With Schoolgirls Still Missing, U.S.-Nigeria Relations Falter

By Schmitt, Eric | International New York Times, January 2, 2015 | Go to article overview

With Schoolgirls Still Missing, U.S.-Nigeria Relations Falter


Schmitt, Eric, International New York Times


Distrust between the two countries has resurfaced as the search for nearly 300 girls kidnapped by Boko Haram has lost momentum.

Soon after the Islamist group Boko Haram kidnapped nearly 300 teenage girls in Nigeria in April, the United States sent surveillance drones and about 30 intelligence and security experts to help the Nigerian military try to rescue them. Gen. David M. Rodriguez, the top general for American missions in Africa, rushed from his headquarters here to help the commanders in the crisis.

Seven months later, the drone flights have dwindled, many of the advisers have gone home, and not one of the kidnapped girls has been found. Many are believed to have been married off to Boko Haram fighters, who in the past six months have seized hundreds more civilians, including children, planted bombs in Nigerian cities and captured entire towns.

In Washington, that fleeting moment of cooperation between Nigeria and the United States in May has now devolved into finger- pointing and stoked the distrust between the two countries' militaries. Nigeria's ambassador to the United States has accused the Obama administration of failing to support the fight against Boko Haram, prompting the State Department to fire back with condemnations of the Nigerian military's dismal human rights record.

"Tensions in the U.S.-Nigeria relationship are probably at their highest level in the past decade," Johnnie Carson, the State Department's former top diplomat for Africa, said in an interview. "There is a high degree of frustration on both sides. But this frustration should not be allowed to spin out of control."

Here in Stuttgart, officials at the headquarters of United States Africa Command offered their own bleak assessment of a corruption- plagued, poorly equipped Nigerian military that is "in tatters" as it confronts an enemy that now controls about 20 percent of the country.

"Ounce for ounce, Boko Haram is equal to if not better than the Nigerian military," said one American official here, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss operational reports.

The violence is in the meantime spilling into neighboring countries like Cameroon, which carried out its first airstrikes against Boko Haram this week, after militants overran a military base and attacked five villages there. Despite Boko Haram's advances, United States Embassy officials in Abuja said Nigeria had canceled the last stage of American training of a newly created Nigerian Army battalion.

The United States' original effort to help locate and rescue the girls produced scant results, American and Nigerian officials said, in part because of distrust. Although the United States reached an agreement with Nigeria last spring to share some intelligence, American officials did not include raw intelligence data because they believe that Boko Haram has infiltrated the Nigerian security services.

The United States has flown several hundred surveillance drone flights over the vast, densely forested regions in the northeast where the girls were seized, but officials in Stuttgart said that with few tips to guide the missions, the flights yielded little information, while diverting drones from other missions in war zones like Iraq and Syria.

When the Pentagon did come up with what it calls "actionable intelligence" from the drone flights -- for example, information that might have indicated the location of some of the girls -- and turned it over to the Nigerian commanders to pursue, they did nothing with the information, Africa Command officials said.

In addition, United States security assistance to Nigeria has been sharply limited by American legal prohibitions against close dealings with foreign militaries that have engaged in human rights abuses. …

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