Interview with Ambassador John Campbell

John Campbell served as US Ambassador to Nigeria from 2004 to 2007. He visited St Andrews in late October 2013 to deliver a lecture on the Boko Haram, the militant Islamist group active in Nigeria, as an invitee of the International Political Association and the Foreign Affairs Society. He sat down with the Foreign Affair Review’s Hannah Cope for this interview.  If you enjoy reading this piece, be sure to listen to the full-length audio at the bottom of the page.

HC: Human Rights Watch suggests that oil revenues, rather than improving quality of life for average Nigerians has served to fuel political violence and corruption, police abuse, and other human rights violations. Do you agree with this claim?

Image courtesy of, © 2013, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of, © 2013, some rights reserved.

JC: Most observers would agree with that to a greater or lesser extent and moving the emphasis around depending on the circumstances you are talking about.

HC: Do you think this has implications for the Nigerian government’s ability to combat Boko Haram and protect its citizens?

JC: Absolutely it does. It’s a case where for a good many in northern Nigeria, the face of the Abuja government is essentially security force brutality. In other words, you end up with a particularly profound alienation of the people in the north from the Abuja government.

HC: I’ve read also that the most effective in combatting Boko Haram’s have been local groups…

JC: Hard to know. You’re talking about the so-called civilian J.T.F. (Joint Task Force). It’s remarkable how little we know about the situation in northern Nigeria, very little press, no diplomatic visits. Cell phone coverage down, even radio telephones down. We literally don’t know. Where does the civilian J.T.F. come from? Again, we don’t know. However, in the run-up to elections, it is quite common in Nigeria for politicians to recruit their own muscle. So, is that the origin for some of these civilian J.T.F.’s? Who knows, but it’s at least plausible. Secondly, the civilian J.T.F. are operating essentially as vigilantes. They are saying to the J.T.F., X is a member of Boko Haram or Y or Z. That’s practically a death sentence for those people so identified. That means a possibility for score settling, other extraneous factors to come into play. I think we have to be careful about seeing the civilian J.T.F. as a manifestation of people feeling that they’ve had enough. Some of them perhaps, others perhaps not.

HC: If President Goodluck Jonathan is re-elected in 2015, what would that mean?

JC: It’s a case of a rock and a hard place. The northern disaffection will almost certainly increase if Jonathan runs again and as I say wins, which is almost inevitable. But if he doesn’t run again and if he is seen as being blocked from running by either domestic or international forces, his supporters in the Delta have threatened to blow the place up.

HC: Do you think his continued leadership will help the efforts against Boko Haram be more effective or do you think there is a different tactic that should be pursued?

JC: Well I don’t think the current campaign against Boko Haram is successful at all. And as you know, whenever you are dealing with an insurrection, if a government doesn’t win it loses.

HC: There have been accusations that high-ranking officials have links to Boko Haram. Is this alarmism or an accurate description of the situation?

JC: It’s back to our dearth of information. The only thing I can say is that the accusations are plausible. But they are very difficult to prove either one way or another.

HC: It seems that the dearth of information is not necessarily standard. They’ve made an effort to tell the media that it’s for their own good that they cannot come. Is this propaganda or is this a standard way of the government protecting people?

JC: I think what happened was that earlier reports from various human rights organizations made people in the Nigerian defense establishment really mad. They also think that fundamentally, it’s unfair. And so in a rather crude and heavy-handed way they responded in this way.

HC: According to many reports, Boko Haram’s activities prior to 2009 were not decidedly violent. Was this your experience?

JC: Broadly speaking, that’s true but even while I was there as ambassador, there was murder that looks to me now as if it was perpetrated by Mohammad Yusuf’s followers. The rhetoric was anti-Western, but that anti-Western rhetoric has never been translated into action against a specifically Western institution, one possible exception is some people see the attack on the UN headquarters in Abuja, although I myself think there are a great many unanswered questions about that. In any event, the UN headquarters are not seen as a specifically western institution rather an institution that is associated with the Nigerian government, which all along has been the principal focus of the wrath of Boko Haram.

HC: There has been discussion of Boko Haram developing ties with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Do you think this is a real possibility?

JC: I think that Boko Haram is overwhelmingly of indigenous Nigerian origins, I don’t think it needs money from abroad. It funds itself through bank robberies and that kind of thing and you don’t need much money to run a terrorist organisation so I don’t think we need to look there.

HC: Do you see Nigeria’s recent election to the Security Council influencing its approach to fighting Boko Haram and its management of its security forces?

JC: I don’t think it has any impact at all on Boko Haram. It may have an impact on any international effort to call the Nigerian security forces to book. Nigeria would be in a very good position to block any security council action in that direction. But this again is highly hypothetical. I basically don’t think it has any impact. It is irrelevant to accountability. Nigeria often serves on the Security Council, nothing unusual about that.

HC: Human Rights Watch accused Nigerian security forces of extra judicial killings and failing to carry out fair and open trials such as in the case of Mohammad Yusuf. Can you describe how an American diplomat would balance the country’s friendship with Nigeria with the need to uphold human rights?

JC: Well essentially what one would do is push the Nigerians to live up to their own law. In other words these killings are extrajudicial. They are crimes in the Nigerian legal system. Of the thousands of people who have died over the past decade or so in ethnic or religious conflicts, very, very few—actually no more than a handful—have gone through that full judicial process. So what diplomatic friends in Nigeria can do is press the Nigerians to in fact carry out their own law.

HC: The US-Nigerian relationship has strengthened in the last 15 years or so. In your view, what are the most important aspects of this partnership for each country?

JC: I would say that the relationship strengthened in the aftermath of the death of the last dictator and Nigeria’s adoption of democratic forms if not necessarily democratic substance. The relationship was based on shared diplomatic and political goals in Africa. Also on the fact that the Nigerians were willing to provide peacekeepers for the UN and other multi-lateral organizations, particularly in places we could not, such as Darfur. And of course, there was oil. Now the question is, whether that close relationship will be challenged by the increasing reports of human rights abuses conducted by the Nigerian security forces in Nigeria, which apparently both President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry have raised with the Nigerians.

HC: You served as the U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria from 2004-2007, a time when the US was not particularly popular internationally. Can you speak to your experience representing the United States abroad during that time?

JC: It was [popular] in Nigeria. Polling data indicated that in the predominantly Christian southern part of the country, the approval rates for the United States were almost 90%. In the northern, Muslim parts of the country, [the approval rating was] no more than 27% so a big difference between the South and the North. And while I was ambassador I put a particular emphasis on the North. I was particularly concerned to highlight northern Nigerian cultural achievements.

HC: In general what would the main priorities of the US-Nigeria relationship be going forward?

JC: The difficulty is that Nigeria was extremely and very constantly involved in peacekeeping exercises. It’s had to withdraw from that because it needs so many troops in the North. For example it has reduced its contingent that it sent to Mali. It’s reduced its forces in Darfur. Its ability to play a major diplomatic and security role in Africa is much reduced by the domestic challenges that it faces.