Rarely has President Muhammadu Buhari been so quick to explain the impact of a geopolitical shift on Nigeria to the international press. That he chose to release an op-ed, written by his top foreign policy advisers, to the Financial Times just hours after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban on 15 August shows the resonance of this development to the government in Abuja.
There are plenty of implications for Abuja but few direct lessons from the US withdrawal after Washington had spent over US$1,000 billion on military aid with a client regime in 20 years. The figures for all Western spending in West Africa – military or ostensibly developmental – are tiny in comparison.
Nigeria’s military is far more nationalistic than Afghanistan’s: it wants weapons, drones, and access to intelligence and satellite surveillance, but not thousands of foreign boots on the ground. That is convenient for all sides as no such boots are on offer.
In west Africa, France is playing the US role but writ very small. At its peak, Opération Barkhane drew in 5,500 French troops and logistical backup after it was launched in 2013. It succeeded and then has won sporadic victories against the jihadists, thanks in great part to the toughness and experience of Chad’s special forces.
French officials — already seeing domestic and west African political support for their mission evaporate — are studying the US–Afghan débâcle closely. Although the Sahelian states enjoy marginally more legitimacy and are more resilient than ousted President Ashraf Ghani’s regime, that could erode fast. All the Sahelian governments struggle to provide public services, security, and economic support.
[For detailed analysis of the implications of the Taliban’s victory for the Sahel please see the August issue of Menas sister publication Sahara Focus.]
Buhari’s reading of Afghanistan’s aftermath was clearly argued and mainly targeted at the US administration which is currently holding up consignments of military helicopters and other equipment to Nigeria. He warned that Africa is the new frontline of global militancy: ‘We Africans face our day of reckoning just as in some sense the West is losing its will for the fight.’
Buhari did not bother to make the case for US boots on the ground: ‘Africa has enough soldiers of our own.’ He is still taking flak for a clumsy conversation with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in which he suggested that Washington should relocate its Africa Command to the continent from its base in Stuttgart.
Instead he asks the US for technical assistance, advanced weaponry, intelligence, and ordinance. This fits with wider military trends, moving away from big military deployments to more networked and expeditionary operations, according to Nigeria’s national security adviser, Major General Babagana Monguno. Using this equipment and tactics, special operations brigades are more quickly sent in, and can be digitally connected with soldiers linked to satellite feeds. That gives them a capacity for night operations the insurgents lack.
Buhari’s other big ask is for investment in infrastructure, transport, and freight lines. He argues that better linking regional centres for trade will boost economies and undercut the insurgency.
Experts on regional insurgencies agree that affiliates of Islamic State (IS) and its rivals in al-Qa’ida have transferred much of their operations from the Middle East to the Sahel and, to a lesser extent Libya and the Lake Chad basin. (See Sahara Focus blog for more on the difference between the two groups in the Sahel)
The al-Qaida and IS franchises in the Sahel are building up their revenue base by taxing artisanal miners in Burkina Faso and Mali. Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) is replicating this process in Nigeria’s Northeast and Northwest which explains some of the extreme violence in Zamfara State where there is heavy competition for mining revenues.
Beyond the material implications of the Taliban takeover are several less tangible results. Security experts agree that the most obvious will be a huge morale boost for jihadist forces everywhere. With a far more media-savvy Taliban, following extensive tutoring in Qatar, the Islamist and Salafist messages will spread via an incumbent although embattled regime.
Far less knowable are the geopolitical implications. For now, it’s hard to gauge how much the return of the Taliban damages the US and supports China, Pakistan, and Russia. At its recent pan-Africa co-operation forum, China argued that Afghanistan had vindicated its stated non-intervention policy, but few African officials really buy that. China’s strength for Africa will continue to be its market and financial muscle, neither of which the US has managed to rival in recent years. And Russia will be emboldened to increase its marketing of mercenary and arms supply operations.
This has already triggered another message from Nigeria, which this month signed a military co-operation agreement with Moscow that includes the supply of weapons and training of troops. Nigeria has long used Russian military equipment and aircraft alongside Western kit. The message this month was that it’s prepared to buy a lot more.
This is condensed version of the full article in the August 2021 issue of Nigeria Focus which also includes the following:
What Abuja sees in the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul
- Output and price boost
- Buhari signs PIB into law
- Shell heading for asset sales
- Force majeure and court actions
- Appealing Milan ruling
- Opposition to the PIA
- NDDC forensic audit
- Wike challenges federal tax powers
Politics & Society
- Security and economic crises bite
- COVID news
- PDP faces chaos
- Attacking the APC
- Nigerian commander for MNJTF
Economy & Finance
- Abuja disputes mounting indebtedness
- Federal revenues miss targets
- Boosting domestic revenues
- Buhari signs supplementary budget
- Inflation picture
- Forex policy
- Chronically low investment