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USA/Nigeria: Uneasy Alliance

AfricaFocus Bulletin
December 1, 2014 (141201)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

"Boko Haram poses no security threat to the U.S. homeland, but its attack on Nigeria, and the Abuja response characterized by extensive human rights violations, does challenge U.S. interests in Africa. ... If Nigeria's civilian government is to forestall an implosion involving Boko Haram and the 2015 elections, and to resume its positive regional role, it needs to end ubiquitous human rights abuses by official entities, orchestrate humanitarian relief to refugees and persons internally displaced by fighting in the north, and ensure credible elections that do not exacerbate internal conflict." - John Campbell, Former U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria

Since John Campbell retired from the Foreign Service after his final post in Nigeria from 2004 to 2007, he has been among the most outspoken of U.S. commentators on Nigeria. Now at the Council on Foreign Relations, his most recent commentary has again evoked angry responses from supporters of the current Nigerian government, and indicates some of the strains in the long-term alliance between the global superpower and its West African counterpart.

In a talk to the Council on Foreign Relations in early November, Nigerian Ambassador to the United States Prof. Ade Adefuye strongly criticized the failure of the United States to provide greater military support against Boko Haram, dismissing the claims of human rights abuses by the government as rumors "based largely on reports submitted by human rights groups and sections of the Nigerian media that have sympathy for the opposition parties" (see for text of remarks).

The basic premises of Campbell's views, however, are shared by many other U.S., international, and Nigerian commentators who argue that the key obstacles to a successful Nigerian response to Boko Haram are not military resources such as funds and more advanced weaponry but rather political will and governance capacity, and that increased U.S. military involvement would have only marginal and likely negative effects.

Some contrast the highly successful Nigerian response earlier this year to curb the spread of Ebola (see below for links), and note that, unlike Ebola, the issue of Boko Haram is both divisive and closely linked with structural economic and governance issues in Nigeria, as well as with the political maneuvering leading up to national elections in February 2015.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains excerpts from Campbell's latest report, released by the Council on Foreign Relations in November.

A future AfricaFocus Bulletin, coming early next year, will feature a selection of excerpts from and links to a variety of other commentaries and analyses on the current Nigerian situation. Suggestions from readers are welcome. I am particularly interested in links to commentaries that are well-informed and nuanced but also understandable to readers who, like your editor, want to understand these important developments but are neither Nigerians nor specialists with in-depth background knowledge of Nigeria.

(Please send suggested links to

Among topics of interest as contextual background: the sharp drop in U.S. imports of oil from Nigeria, from over 30 million barrels a month in 2010 to less than 3 million barrels a month as of mid-2014 (see statistics at

For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on Nigeria, visit For current news coverage of the complex political scene in Nigeria, visit and


Ebola Perspectives

[AfricaFocus is regularly monitoring and posting links on Ebola on social media. For additional links, see]

Whatever other issues the country may face, Nigerians can be rightfully proud of, and others should recognize, the highly professional and successful response to the initial spread of Ebola to that country. It is worth recalling a few of the articles calling attention to that success.

(1) "Through the Valley of the Shadow of Death ... Dr. Ada Igonoh survived Ebola - This is her Story" September 15, 2014 /
Excerpts in

(2) Ebola Virus Disease Outbreak — Nigeria, July-September 2014 Detailed report from CDC

(3) "How 1 doctor saved Nigeria from Ebola catastrophe"
Oct 21, 2014, Yahoo News,

(4) "Nigeria is now free of Ebola virus transmission"
WHO, 20 Oct 2014,

(5) "How Nigeria defeated Ebola,"
Guardian, 31 Oct, 2014,

(6) "Nigeria, Ebola and the myth of white saviours"
Al Jazeera, 8 Nov 2014,

(7) "How Did Nigeria Quash Its Ebola Outbreak So Quickly?"
Scientific American, Oct 18, 2014,

(8) "UK-trained doctor who died to save Nigeria from Ebola,
Telegraph, 26 Oct 2014,

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++

U.S. Policy to Counter Nigeria's Boko Haram

John Campbell
Council Special Report No. 70
November 2014
[Excerpts. Full text available at]


The April 2014 kidnapping of more than 250 schoolgirls from Chibok in northern Nigeria by the militant Islamist group Boko Haram--and the lethargic response of Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan's government--provoked outrage. But the kidnapping is only one of many challenges Nigeria faces. The splintering of political elites, Boko Haram's revolt in the north, persistent ethnic and religious conflict in the country's Middle Belt, the deterioration of the Nigerian army, a weak federal government, unprecedented corruption, and likely divisive national elections in February 2015 with a potential resumption of an insurrection in the oil patch together test Nigeria in ways unprecedented since the 1966-70 civil war.

