Over the past few months, there has been an extensive debate in the United States about President Obama’s new military counterterrorism strategy which consists in seeking the authorization of Congress to pursue extremist groups in Africa and elsewhere that they believe threaten the United States. Specifically, the plan is to seek permission to engage in military operations in Mali, Nigeria and Libya. This for us means sending American armed drones and special operations against presumed al Qaeda linked Islamic terrorist operatives in Nigeria without the consent of the Nigerian Government.
In the Wall Street Journal article of 7th December 2012 entitled “Terror Fight Shifts to Africa” Julian Barnes and Evan Perez point out that the current policy extension is in preparation for the planned U.S. decision to draw down its remaining forces in Afghanistan in 2014, which were authorized by Congress in response to the country serving as base for the al Qaeda plotters of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. That authorization has since been applied to pursuing al Qaeda-linked groups in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. The United States appears to believe that al Qaeda operations are being extended over Africa and they need to be stopped. An al Qaeda offshoot is said to be part of the groups that have seized control of territory in northern Mali.
The debate in the United States however is that “The conditions today are vastly different than they were previously,” Gen. Carter Ham, the head of U.S. Africa command, said in an interview. “There are now non-al Qaeda-associated groups that present significant threats to the United States.” This presents a dilemma to the US as the 2001 authorisation requires that the US military must demonstrate linkage with al Qaeda before they can strike. In response to this dilemma, they are seeking to work through African governments to carry out possible strikes. Meanwhile, the United States has offered logistical help to the ECOWAS proposed intervention force in Mali and it is clear that this could be part of the larger intervention strategy. It is important that the role they play in that intervention is thoroughly assessed before consent is given.
Julian Barnes and Evan Perez point out that part of the American debate is about the evidence for intervention. When a group in Africa such as AQIM, originally known as the Salafist Group for Call and Combat say they are part of al Qaeda, (is) the admission sufficient grounds for intervention? They draw attention to the arguments of Robert Chesney, a professor at the University of Texas law school who believes “it is sufficient for a regional militant group to announce it is joining al Qaeda to be covered under the 2001 congressional Authorization for Use of Military Force. Other experts however believe groups must actively take orders from al Qaeda’s central leadership to be covered especially as there are uncertainties that have long surrounded the organizational boundaries of al Qaeda.
In his article on the Framework for Counterterror in Africa, Peter Tinti in January 2nd edition of World Policy Review points out that the United States already has bases in Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Uganda, Ethiopia and Djibouti from where they are already running surveillance flights and that their framework for action is ready. I am summarizing the American debate to draw attention to virtually total silence on the issue from the Nigerian Government. This is a critical issue because it is the sovereignty of Nigeria that the Americans are discussing whether or not to violate and yet we keep quiet. The evidence we have from Pakistan and other countries is that drone strikes are indiscriminate and kill more innocent people through “collateral damage” than the presumed terrorists, and the Nigerian Government needs to come out and intervene in this on-going policy evolution on behalf of the Nigerian people and our sovereignty.
In the Nigeria of old, the Government would have come out clearly to define the issue as one of African sovereignty. That Nigeria would have taken initiatives to mobilise other African nations around a common position that we can ourselves address the underlying problem of insurgency we are currently suffering from. In other words, we would have acted and we would have provided leadership. The fact of the matter is that the Obama presidency has been reluctant to push for unilateral action in Africa hoping that African countries would rise up to the challenge. The fact that Nigeria which could be the major victim of the policy is saying and doing nothing might be what is pushing them to action.
It is alarming that since 2009, there has been an intense debate within the United States Administration on whether or not to designate Boko Haram as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation (FTO). It is the FTO designation that is the basis for the decision to take unilateral military action. It is of great concern that we do not know the position of the Nigerian Government on the issue. I don’t see signs that the issue is even being debated. I hope that some people in the Administration are not seeing this matter as one affecting only some parts of the North. The PS 101 of sovereignty is that once a part is violated, it is the whole that is violated.
The danger we face is that of the three countries currently being considered for direct intervention, neither Mali nor Libya are in a position to respond at any level. What this means is that even if the Nigerian Government has decided to abdicate its leadership responsibility in Africa, we are under direct threat on the matter. If American drones are sent against a presumed terrorist in Maiduguri, American drones would also be sent against a presumed kidnapper of an American citizen in Bayelsa. If we are in for a penny, we are in for a pound.
Of course, President Goodluck Jonathan’s approach has always been to assure Nigerians and the world that the on-going insurgency is being addressed and will soon be over. The problem is that those of us who are observers do not see what is being done. What is the state of play on the negotiations with Boko Haram for example? What is the strategy of the security forces for winning hearts and minds in a context where there are numerous concordant reports of extra judicial killings, torture and violations of innocent civilians? How can we develop an approach that addresses insecurity in the land and at the same time protects the rights of Nigerians? Above all, what are the best strategies to follow to ensure that we move towards addressing the root causes of growing violence, insurgency, kidnapping and banditry in our dear country? Government needs to share its thoughts and analysis with Nigerians so that we can jointly develop an approach that would be in the interest of Nigeria.