The U.S. and the UK have long struggled with a dilemma in Nigeria: How to support the government in its war with Islamist insurgents while holding the military to account for mounting evidence of abuses against civilians. Washington and London continue to back the military as security worries – and geopolitical and economic considerations – repeatedly prevail.
The abortion report – along with a second Reuters report detailing targeted military killings of children suspected of being offspring or supporters of the insurgents – drew outcry internationally. The U.S. state and defence departments, lawmakers in Washington and London, the German foreign minister and the United Nations secretary-general called for inquiries by staff or investigations by the Nigerians.
The Nigerian military denied such human rights abuses took place, as it had denied abuses in the past. After initially rejecting the need for an investigation into the abortion findings, General Lucky Irabor, Nigeria’s defence chief, said on Dec. 16 that the military would cooperate with a probe by the country’s independent human rights commission, adding that the Reuters report was “evil” and the military had “nothing to fear.”
Diplomats in the United States and the United Kingdom, two of Nigeria’s staunchest backers in the war against Boko Haram and its Islamic State offshoot, said the Reuters findings on abortions and targeted child killings were new to them. But the response so far – international calls for action, Nigerian denials and uncertainty in world capitals about how to follow through – fits a pattern seen throughout the war.
Washington and London, along with the UN and international humanitarian agencies, have struggled for years with the tension between offering support to the Nigerian government during the war and denouncing alleged abuses by its military against civilians.
That tension has shaped the U.S. response since at least 2013. Matt Page, then a U.S. State Department analyst, told Reuters that the troubling U.S. intelligence on Giwa Barracks led then-Secretary of State John Kerry to release a statement that year expressing deep concern about “credible allegations that Nigerian security forces are committing gross human rights violations, which, in turn, only escalate the violence and fuel extremism.”
Later that year, the White House registered its concern with the Nigerian president. Ahead of a meeting in New York between then-presidents Barack Obama and Goodluck Jonathan, Abuja’s ambassador to the United States reassured the White House that Nigeria was committed to abiding by “international best practices” and said a decision had been taken “to immediately decongest” the Giwa detention centre, according to a Sept. 20, 2013, letter seen by Reuters. Obama stressed the need to protect and respect human rights while combating terrorism, according to a U.S. summary of the meeting.
By the following spring, however, Washington had backed off on human rights and doubled down on counterterrorism in Nigeria. In April 2014, the shocking news arrived that hundreds of schoolgirls had been kidnapped by Boko Haram insurgents from the northeastern town of Chibok, leading to “a sea change” in the administration’s agenda, Page recalled. “The message coming from the White House changed to, ‘We need to do everything possible to help the Nigerians bring back the girls.’”
In the intervening years, Page said, “the Nigerians have become very adept at pushing back and managing criticism and deflecting criticism, and in a sense have house-trained a lot of diplomats to basically keep their criticisms to themselves.”
As reports of serious military abuses in Nigeria’s northeast have mounted, international efforts to address them largely have fallen short, Reuters found. Calling out suspected abuses and seeing that the Nigerian military is held to account have proved difficult, given the dire security threat posed by the insurgents, the scope of the humanitarian crisis in the northeast and the limited role outsiders can play – or are comfortable playing – in the affairs of a sovereign nation, according to interviews, internal U.S. and British government documents and public reports.
The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden referred questions for this report to the state and defence departments. In separate statements, those departments said they were “deeply concerned” about findings in the recent Reuters investigations. Both said their cooperation with Nigeria was intended to help the country build “more capable, professional, and accountable security forces that abide by the Law of Armed Conflict, respect human rights and protect civilians.”
The British government said in a statement that regional security and human rights were both key considerations in its relationship with Nigeria.
The Nigerian government and military did not respond to Reuters’ requests for comment for this story. Previously, military and government leaders told Reuters the abortion programme did not exist and said children were never targeted for killing in the war.
Major General Christopher Musa, who leads the Nigerian counterinsurgency forces, told Reuters in a November interview that they were consistently trained to protect civilians as required by international law and the military’s own code of conduct. Nigerian forces also received training in human rights from the UN, the United States and the UK, he said.
He added that the military had been fully transparent with its international partners about its activities. “Everybody sees what we’re doing, and that we’re abiding by the rules.”
The United States and the United Kingdom see Nigeria as a key but troubled ally in Africa: It is the continent’s most populous country, its largest economy and the birthplace of Boko Haram and Islamic State’s West Africa affiliate. In April, the U.S. State Department approved a nearly $1 billion weapons sale and other military support to Nigeria after lawmakers had paused the deal over concerns about rights abuses.
