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Sunday 28 July 2019


Spoils of war

The conflict with the Boko Haram insurgency has raged for a decade – is the war economy too lucrative for peace to prevail?

By Colin Freeman

Tired and thirsty after yet another long stint in bandit country, the army major makes short work of the bottle of sickly-sweet red wine in front of him. We are in a hotel bar in Maiduguri in north-east Nigeria, favoured mainly by off-duty soldiers and on-duty prostitutes. It’s not much of place for R & R, but it’s a paradise compared with where he has just come from, a garrison town in the heart of Boko Haram country called Monguno.

An outpost near Nigeria’s desert border with Chad, Monguno is currently home to around 150,000 people, mostly villagers who have fled Boko Haram attacks in the surrounding countryside. The army has dug a six foot-deep trench round its perimeter, but that hasn’t stopped the militants trying to over-run it with mortars and truck-mounted weapons.

When we met, the major, who asked not to be named, spoke of fighting 12-hour battles to fend them off, of losing comrades in action, and of the grim times when the militants get the upper hand. Last November he was assigned to the clean-up job after Boko Haram over-ran an army base in nearby Metele, when he had to collect the bodies of more than 100 of his comrades.

Nigerian soldiers capture a terrorist after an operation against Boko Haram in Borno, Nigeria

“The commanding officer got killed early on during that attack, and after that it became chaotic, because our army thrives on hierarchy,” he says. “But I also saw white bodies among the corpses of the dead jihadists. We think foreigners are joining Boko Haram, which may explain some of these daring attacks.”

It may do. But overall it doesn’t really explain why, after a decade of fighting, the war against Boko Haram seems far from being won. It was 10 years ago this week that Mohammed Yusuf, the leader of what was then a militant but obscure Islamic religious sect, was killed by security forces in a police station not far from where we are drinking. Hundreds of his armed followers, who had already been in serious clashes with police, then fled into the countryside, from where they started what has become Africa’s most vicious 21st-century bush war.

Burial ceremony for victims of a Boko Haram attack at the Sajeri village on the outskirts of Maiduguri, January 2019

Since then an estimated 27,000 people have died, mostly civilians. Tens of thousands of women and children have been abducted, including the 277 Chibok schoolgirls, whose kidnapping brought Boko Haram world notoriety in 2014. True, Boko Haram no longer controls entire towns and cities, as it did at the time of Chibok. But it still rules much of the countryside, and has spread its attacks to neighbouring Cameroon, Niger and Chad. Region-wide, more than 2.5 million people have been made homeless by the conflict, destabilising one of the planet’s poorest corners. A new Isis-allied Boko Haram faction, the Islamic State West Africa Province, is bringing the group a military prowess that it previously lacked.

Burned out classrooms of a school in Chibok, Northeastern Nigeria, where Boko Haram Islamist fighters seized 276 teenagers

Yet of all the countries in Africa, Nigeria should have been more than capable of quelling Boko Haram. Unlike Libya or Somalia, it has a functioning government. Unlike its neighbours, it is wealthy, earning £20bn in oil revenues last year alone. Its army, with 150,000 troops, is the biggest and best-funded in West Africa.

So why is the conflict still raging? Military experts blame the Nigerian army’s bloated, incompetent top-down leadership. Human rights groups blame the army’s poor human rights record, which drives civilians into Boko Haram’s arms. The major at my table in May this year blamed the human rights groups, whose shrill criticisms, he claimed, have prevented Western governments selling Nigeria the combat jets and other hardware it needs.

Nigerian troops celebrate after taking over the town of Bama from Boko Haram, 2015

“How many of these human rights people ever come to the frontlines?” he says bitterly. “If they realised just how brutal Boko Haram are, they wouldn’t go around saying we are just as bad.”

There is, however, another explanation for why the war endures, which is arguably more perplexing. Put simply, the fighting carries on because too many people are earning a buck from it. In a country that is legendary for corruption, the billions of oil dollars a year being set aside for the war economy offer almost limitless opportunities for enrichment.

