John Kerry’s recent statement that Washington has a team in Nigeria to help in the hunt for more than 200 abducted schoolgirls came with a twist. “We are also going to do everything possible to counter the menace of Boko Haram,” he said.
The United States secretary of state did not elaborate, perhaps because the US and Nigeria do not agree on the nature of the menace, let alone how to counter it.
American officials are divided. General Carter Ham, until recently the commander of US Africa Command (Africom) has said Boko Haram wants to emulate al-Qaeda and attack the US.
Defence officials are looking to Washington’s alliance with Yemen, with its close intelligence co-operation and CIA drone strikes, as an example for dealing with Boko Haram.
But former top US diplomats have a less alarmist take. They say the militants are focused on Nigeria, and that confronting the deep poverty and alienation suffered by many in the country’s Muslim north is key to defeating the insurgency.
They also warn that the Nigerian army’s brutal counterinsurgency campaign has strengthened Boko Haram and complicated US military assistance.
Nigeria is sensitive to offers of help that imply it is not capable of dealing with its own problems, and is wary of letting the US military establish a foothold.
US involvement in Nigeria
In fact, the US has long been involved in Nigeria, having supported the government with counterinsurgency training, intelligence assistance and naval vessels to help with unrest in the oil-rich Niger Delta, hundreds of miles south of the Boko Haram heartland.
Now the US sees a different threat. Ham said that “very clearly Boko Haram has altered” relations with Nigeria and the US was looking for “ways that Nigeria would like us to give help in developing their counterterrorist capabilities”.
The US defence department has spent millions of dollars in recent years helping Nigeria to develop a counterterrorism infantry unit and “tactical communications”. It has also trained Nigerian forces for peacekeeping operations.
“There’s a lot of pressure for Nigeria to throw the door open to the Americans,” said an African diplomat. “The talk is of closer intelligence co-operation, all the things the Americans can do with their spy drones and listening devices. But it offends Nigerian pride and they wonder where it will lead.”
There is also suspicion that the US pressure for a greater role will be used to justify the establishment of Africom and to get it a foot on the ground after Abuja rejected pressure for it to be based in Nigeria and openly opposed its creation.
Boko Haram threat
Part of the challenge for the Americans has been to convince President Goodluck Jonathan that Boko Haram is as serious a threat as Washington thinks it is.
Many in the Christian south of Nigeria regard the north as backward and Boko Haram as Muslims attacking Muslims.
Former US assistant secretary of state for Africa Johnnie Carson said Washington’s offer of assistance fitted with its policy in other parts of the continent, including the use of US troops and aircraft in a so far unsuccessful effort to find Joseph Kony, head of the Lord’s Resistance Army responsible for atrocities in Uganda.
But Carson said there were limits to the levels of American co-operation, in part because the brutal response by the Nigerian military to Boko Haram has contributed to support for the group.
“Much of the Nigerian military cannot legally be assisted by the US because it would not pass the Leahy vetting – that is, a military that has engaged, or seemingly engaged, in a violation of human rights.” – © Guardian News & Media 2014