There is something inherently unsettling about the 12 to 18 months preceding an election year, particularly when a sitting president is seeking re-election. It is a period of sure governance missteps. It is the period when even the strongest leaders slacken their political will, and allow politics rather than governance dominate their decision-making.
It is the period when elective office holders — not just presidents — are desperate for campaign funds. Usually, executive office holders look no further than security; it’s a trick from the old book. With security, there is no explaining to do. There is a ready escape route because spending on security, being sensitive, are shrouded in secrecy.
Goodluck Jonathan did it before. In July 2014, a little under a year to the 2015 presidential election, he asked the National Assembly for approval to borrow $1billion for the “upgrade of security equipment and training and logistics of the military and other security officers.” To his credit, Jonathan, after securing the loan, trained, in Belarus, more than 700 soldiers dubbed the Armed Forces Special Force (AFSF) — a well-drilled group reputed to instill fear into the most rugged of insurgents. At the point of travel, they were paid $7,700, which was 30% of their Duty Travel Allowance (DTA). But till date, since returning to the country in December 2015, the outstanding 70% has not been paid.
Until his death in December 2016, Lieutenant-Colonel Muhammed Abu Ali was leading the Army’s takeover of lost territory with the T-72, a Soviet-made second-generation main battle tank that entered production in 1971. There have been at least three upgrades to the tank, the most popular being in 1988 and 1995, but they cannot be found anywhere in the northeast or the rest of Nigeria.
Jonathan himself would be shocked if he knew the number of soldiers who died in Borno from stepping on land mines. In this age, no soldier should be killed by mines. A simple mine sweeper is all that is needed. Sweepers detect mines from as far as 25metres away, and detonate them well ahead of advancing troops. Some climb on the mines and detonate them without consequences, the sweepers being very heavy. However, soldiers have always been left with a metal detector, the type available at fast-food joints and hotel entrances.
Even the basic needs of soldiers were not met. The Army found it extremely difficult to supply water, for example, to soldiers in the trenches. Once a group of soldiers waiting to advance to the enemy’s territory asked the Army for water; and when it got an aerial delivery of weapons instead of bottled water, it refused to move. A soldier once told of how in Damasak, Gubio area, of Borno State, dehydrated soldiers urinated into their bottles and drank the contents to keep themselves alive. It also happened in Kareto, in April 2016.
These are the memories from Jonathan’s $1bn Boko Haram project, and they are enough to trigger concerns about last week’s approval of state governors for President Muhammadu Buhari to withdraw $1bn from the Excess Crude Account (ECA) to fight the insurgents. The similarity of both circumstances is worrisome. Jonathan’s came eight months before the election, Buhari’s comes 14 months before. With intense election campaigns kicking off in a few months, there are no guarantees for judicious utilization of the funds. Interestingly, when Jonathan made the move in 20014, APC kicked, saying he sought the money “to buy the election and pay for the intimidation of the opposition and electorate” and ultimately “to build a casket for democracy”. Therefore, the APC cannot expect its own government’s move to be perceived in different light.
The source of the funding is another concern, a further indictment of the country’s already-poor savings culture. Before last week’s withdrawal, ECA had a balance of $2.3bn. In the 0.5% Stabilisation Fund was a paltry $29m. And in the Sovereign Wealth Fund (SWF) was another paltry $1.5bn. That is a combined savings of $3.9bn, put away from approximately $1.09 trillion earned from 35 years of crude-oil exportation between 1980 and 2015. The mathematics of it all is that we’ve only ever saved 0.4% of all we earned from oil in 35 years. This means that were all of the country’s crude oil savings be evenly distributed to Nigerians, everyone would get $8 — some N2,888 at the black market.
Despite promising us change, Buhari joins all his predecessors in forgetting that oil is a finite resource, that our buyers are either discovering oil themselves or finding alternatives to the resource, and that our oil reserves have the shortest lifespan of any OPEC nation. By 2051 when our oil reserves are projected to have been depleted, our empty savings will come back to haunt us.
It would be forgivable if the latest ECA depletion would boost the war against insurgency in the same proportion as the amount involved. But to nurse that expectation is to overlook the scale of corruption in the Army. A very simple procedure as paying the operational allowance of soldiers has been abused for years, and continues to thrive under Buhari’s watch. Only last month, a soldier wrote an open letter to the President on “corruption in the Army” and its role in the “needless death of soldiers”. How is it possible that the Army that cannot spare soldiers’ allowances will handle billions of naira without siphoning some?
Finally, the $1bn counter-insurgency project is a contravention of repeated claims by this government that Boko Haram has been “technically degraded” or “really defeated”. Just last month, Buhari — speaking through Lai Mohammed, Minister of Information and Culture — said Boko Haram had been “massively degraded” and its surviving members “put on the run”. “What we are witnessing now are the last kicks of a dying horse,” he added.
Not exactly, Mr. Minister. What we are witnessing now is an enforced revelation of the real truth. It is either Boko Haram was never degraded, or the ECA deduction was never needed. Whichever it is, we will know in the fullness of time.
Soyombo, Editor of the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR), tweets @fisayosoyombo