Every year, in response to the U.S.’ Intelligence Authorization Act, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) compiles a detailed report about worldwide threats to their country’s national security. The 2023 Annual Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community came out, and I read through it to see if there was anything interesting as it pertains to Mother Africa, specifically Nigeria.
Long story short, Nigeria was not mentioned, but West Africa was mentioned in a short paragraph on page 38 of 39, where they referenced regions and countries that will likely struggle with democracy and governance. It said regarding West Africa:
“Across the continent, governments will face difficulties in meeting public demands amid food shortages, commodity price spikes, declining socioeconomic conditions, and the stresses of extreme weather events and insecurity. In addition, the prevalence of ageing autocrats, disruptions to fragile ethnic power balances, and protracted transitions from post-coup military regimes to civilian rule are likely to undermine prospects for stable governance in more than a dozen countries.
In West Africa, a volatile mixture of democratic backsliding, states’ inability to provide security, and terrorist expansion will continue to threaten the region’s stability. The West African public has become disillusioned with how elected leaders have governed, particularly their failure to adhere to democratic governance norms and manipulation of institutions, which could lead to increased protests absent government reforms.“
DEMOCRACY IN JEOPARDY
From that little excerpt, the I.C was already predicting that democratic rule in West Africa is going to be a challenge (cue in Nigeria). The inability to elect effective leaders due to institutional repression, coupled with ongoing insecurity and deteriorating socio-economic conditions, will likely lead to increased protests in the region, further threatening democratic governance fairly and justly. This is apt when you consider the recently concluded elections in Nigeria, which have left much of the populace disillusioned.
INCREASE IN MILITARY CONFLICT
There’s going to be an increasing military ramp up across the world. More countries will continue to invest in their militaries, which could increase the risk of conflict escalation. This is further exacerbated by the current war, coupled with the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, which has increased poverty, hindered economic growth, and widened inequality, raising the conditions that are ripe for domestic unrest, insurgencies, democratic backsliding, and authoritarianism.
CLIMATE CHANGE IMPACT
Climate change is going to pose a global threat that is going to keep affecting Africa through increased resource constraints, which are projected to grow, as well as an increased risk of conflict that will occur with the migration of people.
It is going to affect the global economy, which will equally impact the continent. According to the report, “droughts in 2022 decreased shipping capacity and energy generation in China, Europe, and the United States, and insured losses from [weather] catastrophes have increased by 250 percent during the past 30 years”.
Bottom line: We need to get our emergency and disaster management acts together. Scientific projections are depicting droughts and flooding in the coming year. We will need to ensure we have the right emergency response frameworks and resources to tackle this.
CYBER THREAT: SURVEILLANCE AND SPYWARE
Advanced intelligence and cybertools are now commercially available for more governments to use, including repressive ones. According to the report, “the commercial spyware industry—which makes tools that allow users to hack digital devices such as mobile telephones to surveil users—grew rapidly during the past decade and is now estimated to be worth $12 billion“.
I always talk about the importance of investing in defense manufacturing capabilities so that our minds can develop these tools in-country, minimize importation, and instead export these capabilities and grow the economy. Well, cyber intelligence tools are a $12 billion industry. Africa needs to be developing some of these tools as well and getting in on the market. But I digress.
These spyware tools aid mass technical surveillance, censorship, and spyware, which governments could use towards targeting oppositions and digital repression. In other words, the next time a digitally organized EndSARs like protest is about to spring up, the government will likely have greater capacity to squash it in cyberspace before it gains physical traction.
In addition, these tools can also assist with influence operations aimed at shaping how the outside world views the government. This means an active genocide could be going on in a country, but people on the outside will only see videos of cute cats and puppies.
These cyber tools could also be used in offensive capacities aimed at controlling the governance of another nation by creating social and political upheavals in some other countries to sway voters perceptions, perspectives, and preferences, which ultimately will allow them to elect officials that will shift policies in favour of the attacking government.
Transnational ransomware attackers are improving their capabilities and will continue to execute high-impact ransomware attacks aimed at disrupting critical services and exposing sensitive data for the purpose of extorting funds. Governments worldwide are targets.
The attacks are only going to get more sophisticated and persistent. Our cyber detection and response capabilities must be enhanced and continually upgraded as a matter of national security.
ISIS West Africa will continue to pose a threat in the region. AQIM will continue to extort weak border security in west Africa, expand territorial control, and challenge local security forces. Terror groups keep using their Telegram network of channels, ‘Terrorgram’, to circumvent content moderation.
CHINA IS NOT PLAYING
The report was clear in its insinuation that China is no joke, and according to the U.S. Intelligence Community, it currently represents the biggest threat to the U.S. Reading through the document, you can quickly see why. China is making rapid gains on all fronts and across all sectors.
INCREASING CHINESE MILITARY MIGHT
Militarily, the PLA Navy and Air Force are already the largest in the region and continue to field advanced platforms rapidly. The I.C agreed that “the PLA Rocket Force’s (PLARF) short-, medium-, and intermediate-range conventional systems probably already can hold U.S. forces and bases in the region at risk.“
Much like the U.S., China is also actively expanding its overseas basing goals, including pursuing new bases in Cambodia, the UAE, and our own Equatorial Guinea. Oh, and their Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) capabilities were surmised as such: “China is building hundreds of new Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) silos“.
SPACE… AS IN OUTER SPACE
Now let’s go to space, the I.C said:
“China is steadily progressing towards its goal of becoming a world-class space leader, with the intent to match or surpass the United States by 2045. Even by 2030, China probably will achieve world-class status in all but a few space technology areas. China’s space activities are designed to advance its global standing and strengthen its attempts to erode U.S. influence across military, technological, economic, and diplomatic spheres.” … And might I add atmospheres, hemispheres, and stratospheres!
China’s counterspace operations are equally solid. They have new destructive and non-destructive ground and space-based antisatellite (ASAT) weapons.
In Cyber, the I.C stated that China represented the “broadest, most active, and persistent cyber espionage threat to the U.S.” China is almost certainly capable of launching cyberattacks that could disrupt critical infrastructure services within the United States, including oil and gas pipelines and rail systems.
ECONOMY AND TECHNOLOGY
Economically and technologically, China wants the world to depend on it. According to the report, “China is central to global supply chains in a range of technology sectors, including semiconductors, critical minerals, batteries, solar panels, and pharmaceuticals. In a speech in April 2020, Xi noted his intentions to increase global supply chain dependencies on China, with the aim of controlling key supply chains and being able to use those supply chain dependencies to threaten and cut off foreign countries during a crisis.”
China possesses two exascale systems, which are computers that are capable of solving massive scientific challenges that would have been impossible with previous generation supercomputers. China apparently has 173 of the world’s most powerful supercomputers—a third more than the United States.
There was no sugarcoating it; as far as the U.S. I.C is concerned, China is certainly a determined and impressive foe. But like the saying goes, “one man’s meat is another man’s poison“. Quite frankly, Africa is happy with China. They are the largest provider of foreign direct investment to Africa, and in 2021, their investment on the continent was about four times the volume of U.S.-Africa trade. China has persistently stepped in where the West, (the U.S. inclusive) has shied away.
With the recent geopolitical changes and global foreign policy shifts, we will likely see the West ramp up their economic and military trade activities across Africa in a bid to counter the current China and Russia influence on the continent.
Much was said about Russia as well, but three main things stood out for me:
Nuclear, Cyber Space and Outer Space are the new frontier.
The I.C assessed that “Moscow will become even more reliant on nuclear, cyber, and space capabilities as it deals with the extensive damage to Russia’s ground forces… Russia maintains the largest and most capable nuclear weapons stockpile, and it continues to expand and modernize its nuclear weapons capabilities… it sees its nuclear weapons arsenal as the ultimate guarantor of the Russian Federation.”
Russia’s cyber activity around the war fell short of the West’s expectations.
But it is still a top cyber threat, especially with its global malign influence operations. Malign influence operations (disinformation campaigns) are now a standard part of their foreign policy strategy. They are effectively using several proxies and actively meddling in voters’ decision-making and democracy.
Moscow has conducted influence operations against U.S. elections for decades, including as recently as the U.S. midterm elections in 2022. It tries to strengthen ties with U.S. persons in the media and politics in hopes of developing vectors for future influence operations.
“Russia’s influence actors have adapted their efforts to increasingly hide their hands, laundering their preferred messaging through a vast ecosystem of Russian proxy websites, individuals, and organizations that appear to be independent news sources. Moscow seeds original stories or amplifies pre-existing popular or divisive discourse using a network of state media, proxies, and social media influence actors and then intensifies that content to further penetrate the Western information environment. These activities can include disseminating false content and amplifying information perceived as beneficial to Russian influence efforts or conspiracy theories.”
When it comes to North Korea, the U.S. I.C report indicated that NK’s “cyber programme poses a sophisticated and agile espionage, cybercrime, and attack threat. Pyongyang’s cyber forces have matured and are fully capable of achieving a range of strategic objectives against diverse targets”.
Long story short, NK’s cyber focus is on cyber theft. The report said, “Cryptocurrency heists are diversifying their range of financially motivated cyber operations and continuing to leverage advanced social engineering techniques. In one heist in 2022, Pyongyang stole a record $625 million from a Singapore-based blockchain technology firm.”
To be honest, after reading the 40-page document, I wondered if the Nigerian Intelligence agencies come together to write detailed strategic intelligence assessment reports of the threats to the nation, or are they still consumed with internal, domestic, and tribal threats while the hands of global actors are actively stirring the pots of conflict.
Has the I.C been able to clearly identify real external security threats? Are we concerned about the countries whose foreign policy strategy is focused on destabilizing Nigeria? What are the ultimate goals of the numerous cyberattacks on INEC, according to officials? Which neighbours are increasing their military strength and alliances, potentially posing a threat to Nigeria’s military dominance in the region? What items are we still importing or relying on external governments for, which could eventually threaten the sovereignty of the country if we do not start producing, manufacturing, building, or developing them in-country?
Intelligence agencies should not think their work stops at guns and intimidation. There is a lot of cerebral analysis and reporting that needs to be conducted to ensure the right decisions are being made ahead of time. I would genuinely like to see the IC, across all the agencies, collaborate and jointly report such strategic security and threat assessments to aid the president’s decision-making.
Citation: Annual Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, February 6, 2023. Photos by: Drew Angerer/Getty Images, Mike Blake/Reuters and Google images.