In April, the Boko Haram militant group abducted hundreds of schoolgirls in northeastern Nigeria. In the atrocity’s aftermath, the United States boosted its support for the Nigerian military’s campaign against the terrorists.
But now human rights concerns may be straining relations between Washington and Abuja. And if the two countries can’t mend ties, it’s the people of Nigeria—the captive schoolgirls, in particular—who stand to suffer the most.
On Dec. 1, American diplomats announced that Nigerian authorities had abruptly ended one key military aid program. The U.S. Army’s Africa headquarters had been training a completely new Nigerian infantry battalion until Abuja cancelled the program.
The training was part of Operation Juniper Nimbus, the Pentagon’s effort to help Nigeria defeat Boko Haram. American forces also share intelligence with their Nigerian counterparts, according to a White House fact sheet.
“We did not receive any specific reason as to why they wanted to cancel the training,” U.S. Army Lt. Col. John Cantwell, the acting defense attache in the Nigeria, told Voice of America.
The cancellation caught the U.S. embassy in Abuja off guard. The Nigerian army and American advisers had previously agreed to a third round of training in advanced fighting skills, according to an official U.S. embassy release.
Relations between the two countries appear to be souring. Perhaps most importantly, Washington has “ongoing concerns about the Nigerian military’s protection of civilians when conducting military operations,” State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki told reporters on Nov. 12.
Psaki was explaining why why American authorities had declined to sell attack helicopters to Abuja. “These decisions are made … after careful scrutiny to ensure they conform with United States law,” Psaki explained.
Its no secret that Nigeria’s soldiers and police have a discouraging record of human rights abuses. Amnesty International released disturbing video footage of the abuses—a release the rights group specifically timed to coincide with Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan’s arrival at a summit in Washington.
The footage purportedly showed members of the Nigerian army and the Civilian Joint Task Force—a government-sanctioned militia—summarily executing prisoners.
Right now, a team of American advisers is working with the Nigerian government to develop a response to Boko Haram’s insurgency “that protects civilian populations and respects human rights,” U.S. Africa Command explained in an email to War Is Boring.
But if anything, Nigeria’s army seems to be growing more undisciplined as the war with Boko Haram drags into its sixth year. In July, Nigerian soldiers rioted in Lagos after an officer died in a traffic accident. The rioters burned no fewer than eight municipal buses.
Washington is well aware of the discipline problem. A decade ago, American diplomats already lamented that “sanctions have led to a downward trend in funding for Nigerian military assistance,” according to a cable released by Wikileaks.
The sanctions in question were a result of the so-called “Leahy Law.” This legislation prevents the Pentagon from aiding foreign troops it suspects of gross human rights violations.
Today Nigerian security forces kill with impunity, according to another leaked U.S. diplomatic message. “Such incidents appear widespread, even if some media reports may exaggerate the numbers.”
“Impunity remained widespread at all levels of government,” the State Department’s 2013 human rights report on Nigeria pointed out.
These abuses could also explain why the American forces were working with “previously untrained civilian personnel,” as the American embassy described the Nigerian recruits in the recently canceled program.
In principle, the Pentagon should have been able to run the most experienced Nigerian soldiers through the advanced infantry courses. But the State Department might have balked at the prospect of vetting troops coming from the bloody northeastern battlefields.
In the past four months, the Nigerian army has also suffered a series of mutinies and desertions. In September, Abuja sentenced a dozen soldiers to death for rebelling against their commanders, the BBC reported.
“Bickering and quarrels … can also demoralize our dedicated and brave armed forces,” Jonathan noted in a recent speech to members of his People’s Democratic Party.
Despite all of these problems, the Pentagon insists it will continue working with Nigeria’s armed services. “The Nigerian government’s decision … will not affect the ability of the U.S. government to continue other aspects of our bilateral security relationship,” a Pentagon spokesperson told War Is Boring.
The Pentagon does have a long history of cooperating with Nigerian security forces.
Between 2007 and 2011, Abuja received $9.5 million in military assistance—including schooling, intelligence training and resources to fight drug traffickers.
And in August, Nigerian officials had openly praised the partnership during the U.S.-African Leaders Summit in the American capital. “We are pleased to acknowledge the supportive role of the United States,” Abuja stated.
“The government of Nigeria leads the effort to counter the threat posed by Boko Haram,” the Pentagon official added. And Washington seems to be losing faith in that leadership.
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