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More Weapons Won’t Solve Nigeria’s Security Crisis

A nearly $1 billion U.S. arms sale to the country will promote further violence.

By , a senior peace education and advocacy associate at the Mennonite Central Committee of the United States, and , an associate professor of public health at the College of William and Mary.
Nigerian soldiers load a military truck with weapons recovered from bandits in north-central Nigeria on April 21.
Nigerian soldiers load a military truck with weapons recovered from bandits in north-central Nigeria on April 21.
Nigerian soldiers load a military truck with weapons recovered from bandits in north-central Nigeria on April 21. PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP via Getty Images

The degree of insecurity in Nigeria is unprecedented. In addition to an ongoing terrorist insurgency in the northeastern part of the country—which has seen government troops battling the likes of Boko Haram and an offshoot of the Islamic State—there is widespread farmer-herder violence and banditry in every region of the country. It’s not just external analysts, such as former U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell, who are arguing that Nigeria is a failed state. Nigerian public and government officials regularly say as much themselves, and act accordingly.

For instance, the governor of Kaduna state, Nasir Ahmad El-Rufai, threatened earlier this year to hire foreign mercenaries to protect the state after several attacks there. Matthew Hassan Kukah, the bishop of the Roman Catholic diocese of Sokoto, Nigeria, said in April that “we stare at an imponderable tragedy as the nation unravels from all sides.” And former President Olusegun Obasanjo recently remarked that “a situation where you are not safe on the road, you are not safe on the train, you are not safe at the airport, shows a very serious situation.”

Clearly, the need to address Nigeria’s high level of insecurity is both acute and widely recognized. But while we affirm this assessment, we cannot support the nearly $1 billion sale of advanced weaponry from the U.S. government to the Nigerian Armed Forces, which claim they need the weapons to fight terrorism. The State Department approved the deal in April and notified Congress, which did not object. Nigeria now awaits the delivery of military equipment and services from the United States.

The degree of insecurity in Nigeria is unprecedented. In addition to an ongoing terrorist insurgency in the northeastern part of the country—which has seen government troops battling the likes of Boko Haram and an offshoot of the Islamic State—there is widespread farmer-herder violence and banditry in every region of the country. It’s not just external analysts, such as former U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell, who are arguing that Nigeria is a failed state. Nigerian public and government officials regularly say as much themselves, and act accordingly.

For instance, the governor of Kaduna state, Nasir Ahmad El-Rufai, threatened earlier this year to hire foreign mercenaries to protect the state after several attacks there. Matthew Hassan Kukah, the bishop of the Roman Catholic diocese of Sokoto, Nigeria, said in April that “we stare at an imponderable tragedy as the nation unravels from all sides.” And former President Olusegun Obasanjo recently remarked that “a situation where you are not safe on the road, you are not safe on the train, you are not safe at the airport, shows a very serious situation.”

Clearly, the need to address Nigeria’s high level of insecurity is both acute and widely recognized. But while we affirm this assessment, we cannot support the nearly $1 billion sale of advanced weaponry from the U.S. government to the Nigerian Armed Forces, which claim they need the weapons to fight terrorism. The State Department approved the deal in April and notified Congress, which did not object. Nigeria now awaits the delivery of military equipment and services from the United States.

As members of the Nigerian diaspora and individuals engaged in U.S.-Nigeria relations, we know that Nigeria’s security situation is beyond perilous. But we are equally concerned by the human rights violations that continue to be perpetrated by the Nigerian military. There have been reports indicating that U.S.-supplied weapons have been used on civilians, and to date, the perpetrators have not faced any accountability.

The current U.S. arms sale to Nigeria is unprecedented in size. A 2017 sale of $593 million in aircraft to Nigeria was, until recently, the largest U.S. military sale to sub-Saharan Africa. Not only that, the reasons for previous holds on U.S. weapons sales to Nigeria remain largely unresolved. Last summer, Congress temporarily held up the ongoing arms deal over human rights concerns. These were ultimately assuaged by earmarking $25 million in the deal for human rights-related training as well as assurances from the Nigerian government that it would protect civilians from harm. But in the time since, the Nigerian Armed Forces have not addressed operational errors behind past abuses.

There have been reports indicating that U.S.-supplied weapons have been used on civilians.

Amnesty International’s 2021 human rights report notes that “gross human rights violations and crimes under international law—including extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests and incommunicado detentions—were recorded during security forces’ response to threats” by Boko Haram and the Islamic State of West Africa Province. For example, on Sept. 15, 2021, a military air strike in Buwari village in Yobe state killed nine people and injured several more. An air force spokesman admitted as much when he told Nigerian outlet The Cable, “Unfortunately reports reaching Nigerian Air force headquarters alleged that some civilians were erroneously killed while others were injured.”

On June 5, 2022, bandit herders invaded and attacked villages in southern Kaduna state. Residents counterattacked the invaders and got the upper hand, leading them to retreat. Soon after, the villagers saw a white helicopter fly above them. But they say it shot at them rather than the retreating invaders, causing more casualties than the bandit herdsmen had. Some villagers worried that the bandit herders now had access to helicopters, but the state government said they belonged to the Nigerian government, which would mean that they had acted against the villagers instead of aiding them.

