Nigeria and the Obama Administration
This past Sunday, John Kerry traveled to Abuja, the capital of Nigeria, to meet President Goodluck Jonathan and show solidarity in Nigeria’s fight against Boko Haram, the radical Nigerian Islamist movement that developed a highly militant program in 2009 since Obama took office. The visit comes just after Islamist Boko Haram fighters captured the north-eastern Nigerian town of Monguno 146 km north of the strategically-located northeastern Nigerian city of Maiduguri. Boko Haram then attacked Maiduguri itself, the capital of Borno State, its population already swollen by thousands of IDPs who had fled to the city. Boko Haram had failed to capture the city in its last assault in December 2013. This latest attack was repelled by a mixture of Nigerian troops and “volunteers,” reinforced by air strikes against Boko Haram positions.
In his press conference, Kerry stressed the importance of the scheduled February national elections being peaceful and setting “a new standard.” He elaborated: “We are prepared to do more [to counter the threat of Boko Haram], but our ability to do more will depend to some degree on the full measure of credibility, accountability, transparency and peacefulness of this election.” Though America has been supplying not only advice, but military training and equipment to help the Nigerian government in its fight against Boko Haram to “professionalize the response of its security forces, including to respond to crime and terrorism,” it has always been with a caveat emphasizing “human rights, civilian protection and adherence to rule of law at all levels.” No such qualifications seemed to have accompanied the supply of Navy Seals to fight the Lord’s Resistance Army.
I am puzzled. Truly puzzled. America has 150 special forces Naval Seals in landlocked Central African Republic (CAR) and has authorized the deployment of 150 more to try to eliminate Joseph Kony when Kony has only 200 followers left and when he is cornered by four African armies. Though America also insists it is fully in support of Nigeria’s fight against Boko Haram in north-eastern Nigeria, the U.S. cut off the resale by Israel of helicopters to Nigeria, helicopters ostensibly crucial to the fight against Boko Haram. Boko Haram, though not directly involved in any war against the West and has no official relationship with other militant Islamicists, openly identifies with Al Qaeda and Islamic State, sometimes imitating their tactics. Boko Haram is part of the loose international network of radical Islamic forces at war against the U.S. and the West. In contrast, Kony is the leader of an exhausted idiosyncratic and isolated Christian militant sect that poses no danger to the U.S. Further, Boko Haram is estimated to have 9,000 fighters, not 200.
I need your help in puzzling through this seeming paradox, but I will make an initial stab at it, first by elaborating on American policy towards Nigeria in its fight against terrorism. Sunday, I will provide some background on Boko Haram itself and recent developments in Nigerian history. Only then will I attempt to answer more fully my initial puzzle.
America’s vetoing of the helicopter sale was explained in terms of “consistency with U.S. policy interests.” Further, the veto was procedurally correct since “requests for one country to transfer U.S.-origin defense items to another country” require American approval in accordance with the U.S. Conventional Arms Transfer Policy and American norms are stricter than the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms to which Israel, de facto, subscribes that restricts transfers “where there is imminent risk that arms might be internally diverted, illegally proliferated and re-transferred, or fall into the hands of terrorists or entities and states that support or sponsor them.”
Third, there were allegations of human rights abuses committed by Nigerian troops. Amnesty International in its August 2014 report claimed to have both video footage and testimonials that suggest that the Nigerian military has been involved in war crimes. American aid is dependent upon and emphasizes “human rights, civilian protection and adherence to the rule of law.” The regulations on arms transfers forbid them when retransfer is to a recipient “who would [not could] commit human rights abuses or serious violations of international humanitarian law.” However, well-founded allegations of human rights abuses by the Ugandan army did not prevent the U.S. from supplying the Ugandan army with equipment, training and seconded training forces.
But what were the policy interests? Human rights? U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, James F. Entwistle, had signaled last October that American was concerned that arms transfers could affect “the human situation.” The U.S. requires that, for the sale of military equipment, such as the Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopters at $40 million each, “the risk that significant change in the political or security situation of the recipient country” must be taken into account lest the sale result in “inappropriate end-use.”
Is the American State Department worried that the government of Nigeria is so precarious that there is a danger of a takeover by Boko Haram, at least of the three northeastern states of Nigeria? Then, the helicopters could fall into Boko Haram’s hands. But this merely replaces one paradox with another. That is, we can supply Uganda with arms because the government is strong and the LRA is now so weakened that it poses no real challenge to Kampala. On the other hand, the government of Goodluck Jonathan in Nigeria is apparently so weak, militarily at least, that giving Nigerian troops helicopters is too risky. Or is the veto of the Chinook helicopter sale a shot across the bow to signal Israel that such cancellations are at the President’s discretion? Is Obama signaling that he could stop military transfers to Israel itself?
In other words, if your country is strong and your enemy is very weak, the U.S. will supply weapons. But if the government is at all precarious and the enemy is strong – the very reason the government desperately needs the weapons – then that is a situation where America cannot and will not risk supplying weapons. This Catch-22 on the surface seems so absurd as not to be plausible. But is it?
America has a large training program for Nigerian forces in its fight against Boko Haram. However, Barak Obama in his address to the United Nations on the threat of Islamicism stressed education and enlightenment rather than the use of force. “The ideology of ISIL [Islamic State] or al-Qaida or Boko Haram will wilt and die if it is consistently exposed and confronted and refuted in the light of day.” Without asking how exposing, confronting and refuting Islamicist ideology can help or even be critical in the fight against radical Islam, in particular, and against Boko Haram in northeastern Nigeria, does such a policy square with the military support the U.S. does provide Nigeria for its fight against Boko Haram and this emphasis on enlightenment?
A partial explanation may be economic not humanitarian or military. In 2008, America imported almost a million barrels of Nigerian crude per day, 44% of Nigeria’s oil exports. Nigeria was the fifth largest supplier of oil for the U.S. market, slightly down from the over a million barrels average per day imported between 2004 and 2007. Because of the shale revolution and the move back to self-sufficiency in oil for the U.S., the U.S. now produces almost 10 million b/d with a large portion from its Bakken, Eagle Ford and Permian Basin fields. This has totally upended the 2001 Cheney report which defined Nigeria as a core national security interest because of its production of oil and American reliance on those oil imports. In the first quarter of 2014, imports of Nigerian crude by the U.S. continued to decline from the old norm of 90 million barrels per quarter to just over 25 million. Then they fell off the cliff altogether. For six weeks, between July and mid-August of 2014, the U.S. did not import a single barrel of Nigerian crude. There was a similar story between mid-October and 7 November. The oil trade between Nigeria and the U.S. is no longer one of “follow the money,” but the reality that there is NO money to follow.
Just recall that in December 2000, the U.S. National Intelligence Council of the CIA predicted that Africa would be supplying 25% of America’s total oil imports by 2015. What a transformed situation! Asian imports have picked up some of the slack, but only some, and at a much lower per barrel price. And the economic drop has not only come from the fall-off in oil exports, but also from the rapid decline in national receipts for bids for exploration blocks and the drop in large sums traditionally invested in oil infrastructure – drilling platforms, pipelines, loading facilities, production machinery, transportation, etc. Instead of West Africa replacing the Middle East as the number one exporter of oil to the world as predicted ten and even five years ago, instead of posting significant production increases, West Africa, and Nigeria in particular, has posted production declines. This has meant not only a significant decrease in income to the federal Nigerian government, but also that the U.S. has lost the ability to strong arm Nigeria using the oil import card. As a result, the U.S. may have had to fall back on the military export card.
But that too has a back side. In the 1990s, when American policymakers foresaw increased dependence on oil from Africa, and, therefore, demarcated Africa as a primary national security interest, the U.S. dramatically increased its military involvement in Africa. As the need for African oil – though not necessarily other resources – has declined precipitously in the last five years, America has been preaching African military self-sufficiency. More particularly, whereas the U.S. provided military support to undemocratic and repressive regimes in Nigeria, the U.S. now declines to do so unconditionally. Just when its economic leverage is lowest, America has increasingly used its 2004 expansion of its 1997 Africa Crisis Response Initiative (ACRI), renamed as African Contingency Operations Training and Assistance (ACOTA), as leverage. However, the U.S. no longer has the same justification that U.S. military aid was needed to secure its oil supply.
However, U.S. security assistance is also provided to Nigeria through ACOTA, the Anti-Terrorism Assistance program. Is this not sufficient incentive for the U.S. and its war on terror, particularly against radical and militant Islam?
In the beginning of the Obama administration, the emphasis was on the Niger Delta, the source of Nigeria’s oil. The U.S. was concerned with the rise of terrorist and separatist forces there. On 12 August 2009, during her trip to Africa, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Nigerian Foreign Minister Ojo Maduekwe that the U.S. supports the efforts of the “Nigerian Government’s comprehensive political framework approach toward resolving the conflict in the Niger Delta.” Since that was the source of oil, this was understandable. But even then, military cooperation was totally proportionate to Nigerian efforts.
However, the new threat that has been developed since then has been from the northeast sector. The incentive to continue military support for Nigeria raises its head because of the threat of radical Islamic terrorism. So why all the qualms and conditions? Without the issue of protection of the oil interests, direct U.S. military intervention was never on the table. Instead, the policy required the smallest U.S. signature in any initiative. The stress was on capacity building and thickening intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance related to national cooperation, but now conjoined with democratic and human rights improvements.
Thus, even though Obama retained Defense Secretary Robert Gates as well as Army Chief of Staff, General George Casey, their efforts focused on security assistance, even to repressive and undemocratic governments, provided the countries were either direct U.S. allies (Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya and Ethiopia) or rich in resources needed by the U.S. such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. How does this impact on the increasing threat of Boko Haram to Nigerian stability?
A CNN commentator, satirized in the Nigerian media, was responding to Maj. General James “Spider” Marks’ clarification on why there was zero (not just reduced) military aid to Nigeria in its fight against Boko Haram. Black West Africa is not a priority, the commentator suggested. Not West Africa! Not Nigeria! But BLACK West Africa. Yet BLACK Uganda was a priority? The commentator said that, although the U.S. has the means and capability to help us combat/possibly rid us of Boko Haram, the U.S. was committed elsewhere.
In a long term effort, the U.S. could, even unilaterally, do almost anything needed to rout Boko Haram. But Nigeria is not a priority. Defeating militant Islamic terrorism is not a priority. Defeating international militant Islam is, though Obama is always careful to dub it terrorism and not Islamic or religious terrorism. It is not because Nigeria is black or the terrorists are black. Racism is not the differentiating factor. The reduction of Nigeria as an economic and, hence, national security priority, conjoined with the Obama priority on human rights and democracy as conditions for military assistance, except where the countries are explicit allies, are key factors.
Kerry at Davos, before he left for Abuja, spoke at length on the threat to the world from Islamist extremist groups, including Boko Haram. But upon his arrival, he did not focus on the insurgency in the northeast, but of ensuring fair presidential and parliamentary elections in the lead up and on 14 February. The United States has even pressed for the elections to proceed despite the raging violence in northeastern Nigeria, even though Nigeria’s national security adviser, Sambo Dasuki, recommended that polling be delayed, especially in the northeast where tens of thousands have been displaced and three million live in fear.
Perhaps Boko Haram had learned its lesson when it brought the wrath of the U.S. down upon itself when it planned a terror attack on U.S.-bound Northwest Airlines flight on 25 December 2009. Don’t threaten America – just Nigerian schoolgirls, the public, the police, the army, politicians, moderate Muslim clerics, and even businessmen and Christians. America’s involvement in anti-terror programs had not evolved in proportion to the increased threat in the northeast because the terrorist threat in the Niger Delta from the Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta (MEND) significantly diminished.
The decline seems to have had no relationship to the efforts of the Nigerian legislature to pass anti-terrorism legislation between 2006 and 2009. Besides, MEND was always been classified as simply a militant not a terrorist threat. But the anti-terrorism legislation clearly had no impact on a real and growing terrorist threat in the northeast. Nevertheless, critical arms were denied to Nigeria. Boko Haram could wreck all the havoc it wanted as long as Nigeria was not allied with the U.S., was of no overt economic prime interest to the U.S., and the insurgents were not engaged in ‘international’ terrorism. In fact, even as the lethality ratcheted up, military aid could decline.
Bright and promising young security professionals were increasingly sent to Western-sponsored seminars to improve local capacity for effectively countering terrorist threats, but, at the same time, stressing the need for them to protect human rights and enhance democracy. The U.S. Department of Defense’s Counterterrorism Fellowship Program built relationships and developed networks of cooperation. Technology and infrastructure were supplied for detection and recording (early warning), but the supply of lethal force has been inadequate, though aid has been forthcoming to develop appropriate legal frameworks and institutional capacity to counter terrorism.
Ambassador Samantha Power, the U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, addressed the Security Council on action to sanction Boko Haram and hold its leaders accountable by adding Boko Haram to the UN’s 1267 sanctions list. The Security Council helped close off funding sources, travel and weapons supplies for Boko Haram. But demonstrations of world unity and such measures, however beneficial, do little to mitigate Boko Haram’s growing strength unless sufficient military supplies of the right type and training are forthcoming.
Samantha Power said, “Last weekend in Paris, the United States and our partners agreed to assist Nigeria in developing a comprehensive strategy to address Boko Haram’s threat to the region by strengthening regional cooperation on counterterrorism, including intelligence sharing and border security. Today’s listing also supports and facilitates regional cooperation in confronting Boko Haram. The United States has been working with Nigeria to provide critical tools and support for confronting Boko Haram, like helping professionalize its military; working on law enforcement so that they can better investigate and assist in hostage situations; and providing economic assistance, including education and job training programs, to help lift people out of poverty and provide an alternative to extremist ideologies.” But one would have to wait eons and arms supplies would not be mentioned. The U.S. is not, counter to what Samantha Power said, “doing everything we can to help the people of Nigeria bring back their girls and…eliminate Boko Haram,” though it will increase its efforts to refute Boko Haram’s “backwards and bloodthirsty ideology,” as if this was an ideological debate. After 17 April 2013, Obama did send “military experts to help track down more than 200 girls seized in a ‘heartbreaking’ kidnapping,” but not the helicopters crucial to freeing them. Outrage and saying NO are just milquetoast.
When the threat is adequately described and analyzed on Sunday, this pusillanimous response will be seen as totally inadequate.