After two years of tensions, U.S. signals willingness to expand military cooperation with Nigeria after May 29 inauguration of President Buhari

Written by: David Wiley

Primary Source: African Militarism Watch

In spite of the human rights abuses of the Nigerian military that  have bedeviled U.S. military cooperation there, Secretary John Kerry and AFRICOM head Gen. David Rodriguez made a point to attend the May 29 inauguration of newly elected Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari to signal that the U.S. is open to new military cooperation.

U.S. Assistance to Nigeria to counter Boko Haram as of 2014

After the Boko Haram kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls in Chibok in the Northeast, the U.S. provided surveillance drones and circa. 30 intelligence and security experts to help the Nigerian military try to rescue them. Gen. David M. Rodriguez, AFRICOM’s top general, also rushed to Nigeria to assist the Nigerian commanders in the crisis.  The U.S. also offered a variety of programs to Nigeria in response to the Boko Haram attacks and the Chibook kidnapping.

“The United States is assisting the Nigerian government to undertake more concerted, effective, and responsible actions to ensure the safe return of those kidnapped by Boko Haram, including through on-the-ground technical assistance and expanded intelligence sharing.”

  • Multi-Disciplinary Team to advise the Nigerians on how to secure the safe return of those kidnapped, encourage a comprehensive approach to address insecurity, and establish a capacity to respond more effectively in the future, including protection of civilian populations and respects human rights.
  • Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) to aid Nigeria’s efforts to locate the missing girls.
  • Sanctions against Boko Haram and its leaders as a terrorist group, including Rewards for Justice Program offering up to $7 million for information leading to capture of leaders.
  • Inclusion of Nigeria in the Security Governance Initiative (SGI) with multi-year funding promised.
  • Inclusion in the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership, a U.S. effort to enhance regional security sector capacity to counter violent extremism, improve country and regional border and customs systems, strengthen financial controls, and build law enforcement and security sector capacity
  • A new $40 million Global Security Contingency Fund for Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria to counter Boko Haram by providing technical expertise, training, and equipment to the four countries.
  • A promise to work closely with other international partners, including the United Kingdom, France, and Canada, for information-sharing, alignment, and coordination on international strategies and programs to counter such threats.
  • USAID provides a $4.5 million, five-year (2010-15) program for trauma counselling to survivors and their families, including those directly affected by the Chibok abduction.
  • A $20-30 million crisis response program to provide basic education to internally displaced persons and others affected by the violence in the northeast.
  • Aa five-year, $120 million program to strengthen education systems to provide greater access and improve reading among primary school children.
  • UASAID support for a series of conferences, workshop, and training exercises in Kano and Sokoto states to promote tolerance across ethnic and religious lines through engagement with influential religious, traditional, and women leaders.
  • USAID funds for a Nigeria Regional Transition Initiative to improve stability and strengthen democratic institutions in northeast Nigeria.
  • State Department support for dialogue between local women activists and security-sector personnel and to highlight the role of female law-enforcement officers.

However, by May 2014, U.S. advisors and drone operators were pursuing Boko Haram from the base in N’Djamena, Chad instead of from Nigeria. The New York Times (5/21/2014) reported that:

American officials committed the administration to any effort to recover the girls safely. But they also made little attempt to mask their assessment that the Nigerian government, and specifically its military, must overcome entrenched corruption and incompetence to free the girls.  Ms. Sewall said that despite Nigeria’s $5.8 billion security budget this year, “corruption prevents supplies as basic as bullets and transport vehicles from reaching the front lines of the struggle against Boko Haram.” Morale is low, and desertions are common among soldiers in Nigeria’s Seventh Army Division, the main fighting unit in the northeast, Ms. Sewall said. Ms. Dory said that the Nigerian military’s heavy-handed tactics with Boko Haram risked “further harming and alienating local populations.

