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.