LAGOS — As the fight against Boko Haram intensifies, President Barack Obama is supporting Nigeria’s neighboring countries with $35 million worth of military and defense support services to Chad, Niger and Mali channeled through France. A press statement from the White House last week said the U.S. leader gave the support to help shore up the security of the three French-speaking African nations that share borders with Nigeria.
But the United States did not include Nigeria, which is at the center of the five-year war on Boko Haram. And that does not speak well of the relations between Washington and the Nigerian military.
Indeed, relations between the two countries have been at a record low, with Nigeria accusing the United States of not providing sufficient support for its fight against Boko Haram at a moment when help is vital.
Nigeria suspended military training with the U.S. in 2014 after Washington repeatedly blocked its effort to buy arms to fight the insurgents. “At the request of the Nigerian government, the United States will discontinue its training of a Nigerian Army battalion,” the U.S. government said in a statement through its embassy in Abuja.
After months of informal allegations, the Nigerian ambassador to the U.S., Ade Adefuye, openly accused the United States last November of refusing to sell arms and equipment to Nigeria to help defeat Boko Haram.
In its response, the American government said it has supported Nigeria to the extent its law permits, and accused the Nigerian security forces of human rights violations. The U.S. said its laws do not allow sales of arms to countries with such human rights record.
The U.S. government blocked the purchase of U.S.-made Cobra combat helicopters. The sales reportedly were coming from Israel which had okayed the deal from its own inventory, but needed U.S. approval since the fighter-helicopters were from America.
The Israeli government cannot transfer the military helicopters to another foreign country without the U.S. signing off on the sale.
The United States had criticized the Nigerian military’s human rights record and its handling of the Boko Haram crisis, particular the search for over 200 schoolgirls abducted by the group from Chibok, Borno State.
A former Nigerian Consul General to the United States, Ambassador Joe Keshi wrote in a local daily U.S. that records show Washington has carried out major arms shipments, running into several billions of dollars, to countries with abysmal human rights records, including brutal suppression of democratic dissents.
“A number of countries in the Middle East, Latin America and Africa… are beneficiaries of American military support,” Keshi complained. “Besides, even if we stretch the human rights violations a little, it is not America, whose military and security agencies have had their own share of abysmal records in almost all their operations outside the U.S., that should openly criticize the Nigerian military the way it does.”
In fact, the human rights issue may be only one problem. Defense analysts believe another possible reason why the U.S. refused to sell arms to Nigeria was because it feared sophisticated military hardware could end up in the hands of Islamist insurgents. Boko Haram militants have on numerous occasions seized arms from fleeing Nigerian soldiers.
“My understanding is that there were leaks or moles inside the Nigerian military who were leaking information to Boko Haram,” says Ben Moores, senior analyst at the defense and security analysis organization IHS Jane’s 360. He told Voice of America, “They were leaking certain bits of information, training information and perhaps information on the team itself.”
American officials have in the past accused the Nigerian military of corruption as well. Sarah Sewall, the Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights, said during a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee last year that despite Nigeria’s $5.8 billion security budget, “corruption prevents supplies as basic as bullets and transport vehicles from reaching the front lines of the struggle against Boko Haram.”
“Nigeria will need to seriously tackle corruption if it is to succeed in stamping out Boko Haram,” Sewall said.
Similarly, Nigeria’s president-elect, Muhammadu Buhari in an interview with CNN a month before he won his country’s presidential election, said the Nigerian military was unable to defeat Boko Haram as a result of “misappropriation of the resources provided by the government for weapons.”
The two countries are not relating well economically, either, after the U.S. fully suspended buying Nigerian crude oil in July, a decision that helped plunge Nigeria into one of its most severe financial crises when the oil price fell to a seven-year low.
The situation may change. The U.S. is expected to rebuild ties with Nigeria when Buhari takes office as president, if we are to judge by the Obama administration’s recent promises to support the incoming government.
In a congratulatory phone call to Buhari last month, Vice-President Joe Biden “affirmed that the United States stands ready to expand collaboration with Nigeria on issues of common concern, including economic and security matters.”
Buhari himself is optimistic about a closer working relationship with the United States. In his acceptance speech, he acknowledged President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to ensure a peaceful presidential election, and later promised to restore military ties with the U.S. once he takes over at the end of May.
If so, we may be able to answer the question of whether the fight against Boko Haram would have been won earlier if the U.S. had shown greater support.
Ambassador Adefuye last November told members of the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations that if the U.S. had granted a request by Nigeria to purchase lethal equipment, it “would have brought down the terrorists within a short time.”