Securing Progress Against Boko Haram: A Conversation With Sarah Sewall

Thursday, November 10, 2016
Sarah Sewall

Undersecretary, U.S. Department of State

Jamille Bigio
Introductory Remarks

Drawing on her recent trip to Nigeria and Chad, Undersecretary Sewall assesses the ongoing fight against Boko Haram and violent extremism more broadly. She evaluates related humanitarian and stabilization challenges and discusses the need to reintegrate women and girls previously captured by Boko Haram back into society.


SEWALL: Thanks. Well, it’s wonderful to be here. And I’m deeply grateful to all of you for coming. The challenge for, anyone when approaching the Boko Haram problem set is: which frame are you using? There is the global counterterrorism fight - where does Boko Haram fit?

What’s really fascinating for those of you, and there are many in this audience who are more expert on both Africa and Nigeria than I am - so everything I say has a dose of humility - but what’s very interesting from the Nigerian perspective is how small the Boko Haram problem seems when you are in Abuja - not because the threat is not real but because the challenges facing Abuja are so great and diverse.

The challenge in the northeast with Boko Haram has been there for a long time, and it has changed. We’ll talk about how it’s changed. But the middle-belt area, by some accounts, has seen more violence against civilians than the northeast. When you add to that the urgency of what is essentially a newly developed or redeveloped insurgency in the delta that has so sabotaged pipelines that it has periodically reduced oil production to the extent that the government then feels squeezed in how it has resources to address the full range of challenges nationwide, it’s really interesting how the frame shifts when you come at it from a Nigerian perspective.

And then when you think about it from the perspective of the Lake Chad Basin, which has always faced challenges, you see an entirely different frame with a real political overlay. Many of the countries in Lake Chad look at Boko Haram as a Nigerian problem that has been allowed to fester and is now threatening their own communities, if not states.

I think what’s fascinating to me as a foreign policy practitioner is that this problem set, predominantly in Borno State as well as in the Lake Chad Basin area really has it all. It’s one of the reasons why I’m grateful that this was a cohosted program and why there’s such a diversity of perspectives around the table. But it is a grossly underappreciated humanitarian crisis that has been laid bare as military progress has been made. I can talk more about that.

It is a collective as well as a national security challenge for each of the countries in the region. And they have different strengths and different freedoms of operation as a collective entity versus as individual states.  

It’s also obviously the case that there is an economic and governance challenge in the northeast that in many respects gave rise to Boko Haram to begin with. And the framing of this as a Boko Haram problem, in some ways, is a misnomer because Boko Haram emerged over a decade ago from essentially poor governance and discontents within the northeast. So, it’s got a lot of different intersecting pieces that then have to be understood, at least from the Nigerian perspective, in the context of, as Reuben said, a historically weak central government and even under Buhari, a still very weak central government with really diminished national capacities interacting with a state government that, in the case of Borno State, has very energized, refreshing leadership – but again – without capacity.

And so, when you think about the magnitude and the complexity of the challenges just in Borno and then you think about the tools that the state, at whatever level, has to actually try to address them, the progress that has been made is astonishing.

In brief, I do think that it’s fair to say there is a multinational construct for parallel play, for parallel military operations, only sometimes joint, within the Lake Chad region. There is under Buhari a reenergized national commitment of essentially pushing a much-too-small military force north against a threat that has now moved and been displaced but has not been degraded in a meaningful way.

Meanwhile, that threat has morphed and changed. You are all aware that Shekau, who had taken over the mantle of Boko Haram, had pledged feasance to Daesh, and Daesh basically then sought an upgrade because they weren’t having much success with Shekau conforming to the Daesh recipe book. And so, now there’s a new faction with Barnawi, who is the recognized leader of Boko Haram from the Daesh perspective, who is beginning to adapt in ways that more resemble the ISIL playbook. And that creates a different set of challenges.

