Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from Hilary Matfess’ book “Women and the War on Boko Haram,” which will be published by Zed Books in November.
Early one Friday morning this past August, the United Nations compound and guesthouse in Maiduguri, the largest city in northeast Nigeria, was targeted in a raid.
For several hours after the armed intruders arrived, they were prevented from crossing the gate of the facility, where officials help coordinate humanitarian assistance programs for populations affected by the ongoing violence carried out by the militant group Boko Haram. Eventually, though, after the attackers cut the lock on the compound gate and beat a security guard, U.N. officials had little choice but to let them in.
By that point, the guests were hiding in a safe room. But it soon became clear that the intruders were going to force them to come out, according to one witness, an NGO employee who, like many people interviewed for this article, spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons and to avoid jeopardizing humanitarian operations in the region. Before long, the guests were being shuttled from room to room as the intruders searched the building. Then they were taken outside for questioning.
Given that Maiduguri is where Boko Haram was founded, it might have been reasonable to suspect that the group was behind the raid. Having formed in the early 2000s as a largely nonviolent dissident sect, Boko Haram launched an insurgency in 2009 that has displaced millions and, according to Amnesty International, killed more than 20,000 people. The insurgency’s devastation has triggered a broader food shortage and humanitarian crisis in the Lake Chad basin.
As it turned out, however, the assault on the U.N. compound was actually perpetrated by members of the Nigerian military. According to an internal U.N. memo obtained by AFP, the Nigerian soldiers may have been acting on a far-fetched rumor circulating on social media that Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, was being housed there.
Those familiar with humanitarian aid operations in sub-Saharan Africa describe the raid as unprecedented, and say it’s stunning that the military would engage in such an operation on the basis of nothing more, apparently, than a rash of WhatsApp messages.
Even more shocking, though, is the silence of the international community in the wake of the incident. While a spokeswoman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said the U.N. was “extremely concerned” about what happened, Nigeria’s other partners kept quiet. Given that the United States is a significant military partner of Nigeria, the lack of condemnation from U.S. officials of what likely amounted to a violation of international humanitarian law was especially jarring.
Yet Washington’s silence is consistent with a broader pattern: The U.S. has routinely turned a blind eye to abuses by the Nigerian military in the northeast of the country despite the fact that the U.S. is supporting Nigerian forces battling Boko Haram. So far, there is every indication that this bilateral military engagement will continue under President Donald Trump.
In early August, a little more than a week before the U.N. raid, the U.S. approved the sale of some $593 million in military hardware and training to Nigeria. The transaction’s big-ticket item was a dozen A-29 Super Tucano light-attack aircraft.
The Nigerian government had originally sought permission to procure the aircraft in 2015, but the military’s human rights record prompted the Obama administration to put the sale on hold. In particular, the Nigerian air force has been accused of bombing civilians on multiple occasions, including a January strike on a camp for displaced people in Rann, in the northeastern state of Borno, that killed at least 100 people, according to The Associated Press.
The Rann bombing is an extreme example of an array of abuses, including arbitrary detentions and extrajudicial killings, committed by Nigerian security forces in the campaign against Boko Haram. These abuses persist even as the government of President Muhammadu Buhari has undertaken a concerted effort to lionize Nigerian soldiers as national heroes.