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Boko Haram in Nigeria

Boko Haram Protest
Protesters holding signs reading "Not Without our Daughters"

“If the U.S. is discussing further financial or technical support for Nigeria’s security forces, it should insist on clear benchmarks on how they will ensure respect for human rights.”


— Sarah Margon, Washington director of Human Rights Watch, July 20, 2015

2.1 The Issue

Since 2009, Boko Haram, a radical Islamist group, has waged an insurgency against the secular government of Nigeria. In summer 2014, then President of Nigeria Goodluck Jonathan asked the United States to authorize his country’s purchase of U.S.-manufactured attack helicopters from Israel, as required by U.S. law. President Barack Obama declined to approve; U.S. law prohibited the transfer of heavy military equipment to Nigeria, in part because of the Nigerian government’s lack of response to human rights abuses by its security services.

The legislation in question, commonly called the Leahy Amendment, forbids U.S. military assistance to foreign militaries and security services credibly accused of human rights abuses unless or until the government of the accused party investigates the charges and takes appropriate action. International humanitarian organizations and the international press have reported extensive abuses by Nigerian forces, especially the military. Anecdotal evidence suggests that these abuses can drive public support for Boko Haram. Observers estimate that during some periods, the security services have killed as many civilians as Boko Haram has. Even so, successive Nigerian governments have largely dismissed the charges and conducted few credible investigations.

However, the current Nigerian president, Muhammadu Buhari, has said that he is moving to restore discipline within the military and, in September 2015, promised to issue new rules of engagement designed to protect civilians. Thus far, those steps appear to have had little practical consequence. In December 2015, the army killed several hundred members of a Shiite sect known as the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN), alleging that they had attacked the motorcade of the chief of army staff. The Kaduna State government responded by forming the Commission for Judicial Inquiry to investigate the massacre. The commission found the Nigerian army responsible for the killings and condemned the IMN for provoking the attack. The August 2016 report called for all involved parties to be prosecuted, but Nigeria’s justice system has taken no further legal action. Since then, additional bloody clashes have broken out between the security services and the IMN, most recently in July 2019. Government spokesmen continue to deny security service wrongdoing.


Since the election of Donald J. Trump as president in 2016, U.S. policy toward Africa has changed. Seeking to prioritize counterterrorism efforts on the continent, the Trump administration has shown more willingness to provide assistance, including the provision of light military equipment, to the Nigerian government despite humanitarian concerns. Most recently, the Trump administration approved the sale of twelve A-29 Super Tucano light aircraft; delivery is expected in 2024.

Decision Point

NSC Meeting

In the past, Boko Haram has been largely absent from Lagos, Nigeria’s economic capital and one of the world’s largest cities. However, two suicide bombers from Boko Haram recently infiltrated a prominent five-star hotel in Lagos during an international conference. Their bombs killed fifty-four people, three of whom were Americans, and wounded 165. Foreign corporations, including large American-owned oil companies, are now withdrawing their expatriate employees, and the Nigerian currency and Lagos stock exchange are in free fall. Popular criticism is mounting of President Buhari, who was elected on a promise to restore security by destroying Boko Haram. In response to the Lagos attack, Buhari has asked that the United States authorize the sale of attack helicopters and other heavy, sophisticated, U.S.-made military equipment to be used against Boko Haram.

The National Security Council (NSC) needs to decide whether Nigeria’s economic and strategic importance to the United States overrides legal and ethical concerns about ongoing human rights abuses. Specifically, the NSC should decide whether to advise the president to agree to Buhari’s request and whether the United States is willing to provide other assistance.

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