Nigeria Wants to Double the Size of Its Army
It's probably a bad idea
The Nigerian ground forces wants to add 100,000 new officers and enlisted men to its ranks, doubling its size to 200,000 soldiers, Chief of Army Staff Lt. Gen. Yusuf Buratai announced in a lecture at the National Defense College in Abuja.
In most countries, this would be kind of a big deal, with media, pundits and politicians furiously debating the merits of such a dramatic step. But in Nigeria, only the initial report received some attention in various newspapers. The lack of critical debate around the planned expansion of the armed forces, which according to Buratai will take place over eight years, points to continued tensions between the military establishment and democratic institutions in Nigeria.
If achieved, it will actually be the second time in Nigeria’s history that the army will have a headcount of 200,000 or more troops.
Numbering around 18,000 soldiers at independence in 1960, the army ballooned to around 200,000 at the end of the 1967-1970 civil war which ended the secessionist Republic of Biafra. Comprised of primarily ill-trained troops of low professionalism, the whims of the army posed a constant, decades-long threat to Nigeria’s various military and democratic governments alike.
With the return to civilian governments in the 1990s, military strength fell to below 100,000 soldiers, the great majority serving in the ground forces. Only as few as 25,000 of these troops were actually equipped and trained for combat operations until a few years ago, explaining why the Boko Haram insurgency was able to take control of considerable territory after the outbreak of the conflict in 2009.
There are certainly some good arguments for expanding the size of the Nigerian military. As it stands now, the headcount of the Nigerian ground forces is comparable to that of Germany’s, while Nigeria without a doubt faces far more existential security threats.
In addition to Boko Haram insurgents armed with military-grade hardware, there is a constant threat of escalating hostilities in the restive Niger Delta. Besides, understaffing and general incompetence has forced the Nigerian army to rely on mercenaries to battle Boko Haram several times in the past.
Nigeria has historically taken an active role in regional security, spearheading peacekeeping missions to Sierra Leone and Liberia in the 1990s. But in 2013, Nigeria recalled most of its soldiers deployed abroad to meet the security challenges at home.
But while the radical expansion of the Nigerian army makes some sense based purely on the numbers, the move carries substantial risks and leaves many questions unanswered.
For one, the Nigerian military has a bad reputation for graft. A recent assessment of the anti-corruption NGO Transparency International came to the conclusion that Nigeria’s defense sector is at a “very high” risk of corruption, citing “military predation” on civilians and state assets, as well as a “lack of integrity of the armed forces” and a virtual absence of “inclusive civilian control over the defense and security sector.”
While recently elected president Muhammadu Buhari has made battling corruption his signature policy project, he is a former general and military ruler and is relying on the armed forces to deliver his second major promise — the end of the Boko Haram insurgency. It is doubtful that he will push the military establishment too hard to give up their corrupt practices in the short term.
In that sense, the military expansion could cost Nigeria a lot of money. The 2016 Appropriation Bill asks for about $2.2 billion for the Nigerian Ministry of Defense, not including pensions and death compensations. This is equivalent to more than seven percent of the total budget. Doubling the size of the army would require a substantial increase in recurring and capital expenditure, not to mention increased pension payments down the line.
These demands come at the same time as Nigeria faces a revenue crisis. Crude oil is responsible for about 90 percent of Nigeria’s export revenues and the lion’s share of government revenue, but has traded a rock-bottom prices for some time. The 2016 budget assumes a price of $38 per barrel, already a reduction from last year’s unrealistic assumption of $53 per barrel, at a time when actual prices are around $30 per barrel.
Any increase in military spending under these circumstances will severely curtail the government’s ability to invest in much-needed job creation and infrastructure spending — and send the country down a spiral of untenable debt.
The government hopes to boost government revenue substantially by recovering some of the funds that went AWOL under previous administrations. Corrupt officials spirited as much as $6.8 billion out of the country under the preceding Goodluck Jonathan administration. But even if every last cent of these ill-gotten funds found its way back into government coffers (and if it wouldn’t be embezzled again), the sum would not be enough to pay for a substantial increase in long-term military spending and investments in economic growth.
And that’s not even the biggest issue. So far, the military has not published a cost estimate of the increase in manpower. Apart from naming two new divisions, the military leadership has not explained the details of how the additional soldiers will be trained, equipped and deployed.
While Nigeria does have a National Defense Policy, which would provide some guidance on how the military might use additional resources, it was written in 2010 — prior to the development of Boko Haram into the major threat it poses today. In any case, the document is not publicly available, so we can’t judge how a rapid expansion of manpower would fit into the policy framework that the Nigerian military is supposed to uphold.
This points to the fundamental problem of the relationship between the military and politics in Nigeria. According to Fulan Nasrullah, a Nigerian blogger and security analyst, the military decided to expand without consulting the country’s political leadership. “As far I know, no document has been submitted to the president for him to scrutinize and approve,” Nasrullah told War is Boring.
This wouldn’t be out of the ordinary, either. When the Nigerian military escalated a conflict with a local Shia sect last year, which led to the deaths of about 300 people including numerous unarmed civilians, the presidency was equally not consulted prior to the operation.
Even within the military, according to Nasrullah, there are few clear details beyond the goal of 100,000 additional soldiers. “There is no white paper or strategy or even a broader policy outline,” he said. “The first the people in charge of developing the army’s policy direction heard of this plan was in the media announcement.”
“The army and the Nigerian Police Force are fighting behind the scenes, a war over control of the conflict with Boko Haram. The army does not have enough personnel to hold territory, so the idea floating around in the community is to have the police backfill for the army, granting the police a direct role in this conflict, which the army does not like.”
To be clear, depending on your policy preferences, preferring the army over the police in Nigeria’s situation could actually make sense. But the problem with the army’s unilateral approach is obvious.
By disregarding and not consulting with the political leadership, it undermines the very institutions that will have to solve the conflict with Boko Haram and other lingering grievances in other parts of the country in the long term. By monopolizing the national security apparatus, without putting in the effort to develop appropriate policies to strengthen civilian leadership, the Nigerian military is becoming part of the problem, not the solution.