President Biden faces three simultaneous crises in his policy toward Nigeria in the aftermath of the elections on February 25, 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 to get the previous government of Muhammadu Buhari 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 completely failed.
Second, the government’s conduct of the February election, the violence that occurred during the polling, and the associated currency crisis, only made the situation worse.
Third, members of Congress are stepping up their efforts to block future U.S. arms deliveries to Nigeria.
The February elections came during a continuing struggle to contain the insurgencies of Boko Harum (which has affiliated with al-Qaeda) and the Islamic State in West Africa (which is a branch of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq). All three serious contenders represented different elements of Nigeria’s notoriously corrupt political elite, and less than a third of the registered voter thought there was any actual point in going to the polls.
The victor, Bola Tinubu, was handpicked by Buhari, the army general who led a military coup in 1983 and headed a military dictatorship that lasted two years before Buhari as overthrown in another coup (elected president in 2015, he was completing his second and last term). Although the vote count reported was probably the most honest and valid of any of the country’s elections, they were challenged in the courts. The courts upheld the results and Tinubu was inaugurated on May 29, 2023.
Over the past six years, United States 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 during Blinken’s 2021 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 U.S. 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 U.S. legislators to the sale of combat aircraft to Nigeria and have put the helicopter gunship deal in jeopardy. In 2017, Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Rand Paul (R-KY), 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.
“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,” they declared. 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.”
In July 2021, the 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 the Special Anti-Robbery Squad 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.”
The sale of 12 AH-1Z helicopter gunships has proven even more contentious, particularly since the Republican Party won control of the House of Representatives in the 2022 midterm elections.
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, Senator Jim Risch (R-ID), the ranking Republican member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote to Secretary Blinken to request a review of U.S. 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.
In February 2023, two members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Representatives Sara Jacobs (D-CA) and Chris Smith (R-NJ), sent a letter to President Biden calling on him to cancel the sale and review U.S. 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.”
The Biden administration’s dilemma is not balancing human rights and security considerations. U.S. security assistance and America’s complicity in the Nigerian government’s human rights violations fuel the insurgencies and boost 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 credible and conclusive evidence that the Nigerian government has reduced official corruption and human rights violations by its security forces.
This article was published by FPIF