The United States cannot be indifferent. Boko Haram poses no security threat to the U.S. homeland, but its attack on Nigeria, and the Abuja response characterized by extensive human rights violations, does challenge U.S. interests in Africa. Nigeria has been a strategic partner and at times a surrogate for the United States in Africa. With 177 million people equally divided between Christians and Muslims, the benefit of Africa's largest oil revenues, and in the past a relatively modern military, Nigeria has had greater heft than any other African country. The national aspiration for democracy survived a generation of military rule and served as an example for other developing countries. But, if the country has been the "giant of Africa," Nigeria's current challenges politically destabilize West Africa, potentially providing a base for jihadist groups hostile to Western interests, fueling a humanitarian crisis, and by example discrediting democratic aspirations elsewhere in Africa.

Upcoming Nigerian elections will shape the country's trajectory. The electoral process--the campaign period, polling, and ballot counting-- is likely to be bitter, especially at the local and state levels. Splintered elites are already violently competing for power and appealing to religious and ethnic identities. If Nigeria's civilian government is to forestall an implosion involving Boko Haram and the 2015 elections, and to resume its positive regional role, it needs to end ubiquitous human rights abuses by official entities, orchestrate humanitarian relief to refugees and persons internally displaced by fighting in the north, and ensure credible elections that do not exacerbate internal conflict. If it achieves these goals, Nigeria could resume its evolution into a democratic state that abides by the rule of law and pursues a regional leadership role commensurate with its size and supportive of goals shared with the United States. Unfortunately, the United States and other outsiders have little leverage over the Jonathan government. Nigeria's principal exports and economic drivers--oil and gas--command a ready international market. The country's size gives it an advantage over its neighbors, even in its weak state. Neither the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) nor the African Union (AU)--the relevant security organizations--is expected to pressure the Abuja government, because Nigeria is the largest contributor to their budgets and presides among African states as the continent's leader. The country receives minimal assistance from international donors; U.S. assistance, about $721 mil lion in 2015, paled in comparison with government revenue.

Washington faces hard choices. Enhanced U.S. security cooperation with Abuja against Boko Haram might limit the movement's military activities. Conversely, a visible U.S. military presence risks an anti-Western backlash in the north and across the Sahel, where the government of Jonathan, who is Christian, is suspected of being anti-Muslim. In the run-up to the February 2015 national elections, Washington supports Nigerians working for credible polling in an environment free of violence. But even with its strong financial and diplomatic support, U.S. ability to influence the conduct of Nigeria's elections is limited by the country's enormous size, diversity, and security challenges, not least from Boko Haram. Nigeria's restoration of a democratic, regional leadership trajectory should be a top Africa policy goal for the Obama administration. As in the past, a restored partnership with Abuja could forestall the need for deeper U.S. involvement in the Sahel when Washington is preoccupied with pressing foreign policy challenges in other regions. The Boko Haram insurgency is a direct result of chronic poor governance by Nigeria's federal and state governments, the political marginalization of northeastern Nigeria, and the region's accelerating impoverishment. The insurgency's context is a radical, Salafist Islamic revival that extends beyond the movement's supporters. Government security service human rights abuses drive popular acquiescence or support for Boko Haram. Washington should follow a short-term strategy that presses Abuja to end its gross human rights abuses, conduct credible national elections in 2015, and meet the immediate needs of refugees and persons internally displaced by fighting in the northeast. It should also pursue a longer-term strategy to encourage Abuja to address the roots of northern disillusionment, preserve national unity, and restore Nigeria's trajectory toward democracy and the rule of law.

