This is the twelfth and final entry in a series examining actions during the first 100 days of the new Trump administration and their possible implications on the arms trade, security assistance and weapons use in the future. This entry is authored by a member of the Forum's emerging expert program, designed to give opportunities to individuals beginning their careers on these issues.
The timing of Obama’s decision suggests his lack of confidence in the Nigerian military and their targeting capabilities. “This large-scale attack on vulnerable people who have already fled from extreme violence is shocking and unacceptable,” stated Dr. Jean-Clément Cabrol, the director of operations for Doctors Without Borders. “The safety of civilians must be respected. We are urgently calling on all parties to ensure the facilitation of medical evacuations by air or road for survivors who are in need of emergency care.” Unfortunately, this incident was just one example illustrating the inefficiency of airstrikes in eliminating embedded terrorists.
How to prioritize addressing Boko Haram is challenging to calculate or assess from the safety of Washington, DC. Boko Haram’s barbaric tactics of imbedding themselves within civilian populations makes it difficult for the military to effectively target and destroy the terrorist organization. However, the organization poses not only an international security threat, but is the cause for Nigerians living in fear on a day to day basis. A female Nigerian, who wishes to remain anonymous for safety reasons, said in an interview with me that “men are being killed on a daily basis and nobody is doing anything about this, my question is who is supplying these weapons to these terrorists?”
A lack of transparency and shadow of lies surrounds not only the status of Boko Haram and the accuracy of reported numbers of dead and wounded, but also the Nigerian government. When analyzing the efficiency of the Nigerian government, it is important to remember the government is distinct from the military. President Buhari of Nigeria has erratically stated on multiple occasions that Boko Haram has been defeated. However, the President’s wishful thinking is blatantly false as Boko Haram continues to carry out marketplace bombings in Nigeria and Cameroon, as well as multiple suicide bombings. “Why is the government trying hard to cover these killings?” said my interviewee. “Killings are still silently ongoing in Maiduguri, Adamawa, Kaduna, Jos, Yobe, and several environs on a daily basis… Soldiers are being brought in to the 44 General Hospital…, either amputated, maimed, or killed, and yet the media is saying nothing or less about this.”
For two years, civil servants have not been paid. When protests have erupted due to discontent and lack of payment, arrests were made. “The media is afraid of speaking because journalists have also been arrested for speaking out,” she said. As of 2015, the Nigerian government has a corruption rating of 136 out of 168. Many citizens are currently seeking asylum due to problems and security threats associated with the government, as well as Boko Haram. “The Nigerian government is currently unpopular, the people have lost faith and hope in the government and believes the government has an agenda yet to be revealed to the people,” she related.
In order for the Nigerian government to gain trust within the community, transparency and freedom of expression must be reinstated under President Buhari. No longer can the government hide Boko Haram’s existence or horrific actions, or act with impunity.
While many will argue, particularly the NGO community, that combatting terrorism requires education, poverty reduction, and government stability, the threat must be addressed immediately, while evidence suggests tackling those underlying issues is not the most effective response. Instead, aiding the military could be the solution- particularly in regards to the military’s intelligence and ground force capabilities.
During my interview, I was a bit shocked by a Nigerian assessment of the overall trust the military has earned with the population in recent years. The Nigerian population appears to understand the difficulty associated with targeting shielded Boko Haram insurgents during asymmetrical warfare. “The military is no longer a feared presence within the country, this is because we have been in a democratic regime for over 17 years now, and the military have been in the duty of protecting civilians…” The military, as a whole, has purposefully taken steps toward earning trust within the population. “We have also engaged the Armed Forces in several trainings on ‘Protection of Civilian Courses’,” she said.
In July of 2015, under a new joint United States Department of State and Department of Defense initiative, the Global Security Contingency Fund (GSCF) partnered with African nations in the fight against Boko Haram. However, since 2000 US security aid funding has significantly dropped. There was a small resurgence in 2012 and 2015, but 2016 remains to be the lowest since 2000.
When asked what had changed since Obama blocked the sale, Sarah Margon, Washington director of Human Rights Watch, stated: “President Trump has made really clear that fighting terrorism, as they define this, is going to be the top foreign policy priority. And that means that the consideration of mitigating circumstances and other issues that could create a problem in the long term will not be at the forefront.” While Margon may lament that situation, Senator Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, stated, "We need to deal with human rights issues, but not on weapons sales.” Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said in mid-February he was "leery" of the sale due to the Nigerian military's impunity. "Ultimately we hope that the sale goes forward," Cardin added. "But there is progress that needs to be made in protecting the civilian population."
Airstrikes may eliminate terrorists. However, due to the nature of their tactic to embed themselves amongst civilians, the attacks will cause the death of many innocent lives, a loss of faith in the government, and criticism from the international community. Ground forces used to eliminate Boko Haram city by city may be more dangerous and costly to the Nigerian military, but it is the only way to a lasting and stable peace within Nigeria. Equipping the Nigerian military with better weaponry, ammunition, training, and intelligence support is a much more efficient and safer strategy for both Nigeria, as well as the international community.
Danielle Preskitt is an intern with the Forum on the Arms Trade and a participant in the Forum’s emerging expert program.