The golden age of the Nigerian military was the period just after the civil war down to the late 80’s. While the Nigerian army’s military intervention in Liberia and Sierra-Leone was commendable, the army was basically living off investments made in the armed force in the 80s. As those investments reached the end of their service lives it was becoming apparent that the Nigeria military was fast becoming irrelevant in the fast changing world of military power.
The early 2000’s was a golden opportunity for Nigeria to rebuild its armed forces as was expected. But the new civilian government, distrustful of the Nigerian military and to mitigate against potential coup plots did the opposite. They crippled and defanged the nation’s armed forces.
In the space of two years Nigeria had lost seventy percent of its military capability. Operations against Niger Delta militants exposed a few cracks in the armed forces , but it wasnt until the security situation in Mali that Nigerians witnessed for the first time the sorry state of the Nigerian armed forces.
When tuareg rebels took control of half of Mali, Nigeria, the giant of West Africa was naturally expected to play an outsized role in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) force to intervene in Mali, as it had done in Liberia. As it had done in Sierra-leone. As it had done in Guinea Bissau.
Nigeria’s military leadership was in demand. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) had approved a plan to send 3,300 troops to northern Mali to liberate it from radical Islamists. Many watched in disbelief when it became apparent Nigeria did not have the strength to lead the troops into Mali.
Nigeria’s military was overstretched. There are troops on active duty in thirty-three of the thirty-six Nigerian states and the army, in effect, has the lead in responding to the Boko Haram insurgency in the north. A decade of “DIVESTMENT” had left the Nigeria military barely able to carry out even the most basic of foreign missions, a major disconnect between the reality of life in Nigeria and how the country presents itself.
It was a watershed moment for Nigerian government because it knew that it has reached the limits of what is possibl. This is tragic because it was Nigeria that pushed through the formation of ECOWAS in 1975, against opposition from France. Nigeria established the ECOWAS headquarters in its capital Abuja. In a display of strength in the 1990s, Nigeria led the first ever military ECOWAS mission. It was to war-torn Libera.
With a population of 200 million, Nigeria is the regional hegemon. It has a bigger population than all the other 14 ECOWAS member states put together. Its economy is also stronger than the economies of all the other states combined. Nigeria finances two thirds of the ECOWAS budget accordingly. But domestic securtiy problems weakened Nigeria’s lead position within ECOWAS. That security vacum France was all too happy to fill.
Years of diverstment have hollowed out what was once one of the most powerful military in Africa. Perhaps the most affected is the Air Force, the underbelly of the Nigerian armed forces.
How did the government screw the NAF so badly? Boko Haram carry out attacks with impunity in the northeast and Nigerian warplanes have put up only modest resistance. The vast majority of casualties recorded by the army could have been avoided if ground troops had air cover.
We need to be realistic with ourselves about the lack of strategic thinking and planning over the past 11 years. Consider that after significant air campaigns against Boko Haram for over a decade the jihadi group still survives without an air force or air defense system.
It didn’t have to be this way.
Prior to 1991 Nigeria flew one of the largest and most modern air forces in Africa. It had performed well during the Chadian invasion and was generally capable of undertaking all of the basic tasks that we expect air forces to perform. The air force consisted primarily of Russian made MiG-21 Fishbeds, but also included a selection of British fighters such as the Sepecat Jaguars and European trainers, including the Alpha Jets and Aero L-29 albatros.
Nigeria is by no means a poor country, and it lives in a dangerous neighborhood. Nigeria badly needs modern military aviation. It can afford to buy and maintain advanced aircraft and it’s had a modern air force in the past. As the wealthiest black nation there’s no reason that Nigeria should have gone for 11 years without usable, sophisticated military aviation.
The fault for this failure lies almost entirely with the greed, corruption and a lack of empathy for the common man of successive administrations. Attempts by the NAF to rebuild its capabilities focused overwhelmingly on capabilities that could directly support guerrilla warfare. They are just two few in numbers to make strategic sense.
Nigeria did order 12 brand new MI-35M helicopter gunships and three JF-17 Multitole fighters in 2015, and 12 Super Tucano aircraft in 2018. But the first of those (four Mi-35M helicopter) arrived Nigeria in 2018 and Super Tucanos might be delivered in 2022, too late to meaningful contribute in the country’s defense. They couldn’t make up for fundamental problems in Nigeria’s approach to re-establishing Nigerian air power.
Adopting this “buy it when you need it” mentality means too few aircrafts are procured. Buying them in trickles leave a large gap in Nigeria’s ability to defend its airspace and support its ground forces from the air. In the most optimistic of scenarios, Nigeria will not have the capability to provide modest defence of its air space and ground troops until potentially 2022, an estimate which remains depressingly on the mark.