Within the military, this is through activities like skimming from soldiers’ salaries and taking kickbacks on military procurement. Within the humanitarian sector, many Nigerian NGOS are suspected of being used for fraud and pilfering. For traders, contractors and labourers in places like Maiduguri, where most people live on $1 a day, the arrival of well-funded international aid agencies means boom time.

Cameroonian soldiers during a ceremony for 38 soldiers who died in the north of the country while fighting Islamist Boko Haram, 2015.

“Effectively, so many people make money out of the war zone that there’s no real incentive to stop it,” says Matthew T Page, an associate fellow at the foreign affairs think-tank Chatham House, who spent a decade as a senior Nigeria analyst for the US government. “Vested interests simply have too much to lose from the restoration of peace.”

Corruption, by its nature, is hard to spot, especially in a war zone. But what glimpses have emerged, suggest that it happens on a staggering scale. Two years ago, for example, Nigeria’s anti-corruption police found $43m in a smart flat in Lagos, wrapped in bricks of dollars and euros and stashed in a filing cabinet. What looked at first like a large-scale drug ring quickly saw the suspension of Ayodele Oke, the head of Nigeria’s National Security Agency, who is now facing charges of money-laundering.

These sums appear to be merely the tip of the iceberg. In 2016, Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari, said that some $15bn of military funds had been embezzled, much of it by faking contracts for helicopters to fight the insurgency. The theft – the equivalent of half of Nigeria’s foreign currency reserves – took place while frontline troops suffered shortages of ammunition, food and even boots. As Femi Adesina, a government spokesman, remarked at the time, “had these funds been used properly, thousands of needless Nigerian deaths would have been avoided.”

Members of the Nigerian air force bury comrades, who died in a helicopter crash in Nigeria’s Borno State after a Boko Haram ambush

Part of the problem, Page says, is the secrecy with which government runs military budgets, a hangover from the days of dictatorship. Every year, a further $600m is allocated to state governors to cover unforeseen “security” expenses, money that requires no accounting trail and is used as a slush fund to buy favour in re-election campaigns.

But corruption also flourishes at ground level in the conflict zone. Troops can extort “protection” money from traders and shopkeepers, and fees to provide escorts through dangerous areas. Another potential money-spinner is guarding aid camps like Monguno, where the presence of hundreds of thousands of people corralled into one place can again be “monetised”.

Little of this is apparent at first glance. When Tortoise visited the aid camp in Monguno, for example, it looked like a scene from a UNICEF advert, with neat rows of tents and queues of people gratefully receiving emergency food packages. Behind the scenes, though, says Page, money is often changing hands.

An internally displaced peoples’ camp in the Borno State, the epicentre of the Boko Haram insurgency

“Often the Nigerian army forces civilian populations into these protected enclaves, which offer a full spectrum of illicit opportunities by controlling who and what comes into the camp, be it traders who want to sell wares, prostitution, or demanding kickbacks on relief supplies.”

Other culprits are what Shehu Sani, a north-eastern senator, calls “humanitarian entrepreneurs” – Nigerians who set up or take control of charitable funds for their own ends. In 2016, he chaired an inquiry into alleged embezzlement of $20m of government funds earmarked for rebuilding war-damaged towns, for which the country’s top civil servant, Babachir Lawal, has now been indicted. Last year, seven directors of Nigeria’s National Emergency Management Agency were also indicted after being accused of channelling funds into private bank accounts.

Sani, a former human rights activist who has mediated in peace talks with Boko Haram in the past, also blames other factors for the war’s endless grind. Secret peace talks between the Nigerian government and Boko Haram have got nowhere. Rank and file Nigerian troops are badly paid, while their generals have proved reluctant to take much advice from the British and American counter-insurgency experts brought in after the Chibok kidnappings.

