U.S. intelligence gathering aircraft are said to be flying over remote areas of north-east Nigeria as part of an international hunt for the more than 200 schoolgirls kidnapped a month ago by Boko Haram militants.
“We have shared commercial satellite imagery with the Nigerians and are flying manned ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) assets over Nigeria with the government’s permission,” Reuters quoted State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
Drones are expected to increase the chances of monitoring and tracking the movements of members of Boko Haram, and the location of the girls abducted from a secondary school in Chibok, northeastern Nigeria, on April 14.
Once a concept as exotic as solar-powered cars, drones are increasingly high on the shopping list of African leaders.
Nigeria and Ethiopia have purchased small fleets of drones to track militants and pirates, according to a recent report by Drew Hinshaw of the Wall Street Journal who cited air force officials in Nigeria and the U.S. as sources. Last year, the U.S. agreed to give eight small drones to Kenya to monitor al Qaeda-backed rebels there, according to Pentagon documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.
Two U.S. Air Force officials told Hinshaw they were approached by Botswana for drones to track their endangered population of elephants.
But ”Africa’s entry into drone surveillance also has raised legal and human rights questions. The laws in most African countries provide citizens with scant legal protection in the types of images the government can capture, how they can be used and who can have access to them,” Hinshaw cautioned.
Justice and human rights group Reprieve is also campaigning against the increasing use of drone strikes. A spokesman wrote: “General Atomics should stop supplying (drones) to those agencies which use them to carry out illegal strikes which have killed hundreds of civilians.”
“We’re in kind of a legal limbo,” Research Director Emmanuel Kwesi Aning at the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre in Accra, Ghana, told Hinshaw. “Nobody is discussing it. It shows the backwardness and the naivety of our partners.”
In countries like Nigeria, there are human rights concerns, too, Hinshaw observed. “The lead army unit there, called the Joint Task Force, is accused of burning down entire villages, killing civilians, and torturing prisoners to death. Nigerian generals deny those reports, which they say are propaganda spread by terrorists to discredit their army.
The U.S. government is forbidden under what’s called the Leahy Law from providing training or equipment to foreign security forces including Nigeria’s Joint Task Force (JTF) who commit gross human rights abuses such as rape, torture and murder. “And yet the U.S. Air Force legally can and does advise the Nigerian air force, whose plane-gathered intelligence winds up in the hands of JTF troops.”
“We regularly stress to our partners in Africa the importance of respecting human rights,” said an emailed statement to the Wall St. Journal from the U.S. State Department on that assistance.