All this in the midst of a humanitarian crisis that the Nigerian government was very slow to recognize, that the international community struggled with in terms of identifying as a crisis, and for which we are only now beginning to ramp up the humanitarian response.

Then there is a real tension between the humanitarian operations and the military campaign as it’s currently constructed. So, it’s a very interesting and troubling and difficult problem set to gain traction on. And so, I’m really pleased to be here to talk about it all.

I first engaged in this problem very early in my tenure as the Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights. I traveled with AFRICOM Commander Rodriguez to the region after the kidnapping of the Chibok girls. It was when we first organized and codified any form of military and intelligence support for the fight against Boko Haram. And I’ve been engaged periodically through the political crisis, the transformation, and now where we are in terms of spending more time with the state governor in Borno as well as in the capital. And most recently I had a chance to see the fight from the Chadian perspective as well. And so, that’s where I come to this set of issues from.

BIGIO: Picking up on the last point that you made, can you speak a little more about what your assessment is of the current approach to countering Boko Haram and where the U.S. government fits into that?

SEWALL: It’s fair to say, for those of you who have followed Nigeria for a long time, that the Nigerian military was once considered the crown jewel of militaries, if you will, in the region. And because the country is so important to all of West Africa and because its role militarily was considered to be important for stabilization, the fact that we’ve seen, as Reuben mentioned, a steady corrosion of the Nigerian military capability from the biggest contributor or one of the biggest contributors to peacekeeping worldwide to a shell of its former self is due to a combination of political expedience and management of potential risks to political leadership in the capital as well as rampant corruption and just lassitude. And so, the problems now are really deep.

I think the U.S. military’s assessment is that whether you’re talking about a lack of precision with the use of airpower, a lack of junior-level leadership, or, essentially a paucity of fundamental navigational skills in some cases, You’re talking about real operational limitations. You add to that a weak logistics support tail, the inability of either communications or resources to get from the capital in full form to the forward theater, you’re just talking about very limited capacity.

Now, the way they had fought the insurgency was often criticized for being ineffectual. What has dramatically changed, if you look at a map, is that essentially there have been more forces pushed forward to flush Boko Haram and displace it north of Maiduguri. There are now more forces concentrated in areas around both the Shekau faction based in the Sambisa Forest, as well as around the Barnawi faction which is further north.

But in no way, shape, or form is the current disposition of forces an encirclement or a containment of that threat. And there is obviously, as you move those forces, a much more exposed rear. It’s an economy-of-force operation, so the Nigerian armed forces do not have the ability to hold the territory or even defend the flanks that they have now created as they’ve moved north.

And their approach has been, if I can use the term, old-style counterinsurgency. It does not reflect the core lesson that the U.S. military has learned, which is that civilian protection is really at the heart of effective counterinsurgency, and that if you can’t guarantee civilian protection, you’re essentially moving the problem around and playing whack-a-mole and possibly creating a larger enemy over the medium term. I would argue that none of those lessons have been learned, nor applied in the context of the Nigerian campaign.

The U.S. history has been that we have sought to become more active partners with the Nigerians for a lengthy period of time. The Nigerians have, as Reuben can tell you, enormous national pride and a sense of their own capabilities and professionalism that I think could be fairly described as keeping all international partners at a significant arm’s length.

And so, our role has been largely to provide information support. And we have constantly been reaching out. And indeed, one of my more recent missions was to continue to encourage closer operational collaboration, but that is not something that is met with open arms for a variety of reasons.

BIGIO: You spoke in your opening, as you were framing the situation, of the tensions between the humanitarian response and the military campaign, as well as the reality that the Nigerian government was slow to recognize the severity of the humanitarian emergency in the north. Could you speak more to what you see as the priorities now in addressing both the immediate humanitarian challenges and the tensions with the military campaigns? How do we do that while also planning for the future recovery in northeastern Nigeria?

