US lawmakers are holding down a proposed sale of attack helicopters to Nigeria, citing poor human rights record of President Muhammadu Buhari’s government, as it grapples with multiple security crises.
The deal, according to US officials and congressional aides familiar with the matter is worth $875 million.
The lawmakers on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, according to a report reviewed by Foreign Policy magazine, have reportedly delayed clearing a proposed sale of 12 AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters and accompanying defence systems to the Nigerian military, citing the drift of the present government in Nigeria towards authoritarianism and human rights violations, among others.
But the Presidency in a swift reaction, said Nigeria will get every necessary assistance it wants from the US government.
This came as UK parliamentarians, including Founder/CEO of Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust, HART, Baroness Cox, Lord Alton of Liverpool, Dr. Rowan Williams, Founder/ President, Mervyn Thomas CMG and CEO, International Organisation for Peace and Social Justice, Ayo Adedoyin, wrote a letter to the Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, expressing concerns that recent Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, FCDO, report on human rights and democracy didn’t list Nigeria as a priority country.
Their concerns stemmed from the fact that Nigeria was excluded, despite daily reports of terrorist violence, mass forced displacement, rise in abductions for ransom and a general backsliding on democratic practices.
Sales of other arms also blocked
Aside stopping the sale of helicopters, the US lawmakers have also stood against the proposed sale of 28 helicopter engines produced by GE Aviation, 14 military-grade aircraft navigation systems made by Honeywell, and 2,000 advanced precision kill weapon systems — laser-guided rocket munitions, according to information sent by the State Department to Congress.
The report said behind-the-scenes controversy over the proposed arms sale illustrates a broader debate among Washington policymakers over how to balance national security with human rights objectives.
The hold on the sale also showcases how powerful US lawmakers want to push the Biden administration to rethink US relations with Nigeria amid overarching concerns that Buhari is drifting toward authoritarianism as his government is besieged by multiple security challenges, including the Boko Haram insurgency.
Western governments and international human rights organisations have ramped up their criticisms of the Buhari’s government, particularly in the wake of its ban on Twitter, systemic corruption issues, and the Nigerian military’s role in deadly crackdowns on #EndSARS protesters last October.
US Senate calls on its govt to rethink ‘engagement’ with Nigeria
Chairperson of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Bob Menendez, called for a “fundamental rethink of the framework of our overall engagement” with Nigeria during a Senate hearing with US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken in June.
Both Menendez and Sen. Jim Risch, a top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, have placed a hold on the proposed arms sale, according to multiple US officials and congressional aides familiar with the matter, who spoke to Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity.
The details on the proposed sale were first sent by the US State Department to Congress in January before then-former Vice President Joe Biden was inaugurated as president, according to officials familiar with the matter.
Nigeria has just received six out of the 12 Tucano jet fighters purchased from the US government.
Some experts said the United States should hit the pause button on major defence sales until it makes a broader assessment of the extent to which corruption and mismanagement hobble the Nigerian military and whether the military is doing enough to minimize civilian casualties in its campaign against Boko Haram and other violent insurrectionists.
Administration officials say they are tired of regular efforts by Capitol Hill to review arms
“There doesn’t have to be a reason why we don’t provide weapons or equipment to the Nigerian military,” said Judd Devermont, director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank.
“But it has to be done with an assessment of how it will actually, one, change the direction of conflict in Nigeria, and, two, that they will use it consistent with our laws. In both cases, it’s either a question mark or a fail.”
‘Nigeria’ll get anything it needs from US’
In its reaction yesterday, the Presidency said Nigeria would get every necessary assistance it wants from the US government.
A Presidency source who pleaded anonymity, said Nigeria and the US government had no problems, adding that the two countries had a good relationship.
The source said: “This whole issue of procuring attack helicopters started during former President Goodluck Jonathan’s era. There is this Leahy Laws which is US human rights laws that prohibit the US Department of State and Department of Defense from providing military assistance to foreign security force units that violate human rights with impunity.
“Under President Muhammadu Buhari, when former President Obama was in power, he decided to be flexible with the Leahy laws and that is why some equipment have been sold to Nigeria.
“Nigeria government under Buhari has no problem with the US government, we are getting every cooperation we need. The US congress will do its constitutional duties, but I am assuring you that we will get everything and every assistance we need from the US government.”
‘Culture of impunity’
Also reacting to the development, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, Anietie Ewang, said: “There is a culture of impunity that exists around abuses by the military.”