Both America and Britain have seen the devastating effects of Islamist extremism, at home and abroad, and are intent on seeing it suppressed in Nigeria. But their support for the Nigerian military comes with serious internal misgivings. At times, “abuses are being sanctioned at the highest levels of Nigeria’s military command,” a July 2018 UK government analysis reads.
The main reason for the continued military support by Washington and London, say some experts, is Nigeria’s growing importance in Africa and globally. With huge oil and gas reserves, it is home to some 200 million people and is on course to become the third most populous nation on the planet by 2050. If stable and successful, the country could become an economic and geopolitical powerhouse. If insecurity spreads, it could devolve into a vast failed state that exports extremism and migrants across the region and beyond.
“The country’s current struggle for security, for effective democracy, and for enough economic opportunity to accommodate its constantly growing labour force will determine whether it is a force for growth and peace or a source of disorder spilling far beyond its borders,” said Michelle Gavin, an Africa specialist on the National Security Council during the Obama administration.
Well aware of Nigeria’s current and future strategic importance, diplomats in recent years have had less visibility on potential abuses because of the deteriorating security situation, especially in the country’s northeast, said Alex Vines, head of the Africa programme at the Chatham House think tank in London.
Aid groups have a limited window as well, some humanitarian officials told Reuters. They are heavily restricted by the military in war-ravaged northeast Nigeria and need its approval to access populations caught up in one of the world’s most pressing humanitarian crises. That limits their ability both to deliver aid in areas where civilians are most vulnerable and to bring abuses by security forces to light, they say.
Pressure on Nigeria is important, “for impunity not to be an option.”
Meanwhile, the International Criminal Court (ICC), a body expressly set up to investigate and prosecute atrocity crimes, has been slow to act in Nigeria. Considered a court of last resort, it prosecutes only when national courts are unwilling or unable to bring defendants to justice.
In 2020, after a decade of preliminary examination, the ICC Office of the Prosecutor said there was “a reasonable basis to believe” that war crimes and crimes against humanity were committed by Nigerian security forces, as well as by insurgents. Fatou Bensouda, the office’s chief prosecutor until 2021, said that Nigerian officials had not held either side sufficiently to account, and criteria had been met for an investigation by her office. Two years later, the ICC’s new prosecutor has not opened one.
Bensouda told Reuters this month that Nigerian authorities dragged their feet in providing information her office sought. And as it became clear the ICC was looking at alleged crimes by government forces, as well as insurgents, members of the Nigerian government threatened to halt cooperation altogether, she said.
By now, “certainly, I think the case should have gone to the next stage,” she said, referring to a full ICC-run investigation.
Since taking office last year, the current ICC chief prosecutor, Karim Khan, “has sought to accelerate action with respect to the situation in Nigeria,” the prosecutor’s office said in a statement after this report was published. It is the prosecutor’s view that “preliminary examinations must be concluded promptly and lead to tangible next steps.”
The U.S. state and defence departments said in their statements that human rights are at “the core” of the U.S.-Nigeria relationship. As a result, “the Nigerian military has implemented mechanisms to engage in investigation of, accountability for, and prevention of misconduct, civilian casualties, and human rights violations and abuses,” the State Department said.
The British government said its partnership with Nigeria, which includes training of its armed forces, is intended to both address rising insecurity in the region and “protect at-risk communities across the country.”
“At the centre of this partnership,” the government said, “is a mutual understanding that respect for human rights must be paramount.”
‘Climate of fear’
Human rights groups began raising concerns about abuses by Nigerian security forces in the northeast soon after the war broke out in 2009.
In 2012, the international group Human Rights Watch accused Nigeria’s government of responding “with a heavy hand” to the insurgency and warned that crimes against humanity may have been committed by government forces. Nigerian security forces “have killed hundreds of Boko Haram suspects and random members of communities where attacks have occurred,” the report said.
In 2015, the Center for Civilians in Conflict, a U.S.-based research group, reported that the Nigerian military had difficulty distinguishing between civilians and combatants and at times viewed civilians as “conspirators.” The report said security forces “directly targeted” civilians in the war, causing destruction of property, injury and death.
The same year, Amnesty International reported that thousands of people had been subjected to arbitrary arrests and hundreds to extrajudicial killings, including at Giwa Barracks.
The Nigerian government dismissed Amnesty’s report as inaccurate, saying the organisation had “an agenda” that was “against the security agencies and image of Nigeria before the international community.”
As the conflict in the northeast spread, the humanitarian crisis deepened. Hundreds of thousands of people were at risk of starvation, and suffering from violence and disease. Nigeria found itself in the uncomfortable position of needing international assistance.
