Nigeria’s latest corruption scandal started like something out of a B-grade spy thriller. In September 2014, two Nigerians and an Israeli were detained arriving in South Africa on a Nigerian jet with $9.3 million in cash stuffed in their suitcases. It slowly emerged that the cash was meant for weapons procurement and came from the shielded accounts of the Office of the National Security Advisor, Sambo Dasuki. While the Nigerian Senate brought Dasuki in for questioning, no real action was taken. As the public lost interest, the scandal became just one more hint of the massive mismanagement eating away at Nigeria’s security sector.
Eight months later, in April 2015, Muhammadu Buhari beat out incumbent Goodluck Jonathan in a tightly-contested presidential race. Coming to power on a wave of dissatisfaction with Nigeria’s struggling economy and rampant insecurity, Buhari pledged to tackle these challenges by rooting out corruption and improving governance.
Since then, Buhari’s new government has taken several steps to bring corruption to heel in the security sector. Most notably, Sambo Dasuki, the former National Security Advisor at the center of the South African plane scandal, was arrested in December on charges of misappropriating $2 billion through fake contracts for military equipment. This was followed by the January 5th arrest of former Defense Minister, Bello Haliru Mohammed, also on corruption charges. On January 16th, Buhari ordered the investigation of 38 additional military officials, claiming that their involvement in corruption had hurt Nigeria’s efforts against Boko Haram.
There is clearly some truth in Buhari’s claims. Despite military expenditures reaching $2.3 billion in 2015, or roughly one fifth of Nigeria’s budget, even Nigeria’s former Chief of Defense Staff has claimed that Nigeria’s military is “overstretched” and “underequipped.” It is commonly suspected that ghost salaries are used to siphon money to mid and upper-level commanders; a theft on top of the billions of dollars Buhari is accusing top officials of stealing.
This corruption has serious ramifications for the military’s morale and operations. In August 2014, 500 Nigerian soldiers defected to Cameroon, claiming they were being forced to fight Boko Haram without weapons. By the time Buhari took office, 66 soldiers had been sentenced to death for mutiny. The soldiers claimed they defected because the lack of weapons made operations suicidal.
The scale of desertions makes it clear that there are serious challenges to be overcome so that reform trickles down to the lowest ranks. In order to create real change, the ongoing prosecution of former officials must impact the daily workings of the security sector.
This is challenging given the political nature of the arrests. Already Dasuki’s charges have been denounced by the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) as a partisan witch hunt. Dasuki’s arrest does raise ugly political questions because he is accused of funneling misappropriated funds into PDP election war chests. Buhari’s response has been to arrest Jafaru Issa, a politician from his own All Progressives Party (APC), for also accepting money from Dasuki. However, this has not stopped PDP complaints. As trials commence, there is a real danger that the prosecution will be seen as a political tactic, rather than a reform measure.
Even if prosecution is accepted as honest reform, there are questions about how successful it will be. Despite Buhari’s rhetoric, his 2016 budget retains nearly $50 million in “security votes,” or non-transparent discretionary funds intended to flexibly cover security expenditure, but historically used to hide graft. If some corruption is still considered acceptable, the impact of larger reforms is at risk.
It is critical to get these reforms right because corruption only compounds the Nigerian security sector’s other perennial challenge: human rights abuses. The repeated mistreatment of local communities at the hand of military and police actively harms Nigerian efforts to contain Boko Haram.
In fact, corruption and human rights abuses are closely linked in Nigeria’s security sector. Graft at the top of the chain of command creates a system of predation that reaches all the way to the bottom. Soldiers or police who supplement their low income with theft from local communities are unlikely to be convinced to change for the sake of winning hearts and minds. Similarly, if underpaid and underequipped troops cannot make themselves physically secure, they are less likely to take a soft approach in order to address grievances.
Boko Haram’s own mythology positions the group as a victim of state violence, and members make frequent reference to the extrajudicial killing of its founder, Mohammed Yusuf. While it is clear that Nigeria must seek to limit grievances in order to fight Boko Haram, endemic corruption and human rights abuses make it difficult for security forces to adopt this approach.
The confluence of corruption and human rights abuses in Nigeria’s security sector has created a norm that may be too deeply entrenched to be changed in the short term. While Buhari’s reforms are an important first step, the most difficult part has only just begun.
Sarah Graveline conducts research on political and security issues in Africa. She has worked for the National Defense University and the U.S. Institute for Peace. She was a 2014 Boren Fellow in Kenya where she completed a project on military professionalization. She has also conducted research on security sector reform and aid efficacy in South Africa and Uganda. She holds an MA from Georgetown University and a BA from Emory University. Her Twitter is @