When Islamist militants raided the northeastern Nigerian village of Izghe, killing 90 people, some government troops dropped their weapons, stripped off their uniforms and fled in civilian clothes, according to two soldiers who were at the scene.
The soldiers said the troops were angry their monthly pay had been cut in half to 15,000 naira ($92) without explanation, heightening their belief that money meant for them and their front-line fight against the Islamist militant group Boko Haram was being siphoned off by officials in Abuja, the capital.
“Somebody is sitting comfortably in Abuja stealing our money, and we are here facing Boko Haram fire every day,” Shu’aibu, a lance corporal, said in a June 11 interview in Yola, capital of Adamawa state. He spoke on the condition that his surname wasn’t published because he’s not authorized to comment.
Corruption among senior officers is weakening the army’s ability to defeat Boko Haram, which kidnapped more than 276 schoolgirls in April, said James, a sergeant who was at the Izghe attack in February and spoke on the condition that his last name wasn’t published. The Nigerian budget allocates about $6 billion a year for defense and security.
“Nigeria’s military budget is opaque, and only aggregate numbers are presented to the public, meaning that we don’t know how the budget is spent,” Mark Pyman of the Berlin-based corruption watchdog, Transparency International, said in an e-mailed response to questions. “The link between conflict and corruption is clear: Where funds are lost through corruption, soldiers don’t get the equipment and materiel they need.”
Chief of Army Staff Lieutenant-General Kenneth Minimah said that desertion is part of any conflict.
“We must accept that since the Carthaginian wars, soldiers have deserted from the battlefield,” Minimah told reporters in Abuja on July 14. “There’s a high level of unemployment on the ground, most people want jobs, and if that job is to join the army, fine, it’s a source of employment. But when the reality of military service comes, he drops his rifle and runs away.”
The military is taking every necessary measure to check corruption and indiscipline by troops, he said.
Nigerian Defense Ministry spokesman Major-General Chris Olukolade said in an interview last month that the troops’ pay had to be cut temporarily because of a delay in the release of funds by the Finance Ministry, and they would receive their full salaries.
While the Nigerian military has heavy conventional weaponry such as tanks, the security forces have been slow to adapt to the challenges of Boko Haram’s guerrilla tactics, according to Nnamdi Obasi, West Africa analyst of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.
“I think from the onset the challenge was underestimated by the security forces,” Obasi said in a July 9 phone interview from Abuja. “It was a failure of intelligence.”
Governor Kashim Shettima of Borno state, the birthplace of Boko Haram, said in February that the Islamist group is better armed and motivated than government troops. The Nigeria Labour Congress, the umbrella trade union federation, and human rights activists including lawyer Femi Falana have led calls for a probe of how the military budget is being spent.
Boko Haram, whose name means “western education is a sin” in the local Hausa language, drew global outrage with its April 14 abduction of 276 schoolgirls from their dormitories in the northeastern town of Chibok. The U.S., U.K. and France have joined an international effort to find and rescue the girls.
The group’s five-year-old insurgency to impose Islamic law on Africa’s top oil-producing nation has killed thousands of people and forced almost half a million to flee their homes last year, according to the Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. Three bomb attacks in Abuja this year have claimed at least 120 lives.
Aminu Sadiq Ogwuche, a U.K.-born former Nigerian military intelligence officer who’s suspected to have masterminded one of the attacks, was extradited to Nigeria yesterday from Sudan, police said.
“Boko Haram is effectively waging war on the people of northeastern Nigeria at a staggering human cost,” Corinne Dufka, West Africa director at New York-based Human Rights Watch, said in a statement yesterday. “Atrocities committed as part of a widespread attack on civilians are crimes against humanity, for which those responsible need to be held to account.”
Boko Haram killed at least 2,053 civilians in about 95 attacks in the first six months of the year, Human Rights Watch said.
In some areas, Nigerian security forces have been accused of receiving bribes from Boko Haram and cooperating in the group’s attacks, according to Pyman of Transparency International.
On June 1, the mainly Christian village of Attagara, near the border with Cameroon, beat back an attack by suspected Islamist militants, killing 37 of them, according to Pogu Bitrus, a church minister and chairman of Kibaku Elders Association, representing the main ethnic group in Chibok and the Gwoza region.
When villagers learned that the militants were preparing a reprisal attack, they went to the nearby military base at Pulka to report what they had learned and were promised protection, he said.
“The next day people dressed like soldiers came in nine armored vehicles with Nigerian army marks and called on the people to come and discuss the security situation,” Bitrus said in a June 27 phone interview. “And when they came they opened fire on them, killing at least 250 men, women and children.”
Bitrus alleged that some military units withdrew from bases in the region so Boko Haram fighters could loot weapons, including the armored vehicles used to attack Attagara, he said.
“The military has tanks, has artillery, and they have never been used against Boko Haram,” he said. “Instead, they’re sending out soldiers in pick-up trucks to confront them.”
With troops currently deployed on security duties in 28 of Nigeria’s 36 states, the 130,000-strong army is “over-stretched,” said Obasi of International Crisis Group. It also has to deploy and supply its forces across the three states under emergency rule, which cover an area of 154,000 square kilometers (59,500 square miles), about the size of the U.S. state of Georgia, of difficult terrain.
“It’s very difficult to deploy small numbers without having a means to resupply them, risking having them isolated and cut off,” Obasi said.
President Goodluck Jonathan is seeking the approval of lawmakers to borrow $1 billion from external lenders that may include governments to help the security forces battle the militants “more forcefully,” according to a letter read during today’s parliamentary proceedings. The government will use the funds to upgrade equipment, logistics and training, he said.
Since the abduction of the schoolgirls from Chibok, at least 538 people have been killed in attacks on 18 mainly Christian communities bordering the Sambisa forest hideout of the militants in the Gwoza district of the northeast, according to a toll kept by the Kibaku Elders Association.
Many communities besieged by the militants have turned to local vigilantes for their defense.
“There isn’t enough fight against Boko Haram,” said Bitrus. “The local vigilantes should be armed to defend themselves. Unless something is done, we’re heading to anarchy.”