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Systemic reform in Nigerian defence – fantastically hard work

17th May 2016

Stemming the outflows of cash is simply not enough.

By Leah Wawro, Programme Manager, Conflict & Insecurity and
Éléonore Vidal de la Blache, Project Manager – Africa, Conflict & Insecurity

Speaking with fellow anti-corruption activists in Nigeria at the UK’s anti-corruption summit last week, we hear the same thing we’ve heard many times before: ‘we can’t do this on our own, here in Nigeria.’

At the front of many minds is the case of Sambo Dasuki, the former national security advisor in Nigeria.  In 2015, Dasuki pronounced Nigerian soldiers to be ‘cowardly’, and described them as “running away and… telling stories of poor equipment and stuff like that.” Allegations earlier this year – if they prove to be correct – show just how appalling these statements were. Sambo Dasuki, the former National Security Adviser, was arrested by the State Security Services later that year for allegedly diverting $2 billion dollars from the National Treasury meant to equip soldiers fighting Boko Haram. Instead of providing the troops he was responsible for with the equipment they need to protect themselves and the population, Dasuki had allegedly created ‘phantom’ arms contracts for helicopters, four fighter jets and ammunition.

But what has prompted equal outrage among Nigerian anti-corruption campaigners were the reports from the Economic Financial Crime Commission (EFCC) that Mr Dasuki also got the Central Bank to transfer $142.6 million to a company with accounts in the United States, the United Kingdom and in West Africa for unknown purposes and without contracts.  This isn’t unusual. Senior public officials in Nigeria divert public funds and then launder their money in big financial centres, including London. But the allegation prompted Nigerian civil society to centre much of their focus on what the anti-corruption summit was going to do to stop the devastating leakage of public money out of the country; over 90 CSOs wrote an open letter to the UK PM ahead of the summit, calling on David Cameron to take serious action to end the UK’s role as a safe haven for Nigerian corrupt individuals.

There’s no denying it: there’s a lot that the UK could and should be doing to help the anti-corruption fight in Nigeria.  As Buhari retorted in response to the PM’s fantastically disobliging comments about the country: “don’t apologise, just return our stolen assests”. But while it’s true that several of the commitments made at the summit, including beneficial ownership registries in the UK and Nigeria, may make a big difference – if they’re enforced – to stopping the outflow of assets to the UK, this is only one part of the equation.   Cutting off access to luxury London properties alone won’t be enough to reduce corruption in Nigeria’s vital defence sector and the damage wrought by the corrupt actions of officials like Dasuki.

Dasukigate is a striking case.  But the problem of corruption in the Nigerian defence establishment is widespread. Research we completed last year, the Government Defence Anti-Corruption Index, found that the levels of corruption have created frustration and has led to defections and even soldiers selling goods and equipment to Boko Haram. The effects on the Nigerian population are clear: not only are they left unprotected from the threat posed by Boko Haram, but in some cases they are preyed on by those who are meant to be protecting them.

And this isn’t just a Nigerian problem – it’s a problem for any state interested in seeing increased development and peace, particularly those facing the terrorism. Poverty, public disenfranchisement, and violence flourish wherever government lines its pockets at the expense of providing basic services, kleptocratic elites limit the economic opportunities of ordinary people, or police collude with organised crime instead of tackling it.  Corruption in the defence and security services is particularly dangerous. The security forces are a country’s first line of defence when it comes to protecting peace, establishing the rule of law, and reducing instability. But corrupt or predatory security institutions can become one of the greatest barriers to peace and development. They are often at the forefront of the extortion, abuse, and criminality that perpetuates conflict in fragile states.

There are a lot of questions around whether Buhari’s current anti-corruption drive is political. But in our view, the more important question in trying to answer whether the current anti-corruption drive will be successful is not about individuals, but about systemic reform that puts in place mechanisms for accountability, transparency, and oversight.

Our research has highlighted 3 major weaknesses in the Nigerian defence establishment:

  1. Lack of transparency of the defence policy, budget and procurement
  2. Inefficient and compromised oversight institutions
  3. Weak military personnel systems that encourage predatory behaviour by troops

And there’s a lot that could be done in Nigeria to tackle these problems – we’ve put together a detailed set of policy recommendations with our local partners, CISLAC.

One of the things that we think could have a real impact is to set up a high-level steering committee within the MoD, supported by the President, to implement anti-corruption reforms within the ministry.  If Buhari’s administration is to make lasting change, it will need to convince the population that his anti-corruption drive is sincere, and put in place some systemic changes- but that’s not easy to do. Even if there’s political will to see change from the very top, it’s going to face significant challenges in terms of implementation. A committed senior steering group that can oversee specific recommendations, draw on international expertise, and see reforms through the process of implementation would help ensure that political will is translated into concrete change.

And here, too, the UK is also well placed to lead – the government is already providing aid to the anti-corruption fight, and military advisors and training to the military and they could go further.  The UK should lend its political weight to pushing the kind of systemic reform in Nigeria’s defence sector that will make a difference. The UK certainly has much useful experience to share in this areas, as well as scoring one of only two A’s in our Government Defence Anti-Corruption Index. And they could also provide support to bodies that oversee and hold defence institutions to account- both in government and in civil society.

Header photo: Kano, Nigeria. Photo by Shariz Chakera.