Hail to the Chiefs – By Antony Goldman
When Muhammadu Buhari swept to power in March’s historic elections, it was on a platform that promised change, security and an end to corruption. In the aftermath of his victory, he met quickly with the leaders of neighbouring states and reached out to leaders of the G7, seeking their support and promising new momentum to end the Islamist terror that has gripped many parts of North East Nigeria since 2010.
No part of the country voted more emphatically for Buhari than the North East, where he trounced the incumbent, Goodluck Jonathan, by a margin of nine to one. Where Jonathan was seen as a weak, indecisive and remote figure, the North East saw in Buhari a former soldier pained by the scale of the violence and the distortion of the faith from which Boko Haram insurgents claimed inspiration.
Since Buhari’s inauguration on 29 May, more than a thousand civilians have been killed in a wave of suicide bombing and ambushes. In a particularly bloody Ramadan that appeared to suggest some level of co-ordination with allies in Islamic State, attacks have taken place as far south as Jos and in Zaria and Kano, to the west of the core areas of the insurgency.
The setbacks appeared to represent a loss of momentum on the part of the Nigerian armed forces and allies from Chad, Cameroon and Niger, who in a three-month offensive launched in February this year helped recapture many of the towns and villages taken by Boko Haram across Borno and Adamawa states in its lightning campaign in late 2014.
Even supporters of Buhari expressed concern about apparent delays in filling key appointments. There were reports of a dip in morale because of the failure to replace service chiefs and heads of other security agencies. Troops remained in barracks as Boko Haram was reported to be regrouping in the Sambisa forest and other remote parts of the North East.
On 13 July, a week ahead of a visit to the US where security is likely to be a key topic of conversation with President Obama, Buhari announced replacements for the Chief of Defence Staff, the three Service Chiefs, the National Security Adviser and intelligence chief. He said the appointments were on merit, and that he had no personal knowledge of, or a relationship with, any of the new commanders.
The appointments were a careful balancing act: three from the South, three from the North, four members of minority tribes. But the appointments reflect the current operational priorities.
Major-General T.Y. Buratai, the new army chief, has held several operational command positions, and most recently was in Ndjamena co-ordinating with Chad and Cameroon. He is from Borno, the centre of the insurgency, as is Babagana Monguno, retired as Major-General and head of Military Intelligence by Jonathan in 2011, and now the National Security Advisor (NSA).
Privately, the new security commanders are warning of no quick fixes to the situation in the North East, arguing that Boko Haram infiltration of the army and civilian structures is a major unresolved difficulty and that combating terror attacks and the guerilla tactics to which Boko Haram appears to have returned will prove a major challenge.
They are also conscious of the fragility of the Niger Delta, where amnesty payments to former militants are due to stop at the end of the year, and where separatist tendencies in the East, marked by incendiary broadcasts from Radio Biafra, are increasingly strident. There may be pressure to try to extend short-term measures to maintain an uneasy peace in the Delta, in order to concentrate resources more effectively in the North East.
In the longer term, however, Buhari has given the Service Chiefs a mandate to overhaul a military still marked by the corruption and corrosion of integrity that marked its generation in power for much of the period between 1966 and 1999. Part of the process may include a restructuring that returns power of procurement and policy to the Defence Ministry, which under the constitution is more exposed to powers of oversight but has been neglected for a decade and bypassed in favour of the NSA’s office.
Buhari will also be seeking the support of the US and other powers to facilitate the restructuring. They have until now hesitated, amid concerns over corruption and human rights abuses.
Long term planning remains a challenge, and will meet opposition from vested interests – but is likely also to be complicated by the difficult security situation in the North East, and the more general challenge of law and order in many other parts of the country.
Antony Goldman is Director of Promedia Consulting, which specialises in political and security risk in sub-Saharan Africa.