On February 13, President Donald Trump spoke by telephone with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari. Many observers, including me and Nigerian analyst Muktar Usman-Janguza, were impatiently awaiting for the White House to post a readout of the call, which it finally did yesterday. The delay, I should note, was offensive to some Nigerians in and of itself.
The main news coming out of the call was when Trump “expressed support for the sale of aircraft from the United States to support Nigeria’s fight against Boko Haram.”
There is a backstory here, dating to 2014, when the Obama administration blocked sales of US-made helicopters to Nigeria due to concerns about human rights violations by Nigerian security forces. As recently as December 2016, Nigeria purchased military aircraft from Russia and Pakistan after growing impatient with Washington.
Another part of the backstory, as former Ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell explains here, is that US security cooperation with Nigeria has also been limited for many years by the Leahy Amendment. The amendment prohibits US security assistance to foreign security force units that the US government believes have committed human rights abuses.
Some will see Trump’s offer to Buhari, then, as a change in policy, but I think this reflects more the momentum of the War on Terror (or whatever one is supposed to call it now) and the tendency of that momentum to wear down or override human rights concerns in the long term.
After all, in May 2016, the Obama administration expressed its willingness, pending Congressional approval, to “approve a sale of as many as 12 A-29 Super Tucano light attack aircraft to Nigeria.” (You can watch a demonstration of the Super Tucano here.)
The sale does not seem to have gone forward but, as the New York Times has reported, the willingness to approve it reflected a wider change of attitude in Washington toward Nigeria’s fight against Boko Haram. I believe two key moments that prompted that change: the kidnapping of the Chibok girls in April 2014, and the election of Buhari in March 2015. Those two events boosted those voices in Washington who argued that the US should ease its restrictions on security cooperation with Nigeria. Trump’s offer to Buhari is not a complete break with older policy, then, but rather a demonstration that those voices are continuing to win out over those who favor more restricted security cooperation.
This is the logic of the War on Terror, I believe: when policymakers or human rights organizations raise concerns about security force abuses, they will tend, over the long term and often in the short term, to be overruled by those whose primary concern in places like Nigeria is with killing jihadists. I would bet that a hypothetical President Hillary Clinton would have also eventually approved the sale of military aircraft to Nigeria. I say all this not to let Trump off the hook or to somehow praise him – I oppose Trump unequivocally – but to point out that some policy dynamics are bigger even than Trump.