To reverse Nigeria’s deteriorating security environment, experts urge the Tinubu administration to surge security forces in identified hotspots while prioritizing civilian harm reduction, improving accountability of the security sector, and rebuilding trust.
From Kaduna and Borno States in the north to Lagos and Rivers States in the south, security concerns are a defining feature of Nigeria’s everyday life. The situation has deteriorated in recent years with security threats ranging from Boko Haram and Islamic State in West Africa attacks in the North East, to kidnapping for ransom and organized criminal looting in the North West, and secessionist agitation and piracy in the South South. Citizens increasingly report feeling less safe, which has affected travel and trade throughout the country. Complicating each of these security challenges are persistent issues of trust, especially concerns over corruption and abuses against civilians by security forces.
President Bola Ahmed Tinubu is Nigeria’s fifth president since its return to democratic rule in 1999. He is the first Nigerian president, however, coming into power with less than a majority of electoral support (and challenges to the election results continue to make their way through Nigeria’s judicial system). In this context, the Tinubu administration faces the additional task of earning the public’s trust.
Addressing Nigeria’s security threats is a stated top priority for the Tinubu administration, representing an invaluable opportunity afforded by the democratic turnover of power to reflect on and reassess a country’s policies and priorities. Democracy and its promise of tilling the national soil, moreover, does not end with election cycles. Rather, Nigerian citizens have agency to proffer ideas to those in power for how to make the nation safer. Making these views known will be key for enhancing citizen security and making measurable progress on promises to revamp the security sector.
In this spirit, the Africa Center for Strategic Studies spoke to six Nigeria security experts about their priorities for improving security under the Tinubu administration:
‘Kunle Adebajo, Investigations Editor and Reporter, HumAngle
Idayat Hassan, Director, Centre for Democracy and Development
Ndubuisi Nwokolo, Partner and Chief Executive, Nextier SPD
Matthew Page, Associate Fellow, Chatham House Africa Programme
Kemi Okenyodo, Founder and Executive Director, Partners West Africa
Major General (ret.) Shehu Yusuf, Nigerian Army
Priorities and Recommendations
Civilian Harm Reduction
Multiple experts emphasized that the new administration can most make an impact on citizen security and gain trust by designing policies to protect and empower Nigerians.
Target security surges for the most vulnerable spaces. By swiftly seeking to protect civilians at the highest risk of armed violence, the incoming Nigerian president can demonstrate a commitment to safeguarding citizens and effectively addressing the nation’s security challenges. This approach should seek to identify, intervene, and sustain a presence in hotspots that are regularly targeted by armed groups. This approach should include focus on frequently trafficked transportation routes and heavily populated zones. Attacks on areas such as these in the North West and North East have made travel to these regions highly unpredictable.
Targeted security surges would need to be based on accurate and timely intelligence to pinpoint high-risk areas and specific threats. Dr. Nwokolo highlights that the Nigerian military is currently deployed to 34 of the country’s 36 states, suggesting opportunities to find a more optimal distribution to combat the country’s most serious threats.
It is crucial to involve community leaders, civil society organizations, and other stakeholders in this strategy to deepen understanding of the unique dynamics and challenges in each overexposed area. Such collaboration, moreover, fosters trust, encourages information sharing, and strengthens the bonds between communities and security forces.
Emphasize troops on the ground rather than airstrikes. Militants and their hideouts are often well recognized in local communities, providing an opportunity for security force counteroffensives as they build trust and a presence in vulnerable spaces. In tandem with surging security forces in these spaces, the Tinubu administration should take advantage of opportunities provided by reliable intelligence to drive armed groups out of these areas through increased tactical operations.
This policy can reduce the pressure on beleaguered civilians after years of relative isolation and perceived security force passivity in protecting persistently vulnerable towns. This strategy should be paired with the elimination of airstrikes as a tool to combat internal threats. Another Nigeria security expert, Dr. Murtala Rufa’i, has criticized airstrikes in the North West as “often seeming to just target cattle herds, scaring and scattering them, which only further impoverishes herding communities.” Dr. Rufa’i has cautioned that “airstrikes are often futile and dangerous because bandits use rural villages as human shields, meaning it is difficult to isolate them as targets.”
