I spent last week in Washington, DC discussing the Nigerian crisis with various American institutions. The Nigerian “issue” has been escalated in the American system over the past few months. Indeed, a new Nigerian division has just been opened in the State Department. Nigeria used to be part of West Africa division, which had four senior staff. The new division will focus only on Nigeria and already has fifteen senior staff. I wonder why this significant “escalation” of Nigeria in the State Department and ponder on whether it is good or bad for my country. The Nigerian Ambassador to the United States, Professor Adefuye complained about how the escalation has made his life there one of continuous engagement but assured us he was up to the task.

We were invited by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the School of Advanced International Studies for a symposium on “Security and Nigeria’s 2015 Elections.” It was the third in a series – Nigerian Election Forum by these two institutions of Johns Hopkins University. The delegation was composed of Ambassadors Ibrahim Gambari of the National Conference and Clement Lasseinde of the Office of the National Security Adviser. Others are Frank Odita, former Police Commissioner, Chinedu Nwagu, Chom Bagu, Inemo Saniama, Auwal Rafsanjani and myself from civil society.

The discussions on election security went well and the consensus was that in spite of the state of insecurity in the country, it was still feasible and indeed necessary to hold free and fair elections next year. Both the speakers and the audience expressed satisfaction with the good conduct of the Ekiti elections and although concerns were expressed at the excessive military presence, the acceptance of the result by the incumbent governor who lost was seen as a good omen. The importance of a level playing field was stressed especially as both the ruling PDP and the opposition APC believe they could win the elections. The concerted attempt by PDP wheelers and dealers to unseat as many APC governors as possible before the elections was however heating up the polity and could destabilize the process.

One direct question we posed at the Department of Defence was why the Americans had not used their sophisticated equipment to identify the location of the Chibok Girls and help with the search and rescue effort.

Following the symposium, we had opportunities to visit the State Department, the Department of Defence and the African Center for Strategic Studies, which is part of their military university system. The focus of interest for the Americans was of course the incapacity of our armed forces to make noticeable progress in the struggle against Boko Haram and of course rising piracy in the Gulf of Guinea. Just before our visit, there had been a congressional hearing on Boko Haram on 10th July by U.S. Representative. Chris Smith, Chairman of the Africa and Global Human Rights Subcommittee. Mr. Smith had observed while introducing the Hearing that: “Boko Haram has significantly accelerated its acts of mass murder and abduction in Nigeria, requiring a more robust and effective response from the Government of Nigeria and friends like the United States.” The hearing focused extensively on what the Americans call the Leahy laws. The laws prohibit American troops collaborating with foreign armed forces that had been implicated in the violation of human rights during their operations. It would be recalled that each year, the State Department human rights reports have continued to highlight serious human rights violations by the Nigerian security forces. These violations include politically motivated and extrajudicial killings, excessive use of force, and torture.

Under this American law, if individuals or elements of a larger force are guilty of human rights violations, entire battalions or regiments can be tainted unless the guilty persons are identified and separated out from those forces that are innocent of such crimes. The Leahy laws therefore allow for the re-creation of ‘clean’ units. In Nigeria, there have been persistent reports of elements within the armed forces being implicated in human rights violations. The Nigerian armed forces have however always denied such reports. I guess this makes it very difficult for there to be real collaboration between the American and Nigerian forces. While it is difficult, the collaboration is not impossible. It appears that the Nigerian armed forces and police will accept the Leahy laws requirement for investigation of human rights violations by the State Department as a pre-requisite for military material assistance, including equipment, and training. The State Department indicated at the Hearing that there are currently 187 Nigerian military units and 173 police units that have been vetted and cleared to receive U.S. assistance and training. It was however not clear whether the Nigerian government has given approval for such training to occur. I believe this type of engagement is good for the Nigerian Armed Forces because it keeps them on their toes – that the whole world is watching them to ensure that combat does not mean the violations of human rights will be accepted.

One issue that came up during the hearings as well as during our discussions is the strong belief within American institutions that despite about N1trn ($5.8b) security budget, Nigerian troops are not adequately resourced or equipped to effectively counter the Boko Haram insurgency. During the hearing, the American disclosed that the troops were “slow to adapt with new strategies, new doctrines and new tactics,” and described Nigeria as “an extremely challenging partner to work with.”

One direct question we posed at the Department of Defence was why the Americans had not used their sophisticated equipment to identify the location of the Chibok Girls and help with the search and rescue effort. Their response was that the problem was not the location of the girls. The girls, they explained have been broken and dispersed into small groups and any attempt to rescue one group will lead to a rapid retaliation in which the other girls will be killed by their abductors. What this means therefore is that the option of negotiating with the terrorists for the safe release of the girls is the only viable one?