SEWALL: It’s very difficult to understand from Abuja exactly how the government will respond to the current humanitarian crisis. They’ve set up two different bureaucratic entities to address different versions of this problem. Depending on who you ask to describe those entities, they will be described in different ways. When I asked about the humanitarian challenge in one meeting with a Nigerian official, I was told about an entity which he was relying on but didn’t belong to.

There’s a lot of confusion, I would argue, even in the capital about whether the new interagency committee is going to be dealing just with coordinating external humanitarian assistance or whether it will be integrating Nigerian resources with those of the international community. There’s now a new presidential commission that’s just been set up, and is responsible for thinking about the return of IDPs, humanitarian response, and stabilization. Where does the return of governance, the rehabilitation of schools, the reconstitution of police facilities and the redeployment of police fit into that plan?

There is a recognition, and there has been a public creation of bureaucratic response within Nigeria about the humanitarian and stabilization challenge, but I think there’s still a lot to be sorted out in terms of what that actually means.

There are some new leaders in some of these government ministries under Buhari that have a lot of energy and seem very promising. But for those who know Nigeria, they know well that it’s not easy to get the central state to move with alacrity.

The reality on the ground from the military perspective, and this would not be the first place in which I have heard such a response from uniform military, is that in no small respect does a humanitarian crisis create a great inconvenience for a military campaign, both because it implies a degree of responsibility for that problem and because it drains resources from the military campaign. We saw this in World War II where sometimes refugee movements were used as a tactic to slow enemy reconstitution.

The reality is that when the Nigerian military is asked to think about moving IDPs, protecting IDPs, or protecting convoys of assistance to IDPs, that distracts from an already overtaxed force., If you’ve got too-few forces to actually carry out your military strategy and then to be asked to take on essentially the husbanding role for humanitarian relief – that’s an added challenge, no question.

Then you have to think, from an operational standpoint, you’re now creating new vulnerabilities. As Nigerian forces are deployed with a greater concentration north, and as more of the central threats in Shekau and Barnawi factions move north, the exposed territory is now both where we’ve been able to see the humanitarian needs because they’ve basically been unveiled as the campaign rolled north, and, it’s where now people are concentrating in factions that become small communities that are extremely vulnerable and are targets for attack. And then when you add resources there, whether they are food resources, or medical supplies, or foreign assistance providers, you create another vulnerability.

Without any kind of a value judgment, it’s pretty easy to see that if you don’t have the typical military campaign in which you’re rolling through a front and you’re controlling everything behind, in which you have resources and civil administration flowing in, and in which you have all the military providing that frontal flank, you’re talking about a very different situation in which huge vulnerabilities are now exposed and created and in which the military is expected to help protect them. So, it’s an extremely challenging situation for the military.

And, the basic message, I think, is that as an economy-of-force operation, you have to reevaluate whether you can sustain that in light of what we now recognize to be the civilian security implications. More than four million people are experiencing gross food shortages and security challenges; the sheer level of displacement – some two plus million in Nigeria alone – is a staggering number.  There are not the resources there, military or otherwise.

Now, to break and try to move to the second part of your question, I had difficulty understanding the relationship between the military campaign as currently construed and as limited, as I just described, and the thinking and the planning around stabilization. This is where both the complexity of the Nigerian state and the complexity of decision-making in the midst of what is still an administration that is filling positions and evolving how it works. With a federalized structure in which the governor of Borno owns this problem, he also sees the problem in a way that Abuja really doesn’t feel. It’s the attenuation of distance, if nothing else.

President Buhari has made very strong commitments, but he sits atop a bureaucracy that has yet to galvanize with clarity and alacrity. That may change over time, but right now it’s Governor Shettima in Borno who is running around and visiting the IDP camps. He’s the one who is hearing complaints from citizens about the effects of IDP camps and is petitioning to the center, and in fact, I think, just right after I left, he brought President Buhari’s wife down to an IDP camp in Borno, which I think was a really creative way to try to link central government and state government.

He’s identified the areas in which he wants to restore government service, in which he wants to return IDPs. He’s emphasizing the role of agriculture and livelihoods for IDPs because he desperately needs IDPs to become self-sustaining sooner rather than later because the resource drag is so great. And the resource drag is enormous, but if you talk to people in IDP camps they still say that they’re hungry and their rations as being cut, right?

You’ve got real tensions and a real pressure -a very practical pressure in terms of being able to feed people and being able to provide hope for people and that the military campaign actually translates into something that’s useful and tangible for them. So, the governor is trying to push, push, push and rebuild police stations. He goes out, spends the night in Bama, and tells the local government to go there. So he is forging ahead. But if you look from the perspective of the deployment of security forces, there is only sometimes an overlap between the places that have enduring security in the form of military forces and police augmentation that overlap with his political priorities around IDP and reconstituting government. And many of the places that he’s prioritized don’t have that level of security.

One of the biggest challenges that remains, even before we have a real sense that the core Boko Haram factions have been neutralized, which, as I said, we do not have that sense yet, one of the real questions that remains is, how are they going to phase security and the return of services and governance and the return of IDPs? And the governor is very clear that he doesn’t want to force IDPs to return, but the IDPs are getting increasingly desperate, and they’re wanting to return. And that’s just in the area that’s near the population centers, and not in that exposed middle between Maiduguri and the far north in which there is basically very little military presence and around which, in particular, the Barnawi faction has shown that they have significant mobility and the ability to launch combined operations that can do significant damage.

Right before I arrived, they had killed some 200 Nigerian forces and captured significant supplies in one time. The week before they had similarly surprised another encampment. The relationship between security and stabilization in a situation that’s as fluid still as northeast Borno is really uncertain.

BIGIO: As you’ve laid out the challenges in securing progress against Boko Haram and in responding to the humanitarian situation and the IDP situation, you’ve spoken as well about the lack of capacity that the government has and just the sheer scale of the challenges that they’re facing as well. I wonder if you could address the role that civil society and other partners are playing in helping to respond to that and specifically the role that we see women in Nigeria playing. Certainly, the “Bring Back Our Girls” movement led by Nigerian women helped to increase public attention to Boko Haram and to the situation in Nigeria, but on the ground women are also playing a significant role in trying to respond to the situation. This is something that we see a growing recognition of, that the international community and local partners and local governments can engage women as partners in facing some their security challenges.

SEWALL: I will say that the role of women is really complicated in northeast Borno right now because so many women have been victimized, and yet they are often being revictimized by the communities to which they return, whether by volition or because they are rescued by the government. We can talk more about the deradicalization and rehabilitation process if you want to.

In general, the role of the advocacy community in Abuja is a very different role than the role that women are actually playing on the ground in much of the rest of the country. And in the same way that there are tensions with humanitarian response and military operations, there are tensions between advocacy. We want a quick return of our girls; we want to have it on TV; we want to celebrate it; and we have a real challenge because these are traumatized people when they come back, who the community suspects of being traitors and would like to hang, and so, we have to be very careful about how we reintegrate them.

When you look at the IDPs, most people will tell anecdotally that the women are the IDP community. The men are just nowhere to be found, either in that exposed underbelly now between Maiduguri and the north or even in the IDP camps where they’re often either working somewhere else or looking for work somewhere else, the women are the IDP community.

I think there is an enormous potential for Nigerians to essentially rewire some of the social, economic, and, maybe even political fabric, although that may be a bridge too far, in northeast Nigeria if the transition were done right. But I say that with a huge amount of humility because I think it’s very difficult, and I think the resources are extraordinarily limited.

