Foreign Policy Blogs

U.S. policy forces Nigeria to turn east

Mourners look on as thousands died in Baga Town after the most recent Boko Haram attack.

Mourners look on as thousands died in Baga Town after the most recent Boko Haram attack.

The war raging in northeastern Nigeria in Borno State has escalated immensely with Boko Haram militants carrying out their boldest and deadliest attack to date on Baga Town. Gunmen emerged from the bushes and began shooting at unarmed civilians. When the slaughter subsided, as many as 2,000 people may have been killed. Many of the inhabitants fled into the bush where they were fervently pursued and cut down, while others jumped into neighboring Lake Chad and are now stranded on Kangala Island in the lake awaiting a decision by Chadian authorities on how to handle the refugees.

If the reports of the dead are true, this would be Boko Haram’s deadliest attack to date. War between the Islamic extremist group and Nigeria began in 2009, and has claimed an estimated 13,000 lives in six years. Boko Haram now controls over 25 towns — including Baga Town and the surrounding settlements – in three northeastern states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa. The group made global news last year when they kidnapped 200 girls from Chibok, Nigeria, sparking the global campaign #BringBackOurGirls. The girls have still not been released and remain missing.

Boko Haram, whose name is loosely translated to “Western education is forbidden,” is seeking to setup a state in the northeast Nigeria governed by a strict interpretation of Islamic law. The fact that the group’s violence has increased dramatically in the last year shows that Nigeria is losing the war against the group. Regional ally Niger has already said that it will cease its involvement in the conflict.

While the United States has provided support for the Nigerian military in an attempt to curb the insurgency, recently the relationship between the two countries has become strained, especially after the U.S. refused to sell heavy arms to Nigeria, citing human rights abuses by the Nigerian military during the conflict. The violations include the killing and detention of innocent civilians.  A joint U.S.-Nigeria training program has also been terminated abruptly, showing further strain in the tumultuous relationship.

The U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria, James Entwistle, denies the claims, stating that, “Ideas that there are arms embargo and that the U.S. has cut Nigeria off is nonsense.”

However, a recent arms deal between Nigeria and Russia to acquire heavy weapons tells a different story. While the policy of not selling heavy arms to countries in which their soldiers are accused of human rights is generally sound, an all-or-nothing policy or zero-sum game may not be the best strategy when dealing with Nigeria. Now that Nigeria is buying their arms from Russia, the influence of Moscow and the nearly zero restrictions on arms purchases from the Kremlin means that Nigerian relations with Russia will undoubtedly improve, while the weapons will be subject to no oversight.

U.S.-Russian relations are already at their lowest point since the fall of the communist regime over Russian aggression in Crimean and Ukraine. In the global political landscape, losing an ally such as Nigeria to Moscow is a major blow for the U.S. in Africa. Nigeria is already the most populace country in Africa and their vast reserves of oil make them a major player in the global energy circuit. While Nigeria’s population sits at around 180 million people in 2014, analysts estimate that Nigeria could surpass the U.S. in population by 2050, making it the third most populated country on earth behind India and China. While these estimates are not guaranteed, there is no denying that Nigeria is already a major player in the global geopolitical landscape and their influence will only increase over time.

The importance of the African continent is on the rise and will only continue to increase as the population grows. Nigeria is Africa’s most important country and maintaining them as an ally now and in the future should be a priority for the U.S. While selling arms to an army that abuses its own citizens is generally a good policy, with a country as internationally important as Nigeria — who is battling an extremist group that despises the West — the U.S. should not look at this as simply black and white, but gray. Selling arms with stipulations for the government to clean up its military actions might be a preferred strategy then forcing the country to turn to Moscow.

The relationship between the U.S. and Nigeria will be key moving forward and helping destabilize and destroy Boko Haram will be a good start. This strategy will accomplish two things, strengthening relations with Africa’s most important country and eliminating a group that is a direct threat to the U.S. Walking a fine line between morality and security is how the U.S. has maintained its global influence for so long. Now is not the time to abandon this strategy. When making firm decisions, the U.S. must consider the now and the future and in this case they got it wrong. Hopefully, they can repair their relationship with Nigeria and eliminate Boko Haram before the situation escalates any further. Otherwise, they may lose the relationship forever.



Daniel Donovan

Daniel is the Executive Director of a non-profit development organization that focuses on building infrastructure and training in rural Sub-Saharan Africa called the African Community Advancement Initiative ( . He has a Master's degree graduate in International Relations with an emphasis on conflict resolution and development in Sub-Saharan Africa. Coupled with his extensive financial background, Daniel also works as a consultant for Consultancy Africa Intelligence in Pretoria and the Centre for Global Governance and Public Policy in Abu Dhabi. In addition to his work at FPA, he is also a regular contributor to The Continent Observer and International Policy Digest. He currently resides in Denver, CO.