Violent incidents like this are now affecting every part of the country. Due to targeted attacks, children in certain regions have had little consistent or quality schooling for as many as 13 years. Some 11 million children are out of school in Nigeria, the highest number of out-of-school children in the world, according to the World Bank. More than 8.4 million people in northeast Nigeria are in dire need of life-saving humanitarian assistance and 19 million Nigerians face acute food insecurity, according to the United States Agency for International Development. It’s not just that suffering is acute, but such a situation is ripe for future insurgencies from terrorist entities like Boko Haram. A 2016 report by Mercy Corps showed that many individuals initially joined Boko Haram due to financial incentives offered by the group. Poor economic conditions propel young men to criminal activities.

In response, Nigeria has securitized further, with the help of the United States. Nigeria is considered a U.S. bilateral strategic partner and, over the years, that relationship has seen Nigeria take part in various partnerships to boost military professionalization, counterterrorism efforts, the defense trade, and governance of the security sector. Facing a debt-laden economy and dire humanitarian need, the Nigerian government’s spending of billions of dollars in the U.S. defense trade is irresponsible and further erodes public trust in the country’s institutions.

To confront such a dire situation and describe it is not easy for us. We are Nigerians and people with close and sustained connections to the country. Its future is not merely a matter of political analysis for us. Of course, it is easy to say that the situation in Nigeria is terrible and that the U.S. government’s response is wrong-headed or inadequate. The point, for us, however, is not to score political wins in an ideological battle. The point, for us, is that we have family in Nigeria. The point, for us, is that we care deeply about the viability of the country and of our people, our family, our heritage. The continued anti-terrorist motivation for purchasing weapons, as stated by the Nigerian government, is not observed by people on the ground.

Instead, there are an increasing number of bands of young men wreaking havoc in every part of the country, who have gotten their hands on weapons through illicit arms trading. Despite being called “bandits,” they perpetuate the same atrocities as terrorists: killing, raping, and burning down whole villages. Whatever they are called, their effects on the lives of the victims remain the same. In responding to this violence, the government has been too cavalier with civilian lives, furthering insecurity and distrust.

Before selling $1 billion in arms to Nigeria, the U.S. government should request that the Nigerian government share the identities of any Nigerian military personnel involved in civilian incidents using U.S. weaponry. This would help screen out those responsible for past human rights violations and violations of international humanitarian law, and help the United States assess whether Nigerian military personnel are adequately trained to comply with international human rights and humanitarian standards going forward.

Then, the U.S. government should consider the risk of further serious human rights violations and other crimes under international law that could result from the proposed arms transfer. They can do this in part by looking at whether previous U.S. weapons purchases were used to intentionally kill civilians and other innocent Nigerians. Such an assessment should be made public.

It is imperative that the U.S.-Nigeria security cooperation address the root causes of violence in Nigerian communities.

In response to last year’s hold, the ongoing deal includes $25 million in human rights-related training via institutional and technical assistance to the Nigerian Armed Forces to continue its Air Ground Integration program and develop processes that are legally compliant with international humanitarian law and the laws of armed conflict. But human rights approaches must be holistic and extend beyond military paradigms or pedagogies.

It is imperative that the U.S.-Nigeria security cooperation address the root causes of violence in Nigerian communities, as the current militarized approach has produced overwhelmingly negative results. The United States should support nonviolent peacebuilding programs, and the Nigerian government must prioritize its spending to address the same. Conflict-sensitive approaches and programs that address psychosocial trauma can help tackle the socioeconomic, political, and ideological causes of conflicts, transforming relationships and building trust. Both the U.S. and Nigerian governments should also support locally-led processes that work toward the disarmament, demobilization, deradicalization, rehabilitation, and reintegration of ex-combatants back into their communities.

This sale, and future U.S. weapons sales to Nigeria, should be weighed more closely against ethical and strategic considerations, as well as public perception of the Nigerian Armed Forces at home. While Nigerians across the board recognize the need to effectively combat insecurity, the United States must conceptualize weapons sales as they relate to the bread-and-butter issues Nigerians face. In a place where high percentages of the population are food insecure and lack adequate health or educational opportunities, the expenditure of nearly $1 billion for weapons will further erode trust in the Nigerian government. While we fully support the need to address insecurity, more weapons won’t solve Nigeria’s security crisis.

Charles Kwuelum is a senior peace education and advocacy associate at the Mennonite Central Committee in the United States, where he works on U.S. policy and foreign assistance toward Africa. He is also a chair of the Nigeria Working Group in Washington and a doctoral student in conflict resolution at George Mason University.

Iyabo Obasanjo is an associate professor of public health at the College of William and Mary. She served as commissioner for health in the Ogun State of Nigeria from 2003 to 2007 and as a Nigerian senator from 2007 to 2011. She holds a doctorate in epidemiology from Cornell University.

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