On 26 January, President Muhammadu Buhari replaced the four service chiefs in the first reshuffle of the military top brass since taking office in 2015. Given the persistently deteriorating security situation, the move could have been made long ago; however, a particular string of bad news in recent weeks, coupled with the realization that certain tainted personnel may become an obstacle to improving security cooperation with the new US administration, may have provided the final trigger.
While the Boko Haram insurgency in the north-east had begun to deteriorate once more shortly after Buhari took office, the president until recently took the view that the group had been ‘technically defeated’ (an infamous phrase he coined at the end of 2015). A gruesome massacre near the Borno state capital in November, as well as the abduction of some 300 pupils from Buhari’s Katsina state in December 2020 for which Boko Haram claimed responsibility, may have altered that perception, while the army’s failure to quell the uprising – which remains largely confined to Borno state – should have been apparent long ago. Meanwhile, kidnappings, banditry and armed assaults along major highways are on the rise nationwide, and violent clashes between nomadic cattle herders from Buhari’s Hausa-Fulani ethnic group and local farmers in southern Nigeria have escalated. The navy, for its part, has proved unable to stem a rise in piracy. According to the International Maritime Bureau, 130 sailors were kidnapped in the Gulf of Guinea in 2020, compared with five all over the world.
Apart from the service chiefs’ indisputably poor record, the timing of their dismissal may also signal Abuja’s desire to restart security cooperation with the new US administration with a clean sheet. In fact, while Donald Trump in 2018 had overturned an arms embargo imposed by his predecessor Barack Obama over human rights violations committed by Nigerian security forces, President Joe Biden is likely to return to the US administration’s previous stance. In that sense, particularly the removal of Chief of Army Staff General Tukur Buratai, who has been directly implicated in a 2015 massacre in which more than 300 members of a Shia sect were killed by Nigerian forces, may be regarded as a preemptive measure to enable smooth security cooperation with the US going forward.