Diplomacy has been defined as the art of telling someone to go to hell and making them look forward to the trip. A cursory review of three out of the top-most ongoing humanitarian atrocities in the world today shows how US foreign aligns with this facetious description.
In Syria which is by far the most disturbing, America’s response to the daily massacres of innocent citizens by a desperate regime is to prognosticate that the Syrian government will soon be history. In Sudan which is doubtless the longest-running, the US stance on wanton aerial bombings on defenseless South Sudan by the genocide-indicted government in Khartoum is to equivocate on Africa’s oldest civil-war turned Africa’s newest transnational war.
But in Nigeria, certainly the most under-reported, Washington’s position on daily killings of Christians, weekly bombings of churches, government and perceived “western” institutions by an Islamist terror group’s insurgency is to pontificate that more economic incentives need to be provided to the terror-prone zones by Nigeria’s government.
Merely expelling Syria’s diplomats when president Assad’s murderous onslaught on his own citizens eclipses Qaddafi’s offensive that triggered NATO airstrikes is the diplomatic equivalent of a slap on the wrists for genocide. In the case of Sudan, the defeaning silence on the launching of Iran-made drones on its own civilian populations in Nuba Mountains and president Bashir’s repeated air bombardment on the newly independent south Sudan is the equivalent of a “get out of jail free” card.
The case of Nigeria is however more unsettling. True the culprit Islamist terror group Boko Haram has made the government itself and Christians in particular its declared target, but in a remarkable twist, the US has managed to point disapproving fingers at Nigeria’s mild-mannered accidental president former zoology professor Goodluck Jonathan. According to the US, Nigeria’s Muslim north feel uncared for by Jonathan and must get more federal checks in addition to the billions of dollars distributed to those states – from the oil produced in his southern home region - as mandated by the constitution.
The disingenuous US policy on the situation is disturbing on several levels. It borders on being a “ransom demand” on behalf of a region that has not hidden its disdain for all things western – most especially the US itself – for decades and is now using violent extremism to political advantage. Alternatively it hovers on the verge of being a “re-victimization of the victim.” The US is either negotiating for the terrorists or blaming the victim or both!
Incidentally, just the day before the State Department’s top diplomat on Africa unfolded its key policy thoughts, Boko Haram attempted two signature AlQaeda-style church bombings on Easter Sunday. Ambassador Johnnie Carson did not so much as use his speech to condemn the attacks. Instead he maintained that the attacks were “not religious” and claimed that both churches and mosques had been targeted by Boko Haram. However when I pointed out to him that there is no single account of a mosque being bombed, he simply had no response.
Instead the Assistant Secretary of State for Africa went to extremes to paint a picture of a pervasively poor northern region in need of more money as an antidote to terror. It was an unspeakable US apologetic for terror that would gall even the most jaded cynic of US foreign policy intentions.
Ironically the day after Carson’s remarks at the Center for Strategic International Studies where I took him up on this, President Jonathan commissioned several of 400 Islamic schools being built with, yes, federal funds exclusively for Nigeria’s northern Muslims. This is from a government that has traditionally confiscated Christian schools and turned them into public ones. More so the Nigerian government runs an extremely costly and cumbersome sponsorship of thousands of Muslim pilgrims to Mecca annually. The Christian pilgrimage equivalent is a sorry attempt at balancing religious sensitivities.
Not only is the US interpretation of the realities in Nigeria patently false, its resulting position seems to justify terrorism and vilify the victims. In all of Carson’s remarks glorifying Nigeria as having the 6th largest Muslim population in the world and more Muslims than any Arab country, not a word was spared for the longsuffering Christians in Nigeria. While he conceded that Boko Haram has sought to stoke tensions between Christians and Muslims, Carson did not give credit to the Christians whose restraint in the midst of extreme provocation is singularly responsible for the postponement – thus far – of a religious war in Africa’s biggest country.
Worse still rather than proffer aid or assistance to the thousands of internally displaced persons from the northern crisis (hundreds of Christians were killed and over 500 churches destroyed in a 48-hour window last year unrelated to the terror ) US is urging aid to the people responsible for this violence!
The absurdity of the US position is best illustrated by its own response to the 911 terror attacks. Using exaggerated intelligence the US invaded Iraq and Afghanistan to capture and contain terrorists. It set up a Department of Homeland security. But instead of helping Nigeria to set up a similar Department of Homeland Security to deal with this lethal emerging threat, the US criticizes Nigeria and says it should create a Ministry for northern affairs – not to care for victims of the violence but for the aggressors!
This is just as ludicrous as if the US government sided with a dissident Osama Bin Laden against the oil-rich Saudi king insisting he give more money to Bin Laden sympathizers to make them less extremist! Nigeria and Saudi Arabia are top oil suppliers to the US – oil from Nigeria’s south which this policy risks alienating. But US policy is more condescending toward the former.
The US policy is worse than a slap on the wrist or turning a blind eye. It is nothing short of a betrayal of the hundreds that have been killed this year (Nigeria has the highest single day casualty of 2012 with 200 killed on Jan 20) or the thousands killed in the last dozen years. In a nutshell the US says the violence is not religious, the terrorists are not terrorists, the victims are guilty of making the aggressors poor and the aggressors should be rewarded with more resources from more peaceful regions.
In the words of Dr Martin Luther King, “we will remember, not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.” America’s pronouncements have not clarified where exactly it stands in the “enemies and friends” column of Nigeria’s beleaguered citizenry. Essentially the US diplomats are saying to Nigeria’s Christians, “go to hell” but without a pretense of making anyone look forward to the trip. That fails to meet the definition of “diplomacy.”
For the Christians killed in multiple church bombings and massacres on June 3 and June 10, and for those who will die in the coming weeks, it is an unconscionable failure.
Spero columnist Emmanuel Ogebe is a Washington DC-based attorney and analyst of US-Nigeria relations. See his blog JusticeForJos.