A few weeks ago, a video of the Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau, surfaced on media-sharing platforms, WhatsApp. Shekau is a widely sought man. The United States has an open $7,000,000 bounty on his head while the Government of Nigeria has announced his death several times. In the video, Shekau, flanked by his lieutenants, holds two machine guns. After a few customary threats, he unloads the rifles for nearly a minute, bobbing like a popinjay as a long chain of ammunition continues to feed the weapons. He looked ridiculous and was most certainly a madman.
In the last few days, I have found myself thinking about that video in line with larger issues. Shekau’s video was created specifically with a message that did not need to be stated. Shekau is saying: “I’m alive; I am a man’s man with not one but two machine guns; I am so virile and strong and rich I can waste nearly a minute of very expensive bullets just for show”. I realized and worried that the target audience of this video would not have thought of him as being ridiculous. They would not have seen a clearly deranged individual. And I thought of mass email 419 scams, where it costs nothing to send the same email to 100,000,000 people because even a conversion rate of 1% is a success. The point of Boko Haram’s terrorism, as exemplified by this video clip, is to leverage fear and 1% of any population is a great foothold. Each of these 1% have family, Bluetooth-able friends, one hundred WhatsApp groups they are members of. This is virality in reverse.
Nigeria has been undertaking a series of actions to confront the coronavirus including strategic directions given by the president and Federally mandated lockdowns in Lagos and Osun states, as well as the Federal Capital Territory. Other states, including Kaduna, Plateau and Nasarawa, have undertaken curfews and enforced social distancing by closing major markets and motor parks. Several video clips in relation to this corona combating exercise emerged on social media early April variously showing soldiers brutalizing a motorcyclist at a checkpoint, possibly along the Zuba expressway; two soldiers being beaten by a mob presumably in Warri; the corpse of a young man, Joseph Pessu, killed by soldiers for violating the stay-at-home order in Delta State; a video of a massacre of civilians by people in military fatigues; two videos of soldiers threatening retaliatory brutality, specifically the rape of mothers and sisters in one case, for the alleged killing of a solider in Warri. These videos set off a furore of conversation on human rights and international security circles.
To clear the chaff from the wheat. The motorcyclist video has nothing in it to indicate it happened recently, so it cannot be correctly analysed in the coronavirus lockdown context. The video of soldiers massacring civilians happened in the DR Congo, not Nigeria, so sharing it as having happened in Warri is untrue, dangerous and misleading. A man, Joseph Pessu, was indeed killed in Warri by the military. There is nothing to indicate that the video of civilians assaulting two soldiers on a major street is fake, though there is no report of a soldier having been killed. The clip of soldiers threatening rape on the women of Warri because of the killing/assault on soldiers is real, as confirmed by the Nigerian Army in a series of tweets announcing the arrest of these soldiers who are clearly prepping their commanders for crimes against humanity prosecutions at the International Criminal Tribunal. Of interest to me is the reaction of key people to this last video. The first kneejerk reaction was denial, that these were not “real” soldiers and “how would real soldiers’ film themselves saying this’’ and “which Nigerian military units wear those uniforms (tee shirts)”. As usual, we heard of how if the military were to “go on break”, we bloody civilians would be in deep shit, how we don’t appreciate the military enough. When the Army made its Twitter press release, these same people professed shock. But they never apologised to the human rights activists who they had more or less called liars, nor did they understand how scary it is that officers in the military, experts in defence and security studies, have zero clue about the mindsets of their own troops.
The last set of videos are of Chadian strongman, Idriss Deby. Idriss Deby is a known quantity in our regional security for his lack of cooperation with the multinational joint task force (MNJTF) operative in the Lake Chad area. Sani Abacha had pushed for and powered the MNJTF to counter Chadian rebels in the 90’s. It proved useful in building a multinational effort to confront Boko Haram. Following local pressures after the killing of 92 Chadian soldiers by Boko Haram, Deby embarked on a choregraphed crackdown on the insurgents. This was played up to impugn Nigerian efforts. In Nigeria, Deby’s stage managed PR was taken as indicative of our military’s lack of action in a protracted conflict. There have rightly been howls of outrage from security officers who know opportunist, Janus-faced Deby for what he is. This outrage is correct but the emergent question is: Since it is quite clear the Nigerian people do not know the Nigerian military’s own narrative of the insurgency in the north east is, is it Idris Deby’s job to do strategic communications for the Nigerian military?
Nigeria’s internal security apparatus comprises primarily of the Nigerian Police Force and, to a lesser extent, the Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps, a new organization tasked with protecting “critical national infrastructure”. The Police has variously claimed to have a 371,000-force strength while the NSCDC claimed 45,000 force strength with 160,000 “volunteers” as at 2013. Other services—the Department of State Security, the Nigeria Immigration Service, and perhaps twenty-five others—have specialist roles to play in internal security, adding hundreds of thousands to the total force of men available for internal security service. The reality is, of course, quite different.
The reality is that the Nigerian military is in fact the biggest player in internal security. When I worked briefly in government (2015—2017), the military was dealing with the Boko Haram insurgency while being deployed on at least 20 other internal security operations all over the country. I do not think today’s scenario is much different. A 2020 Global Firepower ranking provides an estimated 120,000 active force strength for the Nigerian military. The emergent question: How it is that the Nigerian military, with a 120,000-force strength, is to undertake internal security operations and fight an insurgency in the northeast while the 370,000 Police Force remains in need of an additional 250,000 men to “effectively police” the country? The reality, that the Nigerian military is overstretched is inescapable.
Now, putting it altogether. A networked threat, whether it is the corona virus using social proximity to leap from one victim to the next or Boko Haram insurgents spreading terror from one WhatsApp-enabled cell phone to the next hundred, must be met with a networked response. In the case of the coronavirus, China has proved effective in combating the virus and has taught its strategy and technique to other countries. It locked down pandemic epicentre, Wuhan, then proceeded to carry out mass testing. It then isolated of virus-free residents from the infected, who are being/to be treated. This is a networked response. It undercuts transmission, identifies infected cells for emphasis so that those who survive no longer have the virus and those who die are dead and are of no infective concern to general public health.
The video clips and associated news reports over the last weeks show two key challenges in Nigeria’s internal security administration. The lack of a true joint concept at the doctrinal level and the poverty of strategic communications. These two go hand in hand. Their necessity is birthed by the same circumstance. Organization and information are the real battlegrounds of for confronting the threat profiles of today and the near future. What are the hundreds of thousands of officers—who live in Immigration Service, Customs Service, and several other Intelligence silos— doing to multiply our capacity to respond to threat and process intelligence in the fight against Boko Haram? Why are these possibly million+ of officers not networked into a joint security infrastructure that rightly downplays the roles of IGs, CGs and whatever Gs to midlevel management, with multidirectional flow of information that enables the scaling of government of Nigeria capability and resources quickly and efficiently, in the northeast and all across the country? Why is all this alphabet soup of agencies and departments and boards not keeping the Nigerian citizen abreast of what is going on, what they are doing to keep us safe, within a single, unified strategic communications strategy? Why is our security infrastructure still not people-centric and service-delivery oriented when this has been the global standard for nearly decades?
It is not Abubakar Shekau’s fault that the heavy lifting of Nigerian internal security infrastructure is borne by the military which has little business there while the Police, the NSCDC, the Immigration Service, the Customs service and several others have hundreds of thousands of officers who are not cooperating and collaborating with each other. It is, in fact, in Abubakar Shekau’s interest that this state of affairs continues. It is exactly in the same way it is not Idriss Deby’s job to do the Government of Nigeria’s strategic communications job for it. Understanding this need not be a eureka moment. It is pretty damned obvious and has been for a long, long time.
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 protected]