Has counter-terrorism become a profitable business in Nigeria?

Rooting out corruption in the security sector will help the country address its growing terror threat.

Despite massive expenditure by the Nigerian government over the past decade, counter-terrorism operations by security forces have achieved limited success and the country is still ranked on the Global Terrorism Index as one of the states most affected by terrorism. Is the problem one of bad policy, strategy and tactics, or is corruption in the leadership ranks of the security forces also to blame?

It is estimated that terror groups have killed over 30 000 people in Nigeria since 2003, causing the displacement of more than 2.4 million people. These groups include Boko Haram, operating in the Lake Chad Basin region, Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) and Ansaru, also called al-Qaeda in the Lands Beyond the Sahel.

In December 2019, ISWAP beheaded 11 Christian hostages to avenge the killing of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi by United States forces. In January this year the group killed the chairman of the Adamawa State chapter of the Christian Association of Nigeria, Lawan Andimi. It also kidnapped three university lecturers in Yola in eastern Nigeria, and carried out several coordinated attacks in Borno State.

Nigeria’s government allocated over N6.7 trillion to the security sector between 2010 and 2017 to strengthen its capacity for counter-terrorism operations. This amount doesn’t include extra budgetary allocations such as the US$1 billion the government borrowed in 2013 to fund counter-terrorism operations and the US$21 million approved for the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) in June 2015.

The secrecy surrounding military spending for counter-terrorism encourages misappropriation

Despite increased money for the security sector, counter-terrorism operations by the Nigerian military in collaboration with multilateral agencies such as the MNJTF of the Lake Chad Basin Commission have achieved limited success. The military did for a time succeed in pushing terrorist groups out of major cities, as was seen when the frequency of attacks in urban centres dropped between late 2015 and early 2018.

However, terror groups found operational bases in the large civilian populations in rural and remote areas from where they launched a barrage of attacks on poorly secured villages, military units and critical state infrastructure. After suffering a ‘technical defeat’ by the military in three local government areas in Borno State, a resurgence by extremists has given them control of these regions.

Why are Nigeria’s counter-terrorism operations failing? Some say it’s because of strategic and tactical imprecision due to poor intelligence and rivalry among security agencies involved in the operations. However, evidence suggests that corruption in counter-terrorism operations in Nigeria may also be to blame.

Conflict entrepreneurs within the hierarchy of military leadership and the ministries, departments and agencies in the security sector apparently use military funds meant for counter-terrorism operations to enrich themselves. Military spending is usually not audited due to its sensitive nature. The secrecy that surrounds it encourages misappropriation.

Unless conflict entrepreneurs are stopped, terrorism will continue in Nigeria and the Lake Chad Basin

Examples include the probe into the alleged diversion of US$2.1 billion meant for arms procurement by the Office of the National Security Adviser, and another N3.9 billion by the office of the Chief of Defence Staff, both in 2015.

In 2017, US$43 million cash meant for covert operations by the National Intelligence Agency was discovered in a private building in Lagos. And in 2018 there were investigations into US$1 billion that went missing after being appropriated to the Nigerian Army for arms procurement from the Excess Crude Account.

Conflict entrepreneurs in the security sector also allegedly operate through the award of fictitious procurement contracts, and illegal extra-military activities such as extortion and collusion with militants in illegal fishing in the Lake Chad area.

These activities undermine effective security force action by hollowing out the military’s capabilities. For instance, because they don’t procure by approval, and sometimes procurements aren’t even made, the military may be lacking in weapons and logistics, making it difficult to adequately counter terrorism.

Corruption has undermined effective security force action by hollowing out the military’s capabilities

Despite huge financial allocations for arms procurement and logistics supplies, military sources blame the death of 83 soldiers in a 2016 Boko Haram ambush and a similar 2018 attack on the 157 Task Force Battalion in Metele, Borno State, on equipment shortfalls, poor weapons and logistics supplies, and low morale among combatant officers, who sometimes aren’t paid. Over 118 soldiers including the battalion commander died in the attack.

This failure of counter-terrorism operations may account for the resurgence of terror attacks in Nigeria’s north-east, especially Borno State. And despite significant financial allocations for these efforts, the terror threat in Nigeria remains huge.

Questions need to be asked about whether counter-terrorism funding is being used wisely, and whether the operations themselves are effective. Unless Nigeria’s government stops the activities of conflict entrepreneurs, violent extremism will probably remain a major security threat in Nigeria and across the Lake Chad Basin region.

To do this, the state needs to strengthen legal and institutional frameworks for dealing with corrupt practices in the security sector, especially in counter-terrorism operations. It also needs to investigate and prosecute those who have taken advantage of their positions in the counter-terrorism campaign to enrich themselves.

Most fundamentally, a strategic change in the leadership of the military may be needed, along with a rethink of the excessive militarisation of counter-terrorism operations in the country’s north-east zone.

Maurice Ogbonnaya, Senior Research Consultant, ISS Pretoria

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