U.S. mocks Nigerian military, doubts capacity to rescue Chibok schoolgirls

Nigerian soldiers used to illustrate the story.
Nigerian soldiers used to illustrate the story.

While the United States explores more ways to help rescue the missing girls, it is faced with growing concerns about the Nigerian authorities.

Senior United States military and civilian officials have questioned the capacity of the Nigerian military-even with foreign assistance- to rescue more than 250 schoolgirls abducted over a month ago in Chibok, Borno State, in an unusually frank assessment that may shape the outcome of an international effort to release the missing students.

One official said the Nigerian security forces have so diminished in capability that they are currently “afraid to even engage” Boko Haram, the terrorist group responsible for the abductions, and the deaths of more than 5,000 Nigerians.

We’re now looking at a military force that’s, quite frankly, becoming afraid to even engage,” said Alice Friend, the Pentagon’s principal director for African affairs. “The Nigerian military has the same challenges with corruption that every other institution in Nigeria does. Much of the funding that goes to the Nigerian military is skimmed off the top, if you will.”

Ms. Friend was testifying before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Thursday.

Other senior officials including Chuck Hagel, Defence Secretary; Robert Jackson, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs; and Earl Gast, United States Agency for International Development Assistant Administrator for Africa, also testified before the committee.

The officials gave a troubling evaluation of the Nigerian government’s tactics against Boko Haram, and the military’s refusal to up its games and improve on its human rights record in the fight against a five-year brutal insurgency launched by the sect.

President Goodluck Jonathan has been widely condemned for his handling of the Boko Haram crisis, and his slow response to the group’s abduction of the girls from a secondary school in Chibok, Borno State.

Mr. Jonathan this week rejected an offer by Boko Haram’s Abubakar Shekau to swap the missing schoolgirls with detained Boko Haram fighters. Other top officials, however, have signalled the government may be willing to negotiate with the extremists.

While the abduction of the more than 250 girls appears to be temporarily losing the steam that set off an international campaign for action using the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls, the matter is gaining more attention within the U.S. government with calls for more action.

All 20 female U.S. senators have raised call for action against the abduction.

The female senators gathered for a private dinner with Secretary of State John Kerry, at which, according to the New York Times, they pushed to have the United Nations designate Boko Haram as a terrorist organization on its Qaeda sanctions list; to provide surveillance assets to try to locate the missing girls; to consider assistance to the Nigerian government by providing a team of Special Forces to locate and rescue the girls; and to coordinate the search for the girls on an international front.

The U.S. military is said to consider any option of being asked to send in Special Forces to locate and rescue the schoolgirls “risky”.

Currently, the United States is leading an international effort including the United Kingdom, France, Israel and China, to help free the  schoolgirls.

The assistance comes in the form of intelligence support, surveillance and hostage negotiation. The actual effort on the ground to find and retrieve the missing girls to safety, is left in the hands of the Nigerian military, scorned for corruption, poor equipment and human rights issues.

Those concerns have fuelled frustration among the foreign partners offering assistance.

Asked whether Nigerian forces were capable of rescuing the hostages, U.S. Defence Secretary, Chuck Hagel, said in an interview with CBS television Friday that it remains “an open question.”

“We just don’t know enough yet to be able to assess what we will recommend to the Nigerians, where they need to go, what they need to do, to get those girls back,” Mr. Hagel said.

The officials who addressed the U.S senators Thursday echoed that frustration, accusing the Nigerian government of ignoring their advice in the past years to seek new methods against Boko Haram.

“We have been urging Nigeria to reform its approach to Boko Haram,” said Mr. Jackson. “From our own difficult experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, we know that turning the tide of an insurgency requires more than force. The state must demonstrate to its citizens that it can protect them and offer them opportunity. When soldiers destroy towns, kill civilians and detain innocent people with impunity, mistrust takes root.”

They said the Nigerian authorities had been persuaded by the Pentagon to adopt a more holistic approach to fighting Boko Haram, for instance, to build programmes to counter Improvised Explosive Devices, IEDs, and build improved understanding between the Nigerian military and the public, in part to help generate tips on suspected terrorists.

On Human Rights, a report by the United States State Department in 2013 showed that of 1,377 Nigerian soldiers vetted in 2012 to receive training, 211 were rejected or suspended because of human rights concerns.

“We have struggled a great deal in the past to locate units we can deal with,” Ms. Friend said. “One unit of rangers has finally been found and is currently undergoing training.”


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