A rare positive note as Nigeria spirals into a state of lawlessness is the unintended return to the front burner of longstanding issues around governance at the subnational level. Until now, such issues have bubbled under the surface, receiving fleeting attention only when the country’s perennial crisis threatens to boil over, only to subside as soon as a temporary fix is found.
Penultimate week, after still unidentified assailants opened fire on an Abuja-Kaduna train, killing eight passengers and kidnapping tens of others for ransom, Kaduna State Governor Nasir El-Rufai, emerging from a private meeting with President Muhammadu Buhari, threatened to do whatever it takes to protect lives and property across the state, including “importing mercenaries from outside the country to do it.”
The governor’s frustration is understandable. While bandits have cut a swathe through the entire country, in recent times, the strategic northwestern state of Kaduna appears to have suffered more than most. According to an official security report, 1,192 people were murdered in the state by bandits in 2021 alone. A new report by the Abuja-based Center for Democracy and Development (CDD) estimates that violent crime across the northwest has claimed more than 12,000 lives while displacing over a million people.
Following the Abuja-Kaduna train tragedy, another attack on a Nigerian military base in Birnin Gwari Kaduna (sixty-two miles from Kaduna, the state capital) by bandits reportedly “carrying heavy weapons including a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG)” left eleven soldiers dead. According to reports in the Nigerian media, no fewer than 714 soldiers have been killed by terrorists in the past eighteen months.
El-Rufai has never been shy of resorting to unconventional solutions, going as far as offering financial compensation to “aggrieved” Fulani herdsmen from Chad, Cameroon, Mali, Senegal, and Niger Republic believed to have orchestrated the spate of killings across the southern part of the state in 2016.
While the 2016 “settlement” did raise more than a few eyebrows, the threat to import mercenaries has been greeted with almost universal condemnation, with most commentators appearing to agree that the governor lacks the legal authority to invite foreign combatants into the country. Both the pan-northern sociopolitical organization, Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF) and its Yoruba counterpart, Afenifere, were quick to condemn the move.
El-Rufai’s threat to import mercenaries has not occurred in a vacuum. The involvement of mercenaries in African conflicts has expanded steadily since the 1990s when Executive Outcomes and Sandline (originating out of South Africa and the United Kingdom respectively), provided military assistance to the highest bidder in exchange for diamond and oil concessions. In recent times, mercenaries have featured prominently in the conflicts in Darfur (western Sudan), Chad, and Libya, while the Russian Wagner Group continues to be active in Libya, Sudan, Mozambique, Madagascar, Central African Republic (CAR), and Mali, where they are engaged in “protecting the ruling or emerging governing elites and critical infrastructures.”
With general elections looming in 2015, the previous Goodluck Jonathan administration imported “hundreds of mercenaries from South Africa” to help quell the Boko Haram insurgency.
Mercenaries, suffice to say, are a dubious asset, their battlefield success always liable to being offset by their tendency to “worsen conflict and threaten stability.” In any event, recourse to them by African states is ironic considering their otherwise strident rhetoric around sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Whether or not El-Rufai gets his way, his threat reveals cracks in the Nigerian security architecture that successive administrations have papered over. The most directly relevant concerns policing, responsibility for which is constitutionally vested in the Nigerian Federal Government (FG). Size is a nagging issue. Of a total workforce of 400,000, some 150,000 police officers are attached at any given time to private individuals and companies in Nigeria, thus, leaving the Nigeria Police Force (NPF) permanently short-handed. Pay being low and morale even lower, police officers regularly moonlight on their time off.
Because of this and other problems associated with the privatization of policing in Nigeria, states have clamored for decentralization through the creation of state police. In the southwestern region of the country where the clamor has been at its most insistent, six states banded together in January 2020 to establish a regional paramilitary outfit, Amotekun (leopard in Yoruba language), “to complement the work of the police.”
The federal government has declared the outfit illegal.
While southwestern states may view the establishment of Amotekun as a significant step in the long march towards “true federalism,” the unwitting insight from the move is the reliance of states themselves on nonstate violence and private actors. Instructively, Amotekun drew on sundry vigilante and local civil defense groups, including the Oodua People’s Congress (OPC), a Yoruba interest group which has been accused of using violence to pursue its objectives.
Apart from diverting enormous resources towards private entrepreneurs and entities, state mobilization of nonstate violence stokes division and violence within civil society because it invariably empowers a group of actors to the detriment of others. The ongoing power struggle within the Lagos branch of the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW) is partly a reflection of this dynamic. In turn, nonstate actors have leveraged the opportunity to accumulate social and political power, blurring the distinction between militant and politician on the one hand, and between state and nonstate violence on the other.
In a nutshell, other than being outward facing and emerging from the subnational level, El-Rufai’s threat to outsource state security to nonstate actors is nothing unusual in the country; if anything, it captures an essential truth about the character of state power as authorities struggle to contend with a surge in violence by assorted rogue actors.
For a long time, even as it shirked its basic statutory responsibilities, continued monopoly of violence meant that the state retained a certain aura and remained the most consequential actor in the political arena. While it still largely is, the possible loss of that monopoly (the readiness to look for external help is an admission more or less) raises important questions about what the state has become and the reality of statehood.
Going forward, the fundamental question is not whether El-Rufai, or indeed any of the other beleaguered governors, goes looking for help. Given the imperative, the real question is what avenues desperate state officials across the country will turn to as they face a fight to rein in increasingly emboldened actors, some of whom, ironically, they played a part in creating and unleashing.
Ebenezer Obadare is Douglas Dillon Senior Fellow for Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).
This article was originally published by the Council on Foreign Relations as part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy.