When United States President Donald Trump said yesterday that the US military would consider rocks thrown by US-bound migrants and asylum seekers as firearms – implying that soldiers should open fire in response – his comments reverberated globally.
Days earlier, Nigerian army soldiers opened fire on protesting members of the Shia Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN), some of whom were throwing stones, killing 42 people, according to group leaders.
The Nigerian army quickly seized on Trump’s comments, posting a video of Trump’s speech on Twitter and telling viewers to draw deductions. It was an undisguised attempt to use the rhetoric as justification for the soldiers’ widely-condemned use of lethal force. The tweet has since been deleted.
The Shia Islamic Movement, the country’s largest Shia minority group, was protesting the detention of their leader, Sheikh Ibrahim El Zakzaky, his wife, and hundreds of other members who have been imprisoned since the group clashed with soldiers in December 2015. During those clashes, soldiers killed nearly 350 members of the group, which organizes frequent religious treks and protest marches.
The US is a close partner of Nigeria’s government, but has historically been cautious when it comes to security collaboration between the countries, given the Nigerian military’s long history of abuse and the absence of meaningful accountability. Trump, however, has made clear his intention to strengthen the US-Nigerian partnership, despite minimal efforts by Nigeria at genuine reform. Over the last year, the US provided training and security equipment worth $600 million to Nigeria’s military. In 2017, the Trump administration approved the sale of twelve A-29 Super Tucano light attack aircraft, part of a larger sale worth $593 million, lifting the Obama administration’s freeze of the sale due to the Nigerian military’s poor human rights record.
This episode makes it crystal clear that Trump’s rhetoric matters in a very concrete way. His recent inflammatory statements, made days before the US midterm elections, have clearly been seized upon by some in the Nigerian military as an abusive new standard to which they would like to adhere. Trump’s language undermines the efforts of US diplomats on the frontlines, contributes to the unraveling of progress on human rights concerns in Nigeria, and deeply damages the overarching credibility of the United States.