Nigeria is set to pass a record-breaking federal budget. After months of political wrangling, several governmental departments are in line to receive hundreds of millions of dollars from state coffers. Among the biggest beneficiaries is the country’s Ministry of Defense, which will receive around $440 million in capital expenditure alone.
But for Nigerians in the country’s troubled northeast, the planned cash injection isn’t necessarily good news. For years, the federal government has been amping up defense spending, hoping to stamp out Boko Haram, a militant group that has waged an armed insurgency in Nigeria since 2009.
Though the group has been degraded, it is far from defeated. On Tuesday, three of its female suicide bombers blew themselves up in northeast Borno state, killing five people. Their deaths add to the group’s increasing death toll, now at around 20,000 victims. (The militants have displaced a further 2 million people.)
In 2015 Hassan Baage, a deputy director for the U.N. Counter-Terrorism Committee, estimated the group’s annual budget to be around $10 million. By comparison, the Nigerian military probably wouldn’t notice if $10 million went missing.
That, says the anti-corruption organization Transparency International, is the problem. In a report published Thursday, Transparency International found that “corrupt elites” had profited off Nigeria’s expanding defense sector, stealing billions of dollars through inflated or fake military contracts. The money, the organization said, is then laundered out of the country and “often hidden in property in the U.K., United States, South Africa and Dubai.”
As money pours out of Nigeria, the country’s soldiers are placed in greater danger. Robbed of money that should have been spent on arming them, soldiers report facing Boko Haram militants armed only with AK-47s. (A 2012 U.N. report listed Boko Haram’s arsenal as including: “rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns with anti-aircraft visors, automatic rifles, grenades, and explosives.”)
In January, the Nigerian newspaper Premium Times reported that senior military officials were investigating Lt Col T.J. Abdallah after he criticized them on a Whatsapp messaging group. Describing them as “Nollywood actors” (Nigeria’s version of Hollywood), Abdallah said they had failed to provide his men with the weapons and equipment needed to fight Boko Haram.
Defense corruption is a problem Nigeria has long endured. In 2016 Vice President Yemi Osinbajo said that $15 billion had been embezzled from state coffers through fraudulent arms deals under former President Goodluck Jonathan. This, Osinbajo said, equated to more than half of Nigeria’s total foreign currency reserves.
The vice president’s findings were part of a wider anti-corruption war President Muhammadu Buhari began when he took office in 2015. Speaking about the corrupt deals, Osinbajo said “it is important to send a message that no public officer can steal the resources of this country and expect to escape.”
Despite the strong words, testimony from people like Abdallah suggests that corruption is still happening inside the Nigerian military. A major reason for this, according to Transparency International, is the secrecy surrounding defense budgets.
“In any country, a proportion of spending must remain confidential for security reasons; typically 15 per cent, including among states in conflict,” the organization’s report says. “Yet Nigeria classifies nearly all defense contracts and budgets and considers any broadly-defined security-related matter ‘secret’ by definition.”
Part of this secrecy is a hangover from when Nigeria was under military rule. From 1983 to 1999, a powerful regime governed the country, preventing civilian oversight of the armed forces.
Part of it, however, is because the military is under no pressure to declassify some of its spending. International allies continue to give money to Nigeria, despite a lack of transparency about what it’s spent on.
In February, a U.K. parliamentary briefing paper on Nigeria offered a scathing assessment about the U.K.’s contributions to the country. “In May 2016, not long after the former Prime Minister David Cameron had described the country as ‘fantastically corrupt,’ the British government said it was giving Nigeria £40 million [$52 million] over the next four years to help in the fight against Boko Haram,” the report said.
Whether this money was misappropriated is unclear. Buhari will be hoping it wasn’t, but despite his best efforts, it appears that defense spending is still slipping out of the military’s control—and into the pockets of corrupt elites. With soldiers lacking vital funds, Nigerians in the northeast may have to wait a while longer for the defeat of Boko Haram