This article written by Dr Daniel Olisa Iweze explores the impact of Covid-19, including the government’s response to the pandemic, on military counterinsurgency operations in northeast Nigeria. Prior to the pandemic, Nigeria’s counterinsurgency operation in the region had not been impressive despite a budgetary expenditure of over NGN 4 trillion allocated to the defense sector since 2009. The successes of the operations have been short lived despite the government’s claims that Boko Haram fighters have been “technically defeated.”1 The floundering counterinsurgency operations before and during the spread of Covid-19 to Nigeria could be attributed to a number of factors. These range from poor strategic planning and tactics, lack of weapons and logistics supplies, and delays in the payment of salaries. Others include poor welfare packages, allegations of corruption, and poor coordination of the security agencies involved in planning and executing military operations.
Intersection of Covid-19 and Counterinsurgency
The spread of Covid-19 and the Nigerian government’s responses have created new challenges. The nationwide lockdown and subsequent announcement of restrictive measures, including stay-at-home and social distancing orders by President Muhammadu Buhari have had implications for livelihoods, human rights, peace, and security. The deployment of military personnel to various parts of the country to enforce lockdown directives has heightened concerns about the excessive use of force in implementing restrictive measures aimed at preventing the spread of Covid-19. Lacking the requisite training for carrying out policing functions, there have been reports of military personnel harassing and brutalizing people. In some cases, their actions have resulted in the deaths of violators of the lockdown measures in Lagos, Abuja, Warri, and other parts of the country.2
Due to military preoccupation with enforcing the lockdown order, Boko Haram and its affiliates, capitalizing on the shift of government`s focus from counterinsurgency operations and public apathy to restrictive measures, has intensified the abduction of civilians and the recruitment and training of new fighters. The insurgents have swelled their ranks and relaunched an offensive on both military formations and civilian targets in the northeast. The impact of the heightened Boko Haram attacks has become more glaring with reports of top Nigerian military commanders being ambushed and killed during military operations in the region. In one such case, on March 21, 2020, some military officers and over fifty security forces were ambushed and killed on their way to Alagarno forest in Borno State.3 There are other reports of security forces being ambushed by, and losing their lives to, Boko Haram insurgents. Some military commanders at the front lines had previously complained about certain shortcomings in the planning of counterinsurgency campaigns, as well as a lack of adequate arms and ammunition. For example, a video recorded by Major General Olusegun Adeniyi, the field commander of counterinsurgency operation Lafiya Dole, was circulated over social media. In the video, the commander recounted the challenges facing his troops that rendered them vulnerable to attacks by the better-equipped Boko Haram insurgents.4 The limited impact of military counterinsurgency operations in the northeast region has caused some concerns and has resulted in condemnation from some prominent Nigerians, including the Senate president and other members of the National Assembly, who have called for the sacking of the service chiefs and an overhaul of the nation’s security architecture.5
Covid-19 is undermining the counterinsurgency operations. It is extremely difficult for military personnel on the battlefield to practice social distancing. The rising number of people that have tested positive for the virus has serious implications for counterinsurgency operations in the region. This has placed an additional burden on the security personnel, who are tasked with not only combatting Boko Haram but also conveying medical equipment and supplies to designated areas, as well as the protection of internally displaced people (IDPs) in camps. The engagement of troops in multiple national tasks has also reduced the number of those available for deployment to the battlefield. A daily update from the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) revealed that as of May 20, 2020, 662 persons have been confirmed as having tested positive for Covid-19 in the northeast states, with Borno State, the epicenter of the Boko Haram insurgency, leading with 227 confirmed cases. With the lifting and easing of the lockdown in the northeast states, the NCDC has predicted an increase in the number of infections in the coming weeks.
Resurgence of Insurgents’ Onslaught amid the Covid-19 Pandemic
The recent successes by the Chadian military in the defeat of over 2,000 Boko Haram fighters at the Nigerian border6 and the release of captured Nigerian soldiers that were taken hostage by the insurgents have been rather instructive. Some reports allege that the Chadian president, Idriss Déby, had complained of a lack of cooperation from Nigerian troops in decimating the Boko Haram fighters on the fringes of the Lake Chad Basin.7 This allegation against the Nigerian military suggests the existence of a crack in the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) and its operations in the Lake Chad Basin. It also cast doubts on the will and capacity of the Nigerian military to achieve its professed goal of defeating the Boko Haram insurgency.
This position reflects some of the reservations expressed by many Nigerians that the counterinsurgency war could be won if it had not been hijacked by “conflict entrepreneurs” or “violence profiteers.”8 They suspect that top government officials, as well highly placed and politically connected contractors and security officers, are benefiting from the counterinsurgency effort and would prefer that it continues so that they can gain more profit from the war. Such views have been supported by reports of misappropriation of funds, including the alleged diversion of USD 2.1 billion meant for arms procurement by a former national security adviser, currently standing trial, as well as the theft of NGN 3.9 billion by the office of the Chief of Defence Staff.9 In 2017, a sum of USD 43 million earmarked for covert operations by the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) was discovered in a private building in Lagos, and in 2018, another USD 1 billion meant for arms procurement by the Nigerian Army was reported missing.10
The Way Forward
The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed not only the decay of the public health sector but also the vulnerabilities of other sectors of the country, including the economy and national defense. This calls for a refocusing of attention to all sectors. In relation to national defense and security, the government’s response to and management of Covid-19 restrictions and lockdown measures need to be revised in ways that strengthen counterinsurgency operations in the northeast. The Nigerian government should, as a matter of urgency, overhaul its counterinsurgency operations by addressing the grievances of its commanders and troops at the front lines. This includes ensuring greater accountability and transparency in defence procurements.
There is a strong nexus between Covid-19 and counterinsurgency operations, and further research is needed to identify the intersections between the pandemic and peace and security operations in northeastern Nigeria. Other potential areas of research include the impact of Covid-19 on socioeconomic conditions, livelihoods, and everyday life in conflict-affected regions. Studies should also focus on the lives and welfare of troops in the northeast region and their relations with the civilian population during the Covid-19 pandemic.
To strengthen the counterinsurgency operations in the northeast, the following suggestions are proffered. The military leadership should be overhauled and new strategies injected into counterinsurgency operations. New arms, equipment, and hardware should be procured and closer synergy established among security agencies. The security architecture should be restructured for effective national and subregional security, including military cooperation with neighboring countries. In this regard, the MNJTF should be strengthened in order to defeat the insurgents.
by Daniel Olisa Iweze