Seven months later, the drone flights have dwindled, many of the advisers have gone home and not one of the kidnapped girls has been found. Many are believed to have been married off to Boko Haram fighters, who in the past six months have seized hundreds more civilians, including children, planted bombs in Nigerian cities and captured entire towns.

Open tensions between U.S. and Nigerian Governments 2014-15

Petroleum in the U.S.-Nigeria Equation

Tensions between the two nations were heightened with the U.S. announcement in July 2014 that “…due to an increase in domestic production, it would no longer buy crude oil from Nigeria, which worsened the country’s ongoing financial crisis.”  For Nigeria, one of the top five exporters of oil to the U.S., this loss of sales of 1.3million barrels per day is a serious loss with oil as the source of 70% of the national budget, all of exports to the U.S. replaced at Gulf Coast refineries by fracked oil from fields in North Dakota, Texas, and elsewhere in the U.S.  Already, since this loss of oil revenue coincides with the increased Boko Haram attacks, the Nigerian government has authorized taking out a billion dollar loan from Western banks to finance the war against Boko Haram. “Oil analysts (10/2/2014) believe that Africa-US oil trade could completely stop in the next two-to-three years as other leading exporters, including Angola, Libya and Algeria, suffer the same fate as Nigeria.”

In November, NBC News (11/2/2014) reported that John Campbell, former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, said “… that the country could descend into chaos if the price of oil falls beyond its current $78-a-barrel price (Editor note: crude oil was $59 per barrel on 6/5/2015), because its finances already have been pushed to the breaking point by oil “bunkering” – or theft by Nigerian officials – which he estimates represents around 10 percent of Nigerian production. “That oil finances the patronage, clientage network,” he said. “It is all illegal (but) it’s the grease to the system, and as the value falls … the grease dries up and the system doesn’t work.” And Carl Levan, a professor at American University and author of “Dictators and Democracy in African Development,” says turmoil in Nigeria could quickly spread through west Africa, already beset by long-running civil wars, an Ebola epidemic and political crises.”

The New York Times (12/31/2014) reported that Nigeria’s ambassador to the United States then accused the Obama administration of failing to support their fight against Boko Haram, which prompted the State Department to voice their condemnations of the Nigerian military’s dismal record of human rights violations.  The Pentagon also believed that the Nigerian commanders failed to act when the DOD drones did produce what it terms as “actionable intelligence” from the drone flight surveillance.

The Leahy Amendment and U.S. security assistance

In addition, United States direct security assistance to Nigeria has been sharply limited by American legal prohibitions of the Leahy Amendment of 1997 which prohibits the U.S. Departments of State and of Defense from providing military assistance to foreign military units that violate human rights with impunity.  In summer 2014, the U.S. blocked the sale of American-made Cobra attack helicopters to Nigeria from Israel, “… amid concerns in Washington about Nigeria’s ability to use and maintain that type of helicopter in its effort against Boko Haram, and continuing worries about Nigeria’s protection of civilians when conducting military operations.  In response, Nigeria’s Ambassador Mr. Adefuye “…accused Washington of failing to provide the lethal weapons needed to defeat Boko Haram.” In June, the Pentagon gave Nigeria some Toyota trucks, communications equipment, and body armor. “There is no use giving us the type of support that enables us to deliver light jabs to the terrorists when what we need to give them is the killer punch,” the ambassador said.”

Siobhán O’Grady (Foreign Policy 12/2/2014) reports that

Vanessa Hillman, a Pentagon spokeswoman, told  that ties between the two governments remain strong and that the Defense Department “is committed to the long tradition of partnership with Nigeria and will continue to engage future requests for cooperation and training.” The United States has long refused to provide arms to the Nigerian military, citing human rights violations, including financial fraud and torture in the military, that legally prevent them from offering such aid.

Despite these claims, the United States has previously provided military assistance to other countries facing claims of human rights violations, including Uganda, where a contingent of U.S. Special Forces are conducting a quiet hunt for Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a rebel group notorious for its use of child soldiers. Although the United States has offered Nigeria other forms of aid, including training sessions for the military and the deployment of special intelligence units, the Obama administration’s refusal to provide military equipment has heightened political tensions between the two countries.

