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US Congress Halts Major Arms Sale To Nigeria Over Human Rights Concern

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U.S. lawmakers are holding a proposed sale of attack helicopters to President Muhammadu Buhari led administration amid mounting concerns about the government’s human rights record as its military grapples with multiple security crises at once.

The top Democrat and Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee have delayed clearing a proposed sale of 12 AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters and accompanying defense systems to the Nigerian military, pausing a deal worth some $875 million, according to U.S. officials and congressional aides familiar with the matter.

The 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.

According to Foreign Policy, the hold on the sale also showcases how powerful U.S. lawmakers want to push the Biden administration to rethink U.S. relations with Africa’s most populous country amid overarching concerns that Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari is drifting toward authoritarianism as his government is besieged by multiple security challenges, including a jihadist insurgency.

Nigeria is on the front lines in the battle against Boko Haram, one of the world’s deadliest terrorist groups, and plays a role in U.S. and international efforts to roll back extremist groups in the Sahel region of West Africa. But Western governments and international human rights organizations have ramped up their criticisms of the Nigerian government, particularly in the wake of its ban on Twitter, systemic corruption issues, and the Nigerian military’s role in deadly crackdowns on protesters after widespread demonstrations against police brutality last year.

Sen. Bob Menendez, chairperson of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called for a “fundamental rethink of the framework of our overall engagement” with Nigeria during a Senate hearing with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in June.

Both Menendez and Sen. Jim Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, have placed a hold on the proposed arms sale, according to multiple U.S. 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 U.S. State Department to Congress in January before then-former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden was inaugurated as president, according to officials familiar with the matter. In addition to the helicopters, the proposed sale included 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 and reviewed by Foreign Policy.

Nigeria has relied on U.S. arms sales in the past to help address multiple security challenges: the 12-year insurgency by Boko Haram militants in the country’s northeast, a spate of high-profile kidnapping-for-ransom campaigns targeting schoolchildren in the country’s northwest, and deadly clashes between the country’s semi-nomadic herders and farmers fueled by climate change and environmental degradation of the country’s arable land.

The State Department describes the U.S.-Nigeria relationship as “among the most important in sub-Saharan Africa” and has provided limited funding for various military training and education programs.

Some experts said the United States should hit the pause button on major defense 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.

“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.”

“There is a culture of impunity that exists around abuses by the military,” said Anietie Ewang, the Nigeria researcher at Human Rights Watch. Ewang cited the Nigerian military’s killing of unarmed protesters during the country’s massive #EndSARS demonstrations against police corruption and 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,” Ewang said. “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.”

The Nigerian Embassy in Washington did not return a request for comment. In the past, the Nigerian military has dismissed reports on human rights abuses by its soldiers as baseless and accused human rights groups of undermining the military’s resolve to combat terrorism.

The United States has scrubbed proposed arms sales to Nigeria in the past on a case-by-case basis. Former U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration cut back arms sales to Nigeria over concerns about civilian casualties and human rights abuses, including blocking a 2014 sale of Cobra helicopters by Israel to Nigeria. During that time, U.S. officials reportedly voiced concerns that Boko Haram had infiltrated the Nigerian military—an accusation that provoked indignation from the Nigerian government.

These moves severely strained U.S.-Nigeria relations, with Buhari accusing Obama of having unintentionally “aided and abetted” extremist groups by refusing to expand military cooperation and arms sales.

In late 2-17, then-U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration agreed to sell the Nigerian government 12 A-29 Super Tucano warplanes, resurrecting a proposed sale the Obama administration froze after the Nigerian Air Force bombed a refugee camp that January. The first batch of those planes arrived in Nigeria earlier this month.

A U.S. State Department spokesperson declined to comment on the matter, saying: “as a matter of policy, the department does not confirm or comment upon proposed defense sales or transfers until they have been formally notified to Congress.”

Under current practice, the State Department informally notifies Congress through the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) of proposed arms sales in advance of a formal notification. If committee members raise concerns about the proposed sale, the committees can freeze the sale until they receive satisfactory answers about their concerns from the State Department.

Once a proposed arms sale has been formally notified to Congress, Congress has a 30 day window to review the sale and, if it opposes the sale, pass legislation to block it. If Congress takes no action, the sale will move forward.

The top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Michael McCaul, has signed off on the proposed sale of Cobra helicopters to Nigeria, a spokesperson for his office confirmed. The office of the HFAC chairperson, Democratic Rep. Gregory Meeks, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The Trump administration, frustrated with how Congress held up proposed arms sales for months, weighed scrubbing the decades-old practice of informally notifying Congress about arms sales, but it faced steep backlash over the idea from lawmakers.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers is now looking to further extend congressional oversight over U.S. arms sales to foreign countries. Sens. Chris Murphy, a Democrat, Mike Lee, a Republican, and Bernie Sanders, an Independent, introduced legislation earlier this month aimed at reasserting Congress’s role in foreign policy. The bill included a provision that would require Congress to actively approve all major sales rather than allow arms sales to be automatically approved unless Congress blocked them

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