Nigeria’s under-funded war

By Tunde Obadina

In its 2015 budget proposal Nigeria’s federal government earmarked N985.9 billion (US$6 billion) for defence and security spending this year. This amount, covering all the armed forces and the police, is not much different from the amount budgeted last year. This figure tell us a lot about why the government has been struggling to contain jihadist insurgents trying to carve out an Islamic state in north-eastern Nigeria and threatening to destabilise Africa’s most populous nation.

Unfortunately, much of the criticism of the government’s inability to defeat Boko Haram has been based on issues of corruption and the presumed lack of commitment of Nigerian leaders to ending the crisis. However, though corruption and lack of incentive may be factors in the apparent weakness of the Nigerian state, the main issue is that the financial cost of defeating Boko Haram and other insurgents has risen over the past five years to a war footing and a point that is now requiring substantially more resources than are being invested. Without doubt, more money needs to be spent. Those who contend that the Nigerian armed forces cannot be trusted with higher budget allocations miss the point that wars always cost money.

Unfortunately, people tend to view the conflict in the north-east as some form of social unrest short of war. Wikipedia defines war as “an organized and often prolonged conflict that is carried out by states or non-state actors. It is generally characterised by extreme violence, social disruption and an attempt at economic destruction.” Given that the Boko Haram insurgency has resulted in an average of more than 1,000 deaths a year since 2009, caused the displacement of nearly one million people and destroyed large amounts of property and agricultural production, the scale of the insurrection clearly warrants being treated as an internal war. Furthermore, the fact that Boko Haram has captured territory in the north-east, even if only temporarily, tells us this is more than the usual sporadic communal or ethnic clashes that have dotted Nigeria’s recent history.

Wars always cost large sums of money to fight and win. Yet Nigeria’s military spending is substantially less than those of comparable developing countries such as Pakistan, Algeria, South Africa and India. It is low whether viewed as a percentage of government spending or per capita outlay or as a share of GDP. In its latest Trends in World Military Expenditure report the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute stated that Africa had the largest relative rise in military spending in 2013 of any region, but showed that military spending by Nigeria fell by 5.1%.

Even if every naira allocated for security in 2015 was to be honestly spent, the total allocation would remain inadequate for maintaining regular national security, let alone defeating an insurgency movement that is growing in sophistication and largely operates in a vast, remote and difficult to police land expanse. According to the website, Yourbudget.com, 90% of Nigeria’s 2014 security vote was for recurrent expenditure, leaving a paltry 10% (US$589.2 million) for capital spending. Incredibly, only US$4.36 million was provisioned for procurement of ammunition by the army. The Department of Homeland Security, just one of several internal security agencies in the U.S., alone spent US$19.2 million on ammunition in 2013.

Two important factors determine the ability of the security forces to defeat insurrectionists and other organised criminals. These are possession of intelligence about the enemy and providing the state with overwhelming fire-power superiority. Both cost money, lots of it.

Many politicians and human rights activists have contended that the underlying causes of the Boko Haram uprising are political alienation and poverty and thereby call for more to be spent on education, health and other social services in the affected areas. This perspective is flawed. Boko Haram is not a populist movement trying to endear itself with the poor masses. Most of the many thousands of people it has killed and maimed over the past five years in the besieged north-east have been poor civilians who do not require schooling or higher incomes to judge whether Boko Haram militants are a threat to their lives, property and freedom. Besides, it is a fallacy that individuals become terrorists because they are unschooled or materially poor – violent extremists come from all social classes and many are very well-educated..

In the final analysis, the containment of violent extremist groups is mainly the job of the state’s security services. And, whether we like it or not they must be adequately funded to succeed in this endeavour. It is folly to ignore the complaints of Nigerian soldiers and police officers that they are grossly under-equipped and under-armed to defeat this determined foe.

The question that government and the public needs to address is not whether, but how to raise the extra money required to at least minimise the impact of terrorism and restore law and order in  the country. This invariably involves re-prioritising public spending – cuts will have to be made in some areas of state activity. In this respect, there are some obvious candidates for slimming down. For example, it is incredible that in last year’s budget more money was earmarked for the National Assembly than was budgeted for the Nigerian army. Also the allocation for the federal legislature was about half what was provisioned for the entire national police force. It is odd that Nigeria has one of the best paid legislatures in the world while its security forces are amongst the least funded. There are other areas of government spending, including various subsidies that benefit some at the expense of others, that can be slashed or scrapped with no damage to the economy.

It may be that some important governmental activities have to be reduced to free resources to strengthen the capacity of the state to fulfil its prime purpose, which is the defence of human life and property. as well as upholding the rule of law. Antisocial behaviour such as theft, murder, kidnapping and rape, inflict both human and economic costs on society. The human costs are obvious and include the bereavement, pain and fear. The economic costs can be viewed in two ways. There are the actual losses of value such as in the destruction of physical property and theft of money. There are also the “opportunity costs” of dealing with violence. Such costs are the alternative uses that resources deployed to protect against anti-social behaviour could have otherwise been used for. For example, money spent on protecting society from criminals and militants could have been invested in building roads, bridges, seaports, dams, power plants and other infrastructure that facilitates economic growth and prosperity. The payrolls of members of the armed forces and police could have gone to employ teachers, health workers and other productive workers. But this wish list cannot be realised when violence and armed conflict destroy and cancel out every social welfare investment made.

Society has to deploy resources to protect lives and property not because it prefers to do so but because it is compelled to by the behaviour of people who mean to harm its citizens. In a utopian world, there would be no need for security forces because society exists in perfect harmony. Unfortunately, Nigerians do not live in utopia.

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