Boko Haram in Nigeria (NSC)

Educator Overview

Case Overview

Set in February, 2017. Radical Islamist movement Boko Haram is waging an insurgency in northeast Nigeria estimated to have killed at least twenty thousand people in recent years. The insurgency threatens the stability of Nigeria, a major oil producer and Africa’s most populous country. Nigerian security forces have made some progress against Boko Haram, but humanitarian and media organizations have reported extensive human rights abuses by these forces, including the killing of civilians. Nigeria’s president has requested that the United States sell heavy military equipment to the country. However, a U.S. law, called the Leahy Amendment, prohibits military assistance to foreign militaries credibly accused of human rights abuses unless the foreign government takes action—something Nigeria’s government has yet to do. National Security Council (NSC) members need to advise the president on whether to authorize the sale despite legal and human rights concerns.

Decision Point

Despite Nigeria’s military abuses, in 2016, the United States considered selling 12 Super Tucano planes—light aircraft used for surveillance—to Nigeria.  However, on January 17, 2017, the same day the Obama administration planned to notify Congress of the aircraft sale to Nigeria, the Nigerian air force accidentally bombed a refugee camp killing more than 100 people. As a result, in one of his last decisions as U.S. President, Obama stalled the sale of the aircraft to Nigeria. On February 15th, during a telephone call with President Buhari, President Donald Trump indicated that he would take another look at the proposed sale.

The National Security Council (NSC) is meeting to discuss the sale. NSC members need to decide whether Nigeria’s economic and strategic importance to the United States overrides legal and ethical concerns about ongoing human rights abuses. Specifically, the NSC should decide whether to advise the new president to recommit to the sale of the aircraft and/or to consider other forms of military aid in the future. The NSC should also consider whether the prospect of a closer bilateral military relationship could incentivize Nigeria to investigate claims of human rights abuses and take necessary steps to end them.

Learning Goals

CFR Education simulations use a variety of pedagogical tools to create an effective, meaningful, and memorable learning experience for students that builds their global literacy. Students will develop crucial skills such as critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity. Students will complete authentic assessments that feel relevant: instead of five-paragraph essays and book reports, students will write policy memos and participate in a role-play of a meeting of a foreign policy–making body. There are no right or wrong answers in actual policy deliberations, and there are none here, either; students will walk away from this experience with an appreciation for the complexity of policy questions.

In this simulation, students will learn about the National Security Council, as well as meeting these learning outcomes specific to this simulation:

  • Students will understand the threat Boko Haram poses to Nigeria, the surrounding region, and international peace and security.
  • Students will consider whether to provide United States support to the Nigerian government in light of legal and ethical concerns about ongoing human rights violations.
  • Students will evaluate options for providing U.S. authorization for heavy weaponry in a manner that adheres to the Leahy Amendment.

Concepts and Issues



  • U.S.-Nigeria relations
  • Leahy Amendment
  • Nigerian political and religious dynamics  
  • Security sector reform
  • U.S. promotion of human rights, democratization, and the rule of law
  • Regional security in West Africa

Policy Options: Educator's Guide

This section presents context, potential benefits and drawbacks, and other information about the policy options outlined in the case that you may find helpful as you guide the role-play and assess students. 

Policymakers in Washington have usually seen Nigeria as the most important U.S. partner in Africa. Successive U.S. presidents have supported Nigeria’s evolution toward democracy. This support comes not only because of the U.S. belief in democratic governance but also because of Nigeria’s size, diversity, and potential to be a helpful model for other African countries. Democratic failure in Nigeria could be a setback to the development and maintenance of democratic norms that have facilitated cooperation on various issues among many African countries. 

U.S. goals in Nigeria in this case included continued evolution toward democratic governance, rule of law, and respect for human rights. Another U.S. priority was economic development, which would likely promote political stability. In addition, Washington wanted to fight the expansion of militant terrorist movements. The United States has traditionally not had much leverage over the Nigerian government because of Nigeria’s size and oil wealth. Going into 2017, an economic crisis caused by falling oil prices and the threat of Boko Haram could provide Washington with greater negotiating advantage.

The Leahy Amendment forbids the U.S. State and Defense Departments from providing military assistance to foreign militaries if the U.S. secretary of state or defense has credible information that those groups have committed severe human rights violations. Accordingly, three options were possible in responding to Buhari’s request for U.S. authorization to acquire the Super Tucano planes:

NSC members could conclude that U.S. security interests mandate authorizing the sale or transfer of the weapons Buhari requests. 

In this case, National Security Council (NSC) members would need to advise the president on how to either meet or set aside the Leahy Amendment requirements. If the president agreed to Buhari’s request, Washington could press Abuja to set up a commission to investigate credible accusations of abuses by its security forces and take appropriate judicial action. This option would meet the Leahy Amendment’s requirements. It could open the door to a more extensive bilateral military relationship including the sale of more advanced weapons in the future. Addressing human rights abuses by the security services could also diminish Boko Haram’s appeal. But if Abuja declined to take action, it would become more difficult for the United States to provide Nigeria with weaponry. It would also limit Washington’s ability to  build a closer relationship with the country. A public U.S. commitment to provide the requested weaponry could also politically strengthen Buhari’s hand with his critics and boost the Nigerian military’s morale. 

NSC members could conclude that it remains best for the United States to decline Buhari’s request given that the Leahy requirements cannot be met and should not be set aside. 

This option would be the preferred approach if NSC members feared that Nigerian security forces’ using American equipment would lead to significant civilian casualties. Worse, poor management by Nigerian forces could allow the aircraft to fall into the hands of Boko Haram. Further, aircraft require trained pilots. Therefore, any sale of aircraft would likely also require the United States to provide long-term training assistance for Nigerian pilots. It would take a long time between the authorization of the transfer of the weapons and their use on the battlefield. NSC members could conclude that the risks of both giving the weapons to Nigeria and the possible delay in their actually being used outweigh the benefits of agreeing to Buhari’s request. 

NSC members could advise the president to refuse the sale of aircraft and other requested equipment but offer assistance to the Nigerian security forces and legal system, including courts and prisons. 

Anecdotal evidence has suggested that the Nigerian military faced severe shortfalls in the low-tech military equipment necessary for fighting an asymmetric war. The Nigerian military needed more ammunition, rifles, transport, tents, and medical equipment. The United States could provide these items without triggering the requirements of the Leahy Amendment. This option could include training and low-tech military equipment. However, it would not include heavier equipment such as aircraft. This type of assistance would likely actually prove more successful than heavy weapons against Boko Haram. It would also be unlikely to provide the immediate political boost Buhari sought. However, if such assistance helped Nigeria make its military, police force, and courts more professional and efficient, this option could conceivably reduce human rights abuses and pave the way for the United States to approve future requests for heavier military equipment.