Make amends for security sector violence against civilians. Matthew Page observes that it would be a principled and shrewd security investment for the Tinubu administration to “outline a process for judicial redress and compensation for civilians and communities impacted by military and police brutality and collateral damage.” A source of insecurity for many Nigerians (especially in its cities) and an obstacle to sustainable peacebuilding has been the security sector itself. ‘Kunle Adebajo points out that extortion, displacement, and violence at the hands of Nigeria’s police forces and military has helped drive grievances fueling many of the country’s crises and coordinated acts of violence. The unevenness of Nigeria’s current compensation policies was demonstrated in the aftermath of the #EndSARS protests, which paid out several hundred million Naira to victims of police brutality while continuing to arbitrarily detain and intimidate others.
Empower and supervise civilian defense groups. Recognizing the personnel and resource constraints faced by the Nigerian security sector, and subject to a review and right-sizing of its statutory forces, the Tinubu administration should examine avenues for equipping local communities to protect themselves. This policy would replicate the successes of the Borno State’s Civilian Joint Task Force and Ogun State’s SO-SAFE force for other areas facing mounting insecurity such as Kaduna State in the North West. These forces should train and follow a community policing model to place an emphasis on public safety and mitigating abuses against civilians. In order to sustainably protect civilians and not become another threat, it is imperative that any new taskforces have statutory regulation, clear oversight, and professional training.
Security Sector Reform
By embracing security sector reform, Nigeria can improve effectiveness while rebuilding trust in the country’s security institutions.
Align security sector resources with national security priorities. Nigeria faces the paradox of having one of the best funded security sectors in Africa yet one that has struggled to mobilize and dedicate the resources necessary to deliver sustainable results. Waste, corruption, and an alphabet soup of agencies and units (many of which are redundant and ineffective) create inefficiencies that dilute the security machinery. Fixing this perennial challenge will require a thorough review of security sector resources and their allocations. As Matthew Page notes, this process could involve “upping legislative oversight [of the security sector], restoring normal procurement practices, right-sizing force structure and senior officer corps, and reducing interagency competition and resource wastage by consolidating security agencies.” An immediate way to free up resources identified by several experts is to stop using police officers as a private protection force for Nigerian elites and refocus police missions on the welfare of Nigeria’s public.
Ban the use of “security votes.” Matthew Page proposes the Tinubu administration immediately ban the use of security votes to more effectively manage available security resources. Security votes are a monthly allowance opaquely allocated by the National Assembly to state governors to combat insecurity. States with greater levels of insecurity receive larger pots of money. Actual expenditures of these funds have no oversight, and the cash infusions are often used as slush funds by party leaders to sustain patronage networks. Tying these allotments to levels of insecurity has also disincentivized effectively addressing insecurity as Nigeria’s anticorruption watchdogs have warned. Security votes are part of a leftover legacy from decades of military dictatorships and the corrupt networks they fueled.
Implement real police reform. Initiatives to effectively reform Nigeria’s police forces have repeatedly stalled despite a number of presidential and state panels, reports, and recommendations over the years. The most recent and well-publicized iteration of this cycle was the equivocated outcome of the country’s violently suppressed #EndSARS protests against police brutality. Kemi Okenyodo notes that most of the recommendations to come out of the aftermath of the #EndSARS movement have fizzled due to a lack of political will. While the notorious SARS unit has been disbanded, many of its worst offenders are still patrolling the streets. Police reform remains a high priority for many Nigerians—and therefore an opportunity for the Tinubu administration to demonstrate that it will not be business as usual with regard to police oversight.
Recruit and promote security sector personnel on merit. Recruiting and promoting security personnel based on merit will bolster professionalism and efficiency, creating a more capable and dedicated force. Kemi Okenyodo highlighted the benefits to effectiveness from “improved recruitment, professionalization, and accountability mechanisms through merit-based appointment, promotion, and removal processes, as well as improving the working conditions of the police through better pay and benefits.” Matthew Page notes the meager tooth-to-tail ratio of the country’s military and police and the top-heavy and inefficient force structure this has created.
