Simon Allison, ISS Consultant
Two months ago, a private contractor working for the United States (US) military posted a photograph on Facebook. It was taken at the Salak military base in Cameroon’s far north, where Cameroon’s elite Rapid Intervention Brigade (Brigade d’Intervention Rapide, or BIR) has its headquarters, and where the US military maintains an outpost. An unidentified number of American troops are also stationed there.
According to Amnesty International, which included it in a recent report on war crimes committed in Cameroon’s fight against terrorism, the photograph shows American soldiers playing football at night with their Cameroonian counterparts, all using night-vision goggles to see where the ball is.
It looks like fun.
Visible in the background of the photograph is a small building, known as the DGRE room (named after the Direction Générale de la Recherche Extérieure, Cameroon’s feared intelligence agency). In here, just metres from the makeshift pitch, Amnesty documented the illegal detention and torture of dozens of Cameroonian citizens suspected of involvement with militant group Boko Haram. Victims included underage boys and people with mental and physical disabilities.
Sale (not his real name) told Amnesty what he experienced there in late 2015: ‘In Salak, I was permanently chained up. I was only given one meal per day, and I was tortured at least three times. The first two times, men in plain clothes beat me severely all over my body with electric cables. During torture, they asked me in French to confess that I was a member of Boko Haram. The third time, they beat me with a wooden plank and a chain as they tried to force me to eat pork. I am Muslim and I don’t eat pork so I refused, and I was tortured. They beat me several times with the wooden plank, which had a nail stuck into it. I was beaten everywhere, especially on my legs and ankles. I received so many blows that I passed out.’
American soldiers, who had already established a presence in Salak at that time, would have been close enough to hear Sale scream.
‘We can’t be 100% sure that Americans were aware of the torture. But our evidence demonstrates that at Salak these practices occur in places that are accessible and can be visible to US and other foreign personnel,’ said Ilaria Allegrozzi, Amnesty International’s lead researcher on the report, titled Cameroon’s Secret Torture Chambers.
In follow-up reporting, The Intercept and research firm Forensic Architecture detailed the scale of US involvement in Salak, and in Cameroon more generally. ‘Over the last decade, the United States has devoted hundreds of millions of dollars to Cameroon (more than $111 million in security assistance since 2015) while training its elite military force and providing everything from arms to humanitarian aid to development assistance.’
The Intercept quotes the US Ambassador to Cameroon, Michael Hoza, praising the conduct of the BIR – but from even before the latest Amnesty report, the BIR has been repeatedly implicated in human rights abuses. ‘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.’
For long-time observers of the military footprint of the US in Africa, these revelations come as little surprise. Although rarely getting its own hands dirty, the US has been repeatedly accused of funding various African security forces responsible for horrific human rights violations, and of turning a blind eye to war crimes.
Take for example Kenya, where the US continues to fund security forces to the tune of tens of millions of dollars a year (in the 2016 financial year, it was at least $120 million). This comes despite repeated reports of alleged extrajudicial executions, abductions and torture committed by those forces.
Or take South Sudan, where in 2016 Barack Obama’s administration re-issued a special waiver allowing it to fund South Sudan’s army despite widespread evidence that child soldiers were being conscripted by government forces.
Or take Nigeria, whose armed forces get US training, arms and cash despite the US State Department’s own findings in a 2016 human rights report that Nigeria’s security services perpetrated extra-judicial killings, and engaged in torture, rape, arbitrary detention, mistreatment of detainees and destruction of property.
On public stages, American officials regularly pay lip service to the ideal of protecting human rights, and domestic legislation prohibits funding or training foreign militaries implicated in human rights violations, but the country’s track record in Africa tells a different story.
This is a mistake, on several levels.
Most obviously, it is a violation of the basic rights of the people who are victims of these human rights abuses – the tortured, the murdered, the kidnapped. It is also a violation of the US’s legal obligations under both international and its own domestic law – never mind the domestic laws of the countries where these abuses take place.
But even more significantly, perhaps, the US’ tacit endorsement of the human rights abuses committed by Cameroonian security forces, and elsewhere in Africa, is also a strategic mistake. Research by the Institute for Security Studies has repeatedly detailed how violating human rights is a major driver of radicalisation, which makes it an ineffective counter-terrorism policy.
By turning a blind eye to abuses in Cameroon, the US is only likely to worsen the terrorism problem in the region.
This is not a lesson for the US alone. The Cameroonian government needs to investigate these abuses, and put a stop to them; and France, which also has a close military relationship with Cameroon, must be cognisant that its own counter-terrorism efforts in Africa are fatally undermined by the extensive torture and illegal detentions uncovered by Amnesty.
But the lesson is especially relevant for the US, given its expanding – and largely secretive – military presence on the continent, as reported on extensively by journalist Nick Turse.
While American soldiers are playing night-vision football on torture bases, it’s time for the US to open its eyes to what is happening right in front of them – or risk losing the war on terror in Africa, with Africans left to deal with the consequences.