Just weeks after the Nigerian ambassador to Washington blasted the U.S. military for not offering enough assistance to weaken Boko Haram, the Nigerian government canceled an American-run training program for a Nigerian battalion charged with battling the terrorist organization behind the infamous kidnappings of more than 200 Nigerian high school girls earlier this year.
The American embassy in Abuja announced the program’s elimination late Monday, saying that it came “at the request of the Nigerian government.”
“We regret premature termination of this training, as it was to be the first in a larger planned project that would have trained additional units with the goal of helping the Nigerian Army build capacity to counter Boko Haram,” the statement said.
The move came in the wake of one of Nigeria’s bloodiest weeks in recent history, including a mosque bombing on Friday that killed at least 120 in the northern city of Kano. On Monday, two suicide bombings in state capitals in the north killed dozens, though precise estimates of the dead and wounded weren’t yet available. The attacks are thought to be the work of Boko Haram, the Islamist group whose bloody campaign has helped them steadily gain territory in Nigeria’s majority Muslim north. The terror group normally publicizes its attacks on social media and leaked videotapes, but has so far not taken credit for the new strikes.
Washington had been one of the first countries to offer military assistance in an extensive search for the 219 schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Chibok last spring, and Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration did not explain its decision to terminate the U.S. training program. Nigeria’s leading daily newspaper, the Vanguard, reported Tuesday that the planned cancellation pointed to worsening relations between Nigeria and the United States. The story opened with claims the program’s cancellation is the “latest sign of strained ties between the two countries.”
Vanessa Hillman, a Pentagon spokeswoman, told Foreign Policy that ties between the two governments remain strong and that the Defense Department “is committed to the long tradition of partnership with Nigeria and will continue to engage future requests for cooperation and training.”
The United States has long refused to provide arms to the Nigerian military, citing human rights violations, including financial fraud and torture in the military, that legally prevent them from offering such aid. Despite these claims, the United States has previously provided military assistance to other countries facing claims of human rights violations, including Uganda, where a contingent of U.S. Special Forces are conducting a quiet hunt for Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a rebel group notorious for its use of child soldiers. Although the United States has offered Nigeria other forms of aid, including training sessions for the military and the deployment of special intelligence units, the Obama administration’s refusal to provide military equipment has heightened political tensions between the two countries.
Hillman told FP that Nigeria, which has the largest military in West Africa, can have American assistance, but the ball is ultimately in their court for defeating the insurgents. “The government of Nigeria leads the effort and has ultimate responsibility for countering the threat posed by Boko Haram inside Nigeria,” she said. “Our efforts focus on assisting the Nigerians so they can effectively secure their nation.”
Economic tensions have also strained Washington’s relationship with Jonathan’s administration. The United States announced in July that due to an increase in domestic production, it would no longer buy crude oil from Nigeria, which worsened the country’s ongoing financial crisis.
Jonathan, who announced his candidacy for reelection last month, has faced months of criticism for his failure to stop the group’s momentum or find the missing girls. The U.N. estimates at least 700,000 Nigerians are internally displaced due to the group’s violence, with tens of thousands more having fled for neighboring Chad and Cameroon. Despite extensive intelligence-sharing and other aid from the U.S., Israel, China, and other countries, meanwhile, the girls have still not been located. Boko Haram leaders have said the missing girls had been converted to Islam and married off to its fighters.
In a November speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, Nigerian Ambassador Adebowale Ibidapo Adefuye asked “how and why, in spite of the U.S. presence in Nigeria with their sophisticated military technology, Boko Haram should be expanding and becoming more deadly.” His office did not respond to multiple phone calls on Tuesday.
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