Appoint civilian leaders to security agencies. Appointing civilian experts to leadership positions in the security sector would enable innovation and a more holistic approach to strengthening Nigeria’s security. As Ndubuisi Nwokolo explains, “let [these kinds of appointments] be an academic, somebody who can bring fresh thinking to our security system, because the issue is that too often, we are thinking of security as guns and ammunition. What about issues of human security? We are lacking attention to non-kinetic security and policing. … It’s a small change that could have outsized impact.”
Strategize to overcome structural barriers. Implementing tangible security sector reform will require recognizing the political and bureaucratic barriers and charting a policy path to overcome them. Major General Yusuf is frank about this reality: “roadblocks to reform will arise from those benefiting from the current arrangement.” Matthew Page concurs, adding that change will require “sustained, high-level political will and a president capable of planning and seeing through a program of security sector reform designed to overcome resistance from security sector and political leaders who benefit from the status quo.” One way to attack this problem head-on, Page suggests, would be to amend “the Armed Forces Act to empower Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offenses Commission (ICPC) [both of which have scored notable convictions in the realm of political corruption in recent years] to investigate and prosecute military personnel for corruption.”
Given that Nigeria’s most significant security threats are internal, citizen cooperation is essential to identifying violent actors and navigating responses that will be sustainably supported by local communities. Building trust with citizens, accordingly, must be a top and ongoing priority of the Tinubu administration’s national security strategy.
“The process of developing a national security strategy presents an opportunity to create a shared national vision.”
Adopt an integrated national security strategy. Given the range of security threats facing Nigeria, developing an integrated national security strategy with an innovative set of solutions adapted to each of Nigeria’s security threats can provide a systematic framework for establishing citizen-centric goals and implementing this endeavor. The process of developing a national security strategy also presents an opportunity to create a shared national vision for what an effective security strategy for Nigeria looks like. Seeking and integrating inputs from a wide range of stakeholders throughout society will help build collective buy-in both for the goals of the strategy and for seeing its implementation realized.
Deploy sustainable peacebuilding tools. While some of Nigeria’s security threats require a security sector response, others have the potential to be resolved through non-kinetic avenues such as dialogue and long-term economic development programs. This approach will offer higher dividends in addressing intercommunal tensions rooted in frictions over resources and perceived injustices.
‘Kunle Adebajo argues that the Tinubu administration needs to show a willingness to use dialogue to address insecurity. Idayat Hassan urges “a shift in mindset from symptom to cause and an immediate investment in peacebuilding initiatives along [ethnic and religious] fault lines … to address the underlying drivers of insecurity.” She notes that “peacebuilding interventions are urgently needed in most if not all geopolitical zones to improve community cohesion in conflict-affected areas … and to restore a degree of trust between communities.” Matthew Page recommends that the Tinubu administration “set up an office for Community Conflict Resolution within the Presidency to coordinate high-level political support for locally led conflict resolution, dispute resolution, transitional justice, and peace promotion activities.”
Elevate strategic communications. Because mitigating Nigeria’s security challenges depends so critically on citizen cooperation, a premium must be placed on clearly communicating with citizens on the government’s security policies. This not only will provide clarity and understanding of the government’s objectives but also will help create buy-in among the public. By actively engaging with citizens through regular public addresses, town hall meetings, and social media platforms, the administration can foster an environment of open dialogue, allowing for feedback, concerns, and suggestions from the public. Moreover, as ‘Kunle Adebajo has underscored in his award winning factchecking work, strategic communication can help dispel mis- and disinformation, counter extremist narratives, and promote unity and national cohesion.
Invest in improved early warning systems. Further developing an early warning system for monitoring Nigeria’s security landscapes with ECOWAS and other partners is not only crucial for effective security management but also plays a pivotal role in building trust with Nigerian citizens. By keeping the public informed and enabling rapid responses to emerging threats, the government can demonstrate its commitment to the safety and well-being of its people.
A reliable early warning system provides timely and accurate information about potential security risks, allowing citizens to make informed decisions and take necessary precautions. This proactive approach fosters a sense of trust and confidence in the government’s ability to protect its citizens. Building an inclusive early warning system that engages local communities and encourages citizen participation will enhance the accuracy and effectiveness of the system as well as empower individuals to actively contribute to their own security.