Source Responsible Statecraft

WASHINGTON, U.S.--On April 14, the Pentagon announced that the State Department had approved the sale of 12 AH-1Z Attack Helicopters and associated systems, data, and weapons to Nigeria. 

The $997 million sale, according to the press release, “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 is more likely to boost the fortunes of U.S. defense contractors, however, than it is to improve the security of ordinary Nigerians.

Within the U.S. government, there is substantial hesitation about such sales. In July 2021, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee reportedly delayed the sale of the AH-1Z helicopters due to concerns about Nigeria’s poor human rights record. The debate over this sale, moreover, fits into a wider pattern. 
In January 2017, outgoing President Barack Obama paused a $593 million sale of 12 Super Tucano attack aircraft to Nigeria; President Donald Trump then reversed the decision in December 2017.

The first six Super Tucanos were delivered in July 2021. The slow pace of U.S. government decision-making and of weapons systems deliveries has sometimes outraged the Nigerian government — but the pace also undercuts the argument, from both the American and Nigerian side, that increased air capabilities are urgently needed at any given moment.

There are four primary arguments for such arms sales to Nigeria; namely, that the sales will (1) empower the Nigerian armed forces to defeat jihadist groups and bandits, particularly in the north; (2) boost the American economy and create jobs; (3) reinforce diplomatic ties between the United States and Africa’s most populous country; and (4) undercut “great power” competitors — including Russia, which has also struck a deal to sell attack helicopters to Nigeria.

Starting with the Super Tucanos debate, analysts have made various strong counterarguments. In 2016, former State Department analyst Matthew Page argued, in part, that in addition to human rights concerns, the theory of change put forward by the U.S. government was unconvincing: past arms sales had not brought the two governments closer, and the security challenges on the ground were not primarily related to Nigeria’s lack of airpower. 
Academic commentator Hilary Matfess, author of a pathbreaking book about the militant group Boko Haram, similarly contended in 2017 that the Super Tucanos sale was “financially irresponsible, operationally and tactically unnecessary, and may actually undermine the counter-terrorism campaign if improperly deployed.”

Now, under another U.S. administration, the arguments against American arms sales remain strong. By most metrics, the security situation in Nigeria and particularly in northern Nigeria has degraded over the past five years. 
According to the Armed Conflict Event and Location Data project, 2017 marked a relative low point in terms of civilian fatalities and battlefield deaths in Nigeria. Since then, the number of battlefield deaths has steadily ticked upwards. 
Last year saw more battle-related fatalities than 2014, the year when Boko Haram’s strength reached its peak; in terms of civilian fatalities, 2021 was the most violent year since 2015.

Rising insecurity could be an argument for enhanced airpower — yet the violence has risen in large part because of the ability of both jihadists and bandits to conduct hit-and-run attacks and sheltering in the countryside afterwards. 
Air raids also carry perennial risks of harming civilians, as occurred in February of this year when seven children were killed in an anti-banditry airstrike.

The Nigerian military’s appetite for more airpower fits with its penchant for flashy, high-casualty operations against both jihadists and bandits. 
Such operations produce high body counts but do little to break a long-running stalemate in the northeast or to stabilize the increasingly unstable northwest. 
Selling Nigeria attack aircraft feeds a dangerously exterminationist mentality within the military, whose press releases now constantly trumpet the number of jihadists and bandits who have been “neutralized” or “eliminated,” including from the air.

The body counts and images of burning “terrorist camps” and “hideouts,” however, do not mark genuine progress. 
A recent report from the International Crisis Group notes that “[w]hile the Nigerian military’s increased air capacity has allowed it to better defend garrison towns, [Boko Haram successor group, the Islamic State West Africa Provinces,] has gained in strength” over the past year, following the death of a major rival jihadist leader. The group “is expanding into new rural areas in Nigeria’s north east.”

In the northwest, meanwhile, presumed bandits recently underscored the depth of the challenges there by attacking a passenger train and kidnapping riders en masse, rattling the whole country and leading to a new round of political recriminations over insecurity.

More broadly, Nigeria’s inability to contain either jihadism or banditry has much to do with politics: a wealthy and disconnected political and business elite sits atop a growing population suffering from widespread poverty. 
Even in the face of multiple severe security crises, politicians at both the federal and state levels are often more consumed with intra-elite power struggles than with meeting citizens’ basic needs.

In Zamfara State, ground zero for banditry in the northwest, the deputy governor was recently impeached — but for reasons mostly having to do with personality conflicts and electoral politics. 
Indeed, the approaching 2023 elections will feature security as a central issue, but the actual work of campaigning and coalition-building is more likely to distract senior politicians and policymakers than it is to focus their attention on combating jihadists and bandits. 
As in the past, elections can and will go forward even if many rural localities remain out of the government’s control.

What is the proper role for the United States amid these thorny and tragic problems in Nigeria? First, it is a limited one — Nigeria is in many ways Africa’s most important country, and Washington cannot simply dictate terms to Abuja. 
Meanwhile, the United States’ own poor counterinsurgency record means that many countries, including Nigeria, are more interested in American weapons than in American advice.

Even given the limits of American influence, however, there are opportunities to press for reform on corruption, human rights, and political transparency. The United States diminishes those opportunities when it becomes an arms dealer.