The New York Times reported last week that Pentagon efforts to find and rescue the more than 200 abducted schoolgirls in Nigeria are challenged by the fact that the Nigerian army - the prospective host to any U.S. forces deployed to the country - is steeped in human rights abuses.
“We have struggled a great deal in the past to locate units we can deal with,” a Defense Department official lamented to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, according to the Times. Finding units unsullied by atrocity has been “a very persistent and troubling limitation.”
Though quick to condemn the Nigerian government for its failure to effectively pursue Boko Haram, the violent jihadi group that made off with the girls, the Senators failed to ask what should have been an obvious question: Where has the money gone? After all, far from being an American pariah, the Nigerian army has enjoyed U.S. patronage since it joined the African Contingency Operations Training and Assistance Program in 2005. ACOTA, according to the State Department, which manages the 25-nation program jointly with AFRICOM, the Pentagon’s newest combatant command, “provides extensive field training for African peacekeepers plus staff training and exercises for battalion, brigade, and multinational force personnel.” It is the centerpiece of Washington’s “Western money, African boots” approach to security assistance in Africa, a card to play in its rivalry with China over Africa’s natural resources, and the key to unfettered access to its ports, airspace and seaways.
Not surprisingly, the assembled lawmakers resisted this line of inquiry. Otherwise they’d have exposed one of the darker chambers of America’s militarized foreign policy: its web of devil’s deals with corrupt, brutish regimes as guarantors of its hegemony. There is nothing qualitatively new in this; Washington has kept a rogue’s gallery of dictators, sadists and confidence men on its imperial payroll throughout the post-war continuum. The difference is in scope. The collapse of the Soviet Union, the expansion of the Pentagon’s franchise into new business lines such as drug-interdiction, and the organizing rigor imposed by the War on Terrorism has made possible entire rosters of Pentagon proxies on a hemispheric scale. And for the first time they are gathered not under the State Department’s imprimatur but the U.S. military’s.
The Defense Department has been dipping into a mushrooming fund for direct military-to-military partnerships since 2006, when it demanded a proprietary funding channel to fast-track anti-terror and counter-insurgency programs. It was granted under Section 1206 of the Defense Authorization Act - effectively ending the State Department’s authority as Washington’s lead foreign assistance arm. Despite a key condition laid down by Congress for 1206 approval – that the Pentagon submit its programs list to the State Department for “concurrence” – oversight has been lax.
In August 2009, the Senate responded to the Pentagon’s request for additional 1206 funding with a report that $6 million from the program had been given to the government of Chad, which according to a State Department report is “engaging in extra-judicial killing, arbitrary detention and torture.” Other recipients of 1206 money include Algeria, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon, all of which have abysmal human rights records. An April 2010 report by the Government Accountability Office found that “DOD and State have incorporated little monitoring and evaluation into Section 1206 programs…. The agencies have not consistently defined performance measures and results reporting has generally been limited to anecdotal information.”
Last June, Michael Shank, a director for legislative affairs at the Washington-based Friends Committee on National Legislation, warned in an article for U.S. News & World Report that institutional checks on the Pentagon’s growing intercourse in Africa “do not prevent ongoing partnerships with chronically abusive governments.” Implementation of such couplings he wrote, “looks a lot more like short-sighted Cold War policies in Latin America than local empowerment.”
Certainly there has been no reckoning for Nigeria’s army, which remains an ACOTA acolyte despite a raft of reports from human rights organizations that link it with massacres committed in its hostilities with Boko Haram. According to African specialist Lesley Anne Warner, the Pentagon, frustrated with its inability to find Nigerian army units with which it could operate legally, was helping the government establish an Army Special Operations Command that would stand up fresh units. As Warner wrote in a blog post early this year, “Will the newly-created ‘clean’ units be able to avoid the human rights violations that have restricted the space for U.S. military engagement with their non-special forces counterparts?”
As the Defense Department’s ongoing frustration with Nigeria implies, the answer is no, which begs more questions: what, exactly, is the Pentagon doing in Africa? What is the purpose of AFRICOM, rejected by the Clinton administration only to be activated during the twilight of the George W. Bush years, and which was regarded with such suspicion on the continent that no African leader would host it? (The command is headquartered in Stuttgart, Germany). Given the dismal results SOUTHCOM, the Pentagon’s Latin American command, has managed prosecuting its war on drugs, is there any reason to believe AFRICOM’s record will be less dispiriting?
For that matter, how does the military rate success in a region where the challenges are overwhelmingly economic in origin? A few days after the Pentagon official was winging about Nigeria in the Senate, China announced it would invest billions of dollars in Africa via a fund managed by the African Development Bank. The “Africa Growing Together Fund” according to the Financial Times, represents the first time Beijing will distribute investment capital multilaterally - “part of a broader effort to recalibrate its relations with Africa in response to criticism about its … cheque book policy of bilateral deals.”
If China does replace the United States as the world’s superpower - an authority it is unlikely to crave and which regional powers would be loathe to respect - it will do so not because of its huge foreign exchange reserves, emerging military might or computer hacking skills but on the strength of its (relatively) abundant common sense.