United States lawmakers on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee have blocked a proposed sale of attack helicopters to the Nigerian government over rising concerns about the country’s government human rights history.
The West African country’s military continues to grapple with multiple security crises at once but will not be receiving the 12 AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters and the accompanying defence systems.
The deal is worth $875 million, according to US officials and congressional aides 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 magazine.
According to Foreign Policy, 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.
The global magazine states that 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 Buhari led federal 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 recent years, Nigeria has relied on U.S. arms sales 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 herders and farmers fueled by climate change and environmental degradation of the country’s arable land.
Some experts said the United States should hit the pause button on major defence 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.