US officials have disclosed that the United States administration is seeking to approve a sale of as many as twelve A-29 Super Tucano light attack aircraft to Nigeria to aid in its battle against Boko Haram, in a vote of confidence in President Muhammadu Buhari’s drive to reform the country’s corruption-tainted military.
According to the officials, Washington is also dedicating more intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets to the campaign against the Islamist militants in the region and plans to provide additional training to Nigerian infantry forces. The possible sale, which the officials indicated was favoured within the US administration but which is still subject to review by Congress, effectively underscores the deepening US involvement in helping governments in northern and western Africa combat extremist groups. US Navy Vice Admiral Micahel Franken, a deputy commander of the Pentagon’s Africa Command, told a Washington forum last week that there are now 6,200 US troops, most of them Special Operations Forces, who are operating from 26 locations across the African continent.
The widening US military cooperation is apolitical victory for Nigerian President Buhari, who took office in May last year on a pledge to crack down on the rampant corruption that has undermined the armed forces in Africa’s most populous country. According to one US official, “the Buhari administration I think has really reenergized the bilateral relationship in a fundamental way.” The previous Nigerian government under former president Goodluck Jonathan had scorned the United States for blocking arms sales partly because of human rights concerns. It had also criticized Washington for failing to speed the sharing of intelligence. The souring relations hit a low at the end of 2014 when US military training of Nigerian forces was abruptly halted. This however is changing under Buhari’s administration, whose crackdown on corruption has led to a raft of charges against top national security officials in the previous government. Many of the funds alleged to have been misused and siphoned off by corrupt Nigerian officials under Jonathan’s government were earmarked for the fight against Boko Haram, which ahs killed thousands in northeastern Nigeria and neighboring countries over the last seven years and which pledged loyalty to the so-called Islamic State (IS) group last year. The accused officials include Nigeria’s former chief of defense staff, who last month pleaded not guilty to using money allocated for Nigeria’s air force to purchase a mansion and a commercial plot of land and to build a shopping centre. A second US official has disclosed that “Buhari made clear from the get-go that his number one priority was reforming the military to defeat Boko Haram…And he sees us as part of that solution.” However officials have noted that serious human rights abuses committed by security forces, which include police, increased in 2015, according go the US State Department’s annual human rights reports.
The US Congress has not yet been formally notified of the possible US approval of the sale of Embraer’s A29 Super Tucano turboprop aircraft to Nigeria. The Tucanos can be used for training, surveillance or attack and can be armed with two wing-mounted machine guns and can carry up to 1,550 kg (3,417 pounds) of weapons. One production line for the Super Tucano is located in Florida, where it is built with US firm Sierra Nevada Corp. According to one of the US officials, the aircraft that would be sold to Nigeria come with a “very basic armed configuration.” The sale of the aircraft could offer Nigeria a more maneuverable aircraft that can stay aloft for extended periods to target Boko Haram formations. While officials have not disclosed the cost of the planes to be sold to Nigeria, a contract for twenty similar aircraft, which was sold to Afghanistan, was valued at about US $428 million at the time that it was announced in 2013.
African armies routed Boko Haram from much of its self-proclaimed caliphate in northeastern Nigeria last year. However its fighters have since regrouped and have intensified their attacks in the Lake Chad Basin region, threatening regional security despite the creation of a 9,000-strong African multinational force to counter it. One US official has indicated that the US military expects to train a second Nigerian infantry battalion once the current group completes its training later this year. While US officials have not specified what type of additional intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets would be provided to bolster the regional fight against Boko Haram, they have acknowledged that they have a tough task combating the group, which is sending women and children strapped with explosives to blow up civilian targets, such as bus stops and market places.
While Nigeria’s government vowed earlier this year to end Boko Haram’s six-year insurgency by this month, the fast approaching deadline looks likely to be missed with hit-and-run attacks continuing as the militant group in recent weeks has increased its tempo of attacks in the Lake Chad region despite a regional response, which so far has shown little sign of effect.
In August, newly elected President Muhammadu Buhari gave his military commanders until December to build on apparent gains in recapturing territory, which was seized by the insurgents in 2014. However despite further claims successes since then there has been no let-up in deadly suicide and bomb attacks. Regional analysts are now reporting that it will be nearly impossible for the government and military to meet the deadline as “Boko Haram is still in control of Borno North senatorial district,” adding that “there are still attacks occurring in Chibok, Buratia, Gwoza (in Borno state) and Buni Yadi (in Yobe), as well as in the Gulak region of northern Adamawa.” Despite the ongoing attacks, the Nigerian army has maintained that it has control of the situation, however the weekend announcement of the arrest of about a dozen suspects, which army officials disclosed were part of Bok Haram “sleeper cells” in the capital Abuja, has increased concerns that the ongoing military operations are pushing Boko Haram insurgents further out of northeastern Nigeria and into not only neighbouring states, including Niger, Cameroon and Chad, but further south, to areas that have been less affected by the insurgency. Furthermore, military officials have also disclosed that they have again begun operations against Boko Haram bases “deep inside” the Sambisa Forest in Borno, despite indications that fighters have now moved to islands on Lake Chad.
While President Buhari, a retired army general and former military ruler, has consistently vowed to approach the ongoing conflict differently from his predecessors, many were surprised that he had imposed such a deadline. The previous administration under former President Goodluck Jonathan had made repeated pledges of a swift end to the conflict. However all of these pledges came and went, which affected the government’s and military’s credibility. While President Buhari promised to restructure the county’s military, which was hit by complaints that money and weapons were not reaching frontline troops despite massive government defense spending, there have been minimal signs of an immediate overhaul. So far the major changes have been the redeployment of the high command to the Borno state capital, Maiduguri, and a claimed upsurge in the morale of troops.
