The Economist, Nigerian military and counter insurgency

‘Text’ does not simply mean ‘paper with writing on it’, but an encoded production. -S. Sim & B. Von Loon

The Economist of London, is no doubt, one of the world’s leading magazines, that is in a world of its own. If it were in the literary space, it would have been one of the canons of literary works.

Founded in 1843 by a British businessman and banker, James Wilson, The Economist is not just one of the most influential; but also, one of the most authoritative magazines in the world.

In its 178 years of existence, it has continued to lead as a global media brand, with “core editorial office in the United States, as well as across major cities in Europe, Asia and Middle East (except Africa)”.

From its core mandate of “mustering support for abolishing the British Corn Laws (1815-1846), a system of import tariffs”, The Economist has broadened its coverage into “politics, economy, opinion columns, special reports, political cartoons, readers’ letters, cover stories, art critique, book reviews and technology features.”

Perhaps, the only magazine that calls itself a newspaper, one of the house styles that stands The Economist out, is its editorial anonymity. In almost two centuries of its existence, the influence and reach of the global newspaper has continued to grow and as at 2019, “its average global print circulation was over 909, 476, over 1.6million digital presence, and 35 million reach to audiences on social media platforms.” It is impossible for any student of journalism or public relations and indeed a practicing journalist not to have encountered The Economist.

Coming from a magazine tradition myself, The Economist was one of the weekly magazines in The Market magazine’s newsroom that was a must-read for all greenhorns. Our Managing Editor, Malam Rabiu Ibrahim made it a point of duty for us to get acquainted with both the form and content of the global media brand.  To date, perhaps much more than any international magazine, maybe, NewAfrican magazine, The Economist is more in my library, including the yearly publication, ‘The World in (Year)…’ editions.

Despite its long tradition, reach, influence, broad, authoritative reportage and analysis on global issues, I am not naïve to excuse The Economist of its neutrality. As a student of literature with interest in deconstruction and post-colonial studies, I am fully aware of the narrative of the ‘other’ or what some literary theorists call ‘otherization of the other’, through stereotypical narratives in the stem of Joseph Comrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness.’

Its opinion article, “The Crime Scene at the heart of Africa: Insurgency, Secessionism and Banditry threaten Nigeria” fits the established narrative of Africa, as a continent with countries reputable only for bad things and bad news, which is being continuously and consistently amplified and regurgitated by various western media – what Richard Dowden, in his work, “Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles”, refers to as: “reputation of poverty, disease and war.”

It is easy for many in Nigeria and other people around the world who are on the side-lines of the counter insurgency operation in the north east and the fight against other criminalities to, underestimate and undervalue the valour, courage, sacrifice, and patriotism, exhibited by Nigerian armed forces and other security agencies. But as one who has been following various operations across the country, it will be unfair to say that successes have not been recorded in all operations against terrorist, insurgents, secessionists and other criminals.

What The Economist has done, like all western media organisations, fits into what the Hausa call lefi tudu ne, taka naka ka hangi na wani – which roughly translates to: overlooking your own shortcomings and amplifying the shortcomings of others.

For me, and perhaps millions of Nigerians, who love their country and value their military and other security agencies, the argument is not whether we have a perfect military – no! No country has, including the super powers. Like many Nigerians, I am eager to see the end of insurgency, terrorism, banditry, kidnapping, armed robbery. Nigerians are desirous of peace and security.

However, it is important to note that, If wining unconventional warfare is a yardstick for measuring the staying power of military forces around the world, then it would have been right to say that all militaries – of super powers, of developing nations, fit into the description of The Economist as ‘Mighty Armies on Paper.’

As Malam Mahmud Jega has alluded in his column, the mighty armies of the United State and United Kingdom have also failed woefully in wining direct and proxy wars, how much less insurgency and guerrilla campaigns.

Experts on global terrorism and insurgency perpetuated by criminal non-state actors, sometimes supported by state actors are united on the empirical evidence of asymmetric warfare being very difficult war.

Indeed, the United States as the most powerful nation in the world with the most powerful military is an example of how unconventional warfare has humbled powerful forces. From Vietnam to Somalia to Libya to Iraq to Afghanistan, unconventional fighters have successful undermined the military power of the United States, time after time.

In the forward to Sean McFate’s book, The New Rules of War (2019), United States retired General Stanley McChrystal, (who was Commander, International Security Assistance Force, ISAF and Commander, United States Force-Afghanistan, USFOR-A and author of My Share of the Task: A Memoir, 2012), succinctly captured the challenge conventional militaries face in confronting insurgency and terrorism thus: “It is daunting to face an enemy whose singular goal is to destroy you. When the enemy’s goal is chaos at any cost, the fight feels uniquely hopeless.”

In his work, Wining Wars amongst the People, Case Studies in Asymmetric Crises, (2014) Peter A. Nass said: “In the brave new world, where the dominant form of warfare is internal conflict, the enemy is really more of an opponent, fellow citizens… they do not wear uniforms, they hide among the civilians, and initiate their attacks from among civilians. They target civilians and civilian infrastructure and the symbol of the state’s power. Their goal is not to destroy the security forces, but to gain control over thinking and behavior of the people.”

It is also necessary to remind The Economist, that since the end of the Second World War and particularly the end of Cold War, there have been increase in intra-states conflicts and decrease in inter-state wars. In his work, Waging Insurgent Warfare: Lessons From the Vietcong to the Islamic State, (2015) Seth G. Jones, states thus: “Between World War 11 and 2015, there were 181 insurgencies. They average over twelve years in duration, with a median of seven years.” Indeed, Jones states further that: “”

The Economist also, I am sure, deliberately ignored, what experts, calls, ‘the influence of technology on insurgency warfare’.  As Seth Jones noted: “the conduct of insurgent warfare rapidly evolved because of technology and other changes…it took insurgents less time to achieve relatively high levels of technical sophistication in manufacturing improved explosive devices, IEDs.”  In the same vein, Marc Goodman, in his  book, Future Crimes: Inside the Digital Underground and the Battle for Our Connected World,(2015) said: “Technological advances have benefited  our world in immeasurable ways, but…criminals are often the earliest  and most innovative adaptors of technology and modern times have led to modern crimes. ”

However, what The Economist’s conclusions on the Nigerian Army has shown is that a lot of work needs to be done by all stakeholders in telling the Nigeria story, particularly, the military story. As I have noted in several fora and on this column, there is the need for conscious, deliberate and proactive steps in building positive narratives about the gains of the counter insurgency operation, in particular and the decades of efforts by the Nigerian Armed Forces in Peace Support Operation on the African continent and around the world, which is not entirely the responsibility of the military. While the military and other security agencies can be left to carry out routine reportage of their activities, there is the urgent need for a whole-government approach in creating positive public perception that positioned the Nigerian Armed Forces as a people-friendly, a national institution.    

It is, therefore clear, that all the yardsticks used by The Economist in measuring the Nigerian Army and by extension, the Nigerian Armed Forces is not just wrong, but faulty and mischievous. Rather than, unfair criticism of Nigerian military, The Economist should focus on movement of small arms and light weapons, SALWs particularly on the African continent with its attendant  negative consequences. While these weapons, which are not manufactured in Africa, as well as  conduct of conflict entrepreneurs,  which have continued to fuel crisis in various nation- states, there have been little or no attention by the western media on sources of these weapons and the need for global effort to curb the menace.     

As American historian and writer, who became the 26th President, (1901-1909), Theodore Roosevelt famously said in the passage, “The Man in the Arena”, in his speech titled Citizen in a Republic at the Sorbonne in Paris, France, on April 23, 1910:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of the deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.