The relationship between aid organisations and the authorities, both military and civilian, grew more tense. Humanitarian groups, used to a measure of independence in delivering food and medical care, chafed under military restrictions. For years, they have been barred from operating outside government-controlled areas.
“While respect for human rights is unquestionably a high priority, we have many other equities at stake.”
In 2019, Nigerian officials tightened the rules, requiring aid workers to “undergo lengthy processes” to get approval for moving “personnel, cash and cargo,” according to a 2020 Human Rights Watch report. On some routes, they were required to travel with armed escorts.
Humanitarian groups say the military’s close control over their activities not only limits where they go and what they see, but also threatens their appearance of impartiality in the conflict, putting staff in danger of attack by insurgents and diminishing the likelihood that civilians will confide in them about military abuses.
Some aid agency officials told Reuters that staff members fear retaliation by the military if they voice concerns about how civilians are treated, including further restrictions on access, non-renewal of visas and closure of their offices. In 2019, two international aid groups, Action Against Hunger and Mercy Corps, had offices closed by the military due to accusations of alleged corruption or support for insurgents. The actions were later rescinded.
“There is a climate of fear,” said one aid official, whose views echoed those of two others interviewed by Reuters. All spoke on condition of anonymity.
For years, U.S. officials have wrestled with the often-competing interests of collaborating with Nigerian authorities and pressing them over human rights concerns.
At the State Department in 2013, as Page was drawing attention to potential abuses by Nigerian security forces, he got pushback from the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria.
Ambassador Terence McCulley wrote to Page’s boss, Matthew Harrington, in June of that year to express “considerable frustration” with Page’s focus, according to an email seen by Reuters. Harrington was the State Department’s director of the Office of Analysis for Africa in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research.
“While respect for human rights is unquestionably a high priority, we have many other equities at stake,” McCulley wrote. Among them, the ambassador noted, was engagement between the U.S. and Nigerian militaries. He said the focus on human rights had sent relations between the two countries into the “lowest ebb” in his three years there.
Harrington declined to comment.
Contacted for this story, McCulley told Reuters that he had been frustrated that Washington suspended training of a specific military unit “on the basis of very limited evidence.” He said his views reflected the U.S. diplomatic mission’s perspective at the time. Nigeria was “arguably our most important strategic partner on the African continent,” he said.
Soon, Boko Haram’s abduction of 276 schoolgirls from Chibok, the town in northeastern Nigeria, horrified a world audience and changed the U.S. focus. Among other steps, President Obama announced a $40 million Global Security Contingency Fund to provide Nigeria and three other countries technical expertise, training and equipment.
At a May 2014 hearing about the Chibok abductions before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, some officials and lawmakers voiced frustration at the challenges posed by working with the Nigerian military.
“The military has too often built a record of indiscriminate destruction themselves, theft of personal property, arbitrary arrests, indefinite detention, torture and extrajudicial killing of civilians, much of this with impunity,” said then-Congressman Eliot Engel, a Democrat from New York.
Nigeria’s human rights record wasn’t only a moral issue – it was a legal one.
The Leahy Laws, authored by Senator Patrick Leahy in the late 1990s, prohibit providing military assistance to individuals or security-force units that commit gross violations of human rights and have not been brought to justice. Sarah Sewall, then undersecretary of state for civilian security, democracy and human rights, testified at the May 2014 hearing that “some 50% of the Nigerian military” was ineligible for training and other military support from the United States because of the Leahy Laws. Sewall did not respond to a request for comment.
In 2014, Washington halted the resale of U.S.-made helicopters from Israel to Nigeria in part over human rights concerns. But in later years, deals went ahead despite similar worries.
In January 2017, the Nigerian Air Force bombed a refugee camp, killing between 90 and 170 civilians. The attack prompted the Obama administration to freeze a $593 million sale of 12 A-29 Super Tucano light attack planes and thousands of bombs and rockets.
A few months later, the new administration of President Donald Trump resurrected the deal, citing the need to aid Nigeria in fighting Islamist extremists.
U.S. senators Cory Booker and Rand Paul protested in a letter in June 2017 to Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state at the time. “We are concerned that the decision to proceed with this sale will empower the government to backtrack even further on its commitments to human rights, accountability, and upholding international humanitarian law,” they wrote. “That ultimately helps to strengthen Boko Haram.”
Reuters was unable to reach Tillerson. A spokesperson for Trump did not respond to a request for comment. Spokespersons for the Obama administration also did not respond to requests for comment.