Nigeria cancels U.S. training but President Jonathan call for U.S. troops for Boko Haram conflict

“The strains between the two nations were especially apparent in November 2014, when the head of the United States Special Operations forces in Africa was barred from visiting a base where a new Nigerian battalion was being trained to help fight Boko Haram. In January, Pentagon officials made clear that they preferred to work with security officials in the neighboring countries of Cameroon, Chad and Niger in taking on Boko Haram.”  Then in December 2014, just weeks after the Nigerian ambassador to Washington blasted the U.S. military for not offering enough assistance to weaken Boko Haram, the Nigerian government canceled an American-run training program for a Nigerian battalion charged with battling the terrorist organization. The American embassy in Abuja announced the program’s elimination late Monday, saying that it came “at the request of the Nigerian government.” “We regret premature termination of this training, as it was to be the first in a larger planned project that would have trained additional units with the goal of helping the Nigerian Army build capacity to counter Boko Haram,” the statement said. (See details Foreign Policy, 12/2/2014)

In February 2015 in a Wall Street Journal interview (2/13/2015), Nigerian President Jonathan said he had been asking the U.S. since early 2014 to send combat soldiers along with military advisers to Nigeria to battle Boko Haram.  DefenseNews.com (2/16/2015) reported that Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby responded quickly saying, “I can tell you that there are no plans as I speak here to send unilaterally, to send or to add US troops into Nigeria. There are no US troops operating in Nigeria,” he told reporters.  Kirby said the United States was in the early phases of helping establish a multi-national task force of African nations to help Nigeria defeat Boko Haram.”

Prior to  the election defeat of President Jonathan, the Nigerian Daily Times (4/18/2015) reports that a U.S. based group, the Christian Association of Nigerian-Americans, (CANAN), made an appeal to President Obama to renew U.S. military and technical assistance to Nigeria to improve the Nigerian government’s confronting terrorist activities within and outside Nigeria – in destroying and degrading Boko Haram including military options side by side with the regional force currently fighting the terrorists. They specifically called for and end to the U.S. blocking of Israel’s sale of Cobra military helicopters to Nigeria.

 U.S. signals new willingness to expand military cooperation with President Buhari in 2015

With the inauguration of newly-elected Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari on May 29, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and AFRICOM head General David Rodriguez attended the ceremony and raised the possibility of new U.S. assistance.

Michael Gordon of the New York Times reported from Abuja (May 29, 2015) that, “The election of Mr. Buhari, a former general who has vowed to make fighting Boko Haram a priority, has created a new opportunity to increase military aid….There was a strain in our relationship, particularly with the army on military cooperation, and we have every indication that we’ll be able to start a new chapter,” a State Department official said.”

Buhari has indicated a willingness to cooperate with the U.S. restriction to ensure that any Nigerian units that the U.S. would train as part of new program would need to be vetted to ensure that they were not linked to human rights abuses that violated provisions of the“Leahy laws.” New U.S. assistance is thought to focus on assisting with intelligence, providing advice on how to manage military logistics, and assistance with rehabilitation for the young women recovered from Boko Haram.

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David Wiley is Professor Emeritus of Sociology and African Studies at Michigan State University (MSU). He served as director of the African Studies Centers at MSU (1978-2008) and University of Wisconsin-Madison (1972-77). He has worked in Rhodesia and, with research on urban and rural environments, in Zambia, Kenya, and South Africa and participated in the struggles for democracy and majority rule in Southern Africa. He has been President of the national African Studies Association; Vice-Chairperson of the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO; and co-chair and co-founder of the Council of National Title VI Centers and the Association of Concerned Africa Scholars. He is a member of the U.S. Africa Network and has chaired international committees of the National Science Foundation, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Sociological Association. His recent research concerns environmental issues in South Africa, militarism in Africa, and international education in U.S. universities.