Former State Department Official: As Violence Pulls Nigeria Apart, US Focuses on Climate Change

Former State Department Official: As Violence Pulls Nigeria Apart, US Focuses on Climate Change
A man walks past shops burned down by suspected members of the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) during an attack, in the village of Auno, Nigeria, on Feb. 9, 2020. (Audu Marte/AFP via Getty Images)
Douglas Burton

Nigeria, a key U.S. ally, celebrated “Democracy Day” on June 12, the same day a former high-ranking U.S. official warned that the African nation is spiraling into chaos.

“The country is falling apart—if not already,” former Assistant Secretary of State Robert Destro told the online conference Democracy in Peril, sponsored by the International Committee on Nigeria, about the massacres, kidnappings, and ISIS-linked insurgency that have taken more than 60,000 lives, according to multiple sources.

“One of the most sobering things I heard last year in Abuja is that the civil war has already started,” he said in an interview with The Epoch Times, which was his first public review of lessons learned since leaving the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.

“My contacts didn’t say it was a civil war with two sides. They said it was a civil war with everyone against everyone. People will be presumed to be a threat even if they are not because the government is actively encouraging division and discrimination based on ethnic, religious, and regional origins.”

Although the most populous nation in Africa, Nigeria may soon be Africa’s biggest failed state, according to Stephen Enada, co-founder of the International Committee on Nigeria.

By all accounts, Nigerian security forces are stretched thin battling an 11-year insurgency in the country’s northeastern states, a Biafra insurgency in the forests of its southeast, and rampant massacres of citizens in its so-called middle belt states. In addition, polls show that most Nigerians are terrified of being kidnapped for ransom by terrorists or bandits, Destro told the conference.

“A friend told me that the only time he felt safe as a child growing up in Biafra was during the war, when the lines were clearly drawn up and you knew who the enemy was. Today there are many enemies. Nobody is safe,” he told The Epoch Times.

Robert Destro (U.S. State Department)
Robert Destro (U.S. State Department)

After his confirmation in September 2019, Destro was at loggerheads with State Department experts, he told The Epoch Times.

“As I pulled people together, I learned a lot about the bureaucracy and also about the importance of narrative. The operating narrative at State Department is that this is all about climate change. Do we really care about people being massacred? About getting kidnapped and held for ransom? No, what we really care about is climate change—which is a little like saying, ‘We love humanity, it’s just people we can’t stand,’” Destro told the conference.

“Climate change is the metanarrative that makes reliance on facts on the ground unnecessary,” Destro told The Epoch Times. “If herders are invading farmers’ lands, climate change is a convenient way to avoid looking at the economic, ethnic, and religious elements of these conflicts. It’s an easy way to shut off debate, and to mask their unwillingness to address what those who live in constant fear of physical violence consider to be the root causes. Doing so would antagonize the government of President Muhammadu Buhari, whom they prefer to appease.”

Security experts have warned that if Nigeria sinks into a caliphate quagmire, most of West Africa could follow suit. But Destro says he found it difficult to break the metanarrative of the career foreign service officers.

“They don’t want to talk about terrorism. That’s a broader issue involving more than Nigeria. Mozambique is a disaster. The Sahel is the new focus of al-Qaida terrorists. The American people are not being told why this should matter to us,” he said.

“Finding out what actually is happening in every region would be contrary to the farmer-herder narrative accepted in foreign policy circles, both here and abroad. The official position of DOS and USAID is that the whole conflict is between farmers and herders. It’s not about corruption. It’s not about attempts by some ethnic groups to dominate others, or about Muslim farmers taking land held by Christians. And, most importantly, we cannot speak frankly of corruption, which is the foundation of most human rights problems.”

The threat of violence to Nigerian citizens is dire, Destro says.

“The fact that USAID and state programs are fleeing from Nigeria’s Borno State and facing dangers in other places tells an objective observer that the Nigerian federal authorities are failing in their most basic of human rights obligations: to protect physical security. There is no physical security, there is no rule of law, and there is no concern for Nigerians, as people.”

Some critics of U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria Mary Beth Leonard have called for her to answer questions from congressional oversight committees.

“The ambassador should have to testify,” Destro said. “But I think it’s pointless. She will parrot the narrative and bend over backwards to avoid tough questions. Far better would be hearings where recipients of non-health-related foreign assistance must justify, under the Foundations of Evidence-Based Policymaking Act, what the U.S. taxpayers are getting for the billions we’re spending in Nigeria and whether their programming is effective by any measures under the Evidence Act.”

Douglas Burton is a former U.S. State Department official who was stationed in Kirkuk, Iraq. He writes news and commentary from Washington, D.C.
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