While foreign journalists and human rights organizations were quick to respond to the news of killings by the military in Benue, at the diplomatic level foreign governments remained silent. Following the attacks of September 11 in the U.S., the international agenda was almost exclusively devoted to issues related to international terrorism and anti-terrorism. However, all the main international news agencies, as well as national media in many countries, carried the news of the Benue massacres, so no government could credibly claim that it was not aware of it. Yet there was very little public questioning or condemnation of the actions of the Nigerian army; appeals by human rights organizations and by prominent Tiv individuals and organizations were effectively ignored. A number of Western governments, in particular the U.S. and the U.K, view Nigeria as a critical strategic partner in Africa and have apparently opted to refrain from public criticism of the Obasanjo government's human rights record in order to preserve close diplomatic relations.
On November 2, just one week after the killings, President Obasanjo visited the United States for talks with President Bush and other U.S. government officials to discuss the anti-terrorism agenda. Sources at the U.S. State Department have indicated that when Secretary of State Colin Powell met President Obasanjo on November 2, he raised the need for a credible investigation into the violence in Benue. However, no U.S. officials made any public comment about the events in Benue during the visit. Yet during a White House photo opportunity, the only press question to President Obasanjo related to the recent killings of civilians by the Nigerian military. President Obasanjo responded with an account of how the soldiers had been ambushed and killed, and how that had prompted the governor of Benue to request the deployment of more soldiers to assist in apprehending those responsible. He made no mention of any killings by the military.62
On November 9, the U.S. embassy in the federal capital Abuja issued a press statement which urged the Nigerian government to conduct an "impartial and transparent" investigation into the killings and unrest, and to bring to justice those responsible for the killing of Nigerian soldiers and civilians.63 Other than this press statement by the embassy, U.S. government officials raised the issue in private meetings with senior Nigerian officials, in Abuja and in Washington, but have refrained from doing so publicly. For instance, on November 8, Ambassador Robert Perry, deputy assistant secretary of state for African Affairs, raised the events in Benue with the Nigerian charge d'affaires in Washington, and presented him with the Embassy's statement.64 On December 13, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Africa Michael Westfall met Minister of Defense Danjuma and raised the Benue events as his first talking point.65 However, such confidential demarches will remain ineffective in the absence of any parallel public pressure for independent investigation and criminal prosecution, or for steps to prevent such events from occurring again.
The U.S. State Department's country report on human rights practices for 2001, published in March 2002, provided an accurate overall assessment of Nigeria's poor human rights record, appropriately describing the killings by the army in Benue as "the year's most egregious case." However, it attributed these and other abuses by the army in part to a lack of training. While this may be true in some other cases, the killings in Benue, as demonstrated above, were part of a well-planned military operation which cannot be explained by lack of training. The report overall did not place sufficient emphasis on the federal government's responsibility to investigate and prevent further abuses, particularly by the security forces.
The U.S. government, in particular, is in a position to exert considerable influence over the Nigerian government, as it has been providing training and equipment to the Nigerian army. For fiscal year 2002, the U.S. will be budgeting approximately U.S.$ 6.75 million in assistance to the Nigerian military to enhance its capacity to respond to disasters, including $6 million in Foreign Military Financing for C-130 Hercules aircraft; $1.5 million in excess buoy tenders (boats used by the U.S. Coast Guard to repair buoys) for the Nigerian navy; $1 million to fund U.S. mobile training teams; and $750,000 in International Military Education and Training (IMET).66 In addition for fiscal year 2002, Congress approved $26 million for the West African Stability Fund, part of the U.S.'s voluntary peacekeeping operations budget, which includes $8 million in sustainment training and equipping for the troops trained for peacekeeping in Sierra Leone, known as Operation Focus Relief. Finally, Nigerian participation in a follow-on program to the African Crisis Response Initiative (ACRI) will be discussed during the year, although no new program is likely to take shape until 2003.67
In fiscal year 2001, the U.S. assisted the Nigerian military by contracting Military Professional Resources International (MPRI), a consulting firm, to carry out a retraining and restructuring program as part of the Nigerian government's plans to reform the army. The stated aims of the program, initially paid for by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) along with the Nigerian government, included restoring greater civilian control over the military. A separate military training program conducted by United States Special Forces and designed to prepare troops for peacekeeping duty in Sierra Leone (Operation Focus Relief) involved training and equipment for five Nigerian army battalions. The training was reportedly aimed at enhancing combat skills and strengthening command and control, and included a human rights component; the equipment included small arms, communications equipment and vehicles. However, the program had no acknowledged mechanisms to monitor the conduct of those who received the training after they graduated, or to press for accountability if they then went on to violate human rights. While this failing is common to military assistance programs across many different countries, it is particularly serious in the case of Nigeria, where the military has a long history of violating human rights. The massacres and destruction by the military in Odi in November 1999 should have served as a reminder of the importance of such mechanisms, even under a civilian government.
The U.K. and Nigeria signed a Memorandum of Understanding in military cooperation in September 2001. Under this agreement, a British defence advisory team is providing advice to the Nigerian Ministry of Defense on organization, administration, procurement, training and equipment. In addition, the British government has repeatedly demonstrated the strategic importance it attaches to developing a close relationship with Nigeria. President Obasanjo was one of several African heads of state who visited the U.K. in September 2001 for a meeting called by Prime Minister Tony Blair. In February 2002, Prime Minister Blair visited Nigeria, and several other countries in West Africa, in the context of his stated aim to make Africa a priority for the British Government. On February 7, he met President Obasanjo and delivered a speech to the National Assembly in Abuja. In his speech, he stressed his wish to promote closer links with Nigeria, and with African countries more generally, and expressed his support for the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), an initiative put forward in 2001 by several African leaders (including President Obasanjo) to seek international support for a program of economic, financial, and political development for Africa. Tony Blair highlighted the four priority areas for development: peace, good government, economic growth, and health and education. The British Government views Nigeria as an important actor in NEPAD; President Obasanjo is one of its main sponsors, as well as being the chair of its implementation committee.
Despite these close relations between the U.K. and Nigeria, and the prime minister's personal commitment to promoting the relationship, no British government official is known to have publicly condemned the killings and destruction by the Nigerian army in Benue. According to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the government made its concerns known at various levels of the Nigerian government soon after the military operation in Benue, but did not express any of these concerns publicly.
On November 25, 2001, the European Parliament adopted a resolution condemning "the indiscriminate killing of civilians in Benue by elements of the Nigerian army" and deploring "the human suffering caused by ongoing conflicts in this country." It called on the Nigerian authorities to "conduct a rapid, impartial and effective investigation into these incidents and to restore international confidence in Nigeria's democracy and prevent further massacres by the military." The resolution noted that "similar incidents took place in the town of Odi in November 1999 without any action being taken against those involved."
62 Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, "Nigerian President offers solidarity, support to U.S.: Remarks by President Bush and President Obasanjo of Nigeria in photo opportunity." Washington D.C., November 2, 2001.
63 Press statement of the U.S. embassy in Abuja.
64 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Ambassador Robert Perry, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, February 7, 2002.
65 Human Rights Watch interview with Michael Westfall, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Africa, the Pentagon, January 17, 2002.
66 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Col. Terry Tidler, Office of African Affairs in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy and International Security Affairs, January 29, 2002.
67 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Col. Terry Tidler, Office of African Affairs in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy and International Security Affairs, February 13, 2002.