The U.S. and Nigeria’s Buhari on the human rights hot seat
© Greg Nash

Last week, Secretary of State John Kerry made his third official visit to Nigeria, and likely the last by a top American official from the Obama Administration. Interestingly, his first destination was not Lagos, the commercial hub of the country, nor was it Abuja, the capital city. Instead, Kerry and his staff had their first stopover in the little-known northern city of Sokoto. The choice of this venue was by no means an accident. In fact, it underscores the chief concern of the United States in Nigeria, and in the wider region: effectively combating Islamic extremism and the Boko Haram insurgency that has ravaged not only Nigeria, but also parts of Cameroon, Chad and Niger. Kerry visited with the Sultan of Sokoto, who occupies Nigeria’s highest position of authority in mainstream Islam, one who has been equally lauded by U.S. officials for helping to promote religious tolerance and criticized by a growing many for sowing discord and divisiveness.

Given the overwhelming – and altogether understandable – emphasis on combating violent extremism, it is no wonder that there has been a continual warming of relations between the United States and key leaders in Nigeria, including President Muhammadu Buhari, the 73-year-old former military dictator who took office 15 months ago. At that time, Buhari became the first opposition candidate in the country’s history to defeat an incumbent in a democratic election, earning him and his administration a tremendous level of international goodwill and support from his first day on the job.

Buoyed by the historic victory, and amid concerns about a rejuvenated Boko Haram, Buhari was invited to Washington, D.C. just two months later. Buhari arrived in Washington amid unprecedented fanfare for a visiting African head of state. Even the human rights and pro-democracy communities, while skeptical and fully cognizant of his ignominious past, were largely willing to give Buhari the benefit of the doubt. Alarm bells would soon go off, however, namely during Buhari’s appearance at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP). During a wide-ranging discussion, and speaking to a packed house, Buhari was, for the most part, the epitome of a dignified statesman. He was measured, thoughtful and thoroughly engaging.

Nevertheless, when it came to the topic of human rights and its link to the fight against terrorism, Buhari’s tone underwent a noticeable shift, during which he seized the opportunity to bluntly criticize a key piece of U.S. legislation meant to incentivize and safeguard the protection of human rights abroad: “Regrettably, the blanket application of the Leahy Law by the United States on the grounds of unproven allegations of human rights violations leveled against our forces has denied us access to appropriate strategic weapons to prosecute the war against the insurgents.”

Buhari’s broadside against the Leahy Law – introduced in 1997 by Sen. Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyGrassley, Dems step up battle over judicial nominees Popular bill to fight drug prices left out of budget deal Judiciary Dems want public hearings with Kushner, Trump Jr. MORE (D-Vt.) – took many by surprise, earning a swift rebuke from many of the same rights advocates who had previously suspended any preconceived notions. In short, the Leahy Law prohibits U.S assistance to foreign security force units that the U.S. government credibly believes to have committed “gross human rights violations.” In practice, the law is designed to ensure that the U.S. is not complicit in human rights abuses abroad and, importantly, that it upholds its international legal obligations. In Nigeria, the law was applied in 2014, during the previous Goodluck Jonathan administration, to suspend the resale of US-made military helicopters by Israel, which were ostensibly meant to aid in the fight against Boko Haram.

In practice, only a fraction of military units abroad fail to pass Leahy Law vetting. According to State Department statistics from 2012, 90 percent of the over 160,000 cases were approved. More to the point, only 1 percent was actually rejected and 9 percent suspended. In 2013, the percentages were roughly the same. Despite Buhari’s rhetoric, the available figures paint a rather clear picture that the Leahy Law is not the obstacle that he and his allies have portrayed it to be.

Fast-forward to today and the Leahy Law is once again in the spotlight. Pending congressional approval, the Obama Administration is poised to sell up to 12 light attack aircraft to Nigeria amid mounting, credible reports of human rights abuses committed with impunity by the military. According to a recent report by Amnesty International, over an 8-month span the Nigerian military “unlawfully killed at least 350 people and allowed more than 168 people, including babies and children, to die in military detention.” Regrettably, Secretary John Kerry was mum on these shocking abuses during his two-day stay in Nigeria: “It is understandable that in the wake of terrorist activity, some people are tempted to crack down on everyone and anyone who could theoretically pose some sort of a threat. I caution against that today. Extremism cannot be defeated through repression or just creating fear.”

So goes the delicate balance of diplomacy with Africa’s second-largest economy and one that plays host to the continent’s largest Muslim population. The many nuances of the situation on the ground in Nigeria – a deteriorating economy, a seeming rise in violence, and a political witch hunt under the guise of anti-corruption – cannot be overstated. In simple terms, aid offered to Nigeria, from any U.S. executive branch agency, should only be provided with a mutual understanding that members of the Nigerian military who stand accused of gross violations of human rights be held accountable. For we all know, these crimes are not “unproven,” and in fact, have been well documented, repeatedly and with alarming frequency

In light of the request for additional military assistance to Nigeria, one would hope that U.S. actions would honestly, and in good faith, reflect existing U.S. law. To be sure, the Nigerian government does not owe the U.S. or its shareholders this basic courtesy— they owe it to their own citizens, those who are clearly yearning for a change in the status quo and a brighter, more prosperous future based on accountability and responsible governance. These desires are what propelled Nigerians to brave the long lines and the ubiquitous threat of terrorism to vote in record numbers back in March 2015, and in what amounted to a truly a historic moment in Nigeria’s history.

As Sen. Patrick Leahy has said himself: The “abusive conduct” of the Nigerian military “violates the laws of war…it creates fear and loathing among the Nigerian people whose support is necessary to defeat a terrorist group like Boko Haram.” It is indeed time for President Buhari to face this blunt reality, and to live up to his own lofty expectations. At the same time, elected officials in the U.S. can aid in this vital effort by not turning their collective back, or a blind eye, to the basic human rights that Nigerians, and people the world over, rightly and unequivocally deserve.

Jeffrey Smith is executive director of the Vanguard Africa Movement, a nonprofit organization that supports democratic governance and pro-reform leaders. Follow him on Twitter at @Smith_JeffreyT.