In addition, three JF -17s and twelve Super Tucanos does not constitute a large enough fleet to justify the $650 million spent aquiring them. Also the NAF recent obsession with creating its own army is not only pointless (given the size of the NAF fleet), it take assets and attention away from the more critical project of rebuilding its ageing and obsolete airframe.
There are defence pundits and enthusiasts, who subscribe to the NAF refusal to invest in advanced 4th generation aircrafts and surface to air misile defence batteries. To them it amounts merely to prestige weapons, great for airshows and posturing but useless in the kinds of war Nigeria is actually fighting.
But this reasoning only justifies the ” buy it when you need it” mentality of the nations armed forces that led to the mess Nigeria is mired in today. Nigeria is surrounded by potential enemies with high-performance warplanes of their own and strategic defense treaties to top it all.
And militant groups like Boko Haram are increasingly becoming heavily armed with anti-aircraft missiles and wholly capable of destroying the helicopters and light trainer aircraft’s that, at present, constitute ninety percent of the Nigerian strike fleet.
Since 1986 Nigeria has operated no fixed-wing twin engine 4th generation high performance jet. Pending the service entry of three JF-17 fighter jet. So we see that the reconstruction of the NAF has amounted to helicopters and trainer aircrafts converted to attack tasks. These craft have helped, albeit at great cost to the poor unfortunate pilots. But they don’t have the same capabilities as dedicated fighter and attack aircraft.
Yes while it is true that full air attack capacity alone won’t win the war, it will however give the government an advantage over the rebels potentially enough of one to rally Nigerian ground troops to fend off an attack or take back lost territory.
Nigeria has options for advanced weaponry beyond the West. If Nigeria can’t acquire 4th generation jets in a timely fashion, it can upgrade and double the size of its JF-17 and attack drone fleet from China.
It’s true that air power can neither win the war against Boko Haram on its own nor resolve the basic political conflicts that wrack Nigerian society. But Boko Haram has seized power through what amounts to a conventional military offensive. Effective air power can do something about that, at least.
No country can thrive and improved the lives of its citizens in a volatile and unstable society. Economic progress and industrialization can mitigate against extremist tendencies. A Government that can’t protect its citizens from non-state actors and which lack the physical authority to carry out basic governance functions across their territory cannot be expected to achieve an economic progress.
You cannot isolate economic progress from a strong national defence. In 2010 Nigeria had one of the fastest growing economy in the world. By 2011 Nigerians were the worlds happiest people. But of what use is having a strong economy if you have no means of defending it.
In an eight year span Nigeria went from the fastest growing economy and fastest rising middle class to become the poverty capital of the world. From happiest to most terrorised people. All because the Nigerian military was too weak to carry out its constitutional mandate of defending the territorial integrity of the nation.
But even at that eight years is more than enough time for Nigeria to reverse this decline and rebuild the Nigerian military, once the pride of West Africa. But for some bizzare reasons the Nigerian military has been allowed to atrophy to unprecedented levels.
Today many low grade neighbours lacking the resources Nigeria enjoys will hold Nigeria to a standstill or defeat Nigeria in a war, and this is not hyperbole. Boko Harams longevity bears testament to this fact.
How do you defend an area of 923,768 km with 150,000 men, 10 Alpha jets, four F-7N interceptors, no air defence system, no missile armed warship, no submarine, no integrated air defense batteries to protect strategic infrastructures like oil storage facilities, power stations or even government buildings, no ground base radar monitoring stations to detect intruding aircrafts. Nothing.
Nigeria has been blessed with the opportunity to become a power unlike any other in Africa. It is the most populous and most resource rich nation with the continents largest economy and most educated and enterprising populace, and bordered by relatively smaller and weaker countries, countries lacking the means to challenge Nigeria in any capacity.
But because of greed, corruption and senseless inter-ethnic rivalry that results in northern Nigeria basically seizing political power as its birth right, Nigeria has failed to live up to her expectation. The Boko Haram war has arguably become a money making enterprise for some, with billions of dollars for the military finding their way into the pockets of the microscopic few, leaving soldiers in their trenches with substandard weapons and support.
The microscopic few that have piloted the affairs of this nation have run Nigeria to the ground and destroyed the fabric of this nation as the income and developmental gap widens.
Nigeria as a United Federation is on life support. The rural underdeveloped north and the largely developed south are like two different countries. The values and thinking today beetween north and south are pola opposite. Fifty years from now this country may be two separate nations. It’s heart breaking.