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04/21/2022 Nigeria (International Christian Concern) – The U.S. last week approved an arms sale worth nearly $1 billion to Nigeria. The deal — which includes twelve AH-1Z Attack Helicopters, thousands of guidance systems for precision munitions, night vision equipment, and machine guns, among other weapons and tools — was halted last year by a bipartisan group of leaders on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who were concerned about Nigeria’s human rights record.

“This sale will be a major contribution to U.S. and Nigerian security goals,” the U.S. Department of State said in a notice to Congress about the sale. “This proposed sale 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 proposed sale will better equip Nigeria to contribute to shared security objectives, promote regional stability and build interoperability with the U.S. and other Western partners.”

The deal with Nigeria would, according to State Department, include the deployment of teams to Nigeria to train local forces on legal issues, human rights concerns, and ways to minimize civilian harm in air operations.

Human Rights Concerns

Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Nigeria in November and raised concerns about the Nigerian government’s human rights record. During his visit, he said that the U.S. was waiting for justice in the case of a 2020 incident in which the army shot at protestors before going ahead with the proposed arms sale. It is not clear what, if any, justice was administered before the deal was finalized last week.

In a report released last week, State Department highlighted “credible reports that members of the [Nigerian] security forces committed numerous abuses” last year. The report lists seventeen specific human rights abuses, including “unlawful and arbitrary killings by both government and nonstate actors; forced disappearances by the government, terrorists, and criminal groups; [and] torture.”

In addition to concerns about police brutality and lack of accountability for its armed forces, Nigeria has also long been criticized for its failure to provide security to vulnerable Christian communities in the Middle Belt and northern regions of the country.

For a variety of reasons, Nigeria was added to the State Department’s list of Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) in 2020 for engaging in or tolerating severe violations of religious freedom. It was removed from the list in 2021, around the time of Secretary Blinken’s visit in a move that drew widespread criticism from human rights watchdogs around the world.

Just weeks before Nigeria was removed from the CPC list, Kaduna State in Nigeria’s Middle Belt announced a crackdown on preaching. Kaduna State has long provided one of the most blatant examples of government persecution in Nigeria, with its governor Nasir El-Rufai repeatedly putting whole Christian communities under house arrest as punishment for protesting the lack of security provided by his administration. In multiple cases, soldiers enforcing the mass house arrest orders disappeared as attackers moved in on locked-down communities.

Missed Opportunity

Nigeria is a key regional partner in the fight against terrorism in the Sahel region of West Africa. It is clearly in the world’s best interests to stop terrorism in the region. Still, the question of whether the U.S. is missing an opportunity to fight human rights abuses in Nigeria is an important one that deserves to be explored.

On its face, the weapons deal helps to move the dial towards greater human rights, and indeed it could. The weaponry may very well be used to help the Nigerian military more effectively counter the advances of an increasingly powerful and sophisticated extremist uprising in its borders. And with the training that is supposed to follow the weapons transfer, the impact of this fight on civilians may even be less than before.

But the deal doesn’t just help to combat extremism—it also sends a loud message, to Nigeria and beyond, that the U.S. has no qualms with bolstering known human rights violators if their goals happen to align with ours.

The deal is a missed opportunity for the U.S. to stand strongly by its values to insist that Nigeria take steps to advance human rights, including religious freedom. The world needs the U.S. to take a strong stand.

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