Fola Aina is a doctoral fellow at King’s College London. He is an international security analyst with expertise on peace and security in the Lake Chad Basin and the Sahel.
Nigeria’s northern regions continue to struggle with insecurity, claiming the lives of tens of thousands and displacing millions due to armed banditry and Boko Haram. Significant battlefield defeats led the military to resort to a strategy of establishing super camps to prevent terrorists and armed bandits from overrunning areas of relative peace. However, as that approach has largely failed, President Muhammadu Buhari decided to heed months of repeated calls for change among the military’s top brass when he appointed new service chiefs in late January. The new service chiefs should, as a matter of operational urgency, begin to work closely towards prioritizing the establishment of Nigeria’s first—and long overdue—Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC).
Countries located in or near the Lake Chad Basin and Sahel regions lack any JSOC-like structures, despite facing increasingly complex threats from violent extremist organizations. Nigeria, should it establish and successfully operationalize a JSOC, would be a trend-setter. As it is, the Nigerian military is overstretched across multiple fronts—onshore and offshore. Worsening matters, Kabir Adamu, a Nigeria-based security analyst, diagnoses Nigeria’s security architecture as lacking an “element of coordination” and any “mechanisms for monitoring and evaluation that would allow anyone to understand what they are doing.”
A focused and dedicated command that draws on the expertise of elite Special Operations Forces (SOFs), such as the navy’s Special Boat Service, would improve execution of ongoing military operations against violent extremism while enabling better-coordinated strategic planning. Up to now, the government, rather than address the lack of coordination directly, has stuck mostly to replacing service chiefs and increasing manpower in regions blighted by insecurity—the number of which is growing. An advantage of creating a JSOC is that it would unify the chain of command; at present, Nigeria suffers from an overreliance of tactical direction from the command-and-control structure in Abuja. Bringing together the expertise of elite SOFs across the various arms of Nigeria’s military—including the army, air force, and navy—under a JSOC would encourage data-sharing, the lack of which has been a consequential shortcoming in the war against Boko Haram. A case in point is the 2011 attack on the UN office in Abuja, which the military failed to prevent despite receiving intelligence on the plot nine days before its execution.
The appointment in late February of a new deputy chief of counter-insurgency command demonstrates a recognition of the need for greater synergy between Nigeria’s different chains of command, particularly the air force and the army. But the February appointment does not go far enough, as it does not formalize strategic cooperation between all branches of the armed forces in the way a JSOC would. A well-implemented JSOC would also enhance the Nigerian military’s ability to collect, share, and act upon various forms of intelligence—such as human intelligence (HUMINT), signals intelligence (SIGINT), and communications intelligence (COMINT)—thus enabling rapid response to asymmetric threats, as was the case when the army foiled an attempted abduction in Kaduna State earlier this month. National Security Adviser Babagana Monguno has said the government’s intelligence agencies are attuned to individuals involved in kidnappings, but the increasing frequency of mass abductions suggests that not enough is being done to act on available intelligence.
Significant to note is that, for the JSOC to be fully effective, SOFs would need to be equipped with state-of-the-art technology, such as night vision goggles and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The government could invest more in research and development through the Defence Industries Corporation of Nigeria to encourage domestic production. However, given that it would likely take a decade or more to produce high-grade military hardware, Nigeria in the meantime will continue to rely on foreign suppliers. The purchase of a dozen A-29 Super Tucanos, approved by the U.S. State Department in 2017 despite human rights concerns, will improve the air force’s ability to provide close air support. The aircraft’s state-of-the-art capabilities—the Super Tucano boasts advanced optics and secure radio systems with data links—also make it well-suited to intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions. Similarly, the Chinese government has supplied the Nigerian military with VT-4 main battle tanks, SH-5 self-propelled howitzers, and eight new UAVs which can be armed with laser-guided bombs and missiles.
Successfully curbing insecurity in Nigeria’s northern regions will require winning a military-focused “hard war” alongside a “soft war” of winning hearts and minds—which itself should be pursued with greater emphasis if there is to be progress in ending the Boko Haram-driven insurgency. Nevertheless, with respect to the “hard war,” Nigeria should establish a JSOC as part of a more effective military strategy. Additional troop deployments and reorganizations of service chiefs are not enough.