Vigilantes supporting Nigerian army fighting with Boko Haram militants

So is Page right? One problem with road-testing his argument is that most aid agencies are reluctant to talk publicly about aid politics in Nigeria for fear of having their operations suspended by the government, which does not take kindly to criticism. Privately, some aid workers feel he has a point, although they do not go as far as he does. “The military does sometimes try to get us to pay for things like fences and guard towers, which we refuse because of our humanitarian imperative to remain impartial and neutral,” said one. “But it’s also just the economy generated by the foreign aid workers in places like Maiduguri – of course local contractors benefit from that.”

“I think it’s a bit simplistic to attribute the prolonging of the war to the desire to make money,” said another experienced aid worker. “If that’s happening, it’s because of the way the military conducts their war, which involves herding entire villages of people into camps, and weeding out men of fighting age in mass screening sweeps. It just pisses the people off more, and lights even further fire under the insurgency.”

A mother sits mourning the death of her husband after Boko Haram attacks at Dalori village on the outskirts of Maiduguri

Ryan Cummings, a consultant on Africa to Tony Blair’s Institute for Global Change, added: “Corruption is one issue, yes, but so too is the way that Boko Haram’s forces have been able to move across the borders in Chad, Niger and Cameroon – that’s made it hard for any one government to corner them.”

Page argues that aid agencies now need to ask themselves hard questions about whether their presence long-term will simply prolong the crisis. “Fundamentally, north-east Nigeria has been re-wired into a war economy and the international community should not be helping to maintain the status quo,” he says. “They need to push back more, to get Nigeria to cut down on the graft and resolve this crisis pro-actively.”

Already, moves are being made in that direction, amid signs of “donor fatigue” from the wider world. Earlier this month, the UN said that it had only raised only a third of its $850m relief fund target for Nigeria. Meanwhile, Edward Kallon, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Nigeria has launched a new appeal to Nigerian businesses to contribute to the humanitarian response, to make it “more collaborative and effective”. Behind Mr Kallon’s polite language of bureaucracy, many detected a blunter message.

A woman pours water from a well at Malkohi refugee camp in Jimeta, in Nigeria’s Adamawa State


“The UN is aiming to move away from a dependency on humanitarian aid, to more durable solutions towards longer-term development over the next three years,” said one aid worker. “National ownership of the response, including from Nigeria’s business leaders, is crucial to this process.”

The aid community, though, do not normally do brinkmanship, and it is hard to imagine charities simply leaving if the war is still raging in three years’ time. Page too accepts that is unrealistic, but if something isn’t done, he argues, the only guaranteed outcome of the war will be more filing cabinets of stolen cash. “We need to start asking these questions now,” he says. “Otherwise we’ll still be asking them in another decade’s time.”

Photographs by Getty Images

Casualties of insurgency

Further reading

This report by Matthew T Page for the anti-corruption group Transparency International gives a more in-depth of how “security” spending fuels corruption in Nigeria.

Nigerian novelist Helon Habila, who grew up in northern Nigeria, travelled to Chibok to produce this short book on the 2014 schoolgirl kidnapping. It’s a pithy and well-written account of both the kidnapping itself and of Boko Haram’s rise.

Nigerian documentary maker Joel Kachi Benson’s new virtual reality film takes viewers on a tour round Chibok and introduces them to the town’s grieving parents. It’s expected to be released online and shown at European film festivals in coming months. He describes the making of the movie here.

Aminu Abubakar, a northern Nigeria-based reporter for the Agence France Presse news agency, is one of the best-informed on Boko Haram.

Boko Haram: Journey from Evil is a 50-minute documentary made by Voice of America, with voices from experts, victims and former insurgents.

This Wall Street Journal article offers a rare and detailed insight into the ransom negotiations that bought the freedom of some of the Chibok schoolgirls.

Colin Freeman headshot

Colin Freeman

Foreign correspondent. Author of ‘Kidnapped: life as a Somali pirate hostage’