The Nigerian Military's Inconvenient Truth
By emphasizing his desire for weapons above military reforms, Nigeria's new president squandered a valuable opportunity to raise an important issue in U.S. policy circles.
During one of his final appearances in a much-hyped official visit to the United States, which included high-level meetings with President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry General Muhammadu Buhari was uncharacteristically blunt for a politician.
In prepared remarks to an over-capacity crowd at the United States Institute for Peace, the new President accused the Leahy Amendment of “aiding and abetting Boko Haram” by preventing the Nigerian government from accessing the military technology necessary to put down the brutal insurgency.
The statement was all the more brazen given that days before, the Nigerian government had conducted a raid on the home of former National Security Advisor Sambo Dasuki that “recovered sophisticated arms and ammunitions, military related gears and 12 new vehicles, including five bullet-proof cars from Mr. Dasuki’s home,” suggesting that the fight against Boko Haram has been hamstrung by the quality of personnel, not the technology, of the Nigerian security sector.
By emphasizing the restrictions that Leahy vetting places on technological upgrading of the military, as opposed to its hampering the professionalization and training of the security sector, president Buhari relinquished a valuable opportunity to provoke debate in the United States about reforming the Leahy vetting process and overlooked his country’s culpability in radicalizing communities in the country’s North East.
The Leahy Amendment prohibits the U.S. from offering equipment or training to “to any unit of the security forces of a foreign country if the Secretary of State has credible information that such unit has committed a gross violation of human rights.” While some military aid to Nigeria has been discontinued, it is worth noting that at least one hundred military units have been vetted and deemed eligible for aid.
(See also: The Constraints on US Intelligence in Nigeria)
In his remarks, Buhari brushed aside the “so-called human rights violations” that have disqualified other units of the Nigerian security sector for American aid and argued that the Nigerian forces had been rendered “impotent” by the unnecessarily harsh terms of the Leahy vetting process. The allegations against the Nigerian military cannot be so easily dismissed, however. A recent Amnesty International report found that since March 2011 “more than 7,000 young men and boys died in military detention” and an additional 1,200 people were killed extrajudicially since February 2012. These accusations built upon an ignominious record of police brutality and security sector abuses, which have accelerated throughout the country’s attempt to root out members of Boko Haram.
Human Rights Watch has documented that, “in the name of ending the group’s threat to citizens, security forces…. have killed hundreds of Boko Haram suspects and random members of communities.” In this process, the Joint Military Task Force “has engaged in excessive use of force, physical abuse, secret detentions, extortion, burning of houses, stealing money during raids” in addition to extrajudicial executions. The situation deteriorated to the point that it was reported that citizens would flee after Boko Haram had left to avoid the wrath of the Joint Task Force.
Having secured agreements with the United States and an additional $2.1 billion in loans from the World Bank for security and development issues in the country’s north east during his official visit, it is critical Buhari and his administration recognize rampant corruption and abuses by the security sector–not restrictions of military aid like the Leahy Amendment–that have allowed Boko Haram to become, in Buhari’s own words “a typical example of small fires causing large fires.”
To his credit, President Buhari has taken a strong public stand against corruption. During the same address, he stated unequivocally that “fighting corruption is a full-time job;” his rhetoric has been matched by his replacement of the heads of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Defense Chiefs last week and his request that the US assist the country in recovering the billions of dollars the country has lost to graft.
The reformation of the military and the wholesale eradication of corruption in Nigeria will be more valuable tools in the fight against Boko Haram than American military hardware–however, in emphasizing the need for military technology rather than human capital development partnerships with the American military, president Buhari squandered a valuable opportunity to raise an important issue in US policy circles.