Nigerian President to U.S. Government: Send Silver Bullets

February 18, 2015

Nigeria’s president, Goodluck Jonathan, challenged the American people to put up or shut up last week when he told the Wall Street Journal that he has repeatedly and fruitlessly requested the United States deploy troops to combat Boko Haram. “If Nigeria has a problem, then I expect the U.S. to come and assist us,” he said.

Jonathan is running for re-election. Cynical though they may be, suggestions of U.S. abandonment have political utility. After spending most of his tenure treating Boko Haram more like a nuisance than a referendum on his administration’s security chops, Jonathan is now claiming he has been doing the responsible thing and persistently asking for help. To this he added an assertion that Boko Haram is the West African affiliate of ISIL—an established American target. By his logic, failures to suppress the group are Washington’s, not Abuja’s.

In addition to official American denials that the Jonathan administration lodged such a request, Nigeria’s termination of U.S.-led battalion-level training in December makes this sudden enthusiasm for U.S. military solutions dubious at best. Still, Jonathan’s comments salted a real wound. Apparently, the training was cancelled in a tit-for-tat response to a U.S. refusal to allow Israel to sell Nigeria American-made Cobra helicopters.

Beyond their political expediency, Jonathan’s comments express frustration with a U.S. policy that rightly places the onus for battling Boko Haram on his government. Washington is prepared to provide Nigeria with training, logistical support, and development assistance to expand government services in the northeast, but expects the Nigerian government to take the lead in its own counterinsurgency.

To some Nigerians, it may seem the United States is withholding its silver bullets. In reality, U.S. policy recognizes that Nigeria is too important to address the Boko Haram challenge unrealistically or unsustainably. Besides, the region has troops: Cameroon, Chad, and Niger have all conducted kinetic operations against Boko Haram within the past several weeks. In this context, Washington’s best contribution remains helping Nigeria and its neighbors maintain pressure on Boko Haram until the group is defeated.


Alice Hunt Friend is a senior affiliate at the Center for a New American Security and the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC. She was a policy analyst at the Pentagon from 2009 to 2014.


Photo credit: World Economic Forum