On 27 April, President Muhammadu Buhari made a thinly veiled plea to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to relocate the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) from Germany to Nigeria. Regardless of the offer’s actual attractiveness from a US point of view, Buhari’s unexpected reversal of Abuja’s fundamental aversion to the presence of allied militaries on its soil highlights the extent and urgency of multiple domestic and regional security crises.
The virtual meeting between Blinken, Buhari and Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama took place as part of Blinken’s first official engagement with individual African governments, for which Nigeria and Kenya were selected. While Blinken’s intervention appeared to focus on joint efforts in tackling Covid-19 and climate change, Buhari’s statement seemed to emphasize security cooperation. Buhari highlighted domestic and “growing security challenges in West and Central Africa, the Gulf of Guinea, Lake Chad region, and the Sahel”, and noted that the importance of US support “cannot be overstated.” Furthermore, he underscored “the need for the United States to consider relocating AFRICOM headquarters from Stuttgart in Germany to Africa, and near the theater of operations.”
Buhari’s statement is a stunning reversal of Abuja’s longstanding objection to the presence of allied militaries in Nigeria, and AFRICOM in particular. In 2009, then-president Umaru Yar’Adua (2007-2010) categorically refused to host AFRICOM after it was established in 2008, and called for the command to be disbanded. Upon taking power in 2015, Buhari – a retired general – quickly ended the deployment of South African mercenaries brought in by his predecessor Goodluck Jonathan (2010-2015) to drive back Boko Haram in the country’s northeast, a task they had delivered on quite successfully. The subsequent deployment of a 8,700-strong regional Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) with Niger, Cameroon, Chad and Benin was much delayed and hampered by, among other things, Abuja’s hesitance to grant foreign militaries the right to cross into Nigerian territory in pursuit of Boko Haram militants.
Against this background, Buhari’s plea should be read as a cry for help amid an ever-deteriorating domestic and regional security landscape. In fact, Nigeria is witnessing a slow, yet persistent, breakdown of law and order nationwide; a process which has accelerated in recent years in the context of two economic recessions. In the northeast, Boko Haram attacks have been on the rise over the past three years. On Sunday, more than 30 soldiers died in a militant attack, and this week, the governor of Niger State suggested Boko Haram has set up a forward base in central Nigeria. Meanwhile, a low-level insurgency waged by the armed wing of secessionist group Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) in the southeast appears to encroach upon oil-producing states further south. In the northwest, since December 2020, more than 700 school children have been kidnapped by armed bandits that have been terrorizing local communities for much longer. In the wider region, the death of Chad’s President Idriss Deby (1990-2021) spells trouble for international efforts to turn the tide on the rise of militant jihadist groups operating mainly in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger.