President Muhammudu Buhari complained last month that the US had “aided and abetted the Boko Haram terrorists” by refusing to send arms to Nigeria forces on the grounds of “unproven allegations of human rights violations levelled”.
In a speech before the US Institute of Peace, he blamed a “blanket application” of Leahy Laws, legislation introduced by Sen. Patrick J. Leahy to prohibit US public funds from being given to foreign military units involved in gross human rights violations.
But Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) records show the Department of Defense is nonetheless set to transfer military material to Nigeria.
A DSCA list of so-called Excess Defense Articles slated for Nigeria indicates the US Army is about to transfer Caiman trucks, armoured vehicles designed “to defeat current and emerging threats,” according to their manufacturer, British-based BAE Systems.
The US Army is also sending armoured vehicles known as MaxxPro MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected), made by Navistar Defense, an Illinois company, and Israeli-based Plasan Sasa.
It is unclear which Nigerian military units will receive the equipment, but the State Department has confirmed that deliveries are pending.
“These articles have not been exported yet but are in the process,” said a State Department official in a response to an email query. “We don’t have a date on the export yet.”
Recipients could include a number of units untarnished by allegations of gross rights violations that continue to benefit from US military aid.
“US security assistance to Nigeria hasn’t been suspended,” explained Lauren Ploch Blanchard, a specialist in African Affairs at the Congressional Research Service in an interview from Washington. “The US has also cleared so-called ‘clean’ units.”
Troops involved in the war on Boko Haram (also known as the Islamic State in West Africa) have failed to be “vetted” or approved because of allegations of rights abuses, including summary executions of prisoners and indiscriminate attacks against civilians, since the war on the Islamist insurgency began in 2004.
Nigeria has also been reproached by the US and well-respected international rights groups for doing little about it.
It is unclear if the Nigerian president knew the extent of US military assistance to his country when he lashed out at the US in July.
Relations between the two countries have at times been strained. Last year Nigeria scrapped a plan to have the US military train a Nigerian battalion to confront the extremists in the northeast.
The cancellation was seen as an indication of Nigeria’s displeasure at the US lack of engagement in counter-terrorism operations but also the US decision to stop buying Nigerian crude oil – a decision that aggravated the impact of falling oil prices in a country that exports virtually nothing else.
In July Buhari’s remarks in Washington prompted Sen. Patrick Leahy to issue a curt statement denouncing his “misdirected criticism.”
“Rather than suggest that the United States is at fault for not funding murderers and rapists in the Nigerian military, he should face up to his own responsibility to effectively counter Boko Haram,” Leahy said. “He should direct his attention to the Nigerian military, and the Nigerian courts, and clean up the units implicated in such atrocities.”
The Leahy laws, however, do not prohibit the sale of weapons to Nigeria and at least one privately held US company has flown two light combat jets previously owned by the German air force to Nigeria.
Air USA Inc, which describes itself as a “leader in military combat readiness training”, flew the Alpha Jets made by Dassault Aviation of France and Dornier of Germany, according to a report in Air Forces Daily.
They will probably be used in the northeast where the Nigerian Air Force is deploying additional combat aircraft in a counter-insurgency operation called Operation Lafiya Dole.
Political analysts are still speculating about what led Buhari to criticise his American ally.
“Politicians are not really aware about the facts — in Nigeria as elsewhere,” said Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri) researcher Pieter Wezeman. “He [Buhari] may also have chosen to find a scapegoat to deflect attention from the real issue — the real issue is the incompetence of the military in Nigeria to deal with Boko Haram.”
Other countries have been supplying arms to Nigeria. “They can get what they want and they are,” noted Wezeman. “It's a buyer’s arms market out there. A country like Nigeria can — and does — get weapons from countries ranging from China to Brazil, Israel to Russia and from Poland to France.”
Tensions between Nigeria and the US came as Buhari announced plans to set up a “modest military industrial complex” to make sophisticated weaponry, resuscitating Nigeria’s arms industry.
Some analysts are doubtful that Nigeria, keen to diminish its reliance on foreign suppliers, stands to gain.
“Corruption and other management issues make it highly unlikely that Nigeria will succeed to build a useful industry that can produce 'sophisticated' weapons in the near future,” Wezeman said. “To think that such an industry can defeat Boko Haram doesn’t make sense.”
Follow Michel Arseneault on Twitter @miko75011