NIGERIAN soldiers fighting Boko Haram in the country’s northeast recently reportedly fled over the Cameroonian border again, the second time in two weeks that the soldiers have crossed the border and “surrendered” to the Cameroonians.
The first was on August 25, when another group of 500 soldiers were said to have fled over the Cameroonian border to escape heavily-armed Boko Haram fighters.
But the military denied that its soldiers deserted, claiming the retreat was a “tactical manoeuvre.”
Earlier this week, it was reported that Boko Haram insurgents had captured the town of Bama in Borno state, northeast Nigeria, following heavy fighting with government troops.
The Nigerian soldiers were apparently overrun by the Boko Haram fighters, and reportedly took off when the insurgents took over the military barracks in the town, with one witness quoted by AFP saying that, “Some of them had no boots, some had only vests on them while others had no guns. From their looks they were on the run for their lives.”
But again the military disputed the claim, saying on its Twitter account @DefenceInfoNG that it had pushed back the insurgents Monday evening, following it with another tweet which simply stated: “#Victory”.
If the story of the Nigerian soldiers running away shirtless is true, then it’s hugely embarrassing for the country’s military, which has been heavily criticised for its response to the menace.
The weak showing in the northeast has been blamed on poor military infrastructure and equipment. One legislator from Adamawa state in the north, which has also suffered attacks from Boko Haram, even claimed Nigeria was using equipment that was “no longer in circulation” in other countries.
“The federal government must rise up to its responsibility of safe guarding the country. If our military officers are well equipped, it will not take federal government troops three months to crush the insurgents,” said Adamu Kamale, chairman of the committee on Information, Adamawa state House of Assembly.
It even reached a bizzare low when last month, soldiers’ wives protested at the barracks in Maiduguri against the deployment of their husbands to the battle front on the grounds that they were not properly equipped.
The Nigerian military has strongly denied swirling claims of desertion, a refusal to deploy, unpaid salaries and hungry soldiers.
Africa’s most populous nation and leading economy also has one of its largest militaries. There are 80,000 personnel on active service and 82,000 paramilitaries, according to the International Institute of Security Studies’ “The Military Balance 2014”.
Out of this year’s federal budget of 4.962 trillion naira ($30 billion, 23 billion euros), 968 billion naira or nearly 20% went to defence—the highest since the 1967-1970 civil war. Boko Haram is estimated to have between 6,000-8,000 fighters and is largely reliant on criminality for funding and looting the places it attacks, including military barracks.
But looking at data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which compiles data on military expenditure and international weapons transfer, reveals that Nigeria was until then among the bottom five countries in Africa in military expenditure, as a percentage of total government spending.
Since 1990, the country has spent an average of just 2.5% of its budget on the military—the African average over the same time period is 9.1%.
The other four countries in the bottom five are all countries that have experienced relative stability—albeit for different reasons. Two are the usual island nation star-performers, Mauritius and Cape Verde.
But the other two—Ghana and the Gambia—have both experienced rule by military regime. In the case of Ghana, Jerry Rawlings took power by a coup in 1979, and later opened up the country to multiparty politics; he was elected president in 1992 and again in 1996. And in the Gambia, Yahya Jammeh came to power in a bloodless coup in 1994 and has been in power ever since.
Intriguingly, all the countries among the bottom ten spenders fit one of these two profiles—either they have never experienced any kind of major conflict, or they have actually had a long military regime in power.
Distracted once in power?
It seems counter-intuitive that military regimes would spend so little on the military—but one could argue that once in power, the military’s focus is on enjoying the fruits of political power.
In civilian regimes, however, there is always a need to “bribe” the soldiers and keep them happy, or else one risks restlessness in the barracks.
When the military is in power, however, the loyalty of the soldiers is largely taken for granted—therefore they paradoxically drop down the list of government priorities. One could even argue that a military ruler has a reason to keep the military weak, lest another general decides to overthrow the one in power.
Africa’s highest spenders on the military tend to be countries which have fought secession wars, having either won or lost: Eritrea, South Sudan, Sudan and Ethiopia all feature in the top five.
More big spenders
The other big spenders are the liberation regimes, where soldiers have fought in a liberation struggle, then hang up their boots (officially) and ruled as civilians, such as Uganda and Rwanda.
Burundi is a big spender too, having experienced a long-running civil war—but also contributing troops to the African Union Mission in Somalia.
And in Djibouti’s case, the country’s military looms large over the entire nation, as is the base for Camp Lemonnier, headquarters of the Combined Joint Task Force–Horn of Africa, part of the US Africa Command (Africom).
Hosting the base has benefitted Djibouti to the tune of $38 million in base lease fees annually, roughly the same amount as the country’s entire defense budget.
Since 2011, the US government has spent more than $200 million in Djibouti to construct the Horn of Africa Joint Operations Center, upgrade airports and build an armory and a fitness center for troops.
Politico reports that U.S. military air traffic at Lemonnier has increased so much that the Defense Department recently allocated $7 million to train local air traffic controllers, far more than the entire amount the U.S. spends on development assistance to the country: a mere $4.5 million set for 2014.