US Congress embargos arms sale to Nigeria

August 14, 2021
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Citing overarching concerns about Nigeria’s human rights record, as well as the “drifting toward authoritarianism” of the Major-General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.) regime, United States lawmakers have embargoed a proposed sale of attack helicopters to Nigeria. Media reports stated that lawmakers on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee delayed clearing the planned sale of 12 AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters and accompanying defence systems to the Nigerian military because they feared the equipment could be used against the citizens. Consequently, the deal worth $875 million was suspended.

Aside from that, information sent to the Congress by the US State Department, according to Foreign Policy magazine, said the lawmakers also stood against a proposed sale of 28 helicopter engines produced by GE Aviation, 14 military-grade navigation systems made by Honeywell Aerospace, and 2,000 advanced precision kill weapon systems cum laser-guided rocket munitions.

Bob Menendez, a Democratic senator and chairperson of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Jim Risch, a Republican senator on the committee, are reported to be the brains behind the stoppage.

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International and Human Rights Watch of flagrant abuses of its citizens’ democratic rights, extrajudicial killings, and human rights violations by the military.

Last October, nationwide protests by youths against police brutality codenamed #EndSARS were met with brutal force by the government, as evidenced in the fatal shooting of unarmed protesters at the Lekki toll plaza in Lagos. In a March 2011 report, AI said an estimated 1,200 people were extrajudicially killed and about 7,000 young men and boys died while in military custody from torture. AI claimed that military commanders either sanctioned the abuses or ignored the fact they were taking place.

A recent report by the same body said Nigerian security forces committed “a catalogue of human rights violations and crimes under international law in their response to spiralling violence in the South-East Nigeria since January.”

The “repressive campaign,” it said, included sweeping mass arrests, excessive and unlawful force, and torture and other ill-treatment, leading to the death of some 115 people, mainly members of the Indigenous People of Biafra/Eastern Security Network, between March and June.

This campaign was ostensibly carried out in response to a series of attacks on government infrastructure, including prisons and public buildings, killing of several police officers by gunmen suspected to be ESN militants.

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In the same vein, the HRW, in a 2020 report, claims that “80 years after its birth, members of the (Nigeria Police) force are viewed more as predators than protectors, and the Nigeria Police Force has become a symbol in Nigeria of unfettered corruption, mismanagement, and abuse.” It avers that “extortion, embezzlement, and other corrupt practices by Nigeria’s police undermine the fundamental human rights of Nigerians….”

The most direct effect of police corruption on ordinary citizens, it says, stems from the myriad human rights abuses committed by police officers in the process of extorting money. These abuses range from “arbitrary arrest and unlawful detention to threats and acts of violence, including physical and sexual assault, torture, and even extrajudicial killings.”

As usual, the Nigerian authorities dismissed the reports and accused the rights group of pursuing “an agenda to undermine the army’s resolve to combat terrorism in the country.” Nigeria has been besieged by multiple security challenges. A jihadist insurgency waged by Boko Haram in the North-East is on for more than a decade. Additionally, Fulani herdsmen attack farming communities in the North-Central and the South, banditry, rampant abduction of schoolchildren in the North-West and separatist agitations occur in the South-East. It has been reliant on weapons purchase and military assistance from the US and others to confront these hydra-headed challenges.

However, there are strident calls by some concerned human rights stakeholders that the US should stop major defence sales to Nigeria “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 minimise civilian casualties in its campaign against Boko Haram and other violent insurrectionists.”

Tim Rieser, a top aide to a lawmaker, Patrick Leahy, who wrote the law barring American aid to foreign military units accused of abuses, reportedly told The Times of London that “we don’t have confidence in the Nigerians’ ability to use them in a manner that complies with the laws of war and doesn’t end up disproportionately harming civilians, nor in the capability of the US government to monitor their use.” This speaks volumes.

A socio-political group, the Nigerian Indigenous National Alliance for Self-determination, recently petitioned the US, Britain, France, Russia, Germany, and other Western countries calling for the imposition of heavy sanctions on the Federal Government for “undermining democracy and continuously abusing human rights.”

Nigeria should desist from routinely dismissing every critical inquest into the disproportionate use of force on its citizens by the security agencies. Instead of reflexively dismissing allegations of rights abuses, the Federal Government should devise a mechanism of reviewing the rules of engagement for the military during their anti-terrorism and other internal security operations. Also, a framework of holding soldiers and military commanders accountable for rights violations should be operationalised without further delay. When commanders are also held accountable for the actions of those under them, sanity will prevail.

Nigeria desperately needs advanced weaponry to defeat its security problems; it should therefore quickly stamp out the culture of abuse, impunity and corruption as expected in a democracy and gain the approval of foreign countries enforcing conditions for weapons sales mandated by their laws. Greater use of technology to monitor the battlefield, tightening the chain of command and creating a more prominent role for the media will significantly improve the military’s observance of both standing rules of engagement and wartime rules of engagement.

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