By Azubuike Ishiekwene
In spite of the pretense on both sides’, especially on that of the United States, relations between Washington and Abuja will get worse before they get better. Nigeria announced this week that it is cancelling U.S. military training for Nigerian troops, which is hardly a surprise. It’s been coming for a long time.
On a recent trip to the U.S., I met and chatted up a top Nigerian diplomat. I was curious about the growing tension in relations between Nigeria and the U.S. and knew he would be honest in his assessment. I wanted to know about the American role in the search for the 200-plus missing Chibok girls and the scandalous $9.7 million South African arms deal.
Why are the girls still at large, months after the U.S. and several other countries joined in the search, and after U.S. spy planes had reportedly sighted them in Sambisa Forest, in the northeast of Nigeria? Is it true that Nigeria had to haul about $9.7 million cash in a chartered plane to buy arms in South African black markets because the U.S. was not just unwilling to supply but actively blocking Nigeria’s attempt to buy from Israel?
The answers to all these questions comes down to one simple reality—Nigeria is unable to rally quality and sustained international support in its war on Boko Haram. The source confirmed the U.S. spy plane story, but added that going public with the information at the time the Nigerian military officials did was a big and costly mistake. There was still a lot to be done. There were operational issues about reporting lines to be sorted out. Motivation levels among the troops were low. Training and equipment were big issues.
Abuses were common among the rank and file, and corruption was rife at the top. Discussions about how to rescue the girls were still ongoing and the strategy was not settled. The spy video was just a dot in the plan.
My source explained that at this point, expectations were already very high and the involvement of the United States would produce an almost immediate result. These expectations, however, under-estimated the deep unease on a wide range of issues on both sides.
The U.S. literally came to Chibok at gunpoint: Nigeria’s growing love affair with China, the refusal to grant the U.S. Africa Command a base in the country, not to mention the corruption and incompetence of the Jonathan government had left Washington confused and frustrated. On its part, top Nigerian military officials did not want U.S. direct involvement in Chibok, if they could avoid it. Long used to keeping its dirty secrets and still reeling from its own internal power play, the military simply loathed the prying eyes bound to come with U.S. involvement.
Yet time was running out, and global outrage over the kidnap of the girls was mounting. The military, which had come under severe criticism at the time, also wanted to show it was doing something. That was why defense chief Alex Badeh gave the news that the girls had been sighted. He may have meant well, but my source insisted that the announcement marked a turning point–for the worse–in U.S. involvement.
Deep-rooted animosity, mistrust, and suspicion on both sides, which had been set aside for the sake of the girls, came flooding back. As pressure mounted on the Nigerian government to find the girls, and Boko Haram became increasingly audacious, the government again turned to Washington.
My source said the Obama White House expressed its willingness to help supply arms but on a condition: the Nigerian government had to provide a report of what it was doing to address allegations of extrajudicial killings and other abuses in the war on Boko Haram. Abuja being Abuja, the matter was simply left unattended.
But why, I asked my source? The U.S. had Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. The world was appalled all right, but the heavens didn’t fall. Why is the U.S. blocking arms supply simply on allegations of extrajudicial killings while hundreds of innocents are being killed daily?
The source explained that the Obama White House was not out for a stick to beat Jonathan on the head. All it needed was a report that the government was aware of the abuses and was taking steps to investigate and root them out. But Abuja, not used to anything that makes it break sweat, refused to lift a finger.
In any case, U.S. intransigence soon became an excuse for arms tourism that has taken Nigeria through the world’s black markets–from the U.S. to Israel, from Israel to South Africa, and from South Africa to Belarus.
Stopping U.S. military training for Nigerian troops is not the worst thing that can happen to the country. We are used to cutting our nose to spite our face. The devil, as we shall soon find out, is in filling the void.
Azubuike Ishiekwene, member of the editorial board of the World Policy Journal and the Global Editor’s Network, is also the managing director of LEADERSHIP Newspapers Group in Abuja, Nigeria.