Beware a Nigerian Coup d’Etat
The country could soon become a mess like Mali
Under-resourced and poorly-led troops, serving extended periods in the country’s restive hinterland, face an increasingly powerful insurgency.
Suffering numerous defeats at the hands of rebels who out-gun and outmaneuver them, soldiers begin to desert en masse, abandoning weapons and equipment to the enemy.
In anger and frustration, the troops turn on those they blame for their situation and overthrow their government, resulting in violent chaos throughout the country, likely to last for years.
I’m describing the March 2012 putsch in Mali that plunged it into chaos that continues today. But the same scenario could soon take place in Nigeria.
It’s critical to examine the chances of a successful overthrow in Abuja, given the regional security implications for the fight against Boko Haram, the terrorist group in northeast Nigeria fighting to establish an Islamist caliphate.
There’s no doubt a coup in Nigeria would be disastrous, not only for Africa’s most populous country, but for the whole region. And when comparing Nigeria with Mali, the number and variety of similarities are striking.
First, both countries have had numerous successful coups. Mali’s government was overthrown in 1968, 1991 and 2012. Nigeria experienced coups in 1966, 1975, 1983 and 1985—in addition to a failed attempt in 1990.
Once a country has suffered a coup, there’s a greater chance of more in the future. Individuals who are considering a coup are more willing to attempt an overthrow—and recognize the benefits of seizing power—when they can look to successes in the past.
A second parallel is the growing anger in the Nigerian military owing to inadequate funding and what some soldiers see as misplaced security priorities on the part of the government.
For years, Malian president Amadou Touré—who himself took power in a 1991 coup—provided better resources, pay and training to the Malian armed forces’ Red Beret paratroopers. Touré once commanded these special troops, and they later served as his loyal presidential guard.
But by prioritizing regime survival this way, Touré marginalized the rest of the Malian military, including troops in the north who grew increasingly frustrated with squalid conditions and perceptions of favoritism while facing a growing Tuareg rebellion.
Soldiers exhibited increasingly poor discipline, abandoned their bases and, in some cases, defected to the rebels. After months of rising anger at the government’s handling of the crisis, the army in Bamako overthrew Touré.
Similarly, Abuja has prioritized other security efforts—such as the February 2015 presidential election—over fighting Boko Haram. These concerns are well founded, as violence after the 2011 election killed more than 800 people and displaced 65,000.
Boko Haram also recently expanded its area of operations, conducting several bombings in Abuja and Lagos, increasing the threat during the elections and further distracting the government from the crisis in the northeast.
These elections, including the government’s security preparations, are likely to be the costliest in almost a half-century. Coupled with the first reduction in military spending in a decade, this does not portend improved resourcing for—or decreased anger by—northern army units.
Nigeria has also prioritized security in the country’s oil rich Niger Delta. Oil production accounts for 75 percent of government revenues and 95 percent of its foreign exchange revenues. But between 2003 and 2008, persistent attacks and oil theft by militants greatly disrupted production, shutting down around half of the country’s oil fields and costing Nigeria around $100 billion.
To address this threat to Nigeria’s economy, and therefore its stability, in 2009 then-president Umaru Yar’Adua created an amnesty program at a cost of around $500 million per year. Participants receive $420 per month, and some of the same militants who once attacked oil infrastructure now earn hundreds of millions of dollars in security contracts to protect it.
Even with this, up to 30 percent of daily oil production is lost to theft.
As a result of these competing security priorities and limited resources, the situation in northeast Nigeria is even worse than it was in Mali. Soldiers earn as little as $92 per month which. Along with a lack of equipment and resources, the low pay has been a primary driver of troops rising up, defecting and even turning violently on their own leadership.
In May, troops fired on the division commander responsible for counter-Boko Haram operations.
In August, they mutinied because of poor equipment, and refused to mobilize for operations against the terror group. That same month, hundreds of soldiers fled fighting to neighboring Cameroon. Yaoundé reported 700 deserters, while Abuja said 480 soldiers accidentally crossed the border while “on maneuvers.”
Then in November, 300 more soldiers defected to Cameroon ahead of a Boko Haram attack. Adding in anger at endemic corruption by senior military officers—and accusations of collusion with the terror group—creates a recipe for further mutinies among already restive units.
Likelihood of success
Despite the similarities between Mali and Nigeria, there are several differences that decrease the possibility of a successful coup against Abuja.
Without the participation of security forces closest to the seat of power, the chances of a successful coup drop precipitously. And in Mali, rising anger with the government extended beyond those fighting in the north to include the capital region.
Wives and family members attacked government buildings, targeted Tuareg-run businesses, and held violent protests in the capital in the weeks just before the coup. And it was the soldiers in Bamako who rose up against Touré, giving the government little time to respond.
The president quickly fled, sprinted out of the country by his presidential guard.
By contrast, examples of military protests in Nigeria have been limited to units engaged with Boko Haram. And there’s little evidence of dissatisfaction among soldiers in Abuja—among either officers or the rank-and-file. The government has also responded effectively to reports of unrest.