However, Governor Shettima’s view of the role of women in the redevelopment, the rebirth really of Borno is expansive. It is so inspiring to listen to him talk about wanting to empower women economically, wanting to give them the seeds, the agricultural training, and the access to the land, and wanting them to become the links between the youth and the reconstituted, whether it’s police or the schools, the vision of the importance of education for girls in particular, both as a matter of creating the next generation of hope in the future, but also as a way of addressing some of the phenomenal population growth that is putting extraordinary pressure on the land and on the economy in an area that’s already underdeveloped.

That’s more about the structural issues and the opportunities for women – the silver lining if you will – of this extraordinary displacement and the need to essentially recreate so much of the fabric of a very broken state which offers great hope, particularly if you have someone like Governor Shettima at the helm of really elevating the gender awareness and the potential benefits of putting gender front and center as all the rest of the pieces that we think of typically as stabilization and reconstruction occur.

BIGIO: What you’ve laid out of the governor’s vision of how women in Borno can be engaged and contribute to the recovery of the state, is critical. The evidence is there that if you aren’t engaging half your population, then you clearly aren’t going to recover economically to the extent that you could if you were tapping into women’s contributions to both the formal and informal markets.

Looking at the effects of Boko Haram and the atrocities that they have perpetrated, if we want to ensure that the full population in Borno is positioned to be able to contribute to a recovery there, then it does mean some targeted services to ensure that women are able to participate. The governor has laid out a vision in this regard, and one question is whether international support is concretely helping to advance that vision.

Picking up another point that you just made: Boko Haram has used sexual violence as a tactic of terror, which we see in other regions of the world as well. This creates another set of issues for the community. What are some of the challenges of reintegrating women? And what does this mean for the U.S. government’s CVE work to recognize how Boko Haram is using sexual violence as a tactic of terror?

SEWALL: I was in Maiduguri and visited—and again, this is a case where the governor really was the driving force in recognizing the need for a special process to both protect in the shorter term and address in the longer term the issues facing women whom had been liberated from Boko Haram during military operations, which is the population that I encountered at his center in Maiduguri.

There are many different sets of women who have been victimized in the context of Boko Haram. There are the Chibok girls who were really treated separately from most of the people who were victims of sexual violence in the sense that relatively few if any of them were sexually abused. Then there were the women who refused to convert and marry and were sexually abused. The category of women who agreed to convert and marry under coercion, so how can you really call it agreement, but it puts them in a different space mentally and in terms of how they’re viewed by the community to which they return. And then there are also women who were married to Boko Haram fighters before they joined Boko Haram or while they were with Boko Haram, but independently came to that community.

And this whole issue of trying to unpack what is agency and what is coercion in the context of an armed group that acts the way Boko Haram does is really complicated. But obviously, for all those reasons, the parsing of the kinds of de-radicalization or reintegration services that are needed need to be tailored to people who fall into different categories, who had a different experience, and who were traumatized in different ways.

When you don’t have a lot of resources or even a lot of national expertise it’s astonishing the progress that is being made. I don’t want to be pessimistic. I mean, when you think about what they have to work with on this problem set, there are many pockets of leadership and exemplary programming and innovative and creative solutions that I think really need to be recognized. This area is one where the psychosocial support is relatively limited. There is a role for some of these individuals in exposing them to practitioners of various faiths who can help them understand an alternative perspective to that which they were exposed under Boko Haram’s coercion.

Many of these women are illiterate. How do you talk about reintegration when you can’t read and write? And how much are you going to be able to learn in a rehabilitation center in a matter of months? Many of them have children. Many of them have ambivalent relationships to those children. And again, the children are not protected from the fact that they are children in terms of how the external community views them. And what does it mean to have a livelihood when you’re illiterate, you’re impoverished, your community or your family may not accept you back and you have a child?

The gravity of the challenges facing these individuals is breathtaking. The reintegration facility has to think about societal attitudes and more proximately about familial attitudes. And essentially, what they have been doing in the context of the Maiduguri effort is trying to first trace and identify family relations, which is not always so easy in a country where some 2-plus million have been displaced , where people can’t travel, and where there’s no mail., Aside from the logistical, practical difficulties, there is the process of trying to evaluate the family’s attitudes, educate the family about the experience of this individual, gradually bridge and build a relationship to determine then whether or not there could be a reuniting, and then to manage that in a way that doesn’t set back the relationship. It’s a very labor-intensive, very sensitive process, and so—being done by extraordinary people with a lot of love and a lot of laughter.

