The recent row between Nigeria and the United States over assisted military training may not be unconnected with the inability of the Nigerian government to fulfill its own part of the deal.
Two months ago, the Federal Government of Nigeria cancelled the military training arrangement it had with the United States without providing official reasons to the public.
In a terse statement regretting the premature termination of the training, the US Embassy in Lagos had last month stated that the cancelled training was to be the third in a series of training programmes the US military was handling with its Nigerian counterpart with the goal of helping the Nigerian Army build capacity to counter the Boko Haram insurgents.
However, in an interview with select journalists at his residence in Lagos yesterday, the US Ambassador to Nigeria, James Entwistle, disclosed that there was an agreement between Nigeria and America on the provision of equipment and trainers for the Nigerian military, which Nigeria failed to honour.
He said: “We had, at Nigeria’s request, agreed to train some battalion, in my opinion, some of the best trainers in the world have been provided by the United States. The agreement was that we would provide the trainers and the Nigerian Army would provide the equipment we need to properly conduct the training and that was agreed well ahead of time as part of our partnership.
“This was not something we were going to do for Nigeria; it was something we were going to do together as partners. We were able to do a bit of this and it got to a point where we were waiting for these equipment to be provided for us to finish the training, but the decision by the Nigerian government, as I understand it, was ‘no that is enough; we don’t want to finish this training’. Frankly, that was a disappointment to us given that we had provided that symbol of our commitment. As to what motivated your government, I don’t know. I will encourage you to put that question to them.”
Entwistle, whose breakfast meeting with the select journalists was centred on the donation of a decommissioned warship, NNS Okpabana, to Nigeria by the US, further reiterated the US position on the forthcoming general elections.
“The United States’ position on the election is quite clear. For the past years I have been talking about the importance of non-violence in the elections. I have been doing that and I have seen that the civil society and the Nigerian media have taken this up too. I even went to one or two of Tuface’s hip-hop concert ‘Vote not fight’ campaign. So, that is the message the United States will continue to preach, especially to urge all candidates to probably commit themselves that they will not support or engage in violence before, during and after the elections. I think that is key in any democracy,” he said.
He described the recent shooting during a political rally in Rivers State as ugly, saying: “The incident in Rivers was very sad. I condemned it, but that underlines to me why our campaign against violence is so important.”
According to Entwistle, no other country has supported Nigeria in its quest to
overcome terrorism in recent times more than the US.
“In terms of what is happening in the North-east and military relationship, we have all seen in recent months a lot of stuff about the US imposing an arms embargo. I am here to tell you as President Obama’s personal representative to this country that that is nonsense; that is not true.
“We have given this ship, NNS Okpabana as part of our commitment to strengthen security in Nigeria. We have a number of discussions on the way right now. A good portion of the assistance we give every day on the war against terror are things I can’t talk about that much, but I can assure you that no partner is doing more to assist Nigeria in its fight against terror now than the United States of America. We have seen the most unfortunate incident in Baga and that underlines to me the importance of continuing this fight.
“We are still talking about a number of equipment, different kinds of helicopters that can be more appropriate to that kind of thing. But, what are our human rights considerations? When I got here about two years ago, there were discussions about the conduct of the Nigerian Army in the North-east about the treatment of the civilian population. It was reported in your media. This is not something we came up with.
“Nigerians themselves were focusing on it. So, we have had a lot of discussions with the Nigerian Army about the need to, as you fight terror, you also have to protect the civilian population and keep them on your side.
“We have learnt the hard way in our own counterterrorism that if you lose the trust and support of the civilian population, you’ve lost everything. So, we have had that conversation. Indeed, much of the trainings that we’ve done with your army in the U.S. have focused on that kind of thing, effective leadership and how do you operate against an enemy that is hard to identify? That mixes into the civilian population, how do you fight that kind of enemy while at the same time respecting the civilian population? I am not a military man but it strikes me that this is a very difficult thing to do.”
On small arms proliferation in the Gulf of Guinea, he said: “I think small arms proliferation is something that is difficult to control because the arms are small. They are easy to smuggle. We think that in providing NNS Thunder and Okpabana they can gradually help against that. But they can also help against the broader issue of security in the Gulf of Guinea, which is a trans-national issue. It affects all the countries of this region. It also affects foreign investments. Oil companies want to get forward, like deep water. Security is paramount. We think it can also help Nigeria’s struggle against oil theft and (illegal) oil bunkering. It is an array of issues in relations to our broad issue of security with Nigeria.”
As in time past, Entwistle insisted that Nigeria would not disintegrate as being bandied about by some people.
The Ambassador said: “I have been plagued by that question ever since I got this job. I have gone back and looked, I can’t find any government report that said US thought Nigeria would disintegrate in 2015, may be some think-tank or somebody outside the government said it, I don’t know. But, in my opinion as US Ambassador to this country, I am not worried in the least that Nigeria is going to disintegrate in 2015. Do you face big challenges now? Of course you do. So does my country. But, I see a Nigeria that if you can do what needs to be done in the coming years on security, on corruption and all of those things, I think the future for Nigeria is very bright.”
He added: “Whenever I travel around this country, I always try to go to the universities and have big sessions to give talks to students and have questions and answers and whenever I do that, I leave with incredible sense of optimism about Nigeria when I get to know your best and brightest. So, are there challenges for Nigeria under the horizon? Sure, but I have no doubt that Nigeria will muscle them, will move on.
“Will it be easy? Of course not. Nothing is easy in this life… We are now here in 2015, I don’t know what you see but I can’t see those signs that Nigeria will disintegrate. I see signs of growth and I say that not to minimise the challenges that you have.”
Related story: Nigeria cancels U.S. military training