Just days before Donald Trump took office, the Nigerian military unintentionally bombed a refugee camp on January 17, mistaking the target for an embedded Boko Haram stronghold. The precision airstrike cost the lives of approximately 200 innocent people. According to media reports, the Obama administration was prepared to move forward with a 2016 request from Nigeria for advanced military aircraft until news of this bombing reached the White House. In early April, however, the Trump administration reopened the same deal for 12 Embraer A-29 Super Tucano aircraft with sophisticated targeting gear, worth approximately $600 million, in order to contain and ultimately eliminate Boko Haram. The overwhelming criticism from the international community following the destruction at the refugee camp, containing members of Doctors Without Borders, should have signaled to the Nigerian military that the costs of depending on air strikes may outweigh the benefits.
While Super Tucano aircraft are designed for counterinsurgency, Boko Haram’s barbaric tactic of shielding its militants behind innocent civilians creates challenges that Nigerian air power alone cannot overcome. Instead, Nigerian infantry forces and military intelligence should be strengthened, in order to defeat Boko Haram at the ground level. Rather than reopening controversial aircraft sales, the United States should refocus its military assistance to Nigeria on a strategic level.
Influencing factors include government corruption and the role of the military. Corruption, coupled with increasingly limited free speech, has created a climate of discontentment with the Nigeria government. As of 2015, the Nigeria’s global corruption ranking is 136th out of 168. “The people have lost faith and hope in the government and believe the government has an agenda yet to be revealed to the people,” a Nigerian civil society professional, under the condition of anonymity, stated in an interview.
“Killings are still silently ongoing in Maiduguri, Adamawa, Kaduna, Jos, Yobe, and several environs on a daily basis… Soldiers are being brought in to the 44 General Hospital… either amputated, maimed, or killed, and yet the media is saying nothing or less about this.” Meanwhile, President Muhammadu Buhari has erratically stated that Nigeria has “technically won the war” against Boko Haram.
While the government is losing the confidence of the population, the military is working hard to regain their trust. It has done so by taking part in UN-sponsored training programs focusing on peacekeeping, for example. Consequently, the distinction between the Nigerian government and military is vital. While the government loses public trust, the military continues to prove its relative reliability—thus, in the eyes of the US administration, justifying foreign military sales.
Shifting tactics to the use of ground forces to eliminate embedded insurgents will allow the Nigerian military to better distinguish between civilians and terrorists. While focusing efforts on the ground may be costlier for the Nigerian military in the short term, it is the only way to decrease the loss of innocent lives and maintain public trust, while eliminating Boko Haram.
While many will argue, particularly the NGO community, that combatting terrorism requires education, poverty reduction, and government stability, terrorist threats must also be addressed and contained more immediately.
Further, evidence suggests tackling those underlying issues is not the most effective direct response. While the Nigerian military focuses on intelligence and ground force capabilities, the United States can play a crucial role in ensuring such a tactical shift is successful. The Trump administration can and should offer logistical support, training, tactical weapons and ammunition, ground transport, and advanced communications.
Airstrikes may eliminate terrorists with greater ease. However, with Boko Haram embedding itself amongst civilians, slight mistakes in the use of air power can result in further loss of innocent lives, further loss of faith in the government, and pressure from the international community. Eliminating Boko Haram must come from efforts on the ground, and both Nigeria and its allies in Washington must recognize this, shifting focus from supporting air power to promoting more effective long-term tactics.
About the author: Danielle Preskitt is a Fellowship Editor at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). She is also an Emerging Expert at the Forum on the Arms Trade.