United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson brought his truncated maiden Africa trip to a close on Monday, promising the full backing of his country to Nigeria and Chad, on the frontline of the war on terror.
Washington’s top diplomat has been on a five-country tour of east and west Africa but was forced to cut short his visit “due to demands in (his) schedule”, the State Department said.
After stops in Ethiopia, Djibouti and Kenya, which were overshadowed by US President Donald Trump’s surprise announcement on talks with North Korea, he squeezed visits to Chad and Nigeria into just one day.
Before returning to Washington, Tillerson notably promised Nigeria support ranging from equipment to intelligence to help secure the swift release of 110 schoolgirls kidnapped last month by Boko Haram jihadists.
The students were taken from their state-run school in Dapchi, in the northeastern state of Yobe, on February 19. Nothing has been heard from them since.
The abduction brought back painful memories of the kidnapping of 276 girls from Chibok in April 2014 that sparked global outrage and calls for their release, led by then-first lady Michelle Obama.
The Dapchi abduction has yet to garner such support.
Tillerson called it “heartbreaking” and added: “Nigeria has the United States’ full support and we are actively working with our partners in what we can to assist you in this fight.”
Washington was already “very engaged” with Nigeria and its neighbours “in supporting, equipping and training” as well as advising and providing information.
“I think that’s the best way we can help the government of Nigeria secure the release these girls, which we hope will be done in a peaceful manner,” he added.
“We hope something can be worked out and they (Boko Haram) can be persuaded to release these girls quickly. That’s what we pray.”
– Talks not force –
Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari benefitted at the polls in 2015 from his predecessor’s handling of the aftermath of Chibok.
But Dapchi and persistent suicide bombings and raids in the northeast have raised questions about the extent of his repeated claim the jihadists are on the verge of defeat.
The United States has agreed to sell Nigeria 12 Super Tucano A-29 ground attack aircraft in a $593 million deal, which the country’s foreign minister Geoffrey Onyeama said on Monday would be a “game-changer”.
The Obama administration blocked the sale on human rights grounds.
Buhari’s office said the president asked Tillerson for further support in terms of training and equipment, without elaborating.
It also said in a statement that Buhari had “chosen negotiation” to secure the return of the Dapchi schoolgirls rather than the use of military force.
“We are trying to be careful. It is better to get our daughters back alive,” he was quoted as saying.
Buhari is expected to visit Yobe state this week.
– Travel ban –
Tillerson arrived in Abuja from N’Djamena, where he said Washington supported the fight by the so-called G5 Sahel countries against jihadists in the volatile Saharan region.
Chad was an “important partner” in fighting terrorism, Tillerson told a news conference.
Chad last year was stunned to find itself on one of six Muslim-majority countries whose countries are affected by President Donald Trump’s travel ban.
The US military has a drone unit at the N’Djamena airport, Washington backs a multinational force fighting Boko Haram jihadists, helps train Chadian troops and provides military equipment to its armed forces, according to a Chadian military official.
Tillerson said he wanted “to ensure that the people of Chad understand they are welcome in the United States” and argued the country’s inclusion on the list “has never harmed in any way whatsoever the cooperation between our two countries.”
Progress had been made with dealing with what has been cited as the reason for including Chad on the list — problems with its passports, which are not biometric.
He said steps were being taken “to allow us to begin to normalise the travel relationship with Chad”.