The senior U.S. diplomat on Africa urged Nigeria to look beyond military measures in its fight against Boko Haram, and to consider how it treats both the extremist group’s victims and its fighters who may be ready to defect.

Amb. Linda Thomas-Greenfield
Amb. Linda Thomas-Greenfield

Assistant Secretary of State Linda Thomas-Greenfield, speaking at the U.S. Institute of Peace yesterday, lauded Nigeria’s intensified campaign against Boko Haram under President Muhammadu Buhari, who took office in May 2015. Still, she said, the government must make other important moves in the long run to defeat what is currently the world’s deadliest extremist group.

“If Nigeria implements sound policies, it has the potential to regain its role as a strong and effective global player …” Assistant Secretary of State Linda Thomas-Greenfield

More of Nigeria’s federal resources should be applied to helping the victims of Boko Haram’s violence while those displaced in the conflict must not be asked to return home before they feel ready, she said. Insurgent fighters, particularly those who may have been forced to join the group against their will, must have pathways to defect and return to their communities, she said. The United States is ready to help Nigeria support such defections and reintegration, she said.

“The need for these pathways is one of the key lessons we’ve learned from conflicts across the globe,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “It is a difficult task and absolutely necessary.”

New U.S.-Nigeria Talks

Thomas-Greenfield spoke two days before a meeting of the U.S.-Nigeria Binational Commission, which the two governments formed in 2010 to pursue a “strategic dialogue.” This year’s meeting comes as U.S. ties with Africa’s demographic and economic giant have strengthened under Buhari. While Nigerian troops have pushed back Boko Haram with help from U.S. military advisors and equipment, the country is facing its worst economic and government-funding crises in decades, partly because of the collapse of world oil prices.

“Nigeria is at a pivotal moment,” Thomas-Greenfield said.

A few data points emphasize the importance of Nigeria not only for the region but the world, Thomas-Greenfield said. Nigeria is Africa’s largest economy and biggest oil producer. With a median age of 18, the country’s population of 180 million is projected to grow to 400 million in 2050, overtaking the United States. While 50 million Nigerians are in the middle class, more than half—about 97 million—live on no more than $1.25 per day, below the World Bank’s measure of severe deprivation.

“Looking at the years ahead, if Nigeria implements sound policies, it has the potential to regain its role as a strong and effective global player—a leader on the African continent and an engine of economic growth,” she said.

The United States’ three primary policy goals—fighting corruption, creating jobs and opportunity, and defeating Boko Haram—align closely with Buhari’s, she said.

Nigeria’s Corruption: 'Big Monster'

Buhari, who was elected on an anti-corruption platform, is following through on some of his key promises, making transparent his and his vice president’s assets and making clear no one from his administration or a previous one is immune from prosecution, Thomas-Greenfield said. A new government accounting system is starting to strip ghost workers from bloated civil service payrolls.

“Corruption results in billions of dollars of losses every year,” she said. “The estimates are staggering,” she said.

When Buhari spoke at USIP in July, he reaffirmed a “zero tolerance” stance toward corruption and pledged to restore trust in government. He has referred to official venality as the “big monster” facing Nigeria.

U.S. anti-corruption efforts focus on bolstering civil society groups that monitor government and strengthen democracy, as well as journalists, law enforcement agencies and the judiciary, Thomas-Greenfield said. The United States also supports investigation and prosecution of complex corruption cases by Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission and the judiciary, she said.

USIP works in Nigeria, too. The Institute, seeking to improve governance with approaches that will connect authorities more constructively with citizens, especially at the state level, provides education, grants, training, and resources to people working for peace in Nigeria

The benefits of curbing corruption will include freeing resources for the fight against Boko Haram, Thomas-Greenfield said. The Boko Haram insurgency, based in northeastern Nigeria, has displaced more than 2 million people in the Lake Chad basin, destabilizing parts of Niger, Chad and Cameroon. The annual Global Terrorism Index last year listed Boko Haram as the world’s deadliest extremist group. Its attacks killed 6,644 people, 77 percent of them private citizens.

Security and Human Rights

U.S. security assistance to Nigeria includes military advisers, logistical support, equipment and intelligence sharing.  A U.S. training program for two companies of soldiers, called off under former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, was reinstated by Buhari in a sign of the warming ties between the countries, Thomas-Greenfield said.

The United States counts human rights as a “core value,” the assistant secretary said. The U.S.-Nigerian security partnership “relies on a mutual understanding that respect for human rights and protection of civilians is critical to winning the battle against Boko Haram,” and Buhari has committed himself to that position, she added. Implementing that strategy “is still a work in progress,” she said. “We know Nigeria still has some issues in this sphere and we’re working with the government on that.”

Valuing the Currency

Nigeria’s security goals must be supported by a stronger economy, and vice-versa, Thomas-Greenfield said. With the plunge in prices for Nigeria’s main export, crude oil, black-market rates for the naira have fallen to about half of the official exchange rate.

“The parallel market is alive and well, and most people are operating on the parallel market,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “But it’s affecting the ability of companies to … attract new investments into Nigeria. So while most people complain about the possibility of there being a devaluation, people already are operating on a devalued currency. And the only people who are not are people who are doing it officially. So our recommendation, and we’ll have discussions on this” in the upcoming bilateral talks, is “that they should look at the exchange rate and try to make the exchange rate more realistic to what the value of the naira is to the dollar.”

Other economic policies also will be discussed at the binational meeting, Thomas-Greenfield said. Strengthening the economy requires improving education and supporting small and mid-size business, she said.

Asked by moderator Princeton Lyman, a USIP senior adviser and former ambassador to Nigeria, whether the plunge in government revenue inhibited spending on those needs, Thomas-Greenfield said no.

“When Nigeria didn’t have economic austerity they weren’t putting money in education and infrastructure,” she said. “The resources are available if they’re managed properly and appropriately. When the oil price was high, we know that billions were siphoned off.”

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