By Tunde Obadina
The failure of the Nigerian security forces to recover the more than 200 schoolgirls abducted in April by the Islamist insurgency group, Boko Haram, has generated much public anger at home and abroad. President Goodluck Jonathan has been derided by all sorts of groups amazed by the inability of his administration to find and rescue the girls. As understandable as this outrage is from a moral perspective, much of the criticisms have side stepped the real dilemma facing Nigeria in dealing with the Boko Haram insurgency.
It is obvious that Nigeria’s military and police forces lack the competence to adequately protect citizens against the onslaught of Boko Haram, a ruthless group that has over the past five years grown in military and operational capabilities. But the common suggestion that the inadequacy of the security forces is mainly due to corruption and indifference is plainly over-simplistic. Also dubious is the idea that poverty is the underlying cause of the unrest in parts of the north, leading to the conclusion that the solution to the crisis is more development spending in the affected areas. Without meaning to diminish the importance of reducing poverty in any part of Nigeria, the linking of organised violence with poverty stems from false assumptions. Boko Haram militants do not bomb or kidnap civilians because they are by poor – the movement is comprised mainly of religious fanatics who want to topple secular government to impose their version of Islamic dictatorship.
To defeat Boko Haram and other terrorist groups the Nigerian state must devote much more resources to developing its capacity to protect the lives and property of citizens. The view that government already spends large sums of money on security is simply baseless. The fact is that government expenditure on security as a ratio of GDP in Nigeria is one of the lowest in the world. Federal budget allocation to the security sector, which includes the military, police and the state security service, rose from US$3.3 billion in 2009 to US$6 in 2013. Despite the doubling in allocation, the current level amounts to only 1.17% of the country’s GDP, which is very low. Much is said about the incompetence of the Nigerian military, presumably compared with armed forces in more developed parts of the world, but few critics consider that annual budgetary allocation for defence in Nigeria is about US$2.3 billion, equivalent to just 0.5% of GDP. This compares with the United States which spends about US$680 billion (2.5% of GDP), Britain US$61 billion (2.5% of GDP) and South Africa US$4.6 billion (1.3% of GDP). It is hardly surprising that U.S. counter-terrorism capabilities are far superior to Nigeria’s considering that spending on homeland security in America rose from about US$17 billion in 2001, before the 9/11 attack, to nearly US$70 billion in 2013. Similarly, it is not amazing that the British police force is a more capable fighter of crimes than the Nigerian police, considering that UK taxpayers pay about US$20 billion a year for police services compared with US$2 billion spent in Nigeria.
Some readers will retort that is misleading to compare government expenditures in poor and rich nations and make the valid point that Nigeria can only spends what it can afford. But the cost of an effective security service does not depend on the wealth of the nation or client but on the cost of the factors needed to achieve the desired level of safety. The fact that the security forces in Nigeria lack basic equipments required to operate effectively is not made less consequential because the country is poor. The minimum amounts of human and physical capital needed to establish an effective intelligence and surveillance networks is not lessen by consideration of financial constraints.
The bottom line is that the Nigerian security forces lack the capabilities to adequately deal with Boko Haram largely because they are poorly trained and poorly equipped for the job. They are lacking in all kinds of essential instruments, including facilities for transportation, surveillance, communications, data gathering and analysis, combat and combatant safety. The reality is that modern day soldiering and policing are more capital intensive activities than they were in previous eras. Strength depends on expensive hardware as well as costly human capital, including stocks of knowledge and cognitive skills.
No matter what opinions critics have about the competence of the Nigerian government, the fact is that the current level of financing of the security forces is grossly inadequate for dealing with the many different conflicts raging in the country. The issue that should be debated is how to radically reprioritise state spending. Indeed, the situation calls for redefining the nature of the state. Government, already facing mounting domestic and foreign debts, may have to drastically cut or totally eliminate its involvement in some non-security spheres of activity to free up resources to improve its ability to protect the lives and property of the citizenry, which is the prime purpose of the state. How to achieve this restructuring is the real dilemma in the fight against Boko Haram.
Needless to say, increasing financial provisions for the security services will not invariably improve their ability to better protect civilians. Not much would be gained if any extra funding is mismanaged or diverted into the pockets of officials. However, the potential for corruption cannot be a reason to leave the state weak in its ability to maintain law and order.