Washington wants to help Nigeria’s new president battle one of Africa’s deadliest terrorist groups, but don’t expect a fleet of surveillance drones to be part of the mix.
- By Dan De LuceDan De Luce is Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent., Siobhán O'GradySiobhán O'Grady is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. A two-time grant recipient from the International Women's Media Foundation, she has reported from South Sudan, Eastern Congo, and Sénégal, and has lived in Morocco and Cameroon.
The United States will expand its military assistance to Nigeria to help it wage war on the Boko Haram extremist group, but it doesn’t plan to provide any of the coveted surveillance drones that are needed for U.S. counterterrorism missions around the world.
The aid increase reflects Washington’s cautious optimism that the country’s newly elected president, Muhammadu Buhari, will bring a measure of competence and accountability to a military plagued by corruption and allegations of human rights abuses. An Amnesty International report last month alleged that senior Nigerian commanders were responsible for the arbitrary arrest and brutal detention of thousands of young men and boys, as well as extrajudicial killings and torture.
The White House, however, remains reluctant to provide surveillance drones or other larger scale assistance to Nigeria because of its military’s reputation for brutality and incompetence and because Boko Haram still ranks as a lower priority compared to the threat posed by Islamic State jihadis in the Middle East and al Qaeda’s terrorist network, officials and analysts said. Boko Haram has killed thousands of people as part of a fight to topple the Nigerian government and build an Islamic state in its place, but has not mounted attacks on Western targets.
The plans for more U.S. security assistance likely will be unveiled when Buhari visits Washington on July 20 for talks with President Barack Obama, administration officials said Thursday.
Apart from more military training and equipment for Nigeria, the Obama administration also has decided to deploy two Cessna surveillance aircraft in the next few months to Niger in order to bolster intelligence gathering for a new regional force being set up to battle the Boko Haram extremists, officials told Foreign Policy.
That won’t go far enough for many on Capitol Hill, where some lawmakers in Congress want the United States to do more to help Nigeria and its neighbors go after Boko Haram.
Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, said the Obama administration needs to take a more “robust” approach that makes use of the U.S. military’s expertise in surveillance and planning operations.
The Nigerians “can be assisted mightily by the assets that we have, such as satellite technology for tracking and identifying positions by Boko Haram,” Royce told FP.
The United States was one of several foreign governments that offered intelligence and aerial surveillance to help Nigeria try to track down 219 schoolgirls, who were abducted by Boko Haram more than a year ago. The mass kidnapping sparked global outrage and a viral social media campaign urging international action to rescue the girls.
Although the U.S. military deployed surveillance drones last year as part of the initial search for the kidnapped schoolgirls, those aircraft were later diverted to other missions as the spy planes are in high demand for other American military operations from Afghanistan to the Horn of Africa. The American commanders leading the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria have frequently complained about not having enough armed or surveillance drones.
Such assets are in short supply, a senior State Department official said. “There’s not a lot of spare bandwidth lying around,” he said.
Boko Haram suffered a string of battlefield defeats earlier this year but has rebounded to wage a deadly campaign of bombings that have killed more than 500 in recent weeks in Nigeria, as well in neighboring Cameroon, Chad, and Niger.
Boko Haram in March pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and refers to itself as the “West Africa province” of the jihadi group’s self-proclaimed caliphate in Syria and Iraq.
Despite its attempt to link itself with the Islamic State, U.S. intelligence officials said Boko Haram does not pose an imminent threat to American or Western countries and appears mainly focused on its fight with local security forces.
But the group for years has shown an ability to inflict bloodshed on a mass scale and to melt away when facing an offensive by Nigerian army and police forces, a U.S. intelligence official said.
“Boko Haram represents a persistent, regional threat that has long demonstrated the ability to carry out sophisticated, deadly attacks,” the official said.
The decision to provide more military aid to Nigeria follows U.S. friction with Buhari’s predecessor, former President Goodluck Jonathan. Late last year the previous government cancelled a training mission carried out by U.S. Army Special Forces after Washington persuaded Israel to call off a planned sale of Cobra helicopters to Nigeria. Obama administration officials were concerned that the helicopters would be used in reckless operations that could inflict civilian casualties.
The United States and other Western governments had grown frustrated with Jonathan’s handling of the Boko Haram problem, including the Nigerian army’s heavy-handed tactics, shoddy logistics, and the ex-president’s preference for unilateral action instead of coordinating with regional governments. His successor, Buhari, a former general who ruled the country from 1983-1985 after taking power in a coup, has promised to make the battle against Boko Haram his top priority.
U.S. officials said they were heartened by Buhari’s initial steps as president since he took office on May 29, as he has vowed to crack down on human rights abuses and this week announced the sacking of the entire military leadership.
“We’re encouraged he’s announced some investigations” into allegations of atrocities by the Nigerian military, the State Department official said.
“We expect to see some accountability, which will make it easier for us to provide assistance, training and equipment, and cooperation,” the official said.
Royce, one of the most powerful Republicans on Capitol Hill, said Buhari’s election offered a crucial opportunity to deal a blow to Boko Haram and that he didn’t want to see military assistance to Nigeria held up because of what he described as alleged abuses by its military.
Buhari’s decision to purge the chief of every branch of the armed services and name a well-respected national security advisor just days before he flies to the United States will help his case for more military aid, as some of the military leaders were singled out in the Amnesty report, said J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center at the Washington-based think tank, the Atlantic Council.
“It does remove one potential obstacle to one of the things he will undoubtedly be seeking next week — which is more U.S. assistance,” Pham said.
With Boko Haram’s deadly attacks escalating across the Lake Chad basin region, the Obama administration is anxious to help Nigeria take on the extremists before the problem snowballs, Pham said.
“The Boko Haram threat has undoubtedly grown and security now trumps a lot of things,” he said.
Buhari’s election and his outreach to neighboring states has given new impetus to a 7,500-strong multinational force — including Nigeria, Benin, Chad, Cameroon, and Niger — that is now taking shape.
To lay the ground for Buhari’s upcoming visit, Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken held talks in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, last week and made clear Washington was ready to help the country in its campaign against Boko Haram, officials said.
During his discussions, Blinken told his counterparts that when it came to U.S. security assistance — “everything is on the table,” the senior official said.
However, Blinken qualified that by saying, “It doesn’t mean we guarantee we’ll give the Nigerians everything they want.”
Photo credit: PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty