In Partnering With Nigeria’s Abusive Military, the U.S. Is Giving Boko Haram a Lifeline
Editor’s note: This article is adapted from Hilary Matfess’ book “Women and the War on Boko Haram,” which will be published by Zed Books in November.
Early one Friday morning this past August, the United Nations compound and guesthouse in Maiduguri, the largest city in northeast Nigeria, was targeted in a raid.
For several hours after the armed intruders arrived, they were prevented from crossing the gate of the facility, where officials help coordinate humanitarian assistance programs for populations affected by the ongoing violence carried out by the militant group Boko Haram. Eventually, though, after the attackers cut the lock on the compound gate and beat a security guard, U.N. officials had little choice but to let them in.
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By that point, the guests were hiding in a safe room. But it soon became clear that the intruders were going to force them to come out, according to one witness, an NGO employee who, like many people interviewed for this article, spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons and to avoid jeopardizing humanitarian operations in the region. Before long, the guests were being shuttled from room to room as the intruders searched the building. Then they were taken outside for questioning.
Given that Maiduguri is where Boko Haram was founded, it might have been reasonable to suspect that the group was behind the raid. Having formed in the early 2000s as a largely nonviolent dissident sect, Boko Haram launched an insurgency in 2009 that has displaced millions and, according to Amnesty International, killed more than 20,000 people. The insurgency’s devastation has triggered a broader food shortage and humanitarian crisis in the Lake Chad basin.
As it turned out, however, the assault on the U.N. compound was actually perpetrated by members of the Nigerian military. According to an internal U.N. memo obtained by AFP, the Nigerian soldiers may have been acting on a far-fetched rumor circulating on social media that Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, was being housed there.
Those familiar with humanitarian aid operations in sub-Saharan Africa describe the raid as unprecedented, and say it’s stunning that the military would engage in such an operation on the basis of nothing more, apparently, than a rash of WhatsApp messages.
Even more shocking, though, is the silence of the international community in the wake of the incident. While a spokeswoman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said the U.N. was “extremely concerned” about what happened, Nigeria’s other partners kept quiet. Given that the United States is a significant military partner of Nigeria, the lack of condemnation from U.S. officials of what likely amounted to a violation of international humanitarian law was especially jarring.
Yet Washington’s silence is consistent with a broader pattern: The U.S. has routinely turned a blind eye to abuses by the Nigerian military in the northeast of the country despite the fact that the U.S. is supporting Nigerian forces battling Boko Haram. So far, there is every indication that this bilateral military engagement will continue under President Donald Trump.
In early August, a little more than a week before the U.N. raid, the U.S. approved the sale of some $593 million in military hardware and training to Nigeria. The transaction’s big-ticket item was a dozen A-29 Super Tucano light-attack aircraft.
The Nigerian government had originally sought permission to procure the aircraft in 2015, but the military’s human rights record prompted the Obama administration to put the sale on hold. In particular, the Nigerian air force has been accused of bombing civilians on multiple occasions, including a January strike on a camp for displaced people in Rann, in the northeastern state of Borno, that killed at least 100 people, according to The Associated Press.
The Rann bombing is an extreme example of an array of abuses, including arbitrary detentions and extrajudicial killings, committed by Nigerian security forces in the campaign against Boko Haram. These abuses persist even as the government of President Muhammadu Buhari has undertaken a concerted effort to lionize Nigerian soldiers as national heroes.
A frequent refrain in Washington policy circles, on the rare occasions when events in Africa manage to break through the frenetic domestic news cycle of the Trump era, is that it is imperative to depend on “strategic regional partners” to advance America’s security objectives. But while security partnerships, both multilateral and bilateral, are a valuable component of America’s national security toolkit, events in the Lake Chad basin suggest that Washington’s strategic partners are engaging in counterproductive behavior.
Tactics used by Nigeria’s military in the fight against Boko Haram make it easier for the group to recruit.
A recent report published by the U.N. Development Program, titled “Journey Into Extremism in Africa,” draws from interviews with former combatants in Nigeria, Mali and Somalia to show that many people who join extremist groups have suffered abuses at the hands of the security sector. The takeaway is clear: Combating terrorist groups with tactics that make it easier for them to recruit is quite literally self-defeating.
The behavior of the Nigerian military, therefore, demands that Washington recalibrate its security strategy in the region, emphasizing professionalization over weapons acquisition and improved capacity for combat.
As Destructive as Boko Haram
The Nigerian military’s abuses in the fight against Boko Haram are so extensive that they are the subject of an ongoing investigation by the International Criminal Court. Extrajudicial killings and illegal detention practices have been documented at length by several nongovernmental organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
Among the most comprehensive and distressing accounts was a 2015 report by Amnesty International titled “Stars on Their Shoulders, Blood on Their Hands,” which tallied more than 7,000 deaths in Nigerian government detention centers, 1,200 additional extrajudicial killings and the arbitrary arrest of more than 20,000 people in counterterrorism operations. According to Amnesty, the military “extrajudicially executed people after they had been captured and when they presented no danger.” The victims included people who “were shot dead inside detention facilities, while others were either shot or had their throats cut after being captured during cordon-and-search operations.”
In one especially gruesome incident, soldiers responding to a Boko Haram attack in the northeastern town of Baga in April 2013 carried out a “mop-up” operation that killed nearly 200 people. More recent accounts from activist groups and people living in the Lake Chad basin suggest these abusive practices have continued.
near Maiduguri, Jan. 31, 2016 (AP photo Jossy Ola).
A woman I interviewed in December 2015 in the Fufore refugee camp, located in the northeastern state of Adamawa, survived attacks by both Boko Haram and the army. She said that of the two, the army left more destruction in its wake. “My town was along the Boko Haram route, so they attacked us regularly but never ruled over us,” said the woman, who is from Borno and who spoke on condition of anonymity for her safety. “We were just trapped in our town.”
But when the soldiers came, the woman said, they “burned all of our houses and our fields.” She said she had no time to collect her possessions before the inferno began.
Another woman from the town of Walasah, also in Borno, similarly reported that when the Nigerian army entered her community, “They did not stop to ask who was Boko Haram; they just burned down the whole village.”
For civilians, it makes little difference if a village is burned by Boko Haram insurgents or by soldiers. They are left without their livelihoods and property, facing an uncertain future.
The Nigerian military often claims that such fires are set by Boko Haram. However, this contradicts the testimony of displaced people, journalists and even some military personnel.
While there is arguably a strategic justification for burning villages—namely, to deprive Boko Haram of resources to loot—the same cannot be said for other abuses carried out during village raids, which seem to be the result not of strategic logic, but rather a lack of professionalism. A UNICEF employee who has worked on protection issues throughout northern Nigeria reported that, in March 2016, when Nigerian soldiers entered communities in Adamawa to liberate them from Boko Haram’s rule, the soldiers announced they would “kill local men and take their wives.”
With a resigned shrug, the aid worker said, “You can never have security forces acting to code 100 percent of the time anywhere.” Yet in Nigeria’s case, such behavior has hampered counterinsurgency efforts by reducing citizens’ trust in the military.
Some Nigerians who have survived attacks by both Boko Haram and the army say the army is more destructive.
Detention in a Broken System
Military violence against civilians in northeast Nigeria doesn’t end with raids and “mop-up” operations. Amnesty’s 2015 report noted that “on numerous occasions, particularly following Boko Haram raids, soldiers have gone to the town or village, rounded up hundreds of men and boys and taken into custody those identified as Boko Haram by paid informants.” Amnesty says that most of the arrests it has documented appear to be “entirely arbitrary.” Those rounded up have included boys as young as 9 and at least 30 women and girls.
This characterization is backed up by my own sources. “When the military first came, they thought everyone was Boko Haram,” said one man in Maiduguri, adding that the scene reminded him of the “Tom and Jerry” cartoon in which Tom the cat relentlessly pursues Jerry the mouse.
After the military’s raids and so-called rescue missions are conducted, those who have been identified as potential members of Boko Haram or who stand accused of being sympathetic to its cause are subject to a screening process in which soldiers attempt to discern their level of involvement. The process is deliberately opaque. Though human rights groups would have an obvious interest in monitoring it, they are kept in the dark. “This is a no-go zone for NGOs; we are not invited,” said one U.N. refugee agency employee working on protection issues. “Only after they are screened do we get access to these people.”
This screening process often depends on input from vigilantes who are from the same community as the suspects. In particular, the vigilantes are tasked with reporting whether those with ties to Boko Haram joined the insurgency by force or voluntarily. The reliance on vigilantes—who are dependent on payments from the military to make ends meet—is deeply problematic and likely counterproductive to the military’s efforts to garner trust from communities across the northeast.
Disturbingly, there seems to be no standard screening procedure across commands. In interviews I conducted, a variety of military men, vigilantes and local politicians all admitted that screenings varied greatly depending on who was doing it, and that soldiers—many of whom had not been properly trained—had wide discretion in interviews. “We often ask them what their names are and where they were abducted,” one soldier told me. “Even though we know they were not all kidnapped, we still often phrase it that way.” This sort of priming inevitably has an impact on the interrogation process.
