One big obstacle to #BringBackOurGirls? Nigeria’s government

May 16, 2014

“Brutal tactics.” “Record of atrocities.” “Gross violations of human rights.” Top U.S. government officials spoke those words Thursday at a Senate hearing about Boko Haram’s abduction of more than 200 schoolgirls. But they said them about Nigeria’s government and military, not the Islamist terrorist group that burst into international consciousness with its actions last month.

U.S. mistrust of the Nigerian government runs so deep that the State Department requires Nigerian decision-makers to promise not to use intelligence obtained from American intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) flights to violate human rights.

“We have sought assurances from them — that Ambassador (James) Entwistle delivered a couple of days ago — that they will use any information that we pass to them from this ISR support in a manner consistent with international humanitarian and human rights law,” Alice Friend, the Defense Department’s principal director for African affairs, told the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs.

Friend noted that U.S. law forbids providing U.S. aid or training to military units suspected of committing “gross human rights violations.” As a result, the Pentagon has “struggled a great deal” to find Nigerian forces with which it can work. It recently found a newly created ranger battalion, which American forces will begin training this month in the kinds of counterinsurgency tactics necessary to combat Boko Haram.

“Nigeria’s security forces have been slow to adapt with new strategies, new doctrines and new tactics,” Friend testified. “Even more troubling, Nigeria’s record of atrocities perpetrated by some of its security forces during operations against Boko Haram have been widely documented.”

Asked by Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., about reports that Boko Haram had infiltrated some military units, Friend replied: “That’s a concern.”

But “as heavy-handed as the forces on the Nigerian side have been, Boko Haram has been even more brutal,” said Friend. The main Nigerian force tasked with taking on the insurgency has “recently shown signs of real fear. They do not have the capabilities, the training or the equipping that Boko Haram does.”

Secretary of State John Kerry and White House press secretary Jay Carney last week criticized Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan’s sluggish response to the April 14 mass kidnapping. Jonathan made no public statement until weeks later, when global outrage had built up in part on the strength of the social media campaign exemplified by the Twitter hashtag #BringBackOurGirls.

“Reports indicate the local and central government did nothing to protect them when told an attack was imminent,” said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., who chaired the hearing. “I’m glad a U.S. team is on the ground now, and we need to make sure not another day is wasted.”

“Resolving this crisis is now one of the highest priorities of the U.S. government,” Robert P. Jackson, principal deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs, told the same hearing.

“What is your level of confidence that the Nigerian government, after an indefensible delay, now has the political will and the military capacity to ensure a swift and effective response that utilizes international support to the fullest and is in line with human rights standards?” asked Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J.

“We do believe that the political will now exists. President Jonathan is seized with the issue,” said Jackson.

What about the broader U.S. response to Boko Haram, which has waged an escalating and bloody campaign of attacks on civilian and military targets in Nigeria? Prodded by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Jackson acknowledged that the State Department could have acted more quickly to designate the group a foreign terrorist organization, which it did only on Nov. 14, 2013.

“In retrospect, we might have done it earlier,” he said.

The issue could have an impact on the 2016 presidential race. Conservatives have slammed Hillary Clinton for not designating the group a foreign terrorist organization earlier in the face of requests that she do so from the Justice Department, the CIA and the FBI.

Her State Department designated key leaders of the group as terrorists in 2012 but held back on labeling the entire group amid concerns in the United States and Nigeria that doing so would enhance the organization’s prestige and, with it, its ability to raise funds and recruit.

An FTO designation would have led to freezing the group’s assets, if any, in the United States, banning group members from traveling to U.S. soil, and forbidding Americans to provide “material support” to the group. It is not clear how much of an impact doing so would have had on the ground in Nigeria.

Still, Jackson said, “there is definitely a lesson here, and I think that we will be quicker to act to make designations based on our own assessments earlier on based on this.”

Watch: Yahoo Global News Anchor Katie Couric talks with Nigerian activist Hafsat Abiola

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