Nigeria’s fragile security architecture is collapsing by Cheta Nwanze

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Cheta Nwanze
Partner at the Nigerian risk consultancy, SBM Intelligence

Earlier this month, attacks that took place within minutes of each other in different parts of Nigeria, and the apparent failure of the security forces to respond to them efficiently and in a timely manner, exposed how big of a threat lawlessness and impunity currently poses to the country and its people.

Late on July 5, heavily armed men on motorcycles raided the Kuje Medium Security Custodial Centre on the outskirts of Abuja and released more than 900 inmates, including more than 60 Boko Haram members in detention. The Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) – an offshoot of Boko Haram now allied with the ISIL (ISIS) group – claimed responsibility for the attack.

Just hours before the Kuje incident, another group of heavily armed men had attacked a convoy carrying an advance security team for President Muhammadu Buhari in his home state of Katsina. A presidential spokesperson said the convoy carrying a team of security guards, as well as protocol and media officers, was on its way to Daura, Buhari’s hometown, to prepare for a visit by him when the attack took place. According to the presidency, two people in the convoy sustained minor injuries before the gunmen were repelled. On the very same day, bandits on motorcycles had also ambushed and gunned down Assistant Commissioner of Police Aminu Umar Dayi in another part of Katsina, not far from where the president’s convoy was attacked.

Nigerian security forces failed to respond effectively to all three attacks, proving yet again that they don’t have the capacity to properly defend themselves, let alone members of the public, against armed fighters.

While some of the inmates who escaped from the Kuje Custodial Centre were recaptured hours or at least days after the attack, many are still on the loose – and those who managed to slip from the grasp of the security forces appear to include some of the most battle-hardened Boko Haram fighters and bomb experts.

The authorities’ response to the attack on President Buhari’s convoy and the ambush of Assistant Commissioner Dayi and his team in Katsina was equally incompetent. Those who attacked the presidential convoy, like those who killed the assistant commissioner, were not captured but simply “repelled” meaning they got away with what they did and are still free to stage further deadly attacks. According to reports, the very same bandits who attacked Buhari’s convoy have already raided a nearby village since.

All this exposes the current state of Nigeria: A country where members of armed groups raid prisons, attack presidential convoys and brutally murder security officers with ease and impunity.

Indeed, the raiding the Kuje prison was only the latest instalment in the escalating attacks on prisons across the country. In 2021 alone, more than 5,000 inmates escaped thanks to such incidents. And “bandits” – the catchall phrase for criminal gangs masterminding frequent bouts of abduction, maiming, sexual violence and killings of citizens – have been staging bloody attacks on rural communities without much meaningful push back from security forces for at least a decade in northern parts of the country.

While the July 5 attacks represented a continuation of existing trends in many ways, they also marked a grim turning point in Nigeria’s fight against armed groups.

For ISWAP, the attack on the Kuje prison was a spectacular success, not only because it helped free several prominent members of the group, but also because it demonstrated that the group is now confident enough to stage a major assault on a supposedly highly protected prison in the capital city. Much of the group’s successes before this year were restricted to the North East, but in recent months, it has moved beyond its traditional influence zone in Borno, left imprints on Taraba, and driven westwards, gaining footholds in Niger, Kogi and even the Federal Capital Territory (FCT). After the Kuje jailbreak, it staged several other attacks on communities around Abuja. Now, there is no debating that even the most important and dearly guarded state institutions in Nigeria’s capital city are facing a very real threat from ISWAP.

The attacks on Buhari’s convoy and the deputy commissioner in Katsina state, meanwhile, clearly showed that Nigeria’s security forces are no longer able to protect themselves – let alone civilians – against bandits in certain areas of the country.

Upon independence, Nigeria inherited a deeply faulty security architecture from the British that was geared towards protecting only the political and economic elites in urban centres and leaving the rest of the population to practically fend for themselves.

Consecutive governments, especially during the military dictatorship between 1966 to 1999, failed to reform this faulty infrastructure which led to the security situation getting worse and worse in the peripheries. In recent years, the country’s economic downturn forced the security forces to further narrow the scope of their operations and put all the resources they have towards protecting the regime and its highest officials. This resulted in even the members of security forces themselves becoming overly vulnerable to attacks by “bandits” and armed groups, and perhaps most importantly, large swaths of Nigerians, especially in urban centres, starting to lose any trust they had in their country’s security forces.

The apparent collapse of Nigeria’s fragile and faulty security architecture may have immediate, and deadly, consequences for the public beyond the emboldening of bandits and armed groups. Namely, the security forces can turn on innocent civilians to protect their dignity and try to regain some respect.

Even before the failures experienced on July 5, we have witnessed some examples of this dangerous behaviour. In late June, for example, the soldiers who were sent to Yakurr in Cross River State to restore peace after a communal dispute reportedly turned their guns on the civilian population after one of their colleagues was killed in action. Local media reported that the soldiers shot at anything that moved, killed at least 10 people, and burned down several houses. Several other similar incidents have been reported in recent years.

After their failures on July 5, Nigeria’s security forces are likely feeling more incompetent and under threat than ever before. This could easily lead to many more tragedies where underfunded, underprepared and frustrated members of security forces turn their weapons on those they should be protecting, and collectively punish communities in order to regain respect, power and control.

If Nigeria is to ensure the safety of all its citizens, and effectively counter the threat posed by bandits and armed groups, the government should stop downplaying the failures of the security forces, and focus its efforts on repairing – and perhaps completely reshaping – the country’s faulty security architecture.