Matthew T. Page, a former Africa analyst for the State Department, is a consultant and fellow with the Centre for Democracy and Development in Abuja, Nigeria. He is author of “Nigeria: What Everyone Needs to Know,” forthcoming from Oxford University Press.
On a hot, humid night two months ago, some U.S. soldiers were photographed kicking around a soccer ball on a remote military base in the town called Salak in northern Cameroon. Later posted to Facebook, the photo shows cellblocks — just yards away from their pickup game — where Cameroonian soldiers reportedly hogtied, tortured and savagely beat suspected Boko Haram sympathizers, according to a meticulously researched investigation and forensic reconstruction video released this week.
The Salak base has been used for several years by U.S. military and intelligence advisers helping Cameroon fight a grueling, no-holds-barred bush war against the infamous Nigerian terrorist group. The investigation concluded that, under the noses of their American allies, Cameroonian soldiers operated a secret prison where they routinely tortured and interrogated people suspected of having ties to Boko Haram.
As one torture survivor recounted: “I saw white men … many times and I heard them talking in English. I think they were Americans … I saw them running from the back window of my cell … as well as standing in front of our cell.” Like this former inmate, few of those detained at Salak were hardened terrorists. Most were men, women — and in some cases, even children — often arbitrarily arrested by Cameroon’s overzealous security forces on the basis of little or no evidence.
Although it is unthinkable that U.S. forces were involved in the abuses occurring at Salak, it is hard to believe that our eagle-eyed special operators could have been oblivious to what was going on. When contacted, U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) acknowledged that U.S. personnel are deployed at Salak. AFRICOM said it is conducting an inquiry into the abuse allegations and whether it knew about them before this month. AFRICOM said it “has not received any reports from U.S. forces of human rights abuses by Cameroonian forces to this date.”
Since at least 2013, U.S. soldiers have worked and lived on the Salak base alongside members of Cameroon’s most elite unit: the Rapid Intervention Battalion (BIR). The BIR has trained and worked closely with the U.S. military for more than a decade, an army-within-an-army. Better equipped, trained and paid than the regular Cameroonian army, the BIR is overseen by a retired Israeli officer and does not report to the minister of defense. Instead, it reports directly to President Paul Biya, a corrupt autocrat who has clung to power for 42 years and counting.
U.S. diplomats and military officials have long championed the BIR as a trusted and capable partner, shrugging off allegations of BIR misdeeds in the State Department’s own annual human rights reports. U.S. officials appear to have maintained plausible deniability about the BIR’s darker side, seemingly ignoring a 2016 Amnesty International report revealing torture and extrajudicial killings at the shared U.S.-BIR base.
Indeed, in spite of such warning signs, the U.S. ambassador to Cameroon lauded the BIR last year, saying, “In their training, conduct, and leadership, the BIR exhibited all of the values we expect in our own armed forces—professionalism, protection of the civilian population, and respect for human rights.”
As someone who spent 13 years analyzing the Cameroonian military — first for the Defense Department and then at Foggy Bottom — I find the ambassador’s statement baffling and a sign that Washington’s approach to Cameroon has become more clientelistic than collegial.
Indeed the ambassador’s recent acknowledgment that “certain units of BIR based out of Salak … are ineligible for assistance in accordance with the Leahy Law because of credible information implicating those units in the commission of gross violations of human rights” makes his effusive praise of the BIR’s human rights record last year seem even more bizarre.
This admission begs the question: Why are U.S. forces co-located and continuing to engage closely with the very same BIR battalion that the ambassador indicates is ineligible for U.S. assistance under the Leahy Law?
As U.S. policymakers digest these latest allegations, they need to step back and reflect on the extent to which Washington really does need to “do more” to help Cameroon and its neighbors defeat Boko Haram. Partnering with unprofessional militarizes may yield short-term counterterrorism gains, but at what cost?
Is working closely with a brutish military like Cameroon’s worth compromising U.S. values on human rights, rule of law and democracy? Even with U.S. help, will a dirty war of attrition succeed against a hardened, diffuse terrorist group such as Boko Haram? Should restoring corrupt and oppressive government control over one of the world’s poorest and least developed regions be considered a success?
As the Trump administration begins to reexamine — and perhaps radically shift — U.S.-Africa policy, these are questions that all of us should be asking, even if in doing so we rankle some in Washington and Cameroon who would rather we didn’t.