by William D. Hartung
On his trip to Nigeria to attend the inauguration of the country’s new president Muhammadu Buhari late last month, Secretary of State John Kerry indicated that the Obama administration is ready to send more military advisers to aid in the fight against Boko Haram.
The administration should think twice before upping aid to the Nigerian military. Its record of corruption and systematic human rights violations suggests that any such aid will be useless at best, if not completely counterproductive. Intensive training of the Nigerian military has done little to change this pattern of behavior.
The United States has trained 28,000 members of the Nigerian armed forces since 2009, according to data compiled by the Security Assistance Monitor. Much of this training was identified as going toward peacekeeping, but in light of recent revelations, any aid to the Nigerian military should be called into question.
Just last week Amnesty International released a report, Blood on Their Hands: War Crimes Committed by the Nigerian Military, which documented the death of over 7,000 men and boys in military detention since February 2012. The report also asserts that another 1,200 people died in unlawful attacks by the Nigerian military in 2013 and 2014 alone.
The Amnesty report was the product of 412 interviews with “victims, their relatives, eyewitnesses, doctors, journalists, lawyers and military sources.” The Amnesty staff also reviewed photographs and military evidence.
The abuses cited in the Amnesty report were horrific. Detainees were housed in crowded, unventilated cells with no access to sanitary facilities and little access to food and water. Deaths from starvation, suffocation and lack of access to water were common. The vast bulk of the detainees are being held indefinitely, without access to lawyers or family members, and without being charged with a specific crime. One former detainee said that a soldier at Giwa barracks, one of the detention facilities, said “Welcome to your die house. Welcome to your place of death.”
This unconscionable behavior on the part of the Nigerian military is no way to fight Boko Haram. If anything, it will undermine local support needed to contain and defeat them. President Buhari has promised to step up military efforts against Boko Haram, but it is less clear whether and how he intends to punish human rights abusers in the Nigerian military. The Amnesty report calls for war crimes investigations against nine leaders of the Nigerian military, including three major generals, two brigadier generals, and four former chiefs of the defense staff or the Nigerian army. It’s the least the new regime can do to try to prevent future abuses. The Obama administration should hold off on aiding the Nigerian military until these investigations are completed and someone is punished for the crimes exposed by Amnesty.
Problem of Corruption
Human rights abuses are just one reason to withhold aid from the Nigerian military. There is also the military’s record of rampant corruption. In a hearing last year Sarah Sewall, the undersecretary of state for civilian security, democracy, and human rights, said that “corruption prevents supplies as basic as bullets and transport vehicles from reaching the front lines of the struggle against Boko Haram.”
In the meantime, sympathizers in the Nigerian military either steal military stocks or transfer them directly to Boko Haram, providing much of the group’s weapons..
Even if he makes a good faith effort, President Buhari will have a tough time rooting out the ingrained culture of corruption and human rights abuses that now exists in the Nigerian military. Promises of dialogue by U.S. officials are not an adequate response.
Statements by key administration policy makers at a June 4 hearing on security assistance in Africa suggest that a full cut-off of military aid to Nigeria is not currently in the cards. But there were a few hopeful signs that the administration could be persuaded to go slow while determining whether the Buhari government is serious about improving the human rights performance of the Nigerian security forces.
In her opening statement, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Linda Thomas-Greenfield gave a good summary of the importance of promoting human rights in nations that are recipients of U.S. aid:
“We continue to encourage security services to respect human rights and hold violators of human rights accountable, because doing so promotes the legitimacy of these services. It improves the rule of law, and it undermines the extremist rhetoric calling on people to seek alternative justice systems.”
Unfortunately, Greenfield-Thomas gave no clear indication of what the consequences would be for a country whose armed forces are engaged in systematic human rights abuses.
Interestingly, the most pointed statement on the potential role of human rights considerations in the decisions on security assistance to Nigeria came from the Pentagon representative at the hearing, Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary for African Affairs Amanda Dory. She suggested that in the short term at least, the Pentagon would wait to see “what changes are made, if any, with respect to the Nigerian military leadership.” She also suggested that the department would honor the requirements of the Leahy law, which, as she noted, “would prevent us from working and collaborating in a training relationship or an equipping relationship with military members who have any accusations with respect to human rights.”
Taken to their logical conclusions, and given the deep involvement of large segments of the Nigerian armed forces in heinous human rights abuses, Thomas-Greenfield and Dory’s statements are arguments for cutting off all aid to the Nigerian military until human rights abusers are brought to justice and credible anti-corruption measures are put into place. But the Obama administration is unlikely to take such a step without pressure from Congress and the public.
The Challenge of Security Assistance
The Nigerian case is not the only cause for concern regarding U.S. security assistance to Africa. There has been a pronounced militarization of U.S. aid to the region at the expense of civilian programs that could improve the situation in African countries by promoting democratic practices and helping to provide for the basic needs of the population.
An analysis by the Security Assistance Monitor has shown that if this year’s budget proposal is approved, Pentagon security assistance to African states other than Egypt will grow by 775% from 2014 to 2016, to the point where it will be well over double the funding provided through comparable programs administered by the Department of State. But strengthening militaries at the expense of civilian institutions and domestic needs is unlikely to have a long-term impact in reducing terrorism, particularly if the military partners are as corrupt and repressive as the Nigerian security forces.
It’s time for a thorough rethinking of U.S. security assistance programs in Africa, starting with a sharp change of direction in military and police aid to Nigeria.
William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy and a senior adviser to the Security Assistance Monitor.