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July 30, 2015

A Mix-Up Over U.S. Military Aid to Nigeria to Hunt Boko Haram

Royce speaks during the news conference on Vietnam Human Rights Advocacy Day outside of the Capitol on March 27, 2014. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Royce speaks during the news conference on Vietnam Human Rights Advocacy Day outside of the Capitol on March 27, 2014. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

When House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce recently suggested waiving a human rights law to provide more military aid to Nigeria in its fight against Boko Haram, he quoted a Defense Department official as being critical of its requirements.

But last week, a Pentagon spokesman, in response to a request from CQ Roll Call, said the official wasn’t criticizing the law at all — in fact, she was criticizing the human rights abuses that made it more difficult to find Nigerian military units fit for U.S. assistance.

The California Republican is standing by his desire to waive the law, however, with a spokesman citing criticism of the law by Defense Department officials broadly.

The law in question is known colloquially as the Leahy Law, after its author, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt. It prevents U.S. aid to military units that are implicated in gross human rights abuses, like rape or torture. It has been in the spotlight more than usual since Boko Haram’s kidnapping of approximately 300 schoolgirls.

Speaking at a May 21 hearing of his committee, Royce said “the Leahy amendment is what prohibits our active cooperation in the steps that I’ve just enumerated here, you know, in the tracking on the ground and being able to plan that attack on the ground.”

Referencing remarks by Alice Friend, at the time the Pentagon’s principal director for Africa, Royce added, “I mean, we had the testimony by the Defense Department last week in the Senate that this vetting is ‘a persistent and very troubling limitation on our ability to provide assistance’ – they’re talking about the Leahy provision here – ‘particularly training assistance that the Nigerians so badly need,’ unquote. So this is a problem.”

Thus, he said, the Obama administration should use its power to wave the law in an emergency.

A Pentagon spokesman, Lt. Col. Myles B. Caggins III, said Friend was not calling the law itself the limitation on assistance, though.

“Ms. Friend was referring to the human rights record of Nigeria’s security forces, which has been a challenge to providing assistance, as she referenced earlier in her testimony,” Caggins said.

A spokesman for the Foreign Affairs Committee said the clarification didn’t change Royce’s view.

“The Committee has consistently heard from Defense Department officials that certain aspects of the law and its implementation hinder our security engagements in Africa, including Nigeria and Boko Haram,” the spokesman said in an e-mailed statement. “The Chairman’s focus is pushing the Administration to utilize the ‘extraordinary circumstances’ waiver for DOD assistance to help rescue these kidnapped schoolgirls. Boko Haram will continue its brutality on the communities in northern Nigeria if they aren’t faced with a legitimate challenge – and it’s clear that Nigerian’s security forces alone aren’t up for the job.”

The statement did not name the Defense officials. At the May 21 hearing, another Pentagon official, Amanda Dory — deputy assistant secretary of defense for African affairs in the Office of the Secretary of Defense — deferred to a State Department colleague when asked by Royce about the Leahy Law’s waiver provision. Both officials, as well as Friend, testified that the United States still had been able to find Nigerian military units to work with that were vetted via the Leahy Law.

A replacement for Friend as the Pentagon’s Africa director has not yet been announced, Caggins said. Friend departed the post May 30.

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