The #BringBackOurGirls social media campaign, which is pressing for the rescue of over 200 Nigerian girls kidnapped by the terrorist group Boko Haram, brought unprecedented attention to impoverished northern Nigeria. Pundits and politicians have provided myriad reasons for the growth and audacity of Boko Haram; economics, politics, and religion have all been cited as ripening conditions for the extremist movement.
In early May, governments discussed what they should do to assist Nigeria, while Nigeria tried to determine if it would accept any assistance at all. Around the same time, a misguided comment about the Leahy Law, which prohibits official U.S. agencies from providing military assistance to foreign military units that violate human rights, was thrown into the fray.
During a media call focused on Boko Haram and hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations on May 7, former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Johnnie Carson, erroneously stated that “much of the Nigerian military cannot legally be assisted by the United States because [they] would not be able to pass the Leahy vetting.” Carson’s statement set off a flurry of claims that U.S. law was preventing the United States from helping Nigeria rescue the kidnapped girls. Representative Ed Royce (R-CA), chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, even called for a temporary waiver to the Leahy Law in order to assist Nigeria. However, a State Department inspector general found that Leahy vetting rejected only 211 out of 1,377 Nigerian applications for military training in 2013. The Leahy Law does, in fact, allow the United States to provide assistance to the majority of Nigerian forces.
The Leahy Law is not the problem in this, or in any other military training, scenario. Nigeria has a choice.
Imagine that Nigeria recognizes that it cannot deal with the threat of Boko Haram and needs help from the United States. In order to comply with U.S. law, the government agrees to pursue credible accountability mechanisms within its own security forces for violations of human rights. These reforms allow the United States to train Nigerian soldiers and police officers who realize that their role in protecting the people absolutely prohibits abuse. Nigerian civilians also see their government tackling impunity and begin to trust, instead of fear, security forces; the extremist narrative loses credibility. Nigeria gains a well-trained and professional security force that respects human rights and is capable of protecting its citizens from internal and external threats. The United States gains a military partner with whom it can work and trust in Africa. Terror groups like Boko Haram are successfully countered and young girls can attend school without fear of abduction. While the transformation won’t happen overnight, the trajectory that the Leahy Law sets can facilitate long-term success.
Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) first introduced the Leahy Law in 1997 after recognizing that U.S. funding for overseas security assistance had, at times, been used by foreign security forces to repress and abuse their own populations. The law mandates Leahy vetting, which evaluates credible evidence of security force units or individuals responsible for grave violations of human rights and blocks foreign military assistance to those perpetrators.
Fundamentally, the abuse of human rights runs contrary to basic U.S. principles. Furthermore, the association of the United States with rights-abusing governments damages our nation’s reputation overseas and lends justification to extremists who seek to target the United States. The Leahy Law places necessary limits on assistance in places like Nigeria where a small number of security forces have arrested citizens without charge, tortured people on grounds of “counterterrorism,” and been involved in extrajudicial killings. Leahy vetting ensures that U.S. tax dollars do not prop up security forces engaged in such practices. However, it also allows for clean units to receive military training and assistance from the United States, creating incentives for security forces to respect human rights.
For the sake of millions living under the threat of Boko Haram, I hope that Nigeria chooses a path that adheres to the conditions of the Leahy Law – a path that respects human rights.