In his TedXPortHarcourt talk a year ago, Dr. Jekwu Ozoemene popularized the notion of learned hopelessness as the bane of Nigeria, agreeing with Skinner’s seventy-year-old submissions on behavioural psychology. Followers of this column would have noticed that I have not written for a while. Each time this column was due, news from Katsina, Kaduna or the northeast has come to light and I have simply been unable to write. This came from a certainty this column and all the talk in the world will do nothing to affect the learned hopelessness taking root in Nigeria’s internal security machinery. When our Defence chiefs assure us that we are safer now than we were five years ago, despite evidence to the contrary; when a brilliant trailblazing young female officer is killed on national duty but the most the political class of Nigeria can muster is two fifty-kobo ministers; when killings in southern Kaduna have become daily occurrences; when Katsina and Zamfara have bandits promenading in streets—when all these happen and the officials and officers tasked with administering our security say they have done their best. . . when, even, they turn around and tell us how much worse things would be without this “best”, ours is a full-blown case of learned hopelessness. What can a mere columnist, who brings only some expertise and more passion to bear, do?
In my first piece in this series, I sketched out the terrain in which modern threat profiles operate, describing the local and international environments using the image of a security net trawling for bad fishes. There are threats that originate outside the net, there are those that originate in the logic of the net itself and each anti-state group exists within an interplay of these two environments. Therefore, reading the environment is crucial to addressing threats, especially with today’s network-type cell-like threats. In the second piece, I set out the feeders of our internal security threats which is the same as the structure of these hostile anti-state groups—financing, operations and intelligence. This is the triangle of terror. Also stated: a strategy that will deal with our threat profile must act against the financing, operations and intel of every anti-state actor identified in the local and international environment. It simply must.
Nothing I wrote in both pieces is new. People in the fields of strategy and security studies, who hold positions of public trust, know all this and even more. So, why do the bad fishes continue to terrorize the rest of us? Why is it that “Boko Haram”, “bandits”, “kidnappers”, “cultists”, alongside illegal arms dealers and drug traffickers, continue to operate so seemingly unchecked? Two things, two failures—a failure of strategy interpretation and a failure of coordination.
A National Security Strategy (recently updated) and a National Counter-terrorism Strategy exist that ought to put paid to Boko Haram and all these threats. The reality, as seen in the news day in day out, is that these documents might as well not exist, are unicorns of a sort. State officials and administrative officers now proceed from a normalization of the abnormal. The threats identified in the strategies are now the basis—terror and violent extremism, armed banditry, kidnapping, militancy and separatist agitations, pastoralist and farmers conflicts, cyberterrorism and so on. These are now the norm. Each time kids are lined up and shot in ISIS-type videos, or villages are visited with horrific violence, the response we get are old soundbites. Whereas these strategies specify officers and officials with tasks; whereas these strategies should, in operation, guarantee the end of this state of anomy. Gradually, but with increasing confidence, non-state actors take over the duties of the state slice by slice, denying citizens the service due to them under the basic social contract that underlines the modern state. The most important of these, taken from our own 1999 Constitution, is the security of citizen’s lives and property.
I have observed that in the security sector in Nigeria, the strategy is a cloud that precipitates at the level of heads and senior management of MDAs and Services only. At least fifty bodies operate across federal, state and local levels in this country yet 80% of the officers in these have no idea about the National Security Strategy or NACTEST and their roles within it beyond the most notional. It’s not normal that the actual policeman at the corner, the Civil Defence fellow posted to the local government headquarters, the primary interfaces with the citizens, has no clue about the threat the people face and their role in mitigating these threats. Go ahead and try: ask the next policeman about NACTEST and hold back and listen to bluster or an honest admission of not knowing.
Strategy documents like the National Security Strategy and NACTEST are livewire documents, not merely things to talk shop about or write about during promotional examinations. We are eleven or more years into the Boko Haram conflict and our primary law enforcement agencies and the intelligence community neither have a common understanding of this threat nor their specific roles in addressing it within the larger joint-type cooperative strategy in those documents. Inter-agency coordination has often been held out as the golden problem of Nigeria and countless seminars and workshops have been held within Nigeria and outside of it. I too have been guilty of this arrogant assumption. The reality, as I see it now, is scarier. Security agencies can cooperate on paper but if the rank and file have no interpretation of the strategy documents that set out the parameters and purpose of this cooperation, there can be no change to the status quo. The bad fish will escape our security nets time and time again. Strategy fails not only when it is not sound; it fails when it does not translate through the system so that it is absorbed by all cadres.