Ewang cited the Nigerian military’s killing of protesters during the #EndSARS protests against police brutality last year as well as cases documented by human rights organizations of abuses in the military’s campaign against Boko Haram.
“I’m sure it’s a difficult situation. There are so many conflicts springing up across the country now.
“The authorities, I presume, are trying to do the best they can to save lives and properties but this must be done in accordance with human rights standards. You can’t throw one out just to be able to achieve the other,’’ he said.
‘US must temper justice with mercy’
Also reacting yesterday, a security expert, Mr Mathew Ibadin, recalled:
“ This was the same thing that happened during President Goodluck Jonathan’s tenure. The United States ensured no ammunition was given to him to fight Boko Haram. So I think this is playing out again.
“This is because when there are violations sometimes, the power other countries have is either to sanction or deny the concerned country access to weapons. But the truth is, when two elephants fight, the grass suffers. Our people are being killed every day, our mothers are being raped, our children cannot go to school because they are being kidnapped. In fact, many of them are still inside the bush.
“Therefore, I will appreciate if the United States of America tempers justice with mercy because the people who are actually being attacked are not government officials. Rather, they are vulnerable citizens who have no hope, they have no voice and they are defenseless.
“I will appeal to the American government to, as a matter of urgency, allow Nigeria to purchase the attack helicopters so they can defend the vulnerable who are already in captivity.
“It takes a man who has already been kidnapped to talk about insecurity. I don’t wish our fathers or mothers to be victims of kidnappers. Kidnapping is like a death penalty, it is one of the greatest curses to mankind.
“There are other ways you can sanction governments who are not following due process in terms of valuation. But to defend the citizens , I think they have to look into it and let us have what it takes to defend the people who are already vulnerable,” Ibadin said.
Security expert, Mr Mathew Ibadin, recalled that “ This was the same thing that happened during President Goodluck Jonathan’s tenure. The United States ensured no ammunition was given to him to fight BOko Haram. So I think this is paying out again.
“ This is because when there are violations sometimes, the power other countries have is either to sanction or deny the concerned country access to weapons.
But the truth is, when two elephants fight, the grass suffers. Our people are being killed every day, our mothers are being raped , our children cannot go to school because they are being kidnapped. Infact many of them are still inside the bush.
“Therefore, I will appreciate it if the United States of America tampers justice with mercy because the people who are actually being attacked are not government officials. Rather, they are vulnerable citizens who have no hope, they have no voice and they are defenseless.
“I will appeal to the American government to, as a matter of urgency, allow Nigeria to purchase the attack helicopters so that they can defend the vulnerable who are already in captivity.
“It takes a man who has already been kidnapped to talk about insecurity. I don’t wish our fathers or mothers to be victims of kidnappers. Kidnapping is like a death penalty, it is one the greatest curse to mankind.
“There are other ways you can sanction governments who are not following due process in terms of valuation. But to defend the citizens , I think they have to look into it and let us have what it takes to defend the people who are already vulnerable,’’ stated Ibadin.
‘Foreign countries deciding national interest for Nigeria’
Also reacting, former Assistant Director, Department of State Services, DSS, and President of the Security Strategic Group, Mr Dennis Amachree, said: “The senators of the Foreign Relations Committee of United States are pausing the sale of the 12 AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters to Nigeria, to force us to create a balance between national security and citizen’s human rights.
‘’Recall that the sale of the A-29 Super Tucano aircraft was also put on pause by the Obama administration until the Trump administration gave the go-ahead.
“The major issue now is how the Nigerian government will do a quick review of its human rights posture and how it tallies with Nigeria’s national interest. Of great importance is for the country to spell out what its national interests are.
“Without this, foreign countries, especially the United States, will be defining it for us, in terms of their national interests.”
Nigerians at mercy of non-state actors — British parliamentarians
Meanwhile, some members of the House of Lords in the United Kingdom have written a letter to the Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, protesting the exclusion of Nigeria in the FCDO report, inspite of the activities of non-state actors, such as insurgents, bandits, among others, which have put the country’s security at risk.
The letter, titled ‘’Nigeria at the mercy of non-state actors: Urgent letter to Dominic Raab from Baroness (Caroline) Cox, Lord (Rowan), Willams, Lord (David) Alton, Mervyn Thomas CMG and Ayo Adedoyin, read: ‘’The recent FCDO Report on Human Rights and Democracy does not list Nigeria as a priority country, despite daily reports of terrorist violence, mass forced displacement, the rise in abductions for ransom and a general backsliding on democratic practices.
