        To continue the tangent: aside from the similarity I mentioned, there are some pretty serious differences between Rwanda and Nigeria (oil resources, population, size, colonial history etc.) that may well have facilitated Rwanda’s comparative success on the anti-corruption front. But I definitely agree that a comparison of Rwanda and, say, Burundi – which has similar demographics, resource profile, history, etc. but which ranks more than 100 places below Rwanda on TI’s CPI – would be fruitful. I expect, despite what I just said in response to your first comment, political leadership explains a lot – Kagame has made impressive strides against corruption. But that leadership has come at a cost (such as the human rights abuses you mention), which actually does bring me full circle back to Buhari. Stay tuned for the next post!

  3. One of the things your post made me think about, Liz, is the incentives from the military perspective. Assuming they are rational actors looking out for their own interests (though, I’ll confess, I’ve always found that hard to assume about pretty much anything), it made me wonder about whether the military was really turning to the ballot box, as opposed to manipulating it. If so, should we be concerned?

    The military brass is pocking the money rather than outfitting troops, but the military’s power comes from its effectiveness. As Funmi noted, this is the military which “fought in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Darfur and elsewhere.” One of the reasons the Nigerian military can be a behind the scenes player, why it can punch above its ballot-box weight, is that threat of effectiveness. In which case it’s a strange calculation they’re making: weakening the foundation of their power base and cutting their legs out from under them.

    There are two kinds of corruption in your post (though they are definitely interrelated). The first is the corruption exemplified by the alleged kidnappings. The second is the skimming (though it seems like ‘scooping’ would be more appropriate) of funds which should be going to equipping the soldiers who are fighting Boko Haram.

    Both of these, I’d posit, have a similar root cause. It was ‘rational’ for the army to itself allegedly harm local communities because those communities lacked power; and it was ‘rational’ for the army to ineffectively respond to Boko Harm terrorizing parts of the country because those areas lacked political power. The prominence to which this issue has risen in Nigerian politics could be the result of shifts in these dynamics, as a broader base of Nigerians become concerned about the military response to Boko Haram. If that’s the case, a natural democratic response is for voters to elect whoever promises the better response. As Funmi notes, it could be voting for change.

    But what if rather than a democratic election, it’s a democratic extortion? This gets at the unique nature of the corruption-instability-military nexus highlighted in this post. If the change in the military comes from the military itself (or someone close to the military such as Buhari), what we’d be seeing is the military feeding a conflict, and then demanding political power in order to fix it. The military would address the second form of corruption I bring up (the effective response to instability), but not the first (the ability of the military to itself engage in corrupt acts); it’s a bloodless coup.

    What if the military is not corrupt as a result of people at the top grabbing what they can, or being too far removed from crises, but as a political calculation?

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Melanie. You raise several great points. First of all, you and Bea are right that there are different kinds of corruption going on here: low-level, regular interactions between the military and rural civilians (e.g., the kidnappings) in which ordinary soldiers are the perpetrators and high-level misappropriation of resources (e.g., the “scooping”) in which those ordinary soldiers might be counted among the victims. Of course, there are different implications of each type, as Bea notes. But I think that the latter contributes significantly to the former in the same way that low salaries drive public servants to engage in corrupt acts.

      On whether the military is manipulating the election, I should preview a nuance that I’ll address further in my next post: “THE military” as I’ve used it above is a bit of a misnomer. As you and Bea aptly indicate, the military is comprised of differently interested actors, including high-level officers, ground troops, ex-service members, etc. In the election, the challengers are Buhari and the ex-officers/former heads of state who are largely supporting him. Those officers have accused the current military leaders of siding with President Jonathan. So I don’t think this contest is a self-contained power play by the army’s powers-that-be. Part of Buhari’s anger with the current military response – or lack thereof – is that it ISN’T the strong military he knew. Like Funmi said, voting for Buhari would be a change.

      It is unsettling that the potential change (“change”?) is coming from the old guard, though, and I’m not entirely sure what to make of it. You have a fascinating point about military actors (or close affiliates) fixing aspects of the problem without relinquishing control. And, in fact, “constructive coup” language has been thrown about by both sides.

  4. Building off of Melanie’s distinction between the different kinds of corruption you address in your post, I also wonder if one type of corruption is more susceptible to change than the other. Would it be more plausible that political leadership could punish individual corrupt actors within the military, such as the particular soldiers who kidnap for random, even if it cannot openly condemn the military’s general failure to respond to Boko Haram? Or would either risk the same regime-toppling blow back?

    On a related note, it would be interesting to analyze how the structure of the military plays in to this problem. Does the threat to political leaders come from a well-organized and coordinated military, or from specific high-level officers who tend to call the shots? It seems to me that the latter situation could provide a bit more hope for “change,” particularly if Melanie’s suggestion that corruption within the military is a political calculation, and those leaders risk losing support.

  5. Really interesting post, Liz. You focused mainly on how corruption has severely hindered the military’s response to Boko Haram, but I wonder if you hinted at even more than that. By not only pocketing money that should go into creating an effective fighting force but actually directly kidnapping and ransoming locals, the military must breed tremendous resentment against the state. Do you think that some part of the attraction of joining Boko Haram could actually stem from the corruption of the military?

    Even if that effect turned out to not be too significant, some locals could potentially remain ‘neutral’ and not tell the military information they know that could help in the fight against Boko Haram.

    I like Bea’s point that it could potentially be easier to reign in the one-off kidnapping corruption than the systemic corruption; while both types interfere with the military’s ability to fight Boko Haram, the personal human rights violations could lose the locals’ support in a way that laundering money never could.

    • Sarah – I’m glad you highlighted the first point because I meant to suggest just that: corruption both helps to create the problem AND hinders the response to it. I briefly covered these points up front and then zoomed out to look at why things might have persisted this way for so long. I suppose the (drastically over-simplified) cascading effect in my macro-level picture is this: the government feels beholden to the military elite and so more or less lets officers do what they want, and what the officers want is to pocket money and let their subordinates find their own loot where they will.

      I think Funmi disagrees with my hypothesis that military corruption drove some early supporters to Boko Haram so I’d really like to hear her thoughts.

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