The United States-Nigeria relationship is about to get a little closer. On Thursday, a “senior U.S. diplomat” said that the U.S. was sending a team to Nigeria to more closely coordinate in the government's battle against Boko Haram. The announcement comes shortly after Nigeria’s new president, Muhammadu Buhari, was sworn in after winning the March election.
The timing is unfortunate. One day before, there were new allegations of war crimes by the Nigerian military. In a scathing new report, Amnesty International claims that the Nigerian military is responsible for the deaths of more than 8,000 young men and boys since 2011. At least 1,200 were simply extrajudicially executed, but “almost certainly many more.” A great number died of “starvation, dehydration, or preventable disease,” others of suffocation or fumigation in their jail cells. Some were “tortured to death, hung on poles over fires, tossed into deep pits, shot, or electrocuted.” The military has detained 20,000 people, mostly young men and boys, in its fight against Boko Haram, but sources told AI that these were mostly arbitrary and based on unreliable informants seeking to get paid.
Although it's wrong-headed, perhaps the deeper co-mingling of the U.S. and Nigeria makes a certain morbid sense. After all, one of the detention centers used by the Nigerian military was even dubbed “Guantanamo,” another facility known for caging people suspected of terrorist ties for years on end without due process, one of several prisons associated with the U.S. that weren't exactly shining examples of honoring human rights. In the name of fighting terrorism, both countries severely overreacted, committing serious war crimes that are likely to go unpunished.
While some of us may hope to see Nigerian officials tried in the International Criminal Court, as Amnesty International has called for, we have also grown used to impunity in the War on Terror excesses, as even U.S. officials who admit to their crimes remain free.
In other ways, the U.S. has kept Nigeria at a distance, to date. U.S. officials have caused some tension with complaints over government abuses and corruption. A White House press release in November, 2014 stated that the support to the Nigerian authorities “takes many forms but the goal is singular: to dismantle this murderous group.”
Whatever promise the Obama administration sees in President Buhari, however, it would have been wise to pause before declaring its interest in deeper military cooperation so close to fresh allegations of war crimes. Because past is too often prelude, it's not too late for the U.S. to at least proceed with caution.
In the face of such heinous crimes like those committed by Boko Haram, it has become all too easy to rely upon an over-militarized response to satisfy our need to “do something.” But, as Nigerian American writer Teju Cole presciently warned after the terrorist group abducted nearly 300 girls last year, “The ‘something’ eventually done will likely—as in the past—get many other boys and girls killed, and no one will be accountable for it.”