Nigeria schoolgirls: U.S. constrained in helping Nigeria find Boko Haram captives

The U.S., and Canada, have extended a helping hand to Nigeria in its search for more than 270 kidnapped girls, but that help may be largely technical and limited due to constraints both domestic and abroad.

A hesitant Nigeria, U.S. law and lack of Boko Haram know-how may pose barriers to Western aid

The government of President Goodluck Jonathan has struggled to contain the Boko Haram insurgency in the destitute north since 2009. (Reuters)

Both the U.S. and Canada have extended a helping hand to Nigeria in its search for more than 270 kidnapped girls, but that help may be largely technical and limited due to constraints both domestic and abroad.

In the face of mounting criticism, both internationally and within Nigeria, over how the West African nation has handled the mass abduction, "the United States can't help but offer what assistance it can," says Mark Schroeder, vice-president of Africa analysis for the geopolitical intelligence firm Stratfor.

But U.S. involvement may be restrained not only by Nigeria's unwillingness to accept too much international help, for fear of appearing weak, but also by a domestic U.S. law that restricts American military training or equipment to foreign troops accused of human rights abuses, as Nigeria's military has been.

The nature of Boko Haram, a diffuse Islamic sect, also poses a challenge for American intelligence officials who have generally assigned a low priority to this non-traditional threat, says Schroeder.

Though Nigeria has reportedly welcomed the U.S. offer of assistance, former U.S. diplomats say the country is typically reluctant to accept international help, particularly on security issues.

A 2015 election is coming and that may be heightening government sensitivity to foreign involvement in its internal crisis.

"This is a proud country with a professional military and intelligence service," said former U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs Johnnie Carson.

"They believe that they have had a handle on the problem, and have been making progress in dealing with it," he says. "I think time has shown that the problem has not gotten better, but in fact has gotten worse."

An embarrassed nation

The U.S. has offered to send a team to Nigeria to help in the search for an estimated 276 teenage girls kidnapped in Chibok, in northeastern Nigeria, three weeks ago. The Islamic jihadist group Boko Haram subsequently claimed responsibility for the abduction and threatened to sell the girls into slavery.

On Tuesday, gunmen took eight more girls from another northeastern Nigeria village, Warabe, fueling already intense international pressure on the Nigerian government to step up its efforts to find them.

Protesters, like these marching in front of the Nigerian embassy in Washington, have helped bring international pressure to bear on the Nigerian government to do more to track down Boko Haram. (Reuters)

Washington said it's already sent a team of officials specializing in hostage situations to the Nigerian capital of Abuja, where they'll help co-ordinate efforts to retrieve the girls. Team members come from military, law enforcement and other agencies.

Three weeks after the mass abduction, little is known about where the teenage girls might be. Cameroon vehemently denied speculation that the girls had been taken to the neighbouring country to be sold. 

Nigeria's failure to find the girls has embarrassed the West African nation, a regional leader and an oil-rich country that has recently become the richest country in Africa by GDP.

On Wednesday, Nigeria began playing host to the World Economic Forum on Africa.

The country is also one of the largest contributors of UN troops and home to 20 per cent of Africa's population south of the Sahara.

Boko Haram's reach

The government of President Goodluck Jonathan has struggled to contain the Boko Haram insurgency in the destitute north since 2009.

And "foreign involvement can bring into serious question the capabilities of the Nigerian government and confidence in the Nigerian government," said Schroeder. "President Jonathan is loath to raise even more questions about the capability of his government."

John Campbell, a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, says Boko Haram appears to operate with impunity in up to one-third of Nigeria, much of it in arid, thinly populated and mostly Muslim regions.

The three states most affected by Boko Haram have been in a state of emergency since last May, when the government admitted it had lost control of swaths of the northeast, says Campbell.

The area's resulting isolation means what little information is available on the area is filtered through the Nigerian military and government before reaching the world.

Campbell cautioned it's too early to tell what form the U.S. assistance in particular will take, but it's unlikely a large number of Americans will be sent to the country.

Foreign Minister John Baird said Wednesday that Canada will provide surveillance equipment and technical expertise to help in the hunt for the abducted schoolgirls. (Chris Wattie / Reuters)

"Whatever assistance we might provide and might be welcomed by the Nigerian side is likely to be essentially technical," said Campbell, a Council on Foreign Relations fellow and author of Nigeria: Dancing on the Brink.

Among the type of aid the U.S. may offer is intelligence collection, improved information gathering and help with forensics training. It's unclear whether detailed satellite imagery would be on the table.

Stratfor's Schroeder suggested that much of America`s satellite resources may be concentrated on the Ukraine-Russia conflict.

U.S. legal hurdles

Schroeder also notes that the U.S. has in recent years developed "widespread intelligence-sharing relationships" and extensive human contacts across the West African region, including in Cameroon, Chad and Niger.

But Carson says Washington may also face domestic legal constraints with its aid to Nigeria.

The U.S. government is forbidden under what's called the Leahy Law from providing training or equipment to foreign security forces who committed gross human rights abuses such as rape, torture and murder, until the individuals or units in question have been dealt with.

In March, Amnesty International declared that Nigeria's security forces committed crimes of humanity when trying to tackle the Boko Haram insurgency.  UN officials have also echoed concerns about torture and extrajudicial killings.

"The military response has been very hard, very harsh, very brutal, sometimes very indiscriminate," said Carson.

As a result, he suggests that much of the Nigerian military cannot be legally assisted by the U.S.

However, he believes intelligence sharing can happen irrespective of the Leahy Law. The U.S. officials can also help improve the sophistication of information and intelligence collection.

It may be possible to work with members of the Nigerian military who have been vetted according to the Leahy standards and give them additional training, says Carson.


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