By Austin Ajayi
The American government has given insight into why the Nigerian military is facing difficulty procuring arms from the United States to combat the extremist Boko Haram sect wreaking havoc in Nigeria’s North East region.
Nigerian government officials had on September 17 told PREMIUM TIMES that the administration opted for the controversial discreet purchase of arms in South Africa as a desperate measure after the American government allegedly blocked all legitimate arms order made by the military.
Since then, the matter has been extensively reported in the Nigerian media, with some Nigerians accusing the Americans of undermining the country’s war against terrorism.
But in what is the American government’s most elaborate response to the controversy so far, the American Ambassador to Nigeria, James Entwistle, said cases of human rights abuses by Nigerian troops in the North-East in the past years have stood out as a sore thumb as the United States considers the Nigerian military’s request for arms.
Mr. Entwistle spoke in Yola, the Adamawa state capital, while answering questions from journalists during a working visit to the American University of Nigeria, AUN.
“Before we share equipment with any country, whether it is a government to government grant or a commercial sale that requires government approval, we look at a couple of things,” the ambassador explained. “Does it make sense in terms of that country’s needs?
The second thing we look at is the human rights situation in that country. And as we look at equipment transfers, we look at the situation in those countries in the past few years. And as you all know, there have been instances (I’m not saying across the board) of human rights abuses by the Nigerian military in the North-East.
“So the kind of question that we have to ask is let’s say we give certain kinds of equipment to Nigerian military that is then used in a way that affects human situation. If I approve that, I’m responsible for that. We take that responsibility very seriously.”
Mr. Entwistle however described as inaccurate claims that the U.S. had completely cut military aid for Nigeria, saying on the contrary, the two countries had continued to share training and equipment.
“Some of the newest vessels in your navy came from the United States. So the idea that the United States does not share equipment with Nigeria across the board is untrue,” he said.
The ambassador promised that the United States would continue to partner and support Nigeria in the war against the Boko Haram insurgency, saying he gave President Goodluck Jonathan that assurance on his arrival to the country a few months ago.
“I had the honour of sitting down and talking to him (President Jonathan). And the first thing I said to him is ‘Mr. President, I want to be very clear, the United States stands with Nigeria on the war on terror’,” he said.
Mr. Entwistle however admonished Nigeria not to think that the war against Boko Haram could be won only by buying hi-tech equipment, saying to achieve result in the campaign, the country must take the welfare of its troops even more seriously.
“I would say as we support the military in the struggle against Boko Haram, obviously equipment is part of the equation but I think it’s more than that,” the ambassador said. “It bothers me when I talk to soldiers in the North-East and they say they are in the frontline with only a few bullets.
“I think what’s more important is the basic needs of soldiers on the field, making sure … they are well trained and they have ammunition for their rifles. If you don’t focus on taking care of welfare of soldiers on the ground, buying hi-tech equipment does not solve anything.”
Before speaking to journalists, the ambassador had addressed staff and students of the American University of Nigeria at an elaborate reception ceremony marked by flag procession and speeches.
In his speech, he commended the university for its support for some of the kidnapped Chibok girls who escaped from their abductors, and for setting up the Adamawa Peace Initiative, which is working to entrench peace and tranquillity in the state.
Also speaking at the event, AUN President, Margee Ensign, said the institution, just 10 years old, is well on its way to becoming Africa’s best development university.
Ms. Ensign said students of the university are trained to understand the challenges facing their country and the world, and develop solutions to them.