Some of the women and girls who have been “rescued” by the military report being traumatized by their experiences with soldiers. A 20-year-old woman from Bama who is currently living in the Dalori camp for displaced people in Maiduguri recalled that after being taken by soldiers from a Boko Haram camp, she was kept in the military barracks for 10 days. “I didn’t sleep very much—there was always boom boom,” she said, imitating gunfire and shaking her head. “They [the military] asked me what I knew about the bombings and all of the weapons.”
Those who are found to have supported Boko Haram are subjected to indefinite detention and, frequently, gross human rights abuses. In theory, they should have charges brought against them so a court can quickly determine their guilt or innocence. However, as one soldier noted, “Prosecution is a long process, so many of them are just awaiting trial.”
The litany of complaints against soldiers clashes dramatically with official accounts of how the military conducts itself. President Buhari, a one-time military dictator, campaigned on his image as a military man. Since he took office in 2015, the military’s public relations team has gone on an aggressive pro-military crusade, relaying details of soldiers’ victories, “rescues” and “liberations” on a seemingly daily basis.
To be sure, Nigerian security forces are not universally predatory, and their counterinsurgency efforts have improved over time. But even for those who haven’t been on the receiving end of the military’s most brutal tactics, the official government line is difficult to find credible. Examples of the military’s less-than-heroic conduct, as described by residents of the northeast, include stealing hijabs in order to dress up as local women while fleeing well-armed Boko Haram insurgents.
(AP photo by Azeez Akunleyan).
The Nigerian press—whether due to sympathy for the armed forces, a lack of journalistic training or coercion—often parrots the government’s heroic depictions of the military’s actions without question. In June 2016, for example, army spokesman Sani Usman said that Nigerian troops operating in Mafa, a Local Government Area, or administrative zone, in Borno, “liberated over 5,000 persons held hostages by Boko Haram terrorists and recovered five motorcycles and similar number of bicycles.” The status of those rescued, where they were taken and their demographic profiles were not given, and the reported casualties on the part of the security forces—one injured policeman and one injured soldier—seemed almost unbelievably low. Nevertheless, the press ran with the story, just as they had three months earlier, when Usman claimed in March 2016 that the military had rescued more than 11,000 people.
Of course, the government’s attempt to lionize soldiers is not unique to Nigeria. This kind of narrative is useful in improving the military’s self-perception and civil-military relations. Deepa Kumar, a professor of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University, has written about how the U.S. government used similar tactics during the Iraq War. The framing, she writes, acts “as the means by which a controversial war [can] be talked about in emotional rather than rational terms.”
The Need for a New Approach
Nigeria is not the only country fighting Boko Haram that has received American military assistance despite concerns about human rights abuses. In neighboring Cameroon, which has been hit hard by Boko Haram’s use of suicide bombers, more than 2,000 of the country’s soldiers were trained by the U.S. military in 2015. That year, Cameroon also received more than $44 million in U.S. military assistance.
But just last month, Human Rights Watch released a report that detailed how Cameroon’s military forcibly returned 100,000 Nigerian asylum-seekers fleeing Boko Haram, denying them access to the U.N. refugee agency in the process. Human Rights Watch also found that Cameroonian soldiers had engaged in physical and sexual violence against asylum-seekers.
While the details of the report were alarming, such violence did not come as a surprise to many human rights activists familiar with Cameroon’s track record. In July, after all, Amnesty International published a report suggesting that Cameroonian soldiers were torturing suspected terrorists “at a base that was also frequently used by U.S. military advisers,” prompting U.S. Africa Command to launch an investigation.
There is a depressing contrast between chronic underfunding of the humanitarian response in northeastern Nigeria and the seemingly limitless funds available for military assistance.
Despite such allegations, there is no sign that U.S. military assistance to countries in the Lake Chad basin will be curbed. Indeed, there is a depressing contrast between chronic underfunding of the humanitarian response in the region and the seemingly limitless funds available for military assistance. As of August, less than half of the $1.05 billion requested by the U.N. for humanitarian programming had been provided by donors, leaving a gap of $545 million.
No one is arguing that cultivating partnerships with regional governments and their militaries shouldn’t be a central component of America’s security strategy in Africa. However, these partnerships should not be predicated on a definition of security that ignores the threats militaries pose to their own civilian populations.
As a significant donor of military and nonmilitary aid, an ostensible proponent of international human rights norms and “the largest exporter of conventional weapons in the world,” the U.S. is in the best position to both demand that African militaries become more professional, and to assist them in that process.
In the Lake Chad basin, a failure to do so will ultimately undermine the goal of promoting peace and stability that prompted the U.S. to engage militarily in the first place.
Hilary Matfess is a doctoral candidate in political science at Yale University whose research focuses on insurgencies and gender dynamics in sub-Saharan Africa. Her work has been featured in the African Studies Review, Foreign Affairs, Newsweek and The Washington Post, among many others. “Women and the War on Boko Haram” is her first book.