The United States will send a team to Nigeria in the next few weeks to discuss with the new government ways to renew cooperation in the fight against the Islamist militant group Boko Haram, a senior U.S. diplomat said on Thursday.
Washington has quickly reached out to new President Muhammadu Buhari since his election victory in March and sent U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to his inauguration last week to underscore U.S. interest in working with his government.
Tensions emerged between the former government of President Goodluck Jonathan and the Obama administration last year over corruption and human rights abuses by the Nigerian military in its campaign to crush Boko Haram.
In his inauguration speech, Buhari vowed to defeat Boko Haram and called the group, which pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq in March, “mindless” and “godless.”
“With the new government we are optimistic we can reset the relationship,” U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, told a congressional hearing. “We want to work with him and have expressed that to him.”
She said Buhari had committed both publicly and privately to “do everything possible to address the situation in terms of resources and staff” to tackle Boko Haram, which launched its insurgency in 2009.
U.S. officials have said the United States could send more advisers to Nigeria to train its military and help boost the economy, the largest in Africa, through more investment in its oil and gas sector.
Thomas-Greenfield said the United States was encouraged that Buhari’s first trips were to neighbours Niger and Chad, which are part of a multi-national force being set up to fight Boko Haram’s insurgency in the Lake Chad region.
Nigeria’s Major-General Tukur Buratai has been appointed to head the new force, which will be funded partly by the international community.
“He is someone we have worked with and someone we feel will be a positive force on the multinational task force,” she said, adding that Buhari was still studying options to fund a stepped- up effort to tackle Boko Haram.
Analysts say the challenge for the United States is to work with Buhari while giving him time to address problems in the Nigerian military.
A report by rights group Amnesty International this week reinforced U.S. concerns over human rights abuses by Nigerian security forces.
In a 133-page report issued on Wednesday, Amnesty said more than 8,000 people died while being held prisoner by the army in the campaign against Boko Haram, many of them murdered, starved or tortured.
Amnesty said many of the prisoners, including boys as young as nine years old, were rounded up in Boko Haram strongholds and shot dead while inside detention facilities.