Further, Nigeria is infamous for its level of corruption among political, police and military elites.
While corruption was an issue in Mali, Nigeria’s is much more pervasive because of the sheer scale of patronage available—particularly in the oil trade. Former president Yar’Adua characterized this system as “the greatest institutional corruption in the history of the nation.”
The government is currently investigating $50 billion in oil revenues that went missing between January 2012 and July 2013. A security budget that makes up nearly 25 percent of the $29 billion federal budget only allows more avenues for personal enrichment.
Pres. Goodluck Jonathan has also frequently reshuffled his cabinet. He’s created an inner circle he trusts, widening the number of elites who owe their position to him and thus mitigating the possibility of a coup.
Jonathan dissolved his predecessor’s entire cabinet soon after taking office in 2010, purging key defense officials in 2012 and dozens of others since. And he used state treasuries to court the country’s powerful state governors, whose support is essential to winning presidential elections.
In 2013, Jonathan approved the governors’ request for $2 billion from a reserve fund, intended as a buffer against oil price fluctuations. They requested another $2 billion this past November, which Jonathan—facing a tough race against former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari, a northern Muslim known for a strong anti-corruption stance—is likely to approve.
This will leave the country little cushion against further price drops, but should ensure support of critical elites during the election.
The security implications of a coup are especially dire where violent non-state actors, vast ungoverned spaces, and long-standing ethno-religious tensions combine in a worst-case scenario for unstable governments backed by unreliable security forces.
The takeover in Mali has given Al Qaeda—heavily funded by tens of millions of dollars in ransom payments—breathing room for regional operations. They have taken advantage of this, conducting more than 28 attacks in Mali and Niger in 2014, including at least 13 since October.
But the impacts of a coup in Nigeria today—successful or not—would be most devastating for military forces in the northeast.
A widespread mutiny would further weaken and demoralize army units, resulting in widespread desertions and largely breaking down the last vestiges of a security presence there.
The resulting security vacuum would cede significant swaths of territory to Boko Haram, allowing the group to strengthen its safe haven and effectively achieve its goal of an Islamic caliphate in Nigeria.
From here, Boko Haram would conduct even more attacks in Nigeria and neighboring states. The group has operated in Niger and Cameroon since at least 2012, and attacks have grown increasingly bold and lethal.
An offensive by regional powers might temporarily curb operations, but might worsen the country’s refugee crisis. More than 140,000 people have fled Nigeria to neighboring states, while some 700,000 have been internally displaced.
In response to a new offensive, Boko Haram would probably also escalate retaliatory attacks against civilians.
Fortunately, Boko Haram has demonstrated little desire to join a global jihad, and has little in common with those who do. But this is little consolation to those who live under the group’s despotic regime.
A coup would also threaten security in the Niger Delta. Jonathan hails from this region, and militants there have threatened retribution against Abuja if he is not re-elected to the presidency. Renewed attacks on oil infrastructure would again disrupt production, shut down oil fields and decrease critical revenues.
After decades of economic mismanagement during the various juntas, the Nigerian economy began to recover due to sharply rising oil prices and economic reform by the democratic government starting in 1999. Recovering from a coup today under a non-democratically elected government could take at least as long.
For now, the chances of a coup attempt in Abuja are low. As long as stakeholders’ interests are secure, they are willing to tolerate Boko Haram, rather than challenge Jonathan over his failed approach to the militant group.
This may be especially true given the role corruption has played in weakening the military. Elites grown rich off corruption and patronage seem to view problems in northeast Nigeria as unfortunate, even embarrassing, but of no practical concern to them.
Abuja’s near total lack of a response to the April 2014 kidnapping of nearly 300 schoolgirls—despite worldwide negative publicity and international pressure—is another clear indication of the government’s strategy regarding Boko Haram.
As long as attacks have little impact on the entrenched—and lucrative—interests of those in the Nigerian establishment, Jonathan’s regime is likely secure.
The risk, however, increases as the February 2015 presidential elections draw near.
An audit on the missing $50 billion in oil revenues is due by the end of January, and a finding that government officials pilfered the money is likely to spark protests on the eve of voting. In addition, mounting frustration among soldiers fighting a seemingly intractable insurgency could serve as a catalyst to widespread disorder and violence, particularly amid rising electoral tensions.
A large-scale uprising by northern troops could have a cascading effect, exciting mutinies elsewhere by those tired of leadership grown rich with corruption—and driving action among coup plotters in Abuja.
Were these forces to come together, the loyalty of the military’s rank-and-file in the capital—and therefore the security of the regime—would be no longer guaranteed.
Shawn Russell, a U.S. Army major, is a Foreign Area Officer focusing on Sub-Saharan Africa. He served three tours in Iraq as a Special Forces detachment commander. All statements of fact, analysis or opinion are his alone and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. government including the Department of Defense.
The author would like to thank Micah Dolcort-Silver and Kaitlin Kitchen for their assistance with this article.