There has been growing tension between the United States and Nigeria over the former’s reluctance to provide real help with the war against Boko Haram. Indeed my good friend, Professor Ade Adefuye, Nigeria’s ambassador to the United States openly accused the Obama administration of failing to support the fight against Boko Haram. Not only did they refuse to sell arms to Nigeria, they also blocked us from buying arms from third parties over whom they had influence. The Americans have been forthright in explaining their position. They accuse our armed forces of serious human rights violations.
By law, the United States cannot collaborate with armies that have a record of serious human rights violations. What they can offer in the circumstances therefore is capacity building for the armed forces on human rights. As a human rights advocate myself, I hold the view that military forces must not engage in human rights violations, and when they do, they must be held accountable. I have on several occasions condemned human rights violations by Nigeria’s security agents. Nonetheless, I find the American view to be dubious and mischievous.
I first encountered this attitude when extremist groups took over more than half of Mali. In response, ECOWAS and the African Union approached the UN Security Council for the authorisation to send 3,300 troops to chase out the insurgents. The United States took the lead that authorisation should not be given until the troops are fully trained to respect human rights in battle. The UN Secretary-General accepted that the mission should go ahead after the human rights training.
On October 9th 2012, he appointed Mr. Romano Prodi as his Special Envoy for the Sahel disregarding competent candidates such as Mohammed Ibn Chambers, the former ECOWAS President. Mr Prodi immediately announced that it would take him one year – October 2012 to September 2013 to ensure that the African troops are fully trained to fight the insurgents in conformity with international best practices before the would be allowed to engage the insurgents. The insurgents got a clear message; no one was ready to act for a full year as the earliest date for intervention was announced to be September 2013. It was with this assurance from the United Nations that pushed the Malian insurgents to conquer more territory while human rights training was being planned.
On Thursday 10th January 2013, they captured the town of Konna, a gateway towards the capital, Bamako to the south. It was the signal that told the world clearly that the ambition of the insurgents was not just to keep Northern Mali but also to conquer the whole country and extend the repressive governance they have introduced beyond the North. Alarmed that the terrorists would completely take over the country before the human rights training had commenced, France had to intervene and the rest, as they say, is history.
What is important to point out is that the terrorists that took over much of Mali and the ones that that are currently occupying more and more of Nigeria’s territory were/are engaged in massive human rights violations, far in excess of anything that has been associated with our armed forces. The logic of saying that help will not be rendered to a military that has been challenged by terrorists is a political choice the unintended outcome of which is to help the insurgents. It makes it easier for the terrorists to take over more territory and widen their base for massive human rights violations.
Three weeks ago, on 9th December last year, a powerful Senate Committee in Congress published its report on the widespread use of torture by American security agents engaged in the fight against terrorism. The implication was that with the attack on the American Homeland, President Bush took the decision to set aside human rights practices and gave orders for the extensive and intensive use of torture. The current American President, Barack Obama has explained to the world that they have now stopped using techniques of torture. As they have now stopped torturing suspected terrorists, I guess they have the right to take the moral high ground and lecture the Nigerian armed forces on the imperative of not engaging in human rights violations. The Nigerian armed forces should rise to the challenge and change their ways. I have myself been making the same point over the years. Be that as it may, I still do not understand why they cannot collaborate with the Nigerian armed forces. I know that they have collaborated closely with the armed forces of Israel, Egypt and Iraq, all of whom are widely known for violating human rights. Why is Nigeria different?
Following the abduction of nearly 300 girls by Boko Haram, the United States indicated that they would help with their search and rescue if asked. Their help was duly requested and they sent surveillance drones and about 30 intelligence and security experts to help the Nigerian military try to rescue them. General David Rodriguez, the top general for American missions in Africa, rushed from his headquarters to Nigeria to help the commanders in the crisis. Nothing happened and eventually the drone flights have dwindled or stopped altogether and the advisers have gone home without any success in the search and rescue operation.
According to Eric Schmitt, (New York Times, 31/12/14) officials at the headquarters of United States Africa Command have an assessment that the Nigerian armed forces are corruption-plagued and poorly equipped. He quotes an American official saying that, “ounce for ounce, Boko Haram is equal to if not better than the Nigerian military.” He claims that “actionable intelligence” from the drone flights was provided to the Nigerian military but they did not use it. This might very well be true. But if part of the problem is that they do not have sufficient arms, stopping them from getting the arms and expecting them to perform might be asking too much.
It was in this context that Ambassador 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.
Human rights organisations, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty in particular, have been monitoring human rights violations by the Nigerian armed forces and the work, I think is having a positive impact. Our military know that they will be held accountable for their actions. Having established that, our international friends need to engage our armed forces from a more helpful perspective by not only criticizing them, but also helping them in the war against the terrorists. Our American friends need to come down from their moral high ground and help in the war against terror. I say yes to the importance of conducting war while respecting human rights and fighting corruption in the armed forces. I also say yes to the importance of supporting our armed forces towards a successful war against terrorism.