News / Africa

Boko Haram Exploits Nigeria's Slow Military Decline

Brig. Gen. Chris Olukolade, Nigeria's top military spokesman, center, walks with representatives of kidnapped schoolgirls of Chibok secondary school, for a meeting at the defense headquarters in Abuja, Nigeria, May 6, 2014.
Brig. Gen. Chris Olukolade, Nigeria's top military spokesman, center, walks with representatives of kidnapped schoolgirls of Chibok secondary school, for a meeting at the defense headquarters in Abuja, Nigeria, May 6, 2014.
Two decades ago Nigeria's military was seen as a force for stability across West Africa. Now it struggles to keep security within its own borders as an Islamist insurgency in the northeast kills thousands.
A lack of investment in training, failure to maintain equipment and dwindling cooperation with Western forces has damaged Nigeria's armed services, while in Boko Haram they face an increasingly well-armed, determined foe.
A foe that abducted more than 200 secondary school girls in Chibok, northeastern Nigeria, nearly a month ago. The military still appears to have no idea exactly where they are, but denies it lacks the capacity to get them back.
President Goodluck Jonathan has said that Boko Haram has “infiltrated ... the armed forces and police”, sometimes giving the militants a headstart, but the problems go much deeper.
“The Nigerian military is a shadow of what it's reputed to have once been,” said James Hall, a retired colonel and former British military attache to Nigeria. “They've fallen apart.”
Unlike Nigerian peacekeepers in the 1990s, who were effective in curbing ethnic bloodshed in Sierra Leone and Liberia, those in Mali last year lacked the equipment and training needed to be of much use in the fight against al-Qaida-linked forces, sources involved in that mission say.
Hall said the Nigerian peacekeepers had to buy pick-up trucks and their armor kept breaking down. They spent a lot of time on base or manning checkpoints.
Military education is still taken very seriously, he said, but equipment and training to use it have been neglected, with radio equipment in particularly short supply.
Army spokesman Brigadier-General Olajide Laleye recognized some of these problems in a news conference on Tuesday. He said the army would “undertake an equipment audit ... with a view to identifying areas where equipment and material are in short supply, unserviceable or even obsolete”.
The defense headquarters did not respond to a request for comment, but the military argues that counter-insurgency is something new that they are slowly learning to take on, just as the U.S. military had to learn they couldn't fight al-Qaida in western Iraq using conventional warfare.
“They're having to learn new counter-insurgency skills and get new equipment ... like armored vehicles,” said Kayode Akindele of 46 Parallels, a Lagos-based investment management firm that also consults on financial, political and security risks for foreign investors.
The militants know the military's limitations. A police source said a fighter jet flew over the market town of Gamburu on Monday as a group of gunmen killed at least 125, but the killers didn't flinch, knowing they could not be targeted while scattered in a densely populated area.
President Jonathan declared a state of emergency in the northeast a year ago, ordering extra troops, but security sources say the armed forces remain overstretched. Perhaps as few as 25,000 service-ready troops face an insurgency over a wide area in the northeast, communal violence across north and central Nigeria and rampant oil theft in the south, as well as commitments to peacekeeping missions, one security source says.
Low Morale
Morale is also a problem, says a ground soldier deployed in the northeast who did not wish to be named.
He said the food was bad, sleeping conditions rough, very few people get the leave to which they are entitled, and they live in constant fear of Boko Haram attacks.
“There is just a kind of hopelessness hanging over us,” he said.
Not so their adversaries, whose fearless determination is fuelled by dreams of jihadist martyrdom.
“In a typical unit, Boko Haram has between 300 and 500 fighters. It's not a guerrilla force that you can fight half heartedly,” said Jacob Zenn, a Boko Haram expert at U.S. counter-terrorism institution CTC Sentinel. “It's snowballing. It's getting more weapons, more recruits, their power is increasing every day.”
On Feb. 12 dozens of fighters loyal to Boko Haram attacked a remote military outpost in the Gwoza hills. A security source with knowledge of the assault said they came in Hilux tracks with mounted machine guns and showered the camp with gunfire.
Boko Haram's fighters had little cover and were easily picked off - 50 of them died against nine Nigerian troops - but they still managed to make off with the base's entire armory stockpile of 200 mortar bombs, 50 rocket-propelled grenades and hundreds of rounds of ammunition, the source said.
Their ability to dart over the border into Cameroon, whose own security forces have shown little appetite for taking them on, gives the militants an added advantage.
Ethnic and religious divisions within the military have also bred some collusion with Boko Haram, sources say. An artillery soldier said units were sometimes suspiciously ambushed. He is convinced “someone in command leaks our plans to terrorists”.
“The military, just like the rest of Nigeria, is fractured, which means it probably does have Boko Haram sympathizers within it,” former U.S. Ambassador John Campbell said.
The military isn't that short of money on paper. In 2014 security will swallow nearly 938 billion naira ($5.8 billion), a quarter of the federal budget. Of that, the defense ministry will take more than a third, but only 10 percent is for capital spending.
A government advisor says there was some evidence a few senior officers were pocketing money meant for equipment, so corruption may also be a factor in the shortfalls.
A senior security official, who declined to be identified, said the process of decline in the military has been gradual, starting when the military seized power in the 1960s.
He said Britain, France and the United States had been Nigeria's main military assistance partners, but they gradually backed off from its increasingly quirky and corrupt military dictators, culminating with the venal Sani Abacha in the 1990s.
In the 21st century, Nigeria, now democratic, can be prickly about meeting conditions on military assistance packages, Western diplomats and military officials say, such as giving Western trainers full access to its bases, intelligence sharing and improving its human rights record.
“The human rights issue has been a point of friction for a long time,” said one U.S. military official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The military has repeatedly denied allegations of abuses such as summary executions, but Amnesty International condemned the alleged killing of hundreds of prisoners escaping from Giwa barracks last month. The military said it had no choice but to prevent their escape.
Foreign aid aside, decades of coups made unstable military regimes fear their own armed forces. Each coup plot led to a deliberate under-resourcing of any department under suspicion.
A botched 1985 counter-coup against newly installed Ibrahim Babangida was rumored to involve planned aerial bombardments, so his junta cut funds to the air force, a security official who remembers the time says. Another failed coup in 1990 allegedly involved military police, so their budget was squeezed.
When democracy returned in 1999, President Olusegun Obasanjo, himself a former military ruler, feared the army, too.
“This starvation of the military has occurred since Obasanjo, as part of a strategy to ensure they couldn't conduct more coups,” Campbell said.
Now, as families in Chibok pray for the return of their kidnapped daughters, some fear it may be beyond their armed forces to get them back, and welcome promises of assistance from China, Britain, the United States and France.
“We don't believe there is a serious effort at a rescue,” said Lawan Abana, whose two nieces are among the abductees. “The Americans and the others are our last hope.”

You May Like

Video Americans, Tourists, Reflect on Meaning of Thanksgiving

VOA garnered opinions from several people soon after November 13 Paris attacks, which colored many of their thoughts

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

In northern Thailand, the annual tradition of constructing floating baskets to carry away the year’s bad spirits highlights the Loy Krathong festival

Video Tree Houses - A Branch of American Dream

Workshops aimed at teaching people how to build tree houses have become widely popular in America in recent years

By the Numbers

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syriai
November 26, 2015 5:21 AM
Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs