President Buhari’s body language in response to the worsening security situation in Nigeria is generally stoic indifference. No doubt the frequency and ferocity of killings, kidnappings, banditry and sectarian conflicts that have engulfed our country left, right and centre would sap the soul of any human. But each time we wake up to the news of yet another attack on Nigerians by bandits or terrorists, the president’s aides will release a statement condemning the attacks and that is about it.
Last week, however, the president blinked. Just as Senator Smart Adeyemi was dramatising on the floor of the senate for the need to invite foreign assistance to help tackle our security challenges, President Buhari was in a virtual meeting with the U.S Secretary of State, Mr Antony Blinken over the exact same issue. The President made the case for American assistance because “the growing security challenges in West and Central Africa, Gulf of Guinea, Lake Chad region and the Sahel, weighing heavily on Africa, underscores the need for the United States to consider re-locating AFRICOM Headquarters from Stuttgart, Germany to Africa and near the Theatre of Operation”, according to a presidential press statement released afterwards.
Buhari, it now seems, believes that with the U.S Africa Command nearer home on African soil, the U.S will become more invested in the region and thus help in rolling back the mounting challenges of insecurity on the continent, particularly in Nigeria and the Lake Chad region. Many commentators have taken issue with the president on this, on grounds that it would diminish Nigeria’s sovereignty or even make the situation worse. In my view, these criticisms are a pointless nostalgia over a past we have never really had.
Nigeria has always depended on other countries for many things that have direct implications for a nation’s security: food, medicines, fuel, military hardware, and so on, even if under the banner of trade. Moreover, since 1999, all Nigerian governments have requested for and often received, some form of foreign assistance or collaboration in the area of security. Besides, Nigeria itself has also provided security assistance to other countries before, in Africa and beyond, sometimes at the behest of the international community of which we are a part. So being at the receiving end of such help now should not itself be a problem to our independence.
The hard truth is that African countries, Nigeria included, don’t really have much ‘sovereignty’ to talk of. In any case, sovereignty does not mean suffering alone in silence. If the pandemic, for example, has been as devastating in Nigeria as elsewhere, few would have any qualms about external help. So I agree we cannot pretend to have the capacity to deal with these problems all on our own. And it is also only natural, perhaps even logical, for the government to think the U.S can help, through AFRICOM or by other means.
Still, for the government to explicitly request the U.S to relocate AFRICOM to Africa, quite a change from its position 15 years ago, raises fundamental questions, not least about the government’s own attitude to foreign policy. This government appears to have an ‘ad hoc’ approach to foreign policy, particularly on security matters. When convenient, the government will talk up security assistance for Nigeria with foreign leaders, and then go to sleep afterwards, as was the case during President Buhari’s separate meetings with Trump and Theresa May in 2018, without doing the sort of coordinated, concerted and sustained engagement by backroom officials required to achieve anything in foreign policy.
The result is much intermittent noise at the political level about foreign security assistance, but with little in the way of achievement to show for it. With dedicated and sustained engagement with relevant partners, Nigeria can get much of the foreign security assistance it needs, even without much political rhetoric for show off. It only takes a lot of hard work in the background, the lack of which results in the very inelegant and damning description of Nigeria and Africa as the “Theatre of Operation” of the U.S AFRICOM by a Nigerian government.
Second, we need to be realistic about what the United States or any other country can or cannot do to help us. It is all good to have AFRICOM in Africa, even in Nigeria. It could help us with technical assistance and training, and certainly with intelligence gathering, something our own security forces have proved incapable of collecting or using. But AFRICOM will not replace our own security forces, and might even create unintended problems of its own. It will certainly not be a substitute for the massive internal reforms of our forces that we urgently need now and for the future.
AFRICOM cannot be the magic cure for all our insecurity afflictions. This is particularly important because the body language from Washington does not indicate increased U.S direct involvement with other countries’ conflicts. Biden is continuing with the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan started under his predecessor, and there is even less indication he wants to engage militarily anywhere else, from Myanmar to Syria or Iran. So we need to be clear-eyed about what we can expect.
Finally, Nigerian governments, and indeed Nigerians too, really need to have broader conceptions of security than currently on display. Nigerian governments see security as requiring only the use of force. The Governor of Kaduna State, Malam Nasir El-Rufai expressed this thinking only a few weeks ago when he said that the only thing bandits and kidnappers deserve is to be served up their own medicine, never that this was not El Rufai’s position not long ago. But if that is the only solution you have, it probably won’t get you very far.
So we need a conception of security that clearly includes food, jobs, health and overall economic security for all. We need an understanding of security that involves state capacity to map people and things to places, and thus enable the government to trace the movement of people and things from place to place when the need arises. We need reliable and retrievable information and records for all homes, workplaces, vehicles, persons, and even animals. Information and general economic well-being are the software of security, without which the military hardware can only go so far.
Above all, we must rebuild our system of moral values. The moral fibre of society is the ultimate and most enduring bulwark against all forms of criminality. But this has completely broken down in Nigeria today, hence the banality of violence in the land. Even the particular forms in which banditry, militancy, ethnic chauvinism, and terrorism appear in Nigeria often seem to me to be rather more evidence of plain rascality than criminality. People somehow have the sense that they can do just about anything they want, without any worries about the personal, social or legal sanction.
There is plenty of evidence of this tendency everywhere and every day in Nigerian society, even among those who have not taken up arms against other citizens or the state. And this, for me, is the real cause of insecurity here. AFRICOM can help, but it cannot build a deterrent value system for us. We must recognise that, and more.