Africa Watch

American military support to change tide against Boko Haram?

Presidents Obama and Buhari

Newly elected Nigerian president, retired general Muhammadu Buhari, recently visited the US to restore strained relations and ask for military assistance to take the fight to Boko Haram.

Realising his failure to stop the advance of the militant Boko Haram Islamic fundamentalist group in northern Nigeria could cost him the presidency, former President Goodluck Jonathan took the controversial decision to employ a foreign private military company with strong South African ties.

Notwithstanding the immediate success in forcing Boko Haram onto the back foot, Jonathan still lost the Nigerian presidential election in March 2015.

Gen. Buhari promised Nigerians that, if elected, he would place the defeat of Boko Haram at the top of his government’s agenda.

Almost immediately after assuming power he announced some dramatic steps, clearly indicating his intentions to take the war to Boko Haram.

Contract annulled

Despite its earlier successes the private military company is not part of President Buhari’s plans and their contract was annulled.

With no public explanation given, observers speculate his decision could have been influenced by a commitment to terminate most of, if not all, the futile attempts of his predecessor, including the embarrassment of contracting foreign-based private military assistance – particularly embarrassing to him as an ex-military man. Observers are also of the opinion that external pressure is also applied via diplomatic channels, by particularly the US and South Africa, on President Buhari to discard foreign based private military companies (PMCs).

The South African Government’s discomfort with PMCs, especially when South African citizens are involved, is well known and documented.

Recent media reports that Pretoria agreed to return money confiscated last year at Lanseria Airport in what then appeared to be a botched arms deal raise an interesting question: Has there been an arrangement between Pretoria and the Buhari government and was the cancellation of the PMC contract perhaps part of such a deal?

Importance of US support

For the Buhari administration US military support and assistance is paramount for defeating Boko Haram. Fortunately, the US places a high value on maintaining strong relations with Nigeria.

According to US Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken, “President Barack Obama has long seen Nigeria as arguably the most important strategic country in sub-Saharan Africa.”

However, on military and security matters, relations have ebbed and flowed over the years, with a dramatic deterioration during Goodluck Jonathan’s term in office. This was aptly demonstrated by the Obama administration’s decision to cut back on military and intelligence cooperation and support, including cancelling the sale of helicopter gunships. It came notwithstanding serious concerns regarding the possible consequences of Boko Haram’s terror and intimidation, not only in Nigeria, but also in the rest of West Africa.

It is widely reported that the decision was influenced by former President Jonathan’s refusal to properly investigate corruption and human rights abuses by the Nigerian armed forces.

The Obama administration also did not take kindly to the vocal criticism by the Jonathan administration that the US was not doing enough to help in the fight against Boko Haram, leaving him no other option to among others employ PMCs.

President Buhari, controversially, repeated the same argument during his recent US visit.

 “The Nigerian military did not possess the appropriate weapons and technology which we could have had if the so-called human rights violations had not been an obstacle. Unwittingly, and I dare say unintentionally, the application of the Leahy Law Amendment (which links military sales to human rights) by the US government has aided and abetted the Boko Haram terrorists,” he said. 

Some analysts are of the view that Boko Haram even succeeded in driving a wedge between the US and Nigeria – a situation both the US and Nigeria would prefer to change.

Buhari’s US visit

President Buhari’s visit to the US, on invitation of President Obama, presented the perfect opportunity to repair relations and discuss the resumption of military support and the urgent deployment of US military instructors to Nigeria – earlier plans having been cancelled by the Goodluck administration as relations with the US became strained.

Since Buhari’s election, Washington has committed $5 million in new support for a multinational task force set up to fight Boko Haram, in addition to $34 million provided to Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon and Niger for equipment and logistics.

The World Bank also pledged $2.1billion to help rebuild the devastation caused by Boko Haram.

With military cooperation about to resume, it is not improbable that the US will demand the complete disengagement of any foreign PMCs. In doing so, any unwanted foreign influence could be avoided and open the door for US-based PMCs, which is not only big business, but often operate in tandem with the US military.

Buhari under pressure 

President Buhari is already under pressure to report gains in the fight against Boko Haram, especially since he predicted that Boko Haram would be defeated in 18 months or fewer.

In one of his first acts in office Buhari replaced the heads of the State Security Service, Nigeria’s intelligence organisation, and of Nigeria’s army, navy and air force.

The new defence and security chiefs both hail from Borno State, most affected by Boko Haram’s violence.

He also relocated the headquarters of the country’s armed services to Maiduguri, the main city at the heart of the insurgency in Borno State.

The aim is to centralise operations as close to the action as possible, cut the bureaucracy and speed up decision-making.

Despite the gains made earlier in the year, in which ex-South African soldiers played a significant role, and all the good intentions of the Buhari administration, the Boko Haram onslaught has shown no sign of abating. In fact, the movement has joined the Islamic State (ISIS), renaming itself ISIS’s “West African province”.

In defiance to Buhari’s election promise to take the fight to Boko Haram, the latter increased its terror campaign, stepping up attacks on civilians and suicide bombings.

Signalling that they are not intimidated, suspected Boko Haram militants attacked and burned down houses in a village in Borno State, included the family home of Nigeria's new army chief.

In response to the increased terror activities President Buhari told his American audiences that there has been a degrading of Boko Haram’s capabilities as a fighting force with a shift away from direct military engagement to increased attacks on soft targets.

With his military background, President Buhari is well aware that it will take time and resolve to defeat Boko Haram. In his own words: “The campaign we will wage will not be easy; it may not be swift. We should expect stages of success and also moments when it may appear that our advances have been checked.

“But no one should have any doubt as to the strength of our collective will or my commitment to rid this nation of terror and bring back peace and normalcy to all affected areas.”

Nigeria is a superpower in the African context and it is therefore imperative for peace to return to Nigeria, for its own and for Africa’s benefit.

President Buhari would have returned from the US with commitments of support from the dominant military force on the globe. Whether it will change the tide against Boko Haram and militant insurgency elsewhere in West Africa, only time will tell.  

by Garth Cilliers

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