The Obama administration considers Nigeria a “vital” strategic partner and provides Nigeria with security assistance to stabilize the Niger Delta. Yet, as Jamestown Foundation’s Jacob Zenn notes, a recent escalation of violence and brutal military conduct, coupled with continued U.S. security assistance, could jeopardize the U.S.’ regional “strategic footprint.” The U.S. risks being associated with the brutal conduct of the Nigerian forces: “U.S. interests could face additional threats in West Africa if the United States is associated with abuses of its allies.”
Nigeria’s state of affairs
In the last six months, the Nigerian government’s conflict with radical Islamist militant group Boko Haram has been intensifying and risks spilling over regionally. The conflict has evolved “from a simmering homegrown insurgency to a guerrilla conflict that has spread into neighboring countries and entered its most violent stage,” according to the Washington Post’s Sudarsan Raghavan.
On May 14, in response to an escalation of violence, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan declared a state of emergency in Adamawa, Borno and Yobe states, which border Cameroon, Chad and Niger. Boko Haram militants have increasingly targeted population centers, principally schools, which the military has been unable to protect.
The Nigerian military, poorly paid, under-trained, and under-equipped has responded with a dragnet campaign, reportedly indiscriminately targeting young men residing in the poor northern states. Because of the state of emergency, reporter’s access to the region has been limited and phone and Internet lines have been cut. Consequentially, reporters largely rely on official government accounts and information from “carefully orchestrated visits” to sites of military victory.
The official accounts hail successes and dispute reports of human rights abuses. However, outlets like The Washington Post, New York Times and Aljazeera have challenged the government’s accounts of military conduct and its respect for human rights, as noted by former U.S. ambassador and current Council on Foreign Relations fellow John Campbell in his blog. The New York Times’ Adam Nossiter’s groundbreaking reporting contained alarming tales of extrajudicial killings, torture and indiscriminate round ups.
U.S.-Nigerian diplomatic relations
On May 17, Secretary of State Kerry expressed concern over “credible allegations that Nigerian security forces are committing gross human rights violations, which, in turn, only escalate the violence and fuel extremism.” For counterinsurgency operations, the United States touts a population-centric civilian and military effort to simultaneously defeat an insurgency and address its root causes, a notion which inspires Kerry’s emphasis on the fact Nigerian military’s brutality may aggravate entrenched grievances.
Just five days after Kerry’s comments, Nigeria requested more funds from the U.S. to secure its porous border with Niger, which the government claims Boko Haram exploits to traffic weapons into the country. Nigeria’s Minister of Interior Abba Moro announced on May 23 that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security agreed to supply Nigeria with surveillance equipment. The project, which according to Minister Moro will cost $244 million, will be installed by the U.S. State Department in cooperation with a Chinese company under a public, private partnership.
The State Department also put out a reward of $7 million dollars for clues leading to the capture of Boko Haram’s leader Abubakar Shekau. This marks the first time the U.S. has offered a monetary reward for a West African and may indicate “a shift in U.S. thinking regarding the threat posed by Islamist militants” in Nigeria. In an interview with VOA on June 13, commander of the U.S. Africa Command, General David Rodriguez, affirmed his concern over Boko Haram’s growing regional ties and expanded capabilities.
To the north, Nigeria faces potential regional instability stemming from Mali’s continued crisis. The Washington Post’s Raghavan notes early on that Nigeria’s conflict intensified as France’s intervention into Mali progressed: insurgents were reinforced by sophisticated weapons and tactics, likely exported from the battlefields of Mali. However, CFR expert Campbell warns against assuming that shared tactics are a sign of ideological cooperation.
Just as Mali’s instability has fed Nigeria’s fragility, Nigeria’s conflict may aggravate tensions throughout the region. Recent news articles appear to indicate that Nigeria’s military offensive in the north has been affecting its northern neighbor. The UNHCR reported 6,000 Nigerian refugees have crossed into Niger, straining meager local water and food resources. Niger is already hosting some 50,000 Malian refugees. Simultaneously, Niger experienced its first attack on a paramilitary camp claimed by a Jihadist Islamist organization, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO.) While Niger’s government successfully repelled the attack, this new Jihadist activity, which took place in Niamey, halfway between Mali and Nigeria, is noteworthy.