As he concluded his first visit to the United States as Nigeria's president, Muhammadu Buhari used an appearance on the last day of his tour to slam a major American human rights law for hamstringing his government's fight against the Islamist militant group Boko Haram — suggesting in effect that the law benefited the terrorist insurgency.
Buhari's meetings earlier this week with US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry garnered headlines, but the remarks he delivered on Wednesday at an event sponsored by the US Institute for Peace (USIP) provided a controversial twist. He focused on a range of issues, particularly his nation's national security.
"We are confident that we will defeat terrorism in our country and region, because we have the will to win this fight," said the 72-year-old leader, who took office in May after becoming the first opposition candidate in the country's history to beat out an incumbent in a democratic election.
While explaining that Nigeria would focus on mobilizing the maximum capacity for combating terrorism while keeping local communities safe, Buhari offered up heavy criticism of the "Leahy Law" — US legislation introduced in 1997 that blocks military aid to foreign security units that abuse human rights.
Buhari asserted that the "blanket application" of the law against Nigeria was based on "unproven allegations of human rights violations." The former military dictator, who previously ruled Nigeria in the 1980s, claimed that this had created an inability to secure weapons and equipment needed to carry out the fight against Boko Haram.
"Our forces have remained largely impotent because they do not possess the appropriate weapons and technology which they could have had, had the so called human rights violations not been an obstacle," Buhari said during a discussion hosted by Johnnie Carson, a senior advisor to Obama and former State Department official.
"Unwittingly — and I dare say unintentionally — the application of the Leahy Law amendment by the US government has aided and abetted the Boko Haram terrorist group in the prosecution of its extremist ideology and hate, the indiscriminate killings and maiming of civilians, in raping of women and girls, and other heinous crimes," he added, calling on the US Congress to loosen the application of the law in Nigeria.
Under the law, when a foreign government requests funds for security support, the State Department must vet the case. In 2012, for example, more than 160,000 cases went through the vetting process, but only one percent of them were rejected outright, while another nine percent were suspended.
Though the law can restrict US government aid to foreign countries for military support, it does not prevent a country from purchasing weapons from US companies with its own funds.
The decision to apply the law to military units in Nigeria was largely informed by human rights abuses allegedly carried out by elements of its security forces, arising especially from its effort to defeat Boko Haram. In testimony before the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Human Rights Watch's Washington Director Sarah Margon called abuse on the part of security forces in Nigeria "deeply systemic."
Buhari's remarks received a mixed reaction, with some observers noting that Nigeria's difficulty in addressing the menace of Boko Haram has less to do with military hardware — of which they say it has plenty — than it relates to pervasive corruption within its command structure. The implication is that Buhari, who recently dismissed his four defense chiefs, was trying to deflect attention from a problem of leadership and misconduct by stressing a need for equipment.
Watch the VICE News documentary The War Against Boko Haram:
Human rights advocates have characterized Buhari's rhetorical gambit as a serious misstep, insisting that application of the Leahy Law is a crucial tool for stemming abuses.
"Criticism of the Leahy Law was totally off the mark," Jeffrey Smith, an official at the nonprofit RFK Human Rights who attended the USIP event, told VICE News. "Training abusive security forces in Nigeria, or anywhere else in the world for that matter, is wholly counterproductive, and the Leahy Law is a key instrument that is used to prevent that."
Besides taking a swing at the Leahy Law, Buhari discussed the importance of fostering employment opportunities for Nigeria's youth as well as the need to boost transparency. Smith said that the Nigerian president seemed steadfast in his commitment to improve the Nigerian economy and end the runaway corruption that has plagued the government.
"Buhari's strong rhetorical commitment to multiparty democracy as the best form of governance, which he repeatedly echoed during his remarks, was a very positive indication of his priorities and overall governing philosophy," Smith said.
As the Nigerian leader wraps up his second month in office after a peaceful transition of power from his predecessor Goodluck Jonathan, which many feared would not go smoothly, Buhari highlighted this success.
"All those who predicted the worst possible post-election scenarios for Nigeria missed the mark by very wide margins, because the premises upon which the narratives were based were simply wrong," he said.
Follow Kayla Ruble on Twitter: @RubleKB