United States stalling on AH-1 Cobra sale to Nigeria


Nigeria is attempting to acquire a dozen AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters from the United States, but the sale is being held back by US lawmakers over Nigeria’s human rights record.

US officials and congressional aides told Foreign Policy that Nigeria is seeking to acquire 12 Bell AH-1 Cobra helicopters and associated equipment in a deal worth around $875 million, but the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has delayed approving the sale. It is not known if the requested sale covers new-built AH-1Z Vipers or second-hand AH-1W Super Cobras.

With foreign military sales, the US State Department notifies Congress through the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House Foreign Affairs Committee in advance of a formal notification. If committee members raise concerns about the proposed sale, the committees can freeze the sale until their concerns are addressed by the State Department.

According to Foreign Policy, the top Republican in the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Michael McCaul, has signed off on the Cobra sale, but Senator Bob Menendez, chairperson of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Senator Jim Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, have apparently placed a hold on the proposed sale over concerns with Nigeria’s human rights record.

Quoting anonymous officials, Foreign Policy reported that the US State Department informed Congress of the intended sale in January. The deal involves 28 GE Aviation engines, 14 Honeywell navigation systems and 2 000 Advanced Precision Kill Weapon Systems laser-guided rockets.

In June this year Menendez told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that “coups in Mali and Chad have undermined international counterterrorism and development efforts, and Nigeria requires a fundamental rethink of the framework of our overall engagement.”

In October last year he condemned the Nigerian government’s crackdown on protestors calling for an end to police brutality, saying, “I condemn the shooting of innocent civilians in Nigeria, and call for an immediate transparent investigation into the alleged actions of the military. I stand in solidarity with Nigerians who are peacefully calling for police reforms and an end to government corruption, and call on President Buhari to ensure security forces cease their violent crackdown on demonstrators. Civilian control of the military is a hallmark of a true democracy and the eyes of the world are now on Nigeria and President Buhari.”

Thousands of Nigerians protested nationwide for nearly two weeks last October, demanding an end to a police unit called the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), which they said was responsible for extortion and human rights abuses. The police disbanded SARS, but denied most accusations.

Nigeria has had a sometimes rocky road in acquiring military hardware from the United States. In 2014, the United States blocked any sale by Israel of surplus American-made weapon systems to Nigeria, nixing the proposed sale of ex-Israeli AH-1 Cobras after citing human rights concerns, saying Nigeria was not doing enough to avoid civilian casualties in the fight against Boko Haram. In 2014 the Nigerian Air Force expressed interest in acquiring a dozen Scorpion jets from Textron AirLand to fight Boko Haram insurgents, but nothing came of this.

Under former President Barack Obama’s administration, arms sales to Nigeria were cut back, but when Donald Trump assumed power in 2016, his administration agreed to sell Nigeria 12 A-29 Super Tucano turboprops manufactured in the United States by Sierra Nevada Corporation. The first six arrived in Nigeria this month.

Nigeria continues to acquire military hardware, including from Russia, Pakistan and China, to fight the Islamic State-allied group Boko Haram in the northeast and armed bandits in the northwest of the country. Nigeria is also battling rising armed robberies and kidnappings for ransom where thinly deployed security forces have struggled to contain the influence of armed gangs.

Recent Nigerian Air Force acquisitions have come from Pakistan (three JF-17 Thunder fighter jets and ten MFI-17 trainers), Italy (six armed AW109M light helicopters), Russia (a dozen Mi-35M attack helicopters), and China (CH-3, CH-4 and Wing Loong II unmanned aerial vehicles). The Air Force is also overhauling its existing fleet and bringing grounded aircraft, such as Alpha Jets and L-39s, back into service.