Merchants of Terror: The Counter-Terrorism Economy in Africa

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Although the impact of ISIS and Al Qaeda in the Middle East is diminishing, these terrorist groups are making inroads in parts of Africa and empowering existing ones in the region. In Africa especially, one of the major response to the expansion of terrorism has been greater funding for the security sector.

Despite this, terrorist organisations seem to be expanding and growing in influence. This trend has raised concern amongst governments within the region and puzzled experts and scholars. In response, I recently published an article entitled “Merchants of Terror: Neo-Patrimonialism, Counter-Terrorism Economy and Expansion of Terrorism in Nigeria.”

The paper traces the spread and growth of terrorism and explains how this has been facilitated by the rentier nature of security and political institutions, reflected in the corrupt financial practices seen in the allocation and utilisation of security funds, which has led to the emergence of a deeply problematic counter-terrorism economy. 

The rise of terror 

It is now more than a decade since the advent of the Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria and the Lake Chad region. The terrorist group is unrelenting in its quest to impose its jihadist objectives and to destabilise the region’s socio-political and economic fabrics, and has continued to expand, establishing different factions such as the Islamic State of West African Province. Naturally, the growth of terrorism has also led to an expansion of efforts to defeat these groups. This is exemplified, in part, by the rise in budgetary allocations to the security sector.

From 2014 to 2019, budgetary allocation to the security sector in Nigeria rose from N932 billion to N1.76 trillion. Moreover, additional funds to internal security operations in the North-east, such as the Operations Lafiya Dole, Operations Safe Corridor, Operations Gama Aiki and operations crackdown, grew from N24.12 billion in 2014 to N75 billion in 2018[1].  However, while we one might expect that an increase in security funds would put terrorist groups in Nigeria and the Lake Chad region on the back foot, in some ways it has gone hand in hand with the spread of terrorist activities.

How can we explain this?

Explaining the trends

In Merchants of Terror, I examine the rationale behind the increasing sophistication expansion of terrorism in Nigeria and the Lake Chad region. I argued that there is an inherent neo-patrimonial or patron-client relationship between political actors, public official and military elites, which led to the misuse and diversion of security funds “through corrupt sub-contractor practices, ghost and inflated contracts on defence procurement and misappropriation of security votes”.

Consequently, increasing funds for the security sector has given birth to a deeply problematic counter-terrorism economy and the expansion of terrorism in the region.

First, political actors and military elites misappropriate the budget for military equipment procurement. In particular, public officials in the ministry of defence foist contractors on the military, forcing the military to accept problematic deals in return for access to funding – refusing to accept would mean facing a brick wall to access defence funds in the future. As a result, both parties collaborate to defraud the state.

Second, funds for logistics in the North-east have become a platform for embezzlement. Senior military officers are given liberty over the management of logistics without an effective accountability mechanism to check the utilisation of funds.

Thus, the misuse of logistics funds has fuelled the emergence of dubious sub-contractor in the supply of premium motor spirit or fuel, culinary services and toiletries for counter-terrorism security agents in the North-east. In some cases, military elites award these contracts to spouses, relatives, and friends. Again, there are no measures to ensure that the supplied items are commensurate with the funds allocated. Hence, the adequate provisions of essential items is impeded, despite the government making large payments.

The security vote

Third, the security vote – a vestige of colonialism retained by both civilian and military administrations – is a major channel for misappropriation of public funds. Security vote is independent of defence budgets. It is “the budgetary or extra-budgetary allocations ostensibly (earmarked) for security, received by the President, the governors and Local Government Chairmen”.[2]

There is little available information on the utilisation of security vote, as it is shrouded in secrecy. However, Transparency International report that “approximately, N210 billion is allocated to security votes at the state level and N180 billion at the federal level, making total defence and security around N1.51 trillion, equating to approximately 20 per cent of total government spending in 2017”.[3]

Moreover, only three states are allocated less than 500 million monthly for security vote,[4] while the monthly security votes of six states are more than N1 billion. In 2014, the security votes of North-eastern states totalled N32.85 billion. “The breakdown shows that Bauchi State received N1.417 billion monthly (N17billion annually), Borno State got N 806.2 million monthly (N 9.675 billion annually), Taraba State received N200 million monthly (N 2.4 billion annually), and Yobe State got 316.66 million monthly (3.8 billion annually)”.[5]

The increase in the security vote is ostensibly aimed at tackling terrorism. However, in reality the security vote has become a source of revenue for the ruling party in collaboration with governors to advance personal political careers, take care of party loyalists during elections, fund foreign trips, and manage their health issues abroad. A recent study shows that many corrupt politicians use embezzled funds to sponsor their children’s education abroad.[6] Besides, the misuse of security vote has further strained the relationships between governors and military elites in the North-east. Indeed, some of the senior officers believed that Governors deprive them of their share of misappropriated funds.

Consequently, frontline troops in the North-east are mostly under-resourced and under-equipped and are incapable of matching the sophisticated weaponry and tactic of terrorist groups, leading to an unnecessary loss of lives. In turn, these problems dampen the morale of security agents and their willingness to fight.

Partly as a result, there have been reports of early retirement of troops, in addition to mutinies in the North-east. Furthermore, the wilful undermining of military capacity by political actors, military elites, and their clients has further emboldened the terrorist groups to launch effective tactical strikes targeting military camps. Only recently, terrorist groups launched attacks against the envoy of the governor of Borno state – twice.

Looking to the future

Boko Haram and ISWAP’s success is increasingly attracting support from the “dwindling influence of mother organisations such as Al Qaeda and Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) which are desperately trying to project their potency to the world.” Moreover, the profitability of security funds undermines the effectiveness of effective counter-terrorism measures, as “an end to terrorism would mean an end to illicit funds and misappropriation of public funds allocated for the fight against terrorism”.

In conclusion, “the inherent lack of fiscal responsibility and mechanism to check for transparency and accountability in the utilisation of security fund expose the government’s complicity in the failure to defeat Boko Haram and ISWAP.” 

It is therefore crucial to address the pathology of funding terrorism in Nigeria by dismantling structures of neo-patrimonial logic that have led to a deeply problematic counter-terrorism economy – and facilitated the expansion of terrorism.




[1] BudgIT 2018, Proposed 2018 Budget: A Fiscal Overview. Lagos:  Budget Office, BudgIT Research,

[2] Dada  Jacob 2015, “Security Vote in Nigeria: A desideratum for Security or Recipe for Corruption?”_Public Policy and Administration Research 5: 26

[3] Transparency International cited in Njoku T Emeka,  2020 “Merchants of Terror: Neo-Patrimonialism, Counterterrorism Economy, and Expansion of Terrorism in Nigeria” African Conflict and Peacebuilding Review, 10, (2): pp. 83-107

[4] Daily Trust 2019 Security votes without Security!

[5] Leadership News. 2014. “Five Northern States to Spend N30.4bn on Security in 2014.” March 2, 2014. (page removed).

[6] Page, Matthew  2021 West African Elites’ Spending on UK Schools and Universities: A Closer Look, Washington, DC Carnegie Endowment for International Peace



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