No Helicopters for You

Washington is curtailing its military support for Nigeria's fight against Boko Haram. But that doesn't mean that both countries aren't getting what they want.


Over the past five years, Boko Haram has killed more than 10,000 people and left another 1.5 million homeless. Just a few weeks ago, Boko Haram destroyed several thousand structures and killed hundreds of civilians in the Nigerian town of Baga; satellite imagery showed the town had been virtually “wiped off the map,” as Amnesty International put it. In the process, it has transformed an area in northeast Nigeria larger than the state of Illinois into a war zone.

For well over a year now, the Nigerian military has claimed it is outgunned and under-equipped in the face of this powerful foe. Washington’s decision to tap the brakes on its multi-decade military relationship with Abuja hasn’t helped.

After Boko Haram kidnapped more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls last April, the United States offered to assist Nigeria by conducting surveillance flights and sharing commercial satellite imagery. But it refused to share “raw intelligence data” with Nigerian authorities (exactly what information it held back is unclear). A few months later, the Nigerian government made a request to the United States to purchase an array of weapons, including Cobra attack helicopter gunships. Washington turned down the request.

At a State Department briefing in November, spokeswoman Jen Psaki explained that the refusal was “due to concerns about Nigeria’s ability to use and maintain this type of helicopter,” and lingering questions over its military’s “protection of civilians when conducting military operations.” Nothing, Psaki added, was stopping Nigeria from buying weapons and equipment from other sources. Then on Dec. 1, the U.S. Embassy in Abuja announced that it had cancelled the third phase of a training program for the Nigerian army, at the request of the Nigerian government.

On Jan. 25, Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Nigeria’s main commercial city of Lagos, ahead of Nigeria’s Feb. 14 presidential elections. There, Kerry met with Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan as well as his main challenger, former military ruler Maj. Gen. Muhammadu Buhari, to discuss the race. It’s difficult to imagine, however, that the mounting strain between the two governments was not among the motivations for Kerry’s visit.

Despite the seeming suddenness of this rift, the ties between the United States and Nigeria have been fraying for some time. Washington accuses the Nigerian military of rampant corruption and human rights abuses in its campaign against Boko Haram. Nigeria hasn’t exactly welcomed that criticism, and has begun looking elsewhere for the military help it needs.

But the scaled-back cooperation isn’t what it seems to be. In fact, it allows both sides to get what they currently want, for better or for worse: Nigeria will be able to obtain weapons from other countries with fewer strings attached, and the United States, for the time being, can get some temporary relief from having to deal so directly with a problematic partner. Rather than acknowledging this reality publicly — a diplomatic no-no — the two sides have taken to hectoring each other with accusations and counter-accusations to justify this awkward disengagement.

Washington’s ambivalence toward the Nigerian military is well documented. A State Department human rights report on Nigeria published in 2012 notes concerns over extrajudicial killings by government authorities, “including summary executions … torture, rape, and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment of prisoners, detainees, and criminal suspects.” The report also alleges widespread impunity and pervasive corruption throughout the government.

Those concerns haven’t gone away. At the same State Department press briefing in November, Psaki said that the United States would continue urging Nigeria to get to the bottom of allegations of abuse by Nigerian security forces. “We wouldn’t be raising that concern if we didn’t feel and others didn’t feel that they were warranted,” she said. And just a week ago, a senior U.S. military official told the New York Times: “We don’t have a foundation for what I would call a good partnership right now…. We want a relationship based on trust, but you have to be able to see yourself. And they’re in denial.”

Of course, the United States has sold weapons to other countries with human rights records as bad as or worse than Nigeria’s, all in the name of security. The United States, it seems, has other doubts about the Nigerian army — ones it may not be able to express so candidly.

Washington is perhaps wary of providing weapons or intelligence that may end up in the hands of Islamist fighters. Such concerns about the eventual destination of weapons are not without merit: Boko Haram regularly raids Nigerian army inventories. In propaganda videos, its fighters frequently appear on camera sporting uniforms, carrying guns, and sitting on top of armored personnel carriers taken from the Nigerian army.

In a video released by Boko Haram in January, a man purporting to be Abubakar Shekau, the group’s leader, shows off a tranche of weapons he claims his fighters took from the Nigerian army. “Your army kept deceiving the world that you can’t fight us because you have no arms. Liars! You have all that it takes; you are just coward soldiers,” Shekau says.

There is also a question of infiltration. In remarks at a Remembrance Day church service in 2012, President Jonathan warned that Boko Haram sympathizers had breached the executive branch, parliament, judiciary, and security forces. “Somebody said that the situation is [so] bad that even if one’s son is a member, one will not even know,” he said.

Perhaps Jonathan intended only to illuminate the scale of the threat to his audience. Still, the suspicious timing of some Boko Haram attacks — occurring just after secret troop movements, for instance, or shortly after troops left vulnerable spots — should raise genuine concern about these sorts of allegations.

For decades, Washington has reliably provided Nigeria with military training, weapons, and intelligence. It has also purchased the West African country’s oil — more barrels than any other buyer. As recently as 2006, Nigeria exported over 1 million barrels of oil per day to the United States. But, due to the U.S. domestic energy boom, by early 2014 Nigerian oil exports to the United States had fallen by 90 percent. In July, for the first time in 41 years, the United States failed to import a single barrel of Nigerian oil.

In response, Nigeria is seeking new partners to buy its oil. In the process, it has forged closer economic and military relationships with other countries, such as China and Russia. As Africa’s largest economy, Nigeria can purchase weapons from non-U.S. sources without enduring what its leaders regard as Washington’s double standard on human rights: publicly admitting to torturing terrorist suspects, but then criticizing Nigeria for human rights abuses when fighting terrorists.

Though the United States has begun declining its requests for military hardware, the Nigerian government has, in the past, also been able to rely on a motley crew to restock its inventory: jets from China and France, tanks from Britain, and high-caliber rifles from Sweden.* Recently, Nigeria ordered military attack helicopters from Belarus, and additional planes from Russia. Moreover, 1,200 officers from Nigeria’s army, police, and intelligence agencies have been sent for training by Russian special forces (the specific location has not been disclosed).

Yet the fissure between Nigeria and the United States likely represents only a temporary realignment, not an irrevocable break. Even if the U.S. need for Nigerian oil is no longer what it once was, its large population and increasingly prosperous middle class are too attractive for American investors to ignore.

The United States still relies on Nigeria to play regional policeman and peacekeeper in West Africa, as Secretary Kerry said in Lagos. He also seemed to send a clear hint to Nigeria: Hold peaceful, fair, and democratic elections next month, and we’ll have your back. “[W]e stand ready to work with the government of Nigeria, the Nigerian people, and whomever they elect next month … to continue building on the important partnership that we share,” he said.

But Kerry also reminded his audience that the relationship is far from perfect. “Now, does it always … work as well as we would like or as well as the Nigerians would like? The answer is no.”

*Clarification, Feb. 9, 2015: The weapons from France, the U.K., and Sweden have been in Nigeria for many years, and were not acquired after the United States declined to sell it weapons as the article originally suggested. (Return to reading.)


Max Siollun is a Nigerian historian and the author of the books Oil, Politics and Violence: Nigeria's Military Coup Culture 1966-1976 and Soldiers of Fortune: A History of Nigeria (1983-1993). Twitter: @maxsiollun

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