The resilience of the women is so humbling. But more can be done with the community reeducation. There is a role for local imams or local preachers or other leaders, recognizing the experience and sanctioning it in a public, communal way. We’ve seen this, for example, with the Yazidi in Iraq, but this hasn’t happened on a broad scale in Nigeria. That’s another huge piece of work that lies ahead for civil society and governments in terms of what it means to support these women.

It’s very complicated. I came away certainly convinced that the political imperatives of wanting to showcase the success of rescuing someone and immediately reuniting them with their family, their church, or the media, have real costs. To respect the dignity of the women and the fragility of their situation and their relationship with the broader community really does require enormous sensitivity and resources.

And here, I will just say that the U.S. material support to terrorism laws are a real impediment. And we do need to think about whether really what we mean when we say we don’t want to fund organizations that work closely with terrorists is that we don’t want to help these victims. Is that really what we mean? And if not, how can we fix that?

BIGIO: Now I’d like to open it up to questions. Please raise your placard. When I call on you, please state your name and organization.

Q: Hi, I’m Jim Schear at the Wilson Center. And thank you very much, Undersecretary Sewall, and colleagues, a very illuminating discussion.

At the outset of your remarks, you talked about the separate, multilateral operative piece involving neighboring countries, Chad in particular, which played an important role in Mali earlier on, but you said there were some gaps. And I’m wondering, in terms of the overall regional approaches, are there any lessons to be learned from that? And more broadly, as ISIL/Daesh breaks up in parts of Mina, will there be a return of fighters, or will there be cross-regional movements that will complicate current Nigerian efforts? Thank you.

SEWALL: Thanks. And I want to make sure we bring Reuben in here, too, because his experience at the AU is much deeper than mine in terms of what African military integration looks like.

What I can say is that—I mentioned that for many of these countries, they look at this as a problem that Nigeria failed to solve and that is now transcending borders. The MNJTF process, the multinational force that Reuben worked on, why don’t you just take it? Do you want to talk about the sort of origins of the development of that and then I’ll pick it up?

BRIGETY: Sure. In the interest of time, what I’ll say is that the movement for creating MNJTF was stymied by the pride in Nigeria, particularly under former President Jonathan. So, they would have moved, they would have had it in the field by the summer of 2014 had there not been essentially a desire on the part of the Nigerians to not want this to be seen to need the help of an MNJTF. That has abated, obviously, since then, largely because there was a fair amount of peer pressure from other African heads of state of former President Jonathan to get moving.

And now, I think, as Sarah alluded to, the political conditions are better for working together in the context of the Lake Chad Basin, but there are still challenges. For example, the limitation of the Chadians, the Cameroonians from conducting hot-pursuit operations into Nigerian territory, for example, for all the reasons of sovereignty that we just discussed.

SEWALL: And so, I think, from Chad’s perspective, Chad has a very capable military. And as you noted, it’s been effective in Mali. Some people would argue it’s been—well, that Chad and Cameroon have been the most effective military actors in the region. But Chad can’t even pay its civil servants right now. Chad is in real distress; again, something that’s not really on the international community’s radar. But when I met with President Déby, he said two things. He said, one, I am surrounded by security threats. And yes, I am worried about what’s going to happen, whether it’s in Libya with movements from core ISIL to Libya and whether they’ll follow their roots south to find space on our borders or to link up with Boko Haram, but also, I can’t pay my teachers, I can’t pay my presidential guard. We have no oil revenue anymore now that oil prices have crashed. And they were really a single-revenue-source government.

