To Stop Boko Haram, Start Promoting Human Rights

It has been more than half a year since the radical Islamic insurgency group Boko Haram abducted 276 schoolgirls in Chibok, Nigeria. Since then, they have kidnapped even more children, including 30 this week. Why can’t Nigeria stop Boko Haram, and what can the United States do to help?

This week, in a report on the horrific abuses faced by the women and girls taken by Boko Haram, Human Rights Watch also detailed incredible human rights violations by the Nigerian security forces.

The Nigerian security forces and vigilante groups, according to the new report, have routinely violated the human rights of those allegedly associated with Boko Haram. Those violations include torture, abuse, and extrajudicial killing. The Nigerian government has for the most part declined to hold violators accountable. These abuses and the lack of accountability alienate the very communities that the Nigerian government needs to help defeat the Boko Haram insurgents.

The Nigerian government also neglects basic services for vast swaths of the population, especially in the north of the country—not coincidentally home to Boko Haram—which further fuels the insurgency. This negligence is partially due to rampant corruption within the government, military, police, and courts. Nigeria is one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Furthermore, as the HRW report details, the Nigerian government response to Boko Haram has been wholly inadequate, from not responding to citizens’ concerns to deploying insufficient troops and running out of ammunition mid-battle.

As Human Rights First President and CEO Elisa Massimino wrote to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel in May, the United States needs to address the underlying problems with the Nigerian security forces.

The Nigerian government looks to the United States, among others, for help to pursue a more organized and effective counterinsurgency effort. To be successful, such an effort would have to be very different from the current abusive approach. The rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria is a worst-case scenario of how extremism can flourish in lawless environments. In Iraq, significant military assistance couldn’t overcome the distrust and fear bred by sectarianism and rights abuses.

The United States has the chance to do better in Nigeria, and elsewhere around the world where established governments are struggling with insurgencies. U.S. security aid to the Nigerian government, including the military and intelligence experts sent to assist in finding the hundreds of girls kidnapped by Boko Haram, should include focus on Nigerian human rights violations, assistance to developing Nigerian institutions that can prevent and monitor abuses, and insistence that the government address the security sector corruption that prevents effective governance and response to insurgency.

Another tool is the Leahy Law, which bars the Pentagon from funding or training military units that commit human rights violations. The United States should apply this standard to all security assistance, and ensure that human rights and rule of law instruction is required for any training it provides to foreign forces. It should also make sure it is not funding or working with elements of the Nigerian military or police that are committing human rights violations.

The United States should also increase its outreach to Nigerian civil society members to empower them to lead efforts against government corruption and impunity. Tactical counterterrorism assistance should be paired with increased support for governance and the rule of law, through the State Department and USAID to help the Nigerian government address the underlying problems that cripple its response to Boko Haram.

In this way, the United States can help Nigeria pursue a strategy that both effectively responds to the threat of Boko Haram and respects human rights at the same time.

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Published on October 28, 2014

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