BIDEN FACES NIGERIA CRISIS
By Daniel Volman*
13 March 2023
*Daniel Volman is the Director of the African Security Research Project in Washington, DC, and a specialist on U.S. military policy toward Africa and African security issues.
President Biden faces three simultaneous crises in his policy toward Nigeria in the aftermath of the elections on Saturday, 25 February, when 24 million Nigerians voted in national elections. Now, following the election of Bola Tinubu as president, they are all coming to a head.
First, Washington’s efforts over the past twelve years to get the Buhari government to end or reduce official corruption in Nigeria, to end or reduce state violence against civilians (especially women and children) and non-violent demonstrators, to contain or defeat jihadi insurgencies, and to reform the economy have completely failed.
The government is still completely corrupt. The military and other internal security forces have killed peaceful demonstrators, forced women to have abortions, and murdered children with impunity. Jihadi insurgents in northern Nigeria have suffered serious casualties, but the conflict continues unabated. The economy is in shambles as oil prices (the source of almost all government revenue) continue to fluctuate and oil production levels continue to fall, a chaotic currency exchange, and the previous government of President Buhari chose not to invest oil revenues in the development of the economy. Nothing that the Biden administration has done has made any difference.
Second, the government’s conduct of the election on 25 February, the violence that occurred during the polling, and the associated currency crisis, have only made the situation worse.
Third, members of Congress are stepping up their efforts to block future US arms deliveries to Nigeria.
Over the past six years, US has sold more than $1.6 billion worth of weaponry and other military equipment to Nigeria ($593 million for 12 A-29 Super Tucano counter-insurgency aircraft and $1 billion for 12 AH-1Z Cobra helicopter gunships). In 2015, the Obama administration agreed to sell 12 A-29 Super Tucano counter-insurgency aircraft) to Nigeria. Congress was officially notified of the deal by the Trump administration in 2017 and the warplanes were delivered by the Biden administration in 2021.
“I would also like to thank you again through—thank the Government of the U.S. for the cooperation on security, which has been very important to us,’ Nigerian Vice President Yemi Osinbajo told U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken at the Aso Rock Presidential Villa in Abuja on 18 November 2021, during Blinken’s visit to Nigeria. “The Super Tucanos have been delivered, and of course,” he added, “we’re looking forward to the [attack] helicopters as well.”
As Nigerian Foreign Minister Geoffry Onyeama put it, the Biden administration has been “supportive in the security area, provided a Super Tucano aircraft.” And while “we have a slight issue with some attack helicopters,” he declared, “that’s more on the legislative side and not on the executive side.”
In his response, Secretary Blinken made no mention of US arms sales to Nigeria. However, Blinken did assert that the United States did “very much appreciate as well the security cooperation that we’re developing and making sure that we do it in a comprehensive way that puts our concerns about people first and foremost in what we’re doing.”
But events in Nigeria have provoked increasing resistance from US legislators to the sale of combat aircraft to Nigeria and have put the helicopter gunship deal in jeopardy. In 2017, US Senators Cory Brooker (D-New Jersey) and Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), both members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, released a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urging that the sale of the A-29s be postponed until Nigeria demonstrated progress in investigating several incidents in which its security forces had killed hundreds of civilians. They stated that “we are concerned that the decision to proceed with this sale will empower the government of Nigeria to backtrack even further on its commitments to human rights, accountability, and upholding international humanitarian law, which in turn could spur greater unrest and violence, particularly in the northeastern part of the country.”
They went on to declare, “there is evidence that the Nigerian military routinely flouts the laws of war and there remains an absence of adequate safeguards and accountability mechanisms. This means that the Tucano aircraft could be used in a manner inconsistent with international human rights and humanitarian law—and that ultimately helps to strengthen Boko Haram.” Therefore, “we believe proceeding without any clear indication of progress from the Nigerian government on the protection of human rights and enforcement of accountability would run contrary to our national security objectives.” However, Congress took no action during the 30-day period legally mandated for it to review the sale. A State Department official then confirmed that the arms deal “has completed the congressional notification process, and we are currently working to finalize the proposed sale with the Nigerian government.”
The sale of 12 AH-1Z helicopter gunships has proven even more contentious, particularly since the Republican Party won control of the US House of Representatives in the 2022 midterm elections.
In July 2021, the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House Foreign Affairs Committee put a hold on the sale of helicopter gunships in response to the massacre of peaceful protesters at a demonstration against SAR in Lagos in October 2020. In April 2022, the Biden administration announced that it would ignore congressional concerns and approve the sale on the dubious grounds that “the proposed sale will support the foreign policy goals and national security objectives of the United States by improving the security of a strategic partner in Sub-Saharan Africa.”
In December 2022, Reuters published two reports on its investigation of major human rights violations by the Nigerian military. In the first, it reported that Nigerian security forces have murdered thousands of children captured during military operations against jihadi insurgents. Babies, infants, and young children were executed because they were believed to be child soldiers or the children of insurgents. In the second, it reported that since at least 2013, the Nigerian military had conducted a secret, systematic, and illegal abortion program that ended at least 10,000 pregnancies among women and girls. Many of them had been kidnapped and raped by jihadi insurgents.
In reaction, US Senator Jim Risch (R-Idaho), the ranking Republican member of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote to Secretary of State Antony Blinken to request a review of US security assistance to Nigeria. Risch also called for the State Department to examine the potential use of American sanctions against Nigeria for its violence against women and children. “I look forward to hearing more about the Department’s planned response to the serious and abhorrent allegations levied against a long-standing beneficiary of US security assistance and cooperation which, if deemed credible, have done irreparable harms to a generation of Nigerian citizens and to US credibility in the region,” Risch said in his letter to Blinken.
In February 2023, two members of the US House Foreign Affairs Committee, Representatives Sara Jacobs (D-California) and Chris Smith (R-New Jersey), sent a letter to President Biden calling upon him to cancel the sale and review US security assistance and cooperation programs in Nigeria. As they pointed out, “the assistance we have provided has done little to stem the conflict—in fact, insecurity has worsened from the abuses committed by Nigerian forces.”
Therefore, they concluded, “we believe continuing to move forward with the nearly $1 billion arms sale would be highly inappropriate and we urge the Administration to rescind it. Given the recent reporting of Nigeria’s previously unknown mass forced abortion program—which allegedly ended at least 10,000 pregnancies—and the targeting of potentially thousands of children, we also urge a review of security assistance and cooperation programs in Nigeria.”
A few days later, the Biden administration unveiled a revised set of rules for US global arms export, known as the Conventional Arms Transfer policy. Under the revised policy, arms sales will not be approved if the State Department concludes that the equipment “more likely than not” will be used to commit or facilitate genocide, crimes against humanity, breaches of the Geneva conventions, or serious violations of international law.” Nobody will take this policy seriously if the helicopter gunships are delivered.
The Biden administration’s dilemma is not balancing human rights and security considerations. US security assistance and America’s complicity in the Nigerian government’s human rights violations fuels the insurgencies and boosts public support for them. At the very least, the Biden administration should postpone the delivery of the helicopter gunships until it can provide Congress with tangible and conclusive evidence that the Nigerian government has reduced official corruption and human rights violations by its security forces.
The Biden administration has no choice except to develop a policy that actually strengthens democracy, promotes real economic development, reduces governmental corruption, and curbs human rights violations. Anything less will be a disaster for the United States and for Nigeria. The future of US-Africa relations is at stake. Will the Biden administration continue a policy of hypocrisy, deception, and militarization or will it carry out a real change in US policy?