Now, in the same way that Chad has been able to make significant contributions when they’re covered financially in Mali, they could, I think, be induced to sustain their military operations or possibly expand them if regional funding mechanisms worked out.

But I think Reuben’s fundamental point, which is that this is not—that the MNJTF is not an integrated military effort, it is a coordinated military effort, which means that predominantly people are working within their own borders and that occasionally they coordinate one operation at a time sequentially, not simultaneously, across border operations. But everybody is operating under an economy-of-force principle. And there is an ability to disrupt, but not ability to destroy that’s been evidenced to date.

And so, I think it does remain limited, even though it is—I think it has to be considered progress in the context of what had been absolutely lacking beforehand. And I think—I think Reuben’s exactly right that the Nigerians now recognize that there’s value.

But as I said before and Reuben alluded to, for the Nigerians they want to believe they can handle the threat themselves, and I think that flies in the face of perceptions of a lot of their neighbors and the external community.

Q: Allen Holmes. I had the great pleasure of working with Sarah years ago in the Pentagon. My question goes back to the Stone Ages.

I served in Cameroon right after independence, and there was a lot of conflict there at the time. And I’ve been reading that the Cameroonians have gotten involved in the northern part of the country with this problem. And I’d just like to know what your assessment is of their ability to help. They have had to contend with military strife but also humanitarian reintegration.

And I also understand there is a small cadre, maybe a dozen, special forces people from our forces that are there advising them. I don’t know what effect that is having. But I’d appreciate your comment on whether or not, with a rich past between that part of Nigeria and Cameroon, whether that is a possibility, a source of help.

SEWALL: We have a significant military presence that is helping to coordinate and support with information. And the Cameroonians have, I think, had a more disaggregated approach to the kind of understanding about local community dynamics and the efforts to address them. And so, I think that many people would consider Cameroon to be an interesting exemplar of a slightly different approach than that which is currently being prosecuted by the Nigerians.

Having said that, the pressures now in terms of just the vulnerabilities, in terms of the spread of both the vulnerabilities that come from having an ideological movement operate within your soil and be able to not—I mean, let’s be honest, this is not a question of, converting people to ideology, this is a question of finding common cause with grievance.

And they’re very distinct, but able to play off the specific grievances, that’s one problem. But the other problem is the secondary effects of the conflict more broadly. Trade is down, movement is down, governance is weaker, schools are closed. There’s a second-order effect of the broader problem that then creates greater discontent. And it’s sometimes difficult to know the extent to which it’s a Boko Haram recruitment problem versus feeling even further marginalized than we did before problem. But the trends are not good.

And I think what’s really important to understand is that— the problem is moving, and it is not being shrunk. I think that flies in the face of some of what we hear from Nigeria as they look at it from a Nigerian perspective.

Q: Yeah.

SEWALL: And so I think that for Niger, Chad, and Cameroon, these will be very live issues for the decades to come.

Q: Thank you.

Q: Eric Schmitt with the New York Times.

I was just wondering if you could go over quickly again where you visited and when you were there. And while you were in Maiduguri, did you—were you able to interact at all with the U.S. special forces that I understand are helping to advise the Nigerian military there?

SEWALL: All three?

BIGIO: Yes, all three. Go ahead, yeah.

SEWALL: Can we email you those later? Because then it will be more accurate, and it won’t take all the time.

Q: Sure.

SEWALL: Thanks, Eric.

Q: Hi. I wanted to ask about the component around IDPs and response. What’s the current status of funding from international players, both government or major foundations? Who are the principal funders of response, and are they working more with the federal apparatus or with the governor, as you described?

SEWALL: On the humanitarian side, it won’t surprise you to know that the U.S. is the single-biggest donor. We have provided $366 million for the ongoing crisis, of which a little bit over $100 million has been dedicated for the U.N.’s humanitarian response plan. That plan, I could run through the figures, but again, in the interest of time, I won’t. We’re just far and away the biggest donor. Well, no, I shouldn’t say that. The U.K. has put in $93 million (million dollars). So, U.K. is at $93 million but we’re overall at $366  million but the plan itself is only 25 percent funded.

