Nigeria risks another embargo on sale of US military hardware over human rights concerns 

By Dele Yusuf

Posted on Monday, 2 August 2021 12:59
An Afghan pilot stands next to A-29 Super Tucano plane similar to those delivered to Nigeria's air force.
An Afghan pilot stands next to A-29 Super Tucano plane similar to those delivered to Nigeria's air force. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

Nigeria’s quest to end a decade-long war against Boko Haram and an additional battle against armed groups (bandits), may have suffered a setback after top US lawmakers reportedly paused approval for further sale of military hardware and attack helicopters due to their concerns over human rights violations in the most populous country in Africa. 

Days after Nigeria received six Super Tucano aircraft whose sale by the United States had been put on hold by the Obama administration over human rights violations, news broke that the US Congress could block approval for the proposed sale of 12 AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters and other military hardware to Nigeria after two top lawmakers withheld their approval for the Department of State to proceed with the deal reportedly worth $875m.

Nigerian Minister of Information Lai Mohammed said there is no pending contract between the two countries, but Foreign Policy cited US government sources and documents as confirming that the US Department of State officially notified Congress of the deal in January while none of the lawmakers mentioned nor the Department of State had responded to an enquiry sent by The Africa Report.

A top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee Michael McCaul is said to have signed off on the proposed sale of the Cobra helicopters, but how far can the approval go?

“The concerns of the US have been about the unwillingness of the Nigerian army to hold human rights abusers accountable and to exercise greater restraint in conducting operations both in the northeast and elsewhere,” says Matthew Page, who had worked with the US Intelligence community as top Nigerian expert at the Department of State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research.

He tells The Africa Report that unlike in the past under Trump, “there is a change of mood with the new administration with increased concerns” on human rights which is now “treated as policy issue”. On their part, US lawmakers are also beginning to “exercise greater control over policy towards Nigeria and Africa under the Biden administration”, he adds.

Human rights situation under Buhari

Annually, the US Department of State releases its country report on human rights practices in Nigeria. The Africa Report reviewed the reports for the last six years under the Buhari administration and found a particular trend of abuse by security agencies and the government.

Over the years, the “significant” violations that frequented the list included:

  • extrajudicial killings;
  • denial of fair public trial;
  • restrictions on freedoms of speech, press, movement and assembly in particular for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people;
  • forced disappearances, torture, and arbitrary detention;
  • life-threatening prison conditions;
  • arbitrary detention by government and non-state actors;
  • criminal libel;
  • political prisoners;
  • serious problems with the independence of the judiciary;
  • trafficking in persons, including sexual exploitation and abuse by security officials;
  • as well as forced and bonded labour.

In the report for 2020, the Department of State remarked that the Nigerian government “took some steps to investigate alleged abuses by police, including the Special Anti-Robbery Squad and military forces, but impunity remained a significant problem”.

“The problem is that of leadership. And where the head is bad, it affects everybody,” Tony Eze, a Lagos-based lawyer, says of the violations committed by Nigerian security forces particularly the police and the now disbanded-anti-robbery squad.

Eze, who monitors proceedings at the Lagos #EndSARS panel on behalf of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), adds that “at a point, SARS (personnel) became almost like demigods; they were above the law. A lot of horrible, atrocious things happened during that period (while SARS lasted).”

Other prominent cases of human rights violations are an offshoot of the fight against insecurity in northern Nigeria, where the dreaded Boko Haram terrorist group is now believed to be working with marauding bandits.

It is either the Buhari administration does not understand how far the lobbying has gone, or they do not care about it, or they do not understand the ramifications of the lobbying.

Amnesty International has documented reports of abuse including extrajudicial killings sex-for-food, illegal torture and detention allegedly committed by the Nigerian military in the northeast where the Boko Haram war has raged for over a decade. There have been at least three reports indicting the military for such crimes, but the response is usually a series of denials and the few times investigations, their reports were never made public.