In July 2021, with Biden now in the White House, U.S. lawmakers put a hold on a $997 million arms sale to Nigeria over concerns about possible human rights abuses by the Nigerian government. But after Secretary of State Antony Blinken went to Nigeria in November that year and registered the concerns, the deal went ahead – the largest-ever sale of U.S. arms in sub-Saharan Africa. The deal included 12 AH-1Z Viper attack helicopters and 2,000 Advanced Precision Kill Weapon systems.
In their statements, U.S. defence and state department officials said that arms sales to the Nigerians were carefully vetted to ensure compliance with the Leahy Laws. Working under these laws provided “openings to incentivise and institutionalise” human rights protections within the Nigerian military, the State Department said.
U.S. assistance has long been based on the assumption that continuing to train and engage with Nigeria’s security forces would help make them more professional and therefore less likely to commit abuses, according to current and former U.S. officials and Nigeria experts.
As the U.S. is providing equipment, Blinken said during his November 2021 trip to Nigeria, it is ensuring “that those who will be using the equipment are trained in a way that makes sure that they are doing it to avoid hurting the good guys even as they’re going after the bad guys.”
Since 2000, the United States has provided at least 41,027 training slots for Nigerian military personnel, many focusing on compliance with international law and appropriate use of weapons to mitigate civilian harm, according to a May 2022 report about Nigeria and its military by Brown University and others.
However, continued reports of harm inflicted by Nigerian security forces, including civilian casualties and sexual violence, suggest “that trainings provided by the U.S. and others have been insufficient in either quantity and scope or have not been appropriately targeted,” the report found.
Karen Hanrahan, who oversaw implementation of the Leahy Laws as a State Department official in the Obama administration, told Reuters that she, like Page, pushed for greater emphasis on human rights compliance in Nigeria.
The Nigerian government wanted more advanced technology “that we knew, based objectively on all of the evidence, that they would have used to be more brutal,” said Hanrahan, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary for democracy, human rights and labor. But the Nigerians were adept at pushing back on international pressure, she said, and invoked the legacy of colonialism.
They said “that we should understand the situation they’re in and what they have to do because they’re fighting terrorists,” Hanrahan said.
The bottom line, said some veteran diplomats, is the Nigerian military often got what it wanted.
“What they wanted is hardware, the attack aircraft and so forth, and I think they sort of roll their eyes at the lectures about human rights,” said Alex Thurston, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati and former desk officer at the State Department.
In comments to Reuters in November, Major General Musa said Nigerian security forces have been respectful of human rights but are still not receiving enough international help to defeat the insurgents.
“The Nigerian armed forces is doing all the best to be very professional, to be able to end this menace,” he said. “But unfortunately, we’re not getting the right support from even the Western world. And it’s very, very, extremely, very sad.”
A special relationship
British officials have long considered Nigeria, a former colony, as a “priority” partner, with which it has long-standing economic and cultural ties.
The importance of the relationship is not fully captured in British exports to the Nigerian military, which have been much more modest than America’s. The United States agreed to sell more than $1.6 billion worth of arms to Nigeria in its two major deals since 2017. Since 2015, the UK approved at least $64 million (53 million pounds) in sales of military and dual-use goods, according to export licences from the Department for International Trade accessed via the Freedom of Information Act.
The UK is keen on engaging with the Nigerian government on economic, security and geopolitical issues, government documents seen by Reuters show. And it sees the government’s poor human rights record as a serious liability in this quest.
“Our engagement is not risk free and the shadow of Human Rights violations is always present,” states a briefing paper prepared by the British defence ministry in 2021. The paper underscores that the UK sees such violations as a “reputational risk.” The document was obtained and first reported on by the UK-based investigative media outlet Declassified. British officials did not respond to specific questions about the document, which was reviewed by Reuters.
Still, the UK has moved cautiously ahead in working with the Nigerian military, principally in offering training and non-lethal equipment while limiting collaboration on military operations.
Driving the UK, in part, is a fear of seeing its political and economic influence in Africa wane. In the 2021 briefing paper, the defence ministry expresses concern that the UK risks losing ground to other “competitors” in the sales of military equipment, including China and Russia. “Nigeria is a potentially huge market for the UK,” and Lake Chad Basin countries, including Nigeria, “are often in a ‘hurry’ when it comes to procuring equipment and capability enhancements,” the paper states.
Between 2014 and 2020, in response to the Chibok kidnapping, the UK dedicated a small number of military personnel to serve in the northeast – including about a dozen liaison staff stationed at Maimalari Barracks in Maiduguri, according to a government document and several sources with knowledge of the postings. Reuters reported this month that forced abortions were occurring at that site during that period.
British officials have long been aware of other suspected abuses by Nigerian security forces, according to other government documents and interviews.