So, of what we know about the current needs that the U.N. is seeking to address in its appeal, we are not seeing the kind of international response that the U.N. has already identified from relatively limited visibility in that area that’s been peeled back of the current food needs. So, it's still a dire situation. And even though we’ve spent nearly $400 million just on this crisis, the needs are far greater.

Q: Thank you. You described the perfect campaign plan for the Nigerian military and then what their shortfalls are in executing it. I wonder, what would you say is the perfect response from the United States government in terms of what we should be doing to advance our interests, what they are, and what we should be doing, and what are the shortfalls for actually accomplishing it?

SEWALL: Thanks, Jendayi.

The honest answer to your question, Jendayi, is that it is very hard to help a state that doesn’t want help. And so, the federal government, at least on the military side, has set limits that if they move, we’ll move. But right now, our training inputs are relatively minimal. We did a battalion two years ago; we’re working on another battalion now. But in the context of their needs, that’s small-bore. We’re providing intel support, but we can’t actually see what happens to it, and we can’t do more in terms of helping them better plan and allocate the use of resources that they do have. We’d love to do more, and we’ve made that super clear. We can obviously do more in terms of humanitarian response. During my time as undersecretary, I’ve learned that it’s really easy for the U.S. government to come up with another hundred million dollars in an emergency response to help people who are the symptoms of the problem, but it’s really hard for us to find the resources that help address the problem.

And so, right now, we have a small amount of funding through USAID. I think it’s on the order of about $40 million where we’re trying to do things on the ground. And again, if you look at a map, you see this huge map of need, and then you see that we’ve got a program here, we’ve got a program there, and other people have a few programs. But where we’re trying to build ties with government, they need to figure out how to rebuild all these towns that have been razed, first by Boko Haram and then by the military.

I think that the police leadership in Abuja is pretty promising. I think they’re taking training seriously, I think they’re trying to deal with corruption and that they’ve got a deployment plan. But how do you think about the responsibilities of providing security if you’re going to be putting your police in onesies and two-sies that are vulnerable across this huge expanse of land when you know that Boko Haram can surprise an entire company of military forces and kill 200 people, right?

So, the scale of the problem absent a rededication of more security resources, and they do have some police special units, but, again, really small numbers, and they’re not going to have—you just—this is a massive vulnerability problem. And the degree of political risk that the governor in Borno is willing to take I think are significant.

But my own view is that it would be smarter to go slower to ensure security. It would be smarter to move with security as the base in order to prevent Boko Haram. If you pursue a different strategy – such as we’re going to send a bunch of police out, we’re going to get government back in there in a very superficial way, and we’re going to send IDPs back, they’re going to start farming, and then there’s going to be a big Boko Haram attack, and we’re going to look completely feckless. Even though we’ve rolled them north, we can’t provide civilian security. That’s my fear for where this very well-intentioned set of disjointed efforts could lead.

If you’re talking about relocating IDPs, my recommendation to the government would be to pick centers and to do the inkblot out rather than create huge vulnerabilities by trying to do too much too quickly in a diversified fashion. But again, these are national decisions. We can only support them.

There’s not a whole lot of investments to scale. We can do civil society program-building, we can work with women, we can work with youth, we can do that, but it’s a smaller, micro-targeted effort. And the big decisions really do rest with the Nigerians. And so, it is sometimes frustrating as an outsider to look and feel that we’re not necessarily helping in the ways that we would like, but these are ultimately Nigerian decisions. And so, we try to maintain as an intense a dialogue with them about what we see, but we’re there in a support role.

BIGIO: Well, thank you. Please join me in thanking the undersecretary for this fabulous conversation. I thank you all for joining us today.

SEWALL: Thank you very much. 

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