Last week, Nigeria announced the creation of an Army Special Operations Command (NASOC) at a Counter-Terrorism and Counter-Insurgency Lessons Learned Exchange between the United States and Nigeria. I’d been tracking developments with regard to bilateral security cooperation and had heard about the creation of NASOC when I was in Nigeria last summer, which is why this announcement piqued my interest. According to the Nigerian Army’s Chief of Transformation and Innovation, NASOC would be a “low density high level strategic utility force capable of conducting direct action at low visibility operations. NASOC operation will be governed by precision of conduct, accuracy timely, speed and execution, surprise to keep any adversary off balance while in special operations.” (I’m not gonna lie – I have no clue what this quote actually means, but I digress.)
The announcement of the NASOC preceded President Goodluck Jonathan’s sacking of some of his Chiefs of Defence (the equivalent of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the United States) a few days later. As part of this reshuffle, former Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshal Alex Badeh, took over from Admiral Ola Sa’ad Ibrahim as Chief of Defence Staff (position equivalent to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the U.S.), Air Vice Marshal Adesola Nunayon Amosu took over for Badeh as Chief of Air Staff (position equivalent to the Air Force Chief of Staff in the U.S.), Major General Kenneth Tobiah Jacob Minimah took over for Lieutenant General Azubike O. Ihejirika as Chief of Army Staff (position equivalent to the Army Chief of Staff in the U.S.), and Rear Admiral Usman O. Jibrin took over from Vice Admiral Dele Joseph Ezeoba as Chief of Naval Staff (position equivalent to the Chief of Naval Operations in the U.S.). Air Marshal Badeh, the new Chief of Defence Staff, hails from Adamawa state, which is one of three Nigerian states (the others being Borno and Yobe states) in which President Jonathan had declared a Boko Haram-related state of emergency that is set to expire in April 2014, unless it is renewed for a second time. At the moment, I do not know what, if any correlation there is between the Chiefs of Defence reshuffle and the establishment of NASOC to counter the Boko Haram insurgency.
Through U.S Africa Command (AFRICOM), U.S. Special Operations Command, Africa (SOCAFRICA), and the Office of Security Cooperation in the U.S. Embassy in Abuja, the United States will be helping stand up the NASOC by providing training and a limited amount of equipment. From the information I have, it sounds like NASOC will have a force up North to deal with Boko Haram, a force in the South to deal with security in the Niger Delta, a Headquarters force to focus on hostage rescue, and an expeditionary force for external use – perhaps to contribute specialized capabilities for peacekeeping operations. Unfortunately, I don’t know the precise size of NASOC or of its component forces.
One reason U.S. support to establish NASOC is significant is that I have not gotten the sense that the U.S. military had as strong service-to-service relations with the Nigerian military as it would like, and working with them to establish NASOC provides opportunities to strengthen the army-to-army relationship. In addition, as a new command, NASOC will need to create military units from scratch, which avoids some of the tensions surrounding Leahy vetting that have impeded bilateral security cooperation as a result of the Nigerian government’s heavy-handed approach to Boko Haram in the North. (The Leahy Amendment requires that partner nation military units that receive U.S. security assistance are vetted to ensure that they have not been implicated in gross human rights violations.) Just to give you an example of the extent to which allegations of human rights violations by the Nigerian military had recently affected Leahy vetting:
One of the ways the United States provides security assistance to Nigeria and other countries on the African continent is through Africa Contingency Operations Training and Assistance (ACOTA), which trains partner nation militaries to participate in peacekeeping operations. You may recall that during the first six months of 2013, Nigeria contributed approximately 1/6 of the troops to the African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA) before they had to withdraw most of their troops in July. These troops likely received ACOTA training prior to their deployment. In April, Human Rights Watch published satellite imagery from the town of Baga in Borno State, showing 2,275 destroyed and 125 severely damaged buildings, and asking the Nigerian government to investigate allegations that soldiers carried out widespread destruction and killing in the town. Although the Baga incident was just one of many allegations of human rights violations by the Nigerian military in its fight against Boko Haram, my understanding is that most military units rotate personnel through northern Nigeria, and as a result, Nigerian military units were becoming tainted by association as far as Leahy vetting goes. As a result, Nigeria’s domestic handling of Boko Haram was raising questions over whether the United States would be able to support Nigerian troop contributions to Mali and other peacekeeping missions.
Thus to bring us back to the establishment of NASOC and the U.S. military’s support for this effort – will the newly-created “clean” NASOC units be able to avoid the human rights violations that have restricted the space for U.S. military engagement with their non-special forces counterparts?