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The question of a non-military NSA

With President Muhammad Buhari’s tenure coming to a close this month, discussions regarding the composition of the next government have gained significant attention. Among the…

With President Muhammad Buhari’s tenure coming to a close this month, discussions regarding the composition of the next government have gained significant attention. Among the offices that have sparked intense debates is the Office of the National Security Adviser (ONSA), and understandably so. The militarization of this office, particularly in a democratic setting, has raised curiosity among Nigerians. This curiosity has intensified as the possibility of having a non-military NSA has emerged as a prominent topic of discussion. 

But the idea of a non-military NSA isn’t some figment of a citizen’s imagination, even though not many Nigerians are aware that policemen had been in control of ONSA. Under the military government of General Ibrahim Babangida, Gambo Jimeta, a former Inspector-General of Police, served as the NSA. Aliyu Isma’ila Gwarzo, a retired Assistant Inspector-General of Police (AIG), served under both civilian and military leadership, first under Chief Ernest Shonekan and then General Sani Abacha. Their essence was their understanding of the intricate relationship between the civilian and military spheres, and they stood out due to their recognition of the diverse range of challenges that undermined national security, necessitating solutions encompassing economic, psychological and social factors. 

The NSA is a direct link between the president and the people. He’s the president’s eyes, and the National Security Agencies Act of 1986 undermined that. The Act dissolved the Nigerian Security Organisation and established, in its place, three security agencies—the Defence Intelligence Agency, the National Intelligence Agency, and the State Security Service—granting the president the authority to appoint a coordinator on national security and transferring the functions of the coordinator to the National Security Adviser. 

Nigerians are right to be interested in who becomes the next NSA, knowing that the nation’s current biggest threats aren’t external aggressions. Nigerians are at the mercy of internal security collapses that require much more than bigger guns to dispel. The country needs big brains and ideas to establish the causes of the conflicts and get the president to approve solutions that aren’t akin to pouring water into a basket. 

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American policymakers and security specialists, whose style of democracy we practice, have always known this cheat code for preserving their national security. It’s unsurprising that they have, in the role of National Security Advisor, a Yale-trained civilian lawyer, Jake Sullivan. His predecessor too was a political scientist-turned-lawyer. The role has successively been held by civilians with a nuanced and intellectual understanding of the complex realities that undermine national security, and the difference between them and us is clear. 

Even here on the African continent, this practice of appointing non-military security insiders and analysts is a tested cheat code. In Egypt, Faiza Abou el-Naga served as a minister of planning and international cooperation under Hosni Mubarak before she became National Security Advisor under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and it didn’t matter that her principal had even risen to the topmost position in the military and had even served as minister of defence and headed Egypt’s military intelligence. 

The choice of an NSA should reflect the realities of a country, and it makes sense to settle for one with an understanding of the socio-cultural and political determinants of conflicts in countries undermined by internal security.

An NSA isn’t a combatant. Their power is the ability to analyse trends and intelligence to predict the state of security in the nation, and this requires intellectual and sociological sophistication to achieve. 

 The NSA doesn’t only sit on a trove of intelligence; they oversee the intelligence activities of the agencies listed in their Establishment Act. This is why successive presidents prefer an NSA whose unwavering patriotism is unquestionable and who possesses a deep understanding of the nation’s internal security challenges. But unless we move away from excessive militarization of the NSA—especially in a country where the military is reduced to taking responsibilities under the jurisdiction of the Nigeria Police Force—this role is going to remain underutilised. 

The proponents of military control over ONSA have failed to comprehend the magnitude of the situation. The fact that Nigeria’s security challenges haven’t yielded the expected results shows that there is an immediate need for a change in the rules of engagement, and it’s reassuring that Nigerians have reached a point where they see the wisdom of having a non-military NSA. 

Whether we examine the ineffectiveness of military solutions to our national security challenges or the allegations of corruption prevalent within the military establishment, it is evident that Nigeria finds itself in extraordinary security circumstances that demand unconventional measures. It requires a highly experienced and versatile individual from outside the military to rescue ONSA from internal conspiracies. 

In August 2020, a coalition of civil society organisations, including the African Centre for Good Governance, Social Justice and Regional Security Initiative, and People United for Peace, Security, and Democracy in Nigeria, advocated the appointment of a non-military NSA. 

They argued that Nigeria needs an NSA who possesses expertise in statecraft, public policy, internal security, and law enforcement to transform the negative security narrative of the country.

They further emphasised that the practice of appointing NSAs exclusively from a military background neglects the fact that the military represents only a fraction of the country’s population. Shifting this paradigm and appointing an NSA from the civilian majority is essential. 

Undoubtedly, the Nigerian military has been stretched thin and forced to assume the role of the police, particularly in addressing internal security issues. This mindset needs to change if we are to effectively allocate our military and paramilitary resources.

Fortunately, the next leaders of Nigeria, Senator Bola Ahmed Tinubu and Senator Kashim Shettima, are both civilians who have successfully implemented security interventions during their time as governors. 

For instance, Tinubu established innovative initiatives such as the Lagos Rapid Response Squad, which significantly reduced crime in Lagos State. Shettima, on the other hand, utilised civilian vigilante networks to combat crime and terrorist attacks in Borno State.

Their accomplishments demonstrate that even a seasoned military leader cannot fix a system intentionally designed to achieve the people’s desired objectives but has instead become a breeding ground for public sector corruption.

What Nigeria truly needs is a bold visionary who can disrupt the culture of war profiteering and self-serving agendas. Demilitarizing ONSA is the first pragmatic step forward in this direction. 


Leme, a project management and development consultant, wrote from Abuja 


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