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Military a tricky partner for West on hostage search

16 May 2014, 21:05

Lagos - Culture clashes and concerns over sovereignty will undermine efforts by foreign experts to help Nigeria's military find the schoolgirls held hostage by Boko Haram but cooperation can work, experts said on Friday.

US military experts have been in Nigeria for less than a week and the Pentagon has already acknowledged strains in the partnership.

"Nigeria can be an extremely challenging partner to work with," Defence Department Principal Director for African Affairs Alice Friend said, adding that Nigeria had been "slow to adapt with new strategies and new tactics" against the Islamist extremists.

The April 14 abduction in Chibok in northeastern Borno state has drawn worldwide condemnation, with Britain, Canada, China, France, Israel, as well the United States supporting the rescue mission.

For Jonathan Hill, professor at the Defence Studies Department at King's College London, dismissing Nigeria as a troublesome partner unwilling to take advice is an over-simplification.

"The Nigerians have shown themselves quite willing to cooperate," he said, noting the country's largely praised role in multi-national African peacekeeping forces.

"But," he added, for the Western advisors "the obstacles are really quite substantial."

- 'Oga' mentality -

Much of Nigeria's top brass have trained abroad, including in the United States and Britain, and are well aware of how the world's most professional militaries operate, added Hill, who has worked with British forces in helping to train Nigerian officers.

"The problem we have had is the 'Oga' mentality," he said, referring to a Nigerian term for a powerful boss.

Senior officers are "Ogas within the armed forces and Ogas outside the armed forces", which can create chain-of-command problems, especially when junior officers need to make fast decisions independently.

Nigeria has said the girls are likely being held in or near the vast Sambisa Forest in Borno, a remote region with poor communication infrastructure where Boko Haram has established camps.

US manned surveillance aircraft and unmanned drones are being flown over the area, but the on-ground search in troubled area is being left to Nigerian squads.

There have been multiple reports of soldiers in the northeast lacking basic communication equipment, including radios, hindering communication with division headquarters in Borno's capital Maiduguri.

- Human rights -

Several commentators, including former US ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell, have said Nigeria's military has been reluctant to accept US security assistance in the past.

But Nnamdi Obasi, Nigeria expert at the International Crisis Group, disagreed, saying partnerships with Abuja have been blocked by the West's legitimate concerns over human rights.

The Nigerian security forces have a grim rights record, including through the five-year Boko Haram uprising, with widespread accusations of soldiers firing indiscriminately on civilians during so-called anti-insurgent operations.

"Human rights is the main stumbling block," Obasi said, noting that Western "foot-dragging" may continue because of Nigerian rights violations.

- 'Matters of pride' -

Nigeria is Africa's most populous country and recently emerged as its top economy, with the nation of 170 million often referred to as the "giant of Africa".

The military ruled the country for much of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, and the spiralling Boko Haram violence has raised difficult questions about its competence.

"There is an embarrassment among some senior officers that these (foreign) advisors are even necessary," Hill said. "You've got matters of pride" complicating foreign partnerships.

Arizona Senator John McCain said this week: "I wouldn't be waiting for some kind of permission from some guy named Goodluck Jonathan," before sending special forces into Nigeria to rescue the hostages, which was widely taken as a insulting dismissal of the president.

That, along with Pentagon comments about the challenges of working with Nigeria, "certainly doesn't help," Hill said.

- How it could work -

The ICG's Obasi urged "caution" when forecasting the benefits of foreign help on the rescue mission.

"This a very difficult situation," he said, noting that Nigerian firepower backed by the West may still not see the girls freed.

Boko Haram's leader Abubakar Shekau in a video that showed some of the 223 girls being held said they could be released in exchange for Islamist prisoners detained by Nigeria.

Several analysts said negotiations, including a possible prisoner-for-hostage swap, may offer the best chance for the girls release.

But Hill said discounting the foreign help would be a mistake.

If Nigeria sets up a formal task force on the rescue mission, foreign experts should focus primarily on working with its top commanders.

"The Nigerians are going to be receiving a lot of very good advice," he said. "I think (the experts) can help if the Nigerians let them help."




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