Nigeria’s so-new-he-still-has-that-new-president-smell President Muhammadu Buhari reached a deal today with four of his neighbors — Niger, Chad, Cameroon, and Benin — to create a multi-national military force tasked with putting Boko Haram out of everybody’s misery. This is a good idea, at least in principle; Boko Haram may have its roots in northeast Nigeria, but it has grown into a regional problem, especially for Cameroon, and Chad and Niger have been particularly forceful lately in their efforts to combat them. Bringing all the regional stakeholders under a unified command will allow them to coordinate their efforts and also shows that Buhari is more serious about the fight against Boko Haram than his predecessor, Goodluck Jonathan, who actually prevented Chadian forces from pursuing defeated Boko Haram fighters into Nigeria in late February because he thought their incursion might hurt his reelection chances (and, you know, maybe it would have, but FFS get your priorities in order).
Fielding a multi-national force, albeit under Nigerian command, also reduces the need to utilize Nigerian soldiers, which might be a good thing. At LobeLog, William Hartung explains that Jonathan’s army was amassing quite a pattern of human rights abuses:
Just last week Amnesty International released a report, Blood on Their Hands: War Crimes Committed by the Nigerian Military, which documented the death of over 7,000 men and boys in military detention since February 2012. The report also asserts that another 1,200 people died in unlawful attacks by the Nigerian military in 2013 and 2014 alone.
The Amnesty report was the product of 412 interviews with “victims, their relatives, eyewitnesses, doctors, journalists, lawyers and military sources.” The Amnesty staff also reviewed photographs and military evidence.
The abuses cited in the Amnesty report were horrific. Detainees were housed in crowded, unventilated cells with no access to sanitary facilities and little access to food and water. Deaths from starvation, suffocation and lack of access to water were common. The vast bulk of the detainees are being held indefinitely, without access to lawyers or family members, and without being charged with a specific crime. One former detainee said that a soldier at Giwa barracks, one of the detention facilities, said “Welcome to your die house. Welcome to your place of death.”
There’s fighting fire with fire, and then there’s fighting fire with gasoline. Committing war crimes against your own people is not a good way to get them on side in your war against a homegrown insurgency. Corruption is also a major problem within the Nigerian army, due both to plain old greed and to Boko Haram sympathizers within its ranks, who divert army supplies to the insurgents. It remains to be seen whether Buhari can or will fix any of this. Back when he was dictator of Nigeria in 1983-1985 he wasn’t exactly known for his deep commitment to human rights, but maybe he’s changed in the intervening 30 years. Conversely, he did try to crack down on corruption back then, though maybe too zealously when you consider his human rights record.
One real concern about this plan is that inviting forces from other countries into your country to fight a common enemy (assuming that’s what will be happening here) sounds like a recipe for more human rights problems. Chadian or Cameroonian soldiers may not be particularly sensitive to Nigerian civilians while they’re going after Boko Haram.