The top commander of U.S. troops in Africa said he would like the U.S. military to do more to fight the terrorist group Boko Haram, but that it’s up to Nigerian and U.S. policy officials to decide how much they’re willing to change the trajectory of that group’s violent stronghold on the region.
U.S. Africa Command’s Gen. David Rodriguez, who previously served as the No. 2-ranking commander of the Afghanistan war, said he believes to turn the tide against Boko Haram would require a full-scale counterinsurgency plan across four countries.
The group now controls a vast territory of northeast Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger. Two weeks ago, Boko Haram fighters killed roughly 2,000 people in one attack in the region. The episode drew delayed Western media attention and relatively muted responses from Western leaders. Critics at the time complained that Washington and allied leaders paid disproportionate attention to the terrorist attack in Paris against the satirical periodical Charlie Hebdo, which occurred the same week.
Rodriguez said he felt the international community was amply aware of Nigeria’s crisis and was taking steps to fight the terrorist threat. “But I totally agree that it has to be much more effective all the way around to change what’s going on there, the negative impact on the people, the number of people displaced is just staggering,” he said, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.
Director, Africa Center, Atlantic Council
“I think it’s going to take a huge international and multinational effort there to change the trajectory of that … I think the Nigerian leadership and Nigerian militaries are really going to have to really improve their capacities to be able to handle that. … I hope that they let us help them more and more,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez answered critics of the international response to the terrorist groups by saying it was ultimately Nigeria’s responsibility to request additional U.S. help, which the general was eager to provide.
“We continue to look for a way to constructively support the Nigerian military efforts,” Rodriguez said, “and continue to work will all the nations around there.” But Nigeria has cancelled exercises with U.S. forces. “We hope that that gets better and we hope we are able to train and equip more and more,” he said.
Next month, Nigeria will hold its presidential elections as President Goodluck Jonathan faces increasing criticism that his government has downplayed the crisis and proven inept in its response. Secretary of State John Kerry just returned from Nigeria, where he urged calm amid concern that the security situation could threaten the elections and spark additional violence.
“What has come together is a ‘perfect storm’ of security threats,” said Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center, testifying Tuesday before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. Pham listed Boko Haram’s continuing insurgency and terrorist attacks to neighboring countries beyond Nigeria, the possibly millions displaced by the conflict, and the economic pressure created by the falling price of oil.
“It’s Boko Haram version 3.0,” Pham told Defense One. “It’s a group that’s gone from being a violent extremist group, to a terrorist group carrying out attacks, suicide bombings and other acts of violence, to full-fledged insurgency, occupying territory, trying to set up a mini-government, a mini-caliphate of its own.”
Emmanuel Ogebe, manager for the Peaceful Polls 2015 Project promoting fair elections in Nigeria, said that while Boko Haram killed roughly 2,000 people in 2012, they have exceeded that in the first week of 2015.
“Boko Haram has led ISIS the last three years in atrocities,” he said. “It puzzles me to this day that Boko Haram does not get the attention that ISIS has … Paris got way more attention than the people of Baga ever did, even though the destruction of Baga was an extinction-level event.”
“I want to say that black lives matter when it comes to global terrorism as well,” he said.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said while much of the attention in the counterterrorism fight has been on other regions, over time, he’s going to make Africa more of a priority in the committee. “Certainly, [Boko Haram] have turned out to be an incredibly disruptive force, and much of our focus has been on what’s happening in Syria,” Corker told Defense One. “We need to be paying attention to what’s happening in Nigeria as well.”
Robert Jackson, principal deputy assistant secretary of State for African Affairs, said that the U.S. government supports the idea of a joint task force and wants the U.S. to continue training vetted Nigerian soldiers. But he added, “Peaceful and credible elections is a condition for greater [U.S.] engagement, and we want to get through that step first.”
“I think there’s a tremendous effort to combat Boko Haram,” Rodriguez said, referring to the military multinational task force, in all four nations. “In Nigeria, we have continued to build their naval security apparatus, it’s going very, very well, and we have expended our intelligence sharing efforts with them.” But much more is needed, he said.
Part of the complication of this training, Pham noted, are accusations that the Nigerian government and military have committed human rights abuses. By law, the U.S. cannot provide training or equipment to individuals or units that are implicated in human rights violations. While the Defense Department can grant exceptions for equipment and assistance necessary for disaster relief, national emergencies, or “extraordinary circumstances,” as determined by the secretary of defense, Pham said, no exception has ever been made in Africa to his knowledge. “Not every member or unit of the Nigerian military are human rights abusers,” he said. “To say it is all corrupt, inefficient, and violates human rights is painting with a very broad brush.”
Earlier this year, one round of a program by which U.S. Army instructors trained a battalion of Nigerian “rangers” was paused due to a lack of equipment, according to Pham. By a memorandum of understanding, the Nigerian government had agreed to buy the equipment its forces would need.
The Nigerian government spends roughly $5.8 to $6 billion of its budget on security, while its total economy is roughly half a trillion dollars, according to Pham. Its military is made up of some 90,000 active duty and 20-25,000 reserve components – “For a country of 180 million people, that’s disproportionately small,” he said.
When civilian rule was restored to Nigeria after a series of military takeovers in the 80s and 90s, the government essentially starved the military in order to protect against another coup. Now, Nigerian forces badly need the training the U.S. can uniquely provide, Pham said – but it will take time.
“To fight a group like [Boko Haram], you have to be not only a war-fighting Army, but one trained in counterinsurgency,” he said, echoing Rodriguez’ comments made hours earlier across Washington.
Rodriguez would not say whether the U.S. could to more to stop Boko Haram, short of full scale counterinsurgency, only that whatever level of U.S. military intervention he is tasked to provide is “a policy decision” that is not his to make.