On finishing primary school, my parents were convinced I was not ready for secondary school. You see, none of this ballooned-out pre-middle-aged bulk was evident at the time. I was a somewhat sensitive child and they simply could not see me thriving in JSS1, that high testosterone zoo of young adults. The solution was to have me do a year in Primary Six. This saw me enrol into the Airforce Primary School, Jos. Getting to AFPS involved a 30-minute walk from Keana Road to the NAF Station where the school is located every morning. The stretch from MOPOL 8 Barracks to Old Airport road had cool avenue between the trees of which was spider webs as thick as cloth. No light could get through. I remember, in those days, a sense of fear—that I was being watched by a hundred invisible eyes.
This comes to mind because I think that the spider, that small insect, and even more importantly its capabilities – webbing, lie at the centre of the problems of security in Nigeria. Spiders have been known to spin a web up to radius eighty feet, which is impressive considering that the average size of a spider is two and a half inches. That is an area 2500 times its size. Little wonder then that spiderwebs can span across rivers. The webs are built in circuloid patterns around several spindles comprising sticky and non-sticky lines of various strengths, as well as transport lines. So the spider does not get caught in its own web, allowing it to quickly move to immobilize preys. A spiderweb can thus be seen as a network for catching a wider range of prey.
The threat profile of Nigeria comprises some very serious matters and the primary one is, of course, the ongoing Boko Haram insurgency in the northeast which, since starting in 2009, has claimed upwards of 35,000 lives, according to the Council for Foreign Relations, and displaced several millions. Second to this are the activities of local and transnational crime networks involved in human trafficking, the running of arms and the proliferation of small and light weapons, SALWs, and, recently, the spate of kidnappings and armed attacks against civilians. Figures circulating online say that human trafficking syndicates processed over half a million Nigerians into modern day slavery in 2017, with an estimated 30,000 of these dying in the Sahara and on the Mediterranean en-route. Enormous? Exaggerated? True?
Two different articles, published two years apart in the Daily Trust newspaper, claim that Nigeria “accounts for 70% of illegal small arms in West Africa” and provide expert figures of 5.6 million and 350 million as against government estimates of 1,000,000 illicit arms in circulation.
A debate on which of these sets of figures is correct would be entirely misguided in the context of our current insecurity where no day passes without one atrocity or the other being recorded. But this is even more so because what should be clear is even the most conservative estimates are massive, correlate with immense disruption of the social fabric, countless incidents of personal trauma, the loss of property and hope, as well as general uncertainty about the future. It is beside the point, certainly, because the reality is one of sophisticated organizations at play to move these massive numbers of people, arms, drugs and fighters about, within and across borders, year in year out. There is a spider, spiders, beneath all this webbing.
In the waning days of the Cold War and the euphoria attending the West’s victory over the Left, a new sort of organization came to life in Eastern Europe. They retained the single-minded ideological commitment of the previous era and placed this in service of illicit profits. It ditched the centralized but dispersed structure of leftist freedom fighters and revolutionaries in favour of even greater decentralization. These people, exploiting the gaps in laws and regulatory regimes between the collapsing USSR and the West, and relying on advanced communications such as satellite technology, encryption and the internet, evolved a truly dispersed set of operatives carrying out specific tasks, each ignorant of most of the other nodes of the enterprise, acting in concert, in a way that guaranteed the flow of money through the system. The 90’s, away from the hoo-ha and scandals of the Clinton presidency, was the adoption of this cell-like structure by all sorts of anti-State actors, spiders, ranging from Islamists to human and drug smugglers to Yahoo boys. The wakeup call of the rise of the cell as a method of criminal organization was of course September 11th 2001.
Now, putting it all together. The administrative design and political structure of the Nigerian state has not fundamentally changed from what the British handed over at independence fifty-nine years ago. It definitely has not changed fundamentally in any positive way. Beyond creating more federating units, even where these were not fiscally viable; beyond tweaking with the revenue generation formulas that feeding-bottle feed federating units and maintains a nationally-spread clientist, rent-seeking elite; beyond renaming Permanent Secretaries as Directors General and then back again; I mean, beyond conferences and seminars and trainings from which nothing is retained, no institutional memory remains, we have failed to deliberately upgrade our state administrative and political structure.
Beyond patchwork, no all-of-government reform has been thought out, articulated, and wholly implemented and then evaluated to feed into the next policy and reforms loop. The result of this, of course, is a breakdown of roles and responsibilities, the creating of opportunities for corrupt enrichment and, more tellingly, an inability to implement the strategic goals we routinely state. The question is: how can such a state structure as ours pre-empt and counteract the new cell-like form of nefarious and criminal organization that it was neither built to address nor has grown to counteract and checkmate? How can our state administrative and structural design understand spiders, their webs and where and how many spiders there are in the complex of webs that is our threat profile?
To my way of thinking, this question lies at the heart of our internal security challenges and until we can frontally address it, we would be merely poking around while the situation of the country grows worse and worse. We have not had it so bad because we have not had it so bad. We have not had to confront spiders before, and these particular spiders have had a lot of spinning time on their hands. What do we do now?
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 US State Department’s International Visitor’s Leadership Programme (IVLP). He is also a novelist and a poet. He can be reached at [email protected]