“Nigerian citizens are currently at the mercy of non-state actors who have been allowed to evolve and now have the capacity to shoot down a fighter jet, as has recently occurred in Kaduna State.
‘’Given the scale and depth of suffering, we would be very grateful if you could respond to each of the following urgent concerns: Violations of freedom of religion or belief. We are encouraged by your broad commitment to reduce levels of violence in Nigeria. ‘’We also share your deep concern over the continuation of terrorist attacks against Muslims and Christians in the north-east. We are disappointed, however, by your characterisation of violence in the Middle Belt, which is among the country’s gravest security challenges and deserving of a robust response.
‘’We urge the UK to allocate humanitarian aid to the Middle Belt, in addition to UK aid to the north-east. While you commit to ‘continue to look at ways to address’ the complex drivers of violence in the Middle Belt, it remains unclear whether this includes addressing the religious dimension – particularly as religious affiliation is instrumentalised increasingly to recruit or inspire violent acts,1 and predominantly-Christian communities are attacked for reasons connected with their faith.
‘’The FCDO report refers to violence by the same non-state actors in the north-east and the Middle Belt, with no mention of targeted attacks largely against Hausa Muslim communities in the north-west, Igbo communities in the south-east and Yoruba communities in the southwest.
‘’The report also fails to cite the seminal two-year-long inquiry by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on International FoRB, published in June 2020, which describes in detail violations of Freedom of Religion or Belief, and which poses the question whether genocide is unfolding in Nigeria.
“Case study: #ENDSARS protests. There are now widespread concerns that human rights violations take place with a degree of official complicity and that the Nigerian government only occasionally investigate or prosecute those responsible for such crimes.
‘’The government gives the unfortunate impression of being as quick to pardon, rehabilitate and release ‘repentant’ terrorists as to harass and shoot protesters who make legitimate calls for justice and reform in a peaceful manner.
‘’The FCDO report claims that, as the #ENDSARS protests grew in number, ‘there were some clashes between protesters and the Nigerian security services, including the police and army’.
‘’There were no clashes between #ENDSARS protestors and security services. Rather, thugs appear to have been sent to attack the protestors, while the security forces consistently used excessive force, even prior to the killings at the Lekki Toll Gate.
“Footage showed these thugs damaging property and attacking civilians. There is also video evidence of police shooting at individuals in Sabon Gari, the Christian district of Kano City, to terrorise residents at night.
“You will be aware of efforts within Nigeria to give #ENDSARS protest in the north a religious coloration so as to rally Muslim communities against the protests, who would otherwise have taken part.
‘’Northern governors later attempted to rebrand the legitimate protests as insurrections aimed at toppling President Buhari, which he himself recently stated on film.
‘’Other notable omissions: We understand that the FCDO’s annual report can only provide a snapshot of the most grievous violations of human rights, but it is a serious concern that it does not refer to any of the following cases: The beheading of eleven Christian hostages by ISWAP on Christmas Day 2019.
‘’The execution of the chair of the Christian Association of Nigeria in Adamawa State, Reverend Lawan Andimi, by the Abubakar Shekau faction of Boko Haram on January 20, 2020.
‘’The profiling by ISWAP of travellers who are intercepted in the north-east, targeting Christians, people from Plateau State, members of the security services and humanitarian aid workers.
‘’The case of Leah Sharibu, who remains in captivity. The arbitrary arrest and detention of Professor Richard Solomon Musa Tarfa, co-founder of orphanages for vulnerable children in Kano and Kaduna states, and the removal of these children to a government-run home in Kano with no access to education or to establishments of the religion or belief of their choice.
‘’The sentencing of a 13-year-old boy to ten years imprisonment and menial labour on blasphemy charges by a Sharia court in Kano State; and the death sentence handed to a musician who was deemed to commit blasphemy for a song he circulated via WhatsApp.
‘’The harassment of Dr Obadiah Mailafia, former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, who faced a six-hour interrogation session for sounding the alarm about the violence in Nigeria in general and Southern Kaduna in particular, which is evolving in line with his warnings.
‘’We and others have raised many of these urgent concerns with you, Nigel Adams and Catriona Laing on numerous occasions, especially since 2015.
‘’Yet we have received no assurance of a shift in UK foreign policy to reflect the urgency of the crisis, while successive FCDO reports have failed to reflect the critical decline in security that is causing seasoned observers increasingly to refer to Nigeria as a failing or failed state.
‘’We, therefore, urge you to re-consider how the FCDO could shine a light on the erosion of human rights and democracy in Nigeria. We urge you to list Nigeria as a priority country.’’