“There have been a lot of lobbying by Christian-affiliated groups in Nigeria trying to shed light on not just the abuses by security forces but also what is more or less ethnic cleansing. And I think that what we are seeing is the result of this lobbying,” says Joachim MacEbong, Senior Analyst at the Lagos-based SBM Intelligence firm.

“It is either the Buhari administration does not understand how far the lobbying has gone, or they do not care about it, or they do not understand the ramifications of the lobbying.”

More familiar faces in Biden administration means more influence

The Biden administration has also welcomed a number of prominent faces who have deep roots within the human rights community.

After serving as US Assistant Secretary of State for African affairs from 2013 to 2007, Linda Thomas-Greenfield was appointed as the US Ambassador to the United Nations, a position once occupied by Samantha Power, who now serves as administrator of the United States Agency for International Development, the agency responsible for administering development aid to countries in need of support including Nigeria.

According to Page, this crop of individuals understand the human rights problems of the Nigerian military and “will be advising Biden to essentially refrain from approving further military sales to Nigeria”.

There are also at least four other Nigerians in key positions in the Biden-Harris team, including  Funmi Olorunnipa Badejo, an associate White House Counsel; Osaremen Okolo a member of the presidential Covid-19 response team; Enoh Titilayo Ebong, Acting Director of the US Trade and Development Agency (USTDA); and Adewale Adeyemo, the Deputy Treasury Secretary.

What could be the impact on Abuja and the Boko Haram war?

A lot could change with the developing policy direction on human rights from the US, according to MacEbong, who argued that “there would be a significant reset in the US-Nigeria relations” between now and the time Buhari leaves office in 2023.

“There is a less visible but compelling campaign to draw attention to the lives of people being killed. And as that changes, the policies of the US and UK governments towards Nigeria are going to change, so also is the extent that they will go to demand accountability from the Nigerian government,” he adds.

Although Nigeria has grappled with a monstrous Boko Haram sect and bandit groups who operate from forest enclaves from where they have kidnapped about 700 schoolchildren in exchange for ransoms in 2021 alone, Chidi Nwaonu, of London-based Peccavi Consulting security firm focusing on Africa, asks a pertinent question: Are the attack helicopters necessary?

“It is reasonable to question if Nigeria needs additional attack helicopter platforms, and if so, why this one? I would suggest that looking at this solely in terms of providing close air support, more attack helicopters are needed, but it begs the question as to whether more close air support platforms are needed above support helicopters to aid logistics and medical evacuation,” he tells The Africa Report.

Nwaonu also wonders why Nigerian forces rely so heavily on air support to save themselves from violence hotspots or when trapped during clashes instead of better utilising units organic weapons such as machine guns.

He adds: “Our security issues are all on the ground. Air power is a force multiplier but without well-trained, well-led, well-equipped and supported ground forces, air power is meaningless. Thus, the wider question is whether $875m would not be better spent, reforming the Nigerian Army and police and making them more effective.”

Final cut

If Congress withholds approval for further sale of military hardware to Nigeria, there won’t be a way out as US laws make it difficult for the lawmakers to be overruled in such circumstances.

“Under the Buhari government, there has been a backsliding of democracy and respect for human rights and basic civil liberties,” Page says. “Parts of the US government, for example, the US embassy in Abuja, is strongly in favour of selling additional military equipment to the Nigerian government. There are disagreements within the US government over this, but the most senior and more important people are opposed to these sales until the Nigerian army shows the willingness to hold human rights abusers accountable,” he adds.

For Nwaonu, Nigeria may have to reconsider further purchase of arms from the US considering that its policy is “cyclical” but more importantly, that there has been “significant disquiet in the US about the repressive and authoritarian actions in Nigeria in particular the #EndSARS killings and the Twitter ban.”

“Buying US arms ties us to US contracts which means support for a platform or weapons system can be withdrawn, making it redundant,” he says.

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