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Nigerian Military Training Cancellation Baffles US Experts

Members of the military stand at the scene of an explosion near a petrol station in Kano, Nigeria, Nov. 15, 2014.
Members of the military stand at the scene of an explosion near a petrol station in Kano, Nigeria, Nov. 15, 2014.

The U.S. Embassy in Nigeria announced this week that Nigeria’s military had cancelled specialized training by American soldiers on fighting Boko Haram militants. A former U.S. ambassador says the move is puzzling, given the Nigerian military’s struggles to defeat the terrorist groups, which has taken control of parts of the country’s northeast.

Since April, U.S. Army soldiers have been training a battalion of about 600 Nigerian troops on how to take on Islamic extremist group Boko Haram. The Americans have also provided non-lethal equipment like vehicles and uniforms.

The acting defense and army attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Abuja, Lieutenant Colonel John Cantwell, told VOA he was not clear why the Nigerians decided to stop the training.

“No, we did not receive any specific reason as to why they wanted to cancel the training. But their notification was in response to a request that we had sent to them requesting their intention regarding moving forward with the third phase of training,” he said.

Boko Haram has scored numerous successes in its campaign to control and implement Sharia law across northeastern Nigeria - terrorizing the population, bombing, killing and kidnapping thousands of people, overrunning bases and seizing territory from Nigeria’s military.

That is why former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell said Nigeria’s move to cut the training short was baffling.

“What on earth were the Nigerians thinking of to simply cancel a training program. And to me that is a complete mystery, because I do not see how it advances their own interests in any way,” he said.

Nigeria military spokesman Major General Chris Olukolade declined to be interviewed, but in a text message called the cancellation a “purely strategic action,” and did not explain further.

Nigeria’s military has battled Boko Haram for nearly five years and there have been numerous reports of soldiers being outgunned by the militants or simply running away.

Nigerian troops played vital roles in peacekeeping missions in Liberia and Sierra Leone during those countries' wars. But Campbell said since a 1990 coup attempt against then-military ruler General Ibrahim Babangida, recent civilian administrations have preferred to keep the military weak.

“In other words, how do you reduce the coup-making potential of the military? Well, what you do is starve it for resources. So I think that accounts, in part at least, for the transformation of the Nigerian military from being, by far, the best in Africa to one which now, if news reports are to be credited, regularly runs from firefights with Boko Haram,” he said.

Nigeria’s ambassador to the United States recently laid the blame for the military’s failures on Washington. In a speech last month, he criticized the United States for not providing Abuja with more weapons support.

But Campbell said U.S. hands were tied by federal law. International rights groups have repeatedly criticized Nigeria’s military for killing and torturing civilians, charges the Nigerian ambassador dismissed in his speech.

Meanwhile, a law known as the Leahy amendment prohibits the United States from supporting militaries that are thought to be involved in human rights violations.

“American military training of Nigerians, at this particular point in time, is inherently highly limited. It is limited by the Leahy amendment, amongst other things. Nevertheless, it made no sense to me at all that the Nigerian side, would terminate a training program,” said Campbell.

U.S. Officials said they would continue other training with the Nigerian military.