The following steps should be taken in the short term:

* Washington should pursue a human rights agenda with Abuja, pressing the Jonathan administration to investigate credible claims of human rights abuses and to prosecute the perpetrators;

* the Obama administration should pursue a democratic agenda, including its support for credible elections in 2015;

* the United States should facilitate and support humanitarian assistance in the north; and

* the Obama administration should strengthen its diplomatic presence by establishing a consulate in Kano, the largest city in northern Nigeria.

The following steps should be taken over the long term:

* Washington administrations should identify and support individual Nigerians working for human rights and democracy;

* the United States should revoke the visas held by Nigerians who commit financial crimes or promote political, ethnic, or religious violence; and

* Washington should encourage Nigerian initiatives to revamp the culture of its military and police.

The Political Context of Boko Haram

[see full version for text]

An Anatomy of the Boko Haram Insurgency

[see full version for text]

The Jonathan Government's Response to Boko Haram

[see full version for text]

The United States and Nigeria

The George W. Bush administration paid minimal attention to Nigerian domestic political developments beyond expressing support for "free and fair" elections. Washington failed to recognize the Nigerian government's growing administrative dysfunction and U.S. officials did little to address a cresting wave of corruption, staying mostly silent when President Olusegun Obasanjo unsuccessfully sought an unconstitutional third term. Washington remained quiet about the blatantrigging of the 2007 elections that placed Obasanjo's hand-picked successor, the ailing Umaru Yar'Adua, in the presidency and the inexperienced Goodluck Jonathan in the vice presidency. During President Umaru Yar'Adua's terminal illness in 2010, many observers feared that a military coup would fill the vacuum in government authority. Washington, relieved that Goodluck Jonathan's interim presidency and subsequent election seemed to forestall a coup, accorded the new president the benefit of the doubt.

The Obama administration's policy toward Nigeria has been undemanding, with officials only mildly denouncing publicly the human rights abuses perpetrated by Nigerian security services in their struggle with Boko Haram. Washington has not exacted a high political price from Jonathan as these transgressions persist. Pressed by U.S. public opinion, the administration offered Jonathan assistance in the search for the kidnapped Chibok schoolgirls, but has not investigated the government's detention of alleged Boko Haram wives and children without charge or the large numbers of young men extrajudicially incarcerated on the basis of mere suspicion. However, President Obama did not visit Nigeria on either of his two African trips, a sign of a new concern in his administration about rigged elections, human rights abuses, and corruption. Nevertheless, in its rhetoric and its actions, the Obama administration remains supportive of the Abuja government. Accordingly, Jonathan continues to identify himself with President Obama to appeal to his pro-American, Christian base; his presidential campaign materials have featured photographs of him and Obama together. As of March 2014, there is a legal precedent for the U.S. Department of the Treasury, working with the U.S. Department of Justice, to identify illicit financial flows through the U.S. financial system to another country. Those funds could then be frozen. That was done with respect to $458 million looted by the notoriously corrupt dictator Sani Abacha, Nigeria's de facto chief of state from 1993 to 1998, which he then deposited in banks in France and the Channel Islands. This action may signal a greater willingness by the U.S. government to deprive foreign political figures of the fruits of their corruption. Frustration over the failure to liberate the Chibok schoolgirls, the Nigerian military's manifest inadequacies for the task, and the Jonathan government's visibly weak political will has prompted some in Congress and the media to call for U.S. military intervention to liberate the girls. Any such course is fraught with peril. In earlier kidnapping episodes, efforts to free the victims by the use of force have led to their captors murdering them--a possible fate for the schoolgirls in the event of a military operation.

Overt U.S. military intervention also risks further alienating the Muslim population in Nigeria and across the Sahel. Already, northern Nigerian field preachers have issued warnings in sermons against European and American military boots on Nigerian ground. Retired general and former President Olusegun Obasanjo, probably echoing widespread views among Nigerian officers, has publicly criticized President Jonathan's request for outside assistance against Boko Haram, particularly from Europe or the United States.

So far, the U.S. military has trained only small numbers of Nigerians to participate in international peacekeeping forces. The U.S. Department of State's budget request for International Military Education and Training (IMET) for Nigeria in fiscal year 2015 is only $700,000. (IMET is a vehicle for the provision of such U.S. training to a foreign country.) Nigerian reluctance to accept further U.S. training with its requirements for fiscal accountability and transparency has inhibited the program's expansion in the past. In addition, the Leahy amendment prohibits U.S. military training of foreign units that violate human rights with impunity. U.S. embassies and relevant bureaus in the Department of State vet units for eligibility. If they are found ineligible, American training is suspended until the host government brings to justice those responsible for human rights violations.

