Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari’s July trip to Washington DC generated excitement and column inches. But the president’s regional diplomacy is more significant, argues James Schneider.
Heads of state love to visit the US. Few trips yield better coverage at home. The customary photographs of the Presidents and the First Ladies in the White House are brought back proudly along with the odd trade, security or investment deal. For Nigeria’s newly inaugurated president Muhammadu Buhari, July’s four-day trip was a show of faith in the new administration, following his attendance at the G7 Summit in Germany in June. Major General, welcome to the club.
This show of faith is not just important for his presidency, but in rebuilding ties between Nigeria and the US. US-Nigeria relations became strained towards the end of the Goodluck Jonathan administration. The US had been a staunch supporter of Jonathan’s, providing him with political support and, according to diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks, advice, as he successfully battled to make the move from Vice to President after his boss, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, died in office.
The US also looked favourably on Jonathan’s victory in the 2011 presidential election, which, thanks to reforms Jonathan introduced, were significantly fairer than the fraudulent 2007 vote. Jonathan had a good narrative – a poor boy from a region that had tasted little political power, with an ambitious “transformation agenda”.
However, frustrations grew in diplomatic circles over perceptions of incompetence and corruption in his administration. These tensions spilt out into public view in December 2014 when the Nigerian government publicly criticised the US for not providing the Nigerian military with heavy weaponry due to allegations of gross human rights abuses.
Buhari’s trip seems to have mended ties that were only frayed, not irrevocably damaged. His US counterpart Barack Obama praised him for his anti-corruption zeal and determination to wipe out Islamist militant group Boko Haram. Indeed, the US is patting itself on the back for the role it played in the run-up to March’s presidential election when Secretary of State John Kerry was on the ground, pushing the candidates to commit to peaceful and free elections. Obama made an explicit reference to Nigeria’s transfer of power in his speech to the African Union in Addis Ababa just after Buhari’s trip to Washington. Obama has pledged to assist Buhari in tracking down money stolen under previous regimes. It seems that Nigeria under Buhari is in the US’s good books.
However, US policy is still not entirely in Buhari’s good books. The Nigerian president gave a speech on 22 July at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) in which he criticised the US for not providing Nigeria with sufficient weaponry. He said the US policy has the unintended effect of “aiding and abetting” Boko Haram.
The US is not legally allowed to provide significant military assistance to Nigeria because of the Leahy Law, which prohibits assistance to militaries that violate human rights with impunity. Rights groups have frequently accused Nigeria’s military of committing human rights abuses in its fight against Boko Haram. Most recently, in June Amnesty International accused the Nigerian military of war crimes, with more than 7,000 dying in military detention. Amnesty International named individual high-ranking officers that it felt could be held responsible for these crimes. The military rejected the report. President Buhari, just days into his presidency, vowed to investigate. No details of any investigation have been released. Unless they are, it is hard to see how the Leahy Law can be overcome. As Obama said in Addis Ababa, “The law is the law.”
Buhari, like his predecessor, has been accused of using the US arms issue as an excuse for Boko Haram’s continued menace. However, unlike Jonathan, Buhari appears to realise that while relations with the US get news coverage, defeating Boko Haram will take broad regional cooperation.
In the first two months of his presidency, Buhari has visited seven countries: Niger, Chad, Cameroon and Benin – the four other regional countries fighting Boko Haram – as well as the trip to the US, attending a G7 meeting in Germany and the African Union summit in South Africa. In addition to trips to his neighbours, Buhari hosted the Cameroonian defence minister and the presidents of the other three countries in Abuja to discuss Boko Haram.
This regional coordination, rather than more weaponry, is key to defeating Boko Haram. Funding networks, arms supplies, militant leadership and, indeed, fighters exist across borders. The main body of Boko Haram violence is located in Nigeria’s Borno State but in July, attacks stepped up in Chad’s capital N’Djamena, which is little more than 30km from Borno State’s border, and Maroua, the capital of Cameroon’s Far North Region.
Coordination between the five countries has faced severe challenges. Although they have worked together in a small Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) to fight criminality in the Lake Chad region since 1998, this force is poorly developed and was quickly overrun by Boko Haram in January’s Baga massacre. There are varying levels of mistrust between the countries. Chad and Nigeria fought in Borno in 1983 when Chadian forces invaded Nigeria. It was, in fact, President Buhari, then a general, who chased the Chadian military out of Nigeria and followed them back into Chad.
In February and March, Chadian forces entered Borno again, this time to liberate towns from Boko Haram control. The Nigerian military and Jonathan administration let them do so, at times begrudgingly.
Relations with Cameroon are rocky. Nigeria and Cameroon have accumulated distrust over numerous small border disagreements and, most significantly, the disputed Bakassi peninsula. This lack of trust undermines the fight against Boko Haram. Nigeria and Cameroon do not systematically share intelligence on Boko Haram. Nigerian troops are not permitted on Cameroonian soil and vice versa. On a recent reporting trip to the Far North of Cameroon, New African found Cameroon’s special forces fighting Boko Haram, known by their French acronym BIR, operationally frustrated by Nigeria-Cameroon politics. In contrast, Chadian troops operate in northern Cameroon, have joint patrols with BIR and share a base at Fotokol on the border with Nigeria.
Therefore, it is of particular significance that Buhari went to Cameroon to discuss with his counterpart Paul Biya the details of the joint regional force of 8,700 troops, which may begin operations this month. During the visit, Buhari laid to rest the Bakassi issue, saying that Nigeria will abide by the International Court of Justice ruling, which gave the peninsula to Cameroon. During Buhari’s election campaign, he had made noises about rejecting the ruling. He also travelled with the state governors of six states which border Cameroon – three from his party and three from the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP).
This regional focus should not come as a surprise. Before the election, Buhari and his team outlined a foreign policy vision of concentric rings. This means that Nigeria’s primary focus is its neighbours, then the West African sub-region, then the African continent, then the rest of the world. How Buhari has used his time in his first two months has followed this policy to the letter.
To tackle Boko Haram, this region-first approach seems correct. Allowing Boko Haram to exploit the porous borders and limited information exchange between countries makes defeating the militants harder. This matters more than weapons. As the assaults against Boko Haram in the first half of this year, which pushed them out of all the towns the militants held, showed, when the regional militaries face Boko Haram in conventional battle in a concerted manner, they rout the jihadists. It is systems that cross borders, not more hardware, that will determine the future course of this fight, especially as the militants return to asymmetrical warfare.
Buhari’s comments at the USIP made a lot of noise – the event was livestreamed, live tweeted and trended on Twitter in Washington DC. However, Buhari’s focus on the regional effort suggests that the USIP comments were an unfortunate aberration, a mistaken continuation of Jonathan’s rhetoric, rather than a change in policy approach. For the sake of those whose lives have been turned upside down by Boko Haram, let’s hope so.