Terror continues to reign in Nigeria because of the wholescale abdication of oversight. Six times since 1999, Nigerians have elected 109 Senators and 360 representatives who have routinely formed oversight committees over the internal security sector MDAs that have failed and continue to fail Nigerians. The current National Assembly has committees on Defence, Interior, National Security and Intelligence, and Police Affairs. Specific committees also exist on the Army (conflated with Defence at the Senate), the Air Force and the Navy. There’s even a committee on the Lake Chad. These legislative committees have far more power than any single government minister has. From their vantage, they can see where the money goes and what it is meant to do. Legislative oversight can hold MDAs and Services strictly responsible to their mandates in a way even the President, who is Commander-in-Chief head of the Executive branch, cannot begin to. Their power of the purse guarantees that any MDA or security service can be brought to heel. That the security sector has failed citizens to the extent everyone is afraid of travelling from point A to B (notably the Abuja–Kaduna, Abuja—Kogi, Abuja—Nassarawa, Abuja—Minna axes) is the most damning indictment of the National Assembly and the quality of legislators routinely sent there. The Legislative branch is the true regulator of a democratic government and the failures of the primary law enforcement, defence and intelligence services meant to safeguard lives and property lies squarely in the Senate and the House of Reps committees with oversight that refuse to oversee. In this way, our own Senators and Representatives are responsible for widening the gaps in the security net, allowing its links to weaken and slacken instead of mending and tightening it. So, the bad fish that terrorize the rest of us swim through easily, on to greater impunity.
Related to this is where exactly to locate the strategy management function for the security sector in the government of Nigeria. Two offices come up for attention—the Office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (OSGF) and the Office of the National Security Adviser (ONSA). Of particular interest is the OSGF’s control of the General Services Office (GSO) which coordinates policy implementation at the MDAs and the Political and Economic Affairs Office (PEAO) which is meant to carry out all-of-government monitoring and evaluation (M&E) functions. An SGF exists, Directors exist for the GSO and the PEAO. What exactly have these high-level officials been doing with regards to the National Security Strategy and the NACTEST?
ONSA’s primary function is advising the President and Commander-in-Chief on National Security—simple. It’s secondary and not less important role lies in coordination and supervision through its control of three bodies on behalf of the President—National Security Council (NSC), the Joint Intelligence Board (JIB) and the Intelligence Community Committee (ICC). In operation, it is a specialist agency meant to coordinate and ensure synergy amongst stakeholders in the security sector. It has routinely worked at the strategic level, churning out or midwifing Nigeria’s key strategy documents. ONSA, however, must face the same question as OSGF: to what extent has it ensured synergy amongst the security and intelligence sector services? How well has it tightened the security net to capture the bad fishes that terrorize us all? The continuing impunity indicates the negative. For example, its own Policy Framework and National Action Plan on Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism which I have written about here, has remained a “plan” to this day, three years after a presidential directive on it was issued. From my perspective, there exists, between OSGF and ONSA, a failure of coordination of the bureaucracy and the security services respectively. This has led us here.
Now, putting it all together.
Whenever a person is kidnapped or aid workers are lined up and executed; whenever those videos of young gallant soldiers shot to death or massacred following an ambush circulate; whenever a trailblazer such as Flying Officer Tolulope Arotile dies and the President passes by her funeral without dropping by, on his way to a stalemate-inevitable mission in Mali; whenever people in conflict zones in Katsina, Taraba, Kaduna and Zamfara pour out their grief to the BBC and other media outlets; whenever people demand justice yet again for killings which have been downplayed, denied, or played up—whenever these tragedies occur, and you hear or read any statement by any Nigerian official, whether an uncouth and insensitive SA Media or a spokesperson on this or that on how hard they are working, how much worse things were, how we should be grateful that we don’t know how bad things can get, know that these officials are speaking out of learned helplessness and that these same officials are part and parcel of the detrimental syndrome that tatters our security net and allows the bad fishes swim free. In all this, do not forget that an individual citizen is a thermometer for all their “hard work”. So, ask yourself: Do I feel safe? and based on your answer, evaluate them. Effort does not evaluate itself; its outcome is the correct evaluation.
We live in a country where elected legislators do not carry out effective oversight because they simply cannot understand the concept, nor will they seek expert input on reports submitted to them which they nonetheless pretend to act on. We live in a country where appointed officers and elected officials are not held responsible for their performance. We live in a country where, try as hard as you can, you cannot find where exactly the strategy management function resides yet everyone is busy being very busy doing a headless chicken run that does not deliver security of lives and property to Nigerian citizens. Ours is a country where the more important symbolic is jettisoned for the less important symbolic because correct analysis and advice is ignored due to political bias and personal blindsides, where learned helplessness is the norm despite sound strategies for success being available. Is it then surprise that this is a land of wailing and hiding away and a lack of hope? In this sort of country, where the officials and officers tasked to act are entrapped in their own incompetencies and the dysfunction of systems made in their images, what can a mere columnist, who only loves his country, do? What can you, my readers, do?
Richard Ali was called to the Nigerian Bar in 2010 and has worked in private legal practice, consulted in a policy-shaping role at the Ministry of Interior (2015 to 2017) and has run a preventing and countering violent extremism (PCVE) programme. His expertise is in soft approaches to PCVE. He is an alumnus of the US National Defence University’s Africa Centre for Strategic Studies (ACSS) and of the State Department’s International Visitor’s Leadership Programme (IVLP). He is also a novelist and a poet. He can be reached at email@example.com