The Nigerian army is proving to be woefully inadequate to contain the Boko Haram insurgency in the country’s restive north.
One might be tempted to find excuses for the military’s complete failure. After all, even the United States didn’t exactly succeed in defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan.
But Nigeria’s army is one of the continent’s best-funded fighting forces. Nigeria spent $2.4 billion on its armed forces in 2013, thanks in part to oil revenues. The only two countries in Sub-Saharan Africa that spent more were South Africa and Angola.
One shocking incident neatly captures the army’s total unreliability.
On July 4, a public bus collided with a motorcycle in Lagos, Nigeria’s biggest city, notorious for its chaotic traffic. The motorcyclists died.
Unfortunately for everyone involved—which in this case includes thousands of commuters—the deceased was an army officer.
Other soldiers, who witnessed the accident, immediately tried to get ahold of the bus driver, who had the good sense to flee. Other soldiers raced over and together the troops set the offending bus on fire.
The bus was still packed with passengers, all of whom luckily escaped with their lives.
Working themselves into a rage, the comrades of the dead officer went on to block the expressway, one of the busiest in Lagos, snarling large parts of the city with traffic. Next ensued what Nigerian newspapers have called “pandemonium.”
The soldiers walked through the traffic jam and set fire to at least eight public buses, beating personnel of the bus company where they could find them. Passengers and passersby were also beaten if they tried to document the mayhem with their mobile phones.
Police officers fled the scene, because the soldiers were armed and obviously willing to use their weapons if anyone interfered.
Incidents like this sadly are not uncommon in Nigeria. The country’s police and military are known for their lack of professionalism. They frequently demand bribes from civilians, perpetrate extrajudicial killings and vent their frustrations on innocent bystanders.
The situation is especially bad in the north, where Boko Haram is most active and where security personnel are frequently killed in attacks and bombings by the insurgent group. Assuming local support for Boko Haram, the military and police conduct revenge killings and jail members of local communities.
Such unprofessionalism within the armed forces isn’t exactly uncommon in Africa, or for that matter worldwide. But in Nigeria—buffeted by armed insurrections, beset by a corrupt elite and trapped between poverty and oil wealth—the terrible army has the potential to ruin millions of lives and tear the very fabric of the state.
Peter Dörrie is a freelance journalist covering resource and security politics in Africa. You can follow him on Twitter at @peterdoerrie. Medium has an app! Sign up for a daily War is Boring email update here. Subscribe to WIB’s RSS feed here and follow the main page here.