“Specifically on the northeast, the Nigerian military has never been human-rights compliant,” said one former foreign office analyst.
Around 2017, for example, staffers working in Nigeria for a humanitarian agency expressed concern in a report to British officials, including at the foreign office, about the fate of Nigerian men and boys detained in military operations. The staffers reported that the civilians, most of whom were perceived as insurgent sympathisers, were taken without any choice to a “screening centre” that was not accessible to humanitarian agencies, according to a confidential report by the humanitarian group.
The following year, in a July meeting with aid groups, then-British defence secretary Gavin Williamson was briefed about issues including forced relocations, screening centres and “missing men and boys,” according to a meeting schedule reviewed by Reuters.
Williamson did not respond to requests for comment about the meeting or whether he took any action as a result. The Ministry of Defence also did not respond to questions about the meeting.
About the same time, in July 2018, the British government prepared an analysis of the war in Nigeria’s northeast and how London could best respond.
The report was produced by the Stabilisation Unit, run by the UK National Security Council. It raised a red flag: “In certain circumstances, abuses are being sanctioned at the highest levels of Nigeria’s military command, with the Presidential directive to defeat Boko Haram by the end of 2015 leading the military to adopt highly aggressive tactics, including the use of ‘scorched earth’ tactics, with the widespread burning of villages.”
The office of Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari did not respond to a request for comment on the report.
A month later, the British government signed a security and defence partnership with the Nigerian government aimed at helping to end the Islamist insurgency in the northeast. As part of the August 2018 pact, the UK agreed to provide more equipment and training to the Nigerian military, including help to train full army units before they deployed to the northeast.
The pact also noted that London and Abuja had agreed on an “enhanced human rights dialogue” to ensure compliance with international rights standards.
The UK’s offer frustrated Nigerian military leaders, who felt it was not sufficient for the war effort, said two British officials who dealt with the Nigerian authorities at the time.
In 2020, Nigerian troops opened fire on civilians who were protesting police brutality in Lagos, the country’s commercial capital. The shooting was widely condemned by the international community and led to a review of British security assistance to Nigeria, according to the 2021 defence ministry briefing paper obtained by Declassified. The review found that six of the 10 UK-funded projects in Nigeria held “a serious risk that the assistance might directly or significantly contribute to a violation of human rights.”
The review recommended changes including scaling back British military staff in Nigeria and focusing on helping the Nigerian military institutions reform.
At a meeting in London in early 2022, officials from the UK and Nigeria said they reaffirmed their countries’ deep relationship based on shared principles of “democratic governance and respect for international humanitarian and human rights law.”
Human rights abuses in Nigeria have long been scrutinised at the highest levels of the system meant to ensure justice across the world. The International Criminal Court’s prosecutor opened a “preliminary examination” in 2010 to determine whether an investigation into possible charges was warranted. The office spent 10 years collecting and analysing information.
While doing so, the court pushed for Nigerian authorities to organise their own judicial proceedings. Some low-level insurgents went on trial. But in 2020, the then-prosecutor, Bensouda, said that Nigerian authorities “are deemed inactive” in part because of the absence of relevant legal proceedings against alleged perpetrators of abuses in the security forces. Military authorities, Bensouda said, “informed me that they have examined, and dismissed, allegations against their own troops.”
Six months before leaving office in 2021, Bensouda said the criteria for opening an investigation into war crimes and crimes against humanity in Nigeria had been met.
Nigeria has not clearly addressed in public the ICC’s role in examining possible abuses by its security forces. It has in the past broadly supported the mission of the court.
In April 2022, Khan, the court’s new prosecutor, paid his first visit to Nigeria and met with President Buhari, the president’s deputy, the foreign minister and the acting solicitor general. “My message was clear: accountability for atrocity crimes is essential,” Khan said after the meetings.
In its proposed budget for 2023, however, the court did not set aside any money for a full-scale Nigerian probe. It said it faced “an unprecedented workload, in terms of both volume and complexity.” In its statement to Reuters, Khan’s office said it is currently dealing with 14 ongoing investigations and needs “appropriate resources to be allocated” by member states.
Bensouda said that the lack of funds had been an issue for her, as well. But Nigeria’s situation should be a priority, she said, along with the other cases around the world.
“That pressure is important,” she said, “for impunity not to be an option.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was updated to include post-publication comments from the prosecutor’s office of the International Criminal Court.
Nightmare in Nigeria
By David Lewis, Reade Levinson and Libby George
Photo editing: Simon Newman
Art direction: Catherine Tai
Edited by Julie Marquis and Alexandra Zavis