The number of Nigerian units that can pass Leahy vetting is small and shrinking. Military units are rotated through the north, making them vulnerable to credible charges of human rights violations. There is no public indication that a significant number of military perpetrators of human rights violations have been brought to justice.

In May 2014, the U.S. Department of Defense deployed twelve active-duty U.S. soldiers to Nigeria to train a 650-man Nigerian ranger battalion for combat operations that would presumably be free of the taint of human rights violations. This was the first time in years that the United States trained Nigerian military units for operations other than peacekeeping missions. However, isolated trainings are unlikely to have a lasting effect on Nigerian military culture. Abuja's stance toward security cooperation with the United States continues to be unenthusiastic, despite President Jonathan's request for assistance in the aftermath of the Chibok kidnappings. Trainings, even if small, link the American and Nigerian militaries and thereby risk tarring the United States with the Nigerian security sector's ongoing human rights violations.

Nevertheless, improving the professionalism of the Nigerian military and other security services is in the interests of the Nigerian people, Nigeria's neighbors, and the United States. Were Abuja to investigate allegations of human rights abuses by the security forces, and were the security services receptive, the door would open to greater U.S. assistance that over time could improve their professionalism and thereby their performance.

At the request of the Nigerian government, the United States is deploying drones and surveillance aircraft concentrated on finding the Chibok schoolgirls. That program may be expanded. The territory to be searched is roughly the size of New England. How valuable the intelligence acquired by such surveillance will be in finding and liberating the Chibok girls remains to be seen.

The expanded surveillance option would require the United States to deploy additional assets, which would likely require more support personnel, especially in a region that lacks basic infrastructure. Increased deployment will make the U.S. presence more obvious to a Muslim population that is already suspicious of the West.

The U.S. political response to Boko Haram continues to be hobbled by a lack of understanding about the latter's methods and goals. Given Boko Haram's threat to the Nigerian state and its potential for stronger links to international terrorism, the United States needs to deepen its understanding of the organization's leadership, structure, funding, and sources of support. U.S. efforts should be coordinated with other governments that have significant on-the-ground knowledge of the Sahel, perhaps by means of a contact group.

Given Nigeria's current travails, the watchword for Washington policy initiatives should be "first, do no harm." An increasingly brutal civil war between Islamist radicals and government security forces capable of the most egregious human rights abuses poses potential pitfalls. American missteps such as an overly militarized response in northern Nigeria could compromise U.S. interests throughout Muslim West Africa. Protecting those interests in Nigeria and in the Sahel will require trade-offs. For example, a stronger Washington stance on Nigerian human rights abuses could make Abuja less cooperative in such venues as the UN Security Council, at least in the short term. But, it is the policy with the best prospect for mitigating Boko Haram's radicalization of West Africa's largest Muslim population.

Recommendations for U.S. Policy

[see full version for detailed text; for summary see above.]


Boko Haram is primarily an indigenous northern Nigerian response to poverty and bad governance within the context of a breakdown of regional power alternation and a radical Islamist worldview. Hence, it would be a mistake for Washington to place Boko Haram in the context of the international war on terrorism. There is little scope for a military response by the United States.

Rather than a greater U.S. security role in Nigeria, Washington should redouble its diplomatic efforts to persuade and encourage the Abuja government to address the drivers of Boko Haram.

Implementing the recommendations outlined above would likely result in a cooler bilateral relationship between Washington and Abuja, at least in the short term. However, they could strengthen American ties to the Nigerian people, especially civic organizations working for democracy and good governance.

The United States can assist those in Nigeria working for a democratic trajectory only at the margins. But it is worth the effort. A democratic Nigeria characterized by the rule of law would promote economic development, alleviate poverty, and address the people's alienation from their government. Boko Haram would be deprived of its oxygen.The diplomatic and security partnership between Washington and Abuja could then be reestablished, relieving the United States of the need for a greater security presence in West Africa.

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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