Cheta Nwanze, Lead Partner, SBM Intelligence

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It's time for honest discussions on Nigeria's security architecture 25 Apr 2024

In today’s Nigeria, hardly a week goes by without a major security breach or crisis making the headlines. On some days, it is about large-scale kidnaps of school children. On others, it could be the downing of a military jet or helicopter by armed groups toting anti-aircraft guns. Yet, on some others, it could be a wipeout of an entire company of soldiers sent on a peacekeeping mission to a troubled community.

The pace at which these unfortunate events grab and compete for attention in the headlines is indicative of a number of things, chief of which is the cold, hard reality that Nigeria’s security architecture has crumbled before our very eyes, and the damage that capitulation is doing is happening in real time, and beyond the statistics, to flesh and blood human beings.

But an uncomfortable fact is that Nigeria’s security architecture as designed is not fit for purpose. It never was designed to protect a large population, and there is history to back up this assertion.

The earliest security forces established in the modern Nigerian state – the Hausa Constabulary and its derivatives across the other regions – were set up for two reasons: to whip unwilling monarchs and populations into line and to serve as a protection force for colonial officials. It was when British suzerainty over what is now known as Nigeria expanded to include more territories that the need for policing became apparent. Even then, law and order were what the British defined them to be. As such, the newly set up police were used over and over to harass pro-independence politicians.

The Nigerian security services (military and police), which grew out of that arrangement, also never grew out of that mentality. One of the problems we still face springs from the fact that, at independence in 1960, our political class did not do the hard work necessary to change the design flaws in the country. It became worse after men in uniform decided to intervene and play politics, and then decided that for regime security to be assured, the security architecture must be designed primarily to be coup-proof, with the protection of national security a secondary consideration.

This partly explains why the military regimes had a habit of starving the police of funds, and why the Babangida regime dismantled the National Security Organisation in 1986 and splintered it into three agencies which are the State Security Service, the National Intelligence Agency, and the Defence Intelligence Agency. Despite that, the three-lettered agencies, especially the SSS have not lived up to what ordinary Nigerians expect in terms of improvement of national security. Rather, the focus has remained on protecting the Head of State in particular, and the political class in general. Simply put, Nigeria’s security architecture is all about regime security, not about popular security.

The suppression of all kinds of dissent, ranging from demonstrations over police brutality to protests about food prices, which are interpreted as threats to the regime, and are thus clamped down upon with sheer brutality, first serves as a demonstration of state power and then as a deterrence mechanism to would-be protesters.

This posturing prevents the realisation of a more sustainable and urgent enterprise, which is the prioritisation of national security. For one, it diverts attention and resources and creates a lopsided focus that starves the general public of the safety and security that their taxes pay for.

When one examines the manner in which, as an example, the Kuriga abduction last month happened, a familiar pattern emerges. In Kuriga, as with others, the absence of security personnel was palpable. Sometimes when these types of abductions take place, whatever civilian security guard employed to guard the school is killed. In Kuriga, however, the kidnappers did not need to do so. Security presence was absent, and even worse, appeals to the police and the military for help went unheeded, with the latter arriving at least four hours after about 287 students had been whisked away.

The fact that there was a repeat incident in a village in Kajuru in the same Kaduna State only a few days later shows that the current security arrangement is either moribund or a spent force. Ironically, Kaduna is the state with the most security installations in Nigeria, housing the 1st Division of the Nigerian Army, the Nigerian Defence Academy, and many other installations. As a matter of fact, the battalions involved in the counterterrorism operations in the Northwest derive their command-and-control structures from that division. Therefore, on paper, it is head-scratching why a state with such heavy fortifications is subject to such a slew of security breaches that call into question the essence of their existence.

Part of the problem with national security in Nigeria is the reactionary manner in which priorities are addressed. The absence of preventive policing as a strategy has meant that proactivity has given way to reactionary governance, which puts the security services in a race to react to things. The security architecture is designed in such a way that an “order from above” has to be given to the security agencies for them to act. Hence, media headlines are usually filled with statements such as, “the President…  has ordered security agencies to flush out the kidnappers”, a farcical anomaly when one considers that the president need not order people to do jobs as basic as preventing a kidnap or rescuing hostages.

This recourse to “oga at the top” is alarmingly a facet of Nigerian political structure, a derivative of the military era draft 1976 constitution, which heavily concentrated security powers at the hands of the Head of State, and, as a result, rendered public officials as mere appendages of the apex political power. This system of governance could exist as seamlessly as it has because it is derived from Nigeria’s eye-service culture, which puts appearance over substance. It is also one of the leading drivers of false arrests by policemen who, in a bid to show the public that they are active, arrest innocents and pin whatever crime they can lay their hands on, sometimes as a means of extortion, and other times to fill up the holding cells while actual criminal inmates are freed in questionable circumstances.

If there is any apparent tragedy in the design of the architecture, it is that the decades-old preference for the use of the military has it thinly stretched, burnt out, and exhausted from being involved in so much. A proper security architecture is the first responder to security breaches. In areas where the police are absent, sister paramilitary agencies (in Nigeria's case, the National Security and Civil Defence Corps) step in to fill the void. The military exists as a resort when the situation has gone out of regular police control. But Nigeria has its priority upside down. This is why communal clashes and abductions are responded to by the military instead of the police. There is a lot of evidence to show that the over-exposure of the military to continuous internal policing duties has exposed it to the corruption that comes with such contact and as a result, has blunted its crime-fighting ability, but more importantly, its national security prowess.

Getting out of this mess requires an honest admission from all involved that the current arrangement is not working. Nigeria's tendency to centralise power has also shown up in the belated albeit yet-to-be-serious discussions about state police. Its proponents have yet to realise that the devolution of police powers need not stop at the state level and that, for optimal performance, it must be devolved to the most primary level, which is the community.

The current security arrangement, which expects too much from one entity, needs a rework to make it fit for purpose, and the lack of sincerity from the right quarters in tackling these issues headlong will mean that judgment day may be postponed, but it will still come, and no amount of kicking the can down the road will change that reality.

Cheta Nwanze is Lead Partner at SBM Intelligence.