Since announcing the deadline in August, President Buhari has been more cautious. In September, he warned that guerrilla-style tactics would persist, while on Monday, he told army top brass that the deadline “should serve as a guide.” The ongoing conflict in northeastern Nigeria, and its spread to neighbouring countries, has proven the underlining need for a multilateral response and greater coordination rather than unilateral action. The Nigerian military has been focusing on defeating Boko Haram as a conventional fighting force. However little has been done in order to tackle the root causes of the insurgency. Furthermore, a coordinated, regional approach to ending the insurgency still looks far off despite an increasing wave of suicide and bomb attacks outside Nigeria. A new 8,700-strong multi-national Joint Task Force (MNJTF), comprising of troops from Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Cameroon and Benin, was supposed to have been deployed in Late July however the African Union (AU)-backed force has yet to start operations, with no reason given for the lengthening delay and questions over whether the countries have the resources to commit.
On Monday, a spokesman for President Muhammadu Buhari announced that the newly elected president will this week make his first foreign trip since taking office.
Newly elected President Buhari is due to travel to neighboring Niger on Wednesday and to Chad on Thursday. Niger shares a border with Borno and Yobe states while Chad borders Borno state in Nigeria’s extreme northeast. According to Shehu Garba, the two-day trip will focus on “maters of security,” with the cooperation of Nigeria’s neighbors seen as being critical to ending the militant uprising, which since 2009 has claimed more than 15,000 lives.
President Buhari was sworn in last Friday and during his inaugural speech, he vowed to crush the insurgent group, which he described as “mindless” and “godless.” Despite this vow, Boko Haram carried out an attack some twelve hours after the new president took the oath of office, targeting homes in the key northeastern city of Maiduguri. Overnight on Saturday, the militants stormed the city, launching rocket-propelled grenades. Later, a suicide attack at a mosque in the city, which is the Borno state capital, killed at least twenty-six people and injured dozens others. On Sunday, the militants raided two towns in Borno’s neighboring state of Yobe, where they torched public buildings and looted food and fuel stores.
While former president Goodluck Jonathan’s administration had previously complained that Nigeria’s neighbors were not doing enough in order to contain Boko Haram, as in some instances, the militants were able to flee military pursuit by crossing porous borders, a four-nation offensive launched in February, and which includes troops from Cameroon, has won significant victories, however there are growing fears that Boko Haram may be regrouping, particularly in the remote border areas which are difficult to patrol. In turn, both Chad and Niger have complained of a lack of cooperation from Nigeria, which has strained relations with all its neighbors. Chadian troops have also had to retake some towns from Boko Haram several times as Nigerian troops haven’t arrived in order to secure them.
On Friday, the winner of Nigeria’s presidential election in March, Muhammadu Buhari, was sworn in as leader of Africa’s most populous country.
President Buhari is the first opposition figure to win a presidential election in Nigeria since independence in 1960. He defeated Goodluck Jonathan, who had been in office since 2010, by 15.4 million votes to 12.9 million. At the inauguration ceremony at Abuja’s Eagle Square, Mr Jonathan handed over the constitution and national flags before Mr Buhari took his oath of office. Mr Jonathan also urged his successor to unite the country in the face of the continued threat from Boko Haram. Speaking to cheering crowds, President Buhari stated, “I will discharge my duties to the best of my ability, faithfully and in accordance with the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and the law.” President Buhari comes to power as the country is facing significant economic as well as security challenges, with the on-going Boko Haram insurgency, which has devastated towns and villages in northeastern Nigeria. President Buhari has also promised to stamp out corruption.
Security was increased in and around the capital Abuja on Thursday, as final preparations were underway for the inauguration of Muhammadu Buhari as president. Amongst those confirmed to attend are South African President Jacob Zuma, US Secretary of State John Kerry and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius. On the ground sources have reported that soldiers were out in force on the streets of the capital, including at the main entry points into the city. There was also a visible police presence at key locations across Abuja, including at hotels and government buildings. Roads have been closed around the Eagle Square inauguration venue, where dozens of international flags have been hoisted alongside the Nigerian flag. Nigeria’s federal police chief Solomon Arase has indicated that the measures have been imposed in order “to ward off possible plans by insurgents to carry out widespread violence and coordinated attacks.” He has urged members of the public to remain vigilant and to cooperate with the security services “to stamp out crimes, including (the) war against terror…to ensure (a) hitch-free inauguration.” Such threats include a possible attack by Boko Haram militants, who in the past have hit Abuja, including twice in the space of a month last April and May, when nearly 100 people were killed. On those occasions, the bombings targeted a bus station located on the outskirts of the city. In June last year, 21 people were killed when a bomb targeted a shopping mall located near the city center. In 2010, twin car bombings claimed by militants from the oil-producing southern Delta region killed ten people near ceremonies in the capital marking fifty years of independence.
Challenger General Muhammadu Buhari has won Nigeria’s presidential election by 2.57 million votes, defeating incumbent Goodluck Jonathan.
On Wednesday, Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) announced that Gen Buhari, of the All Progressives Congress (APC), won 15,424,921 votes (53.95 percent) of the 28,587,564 total valid ballots case. Rival Jonathan of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) won 12,853,162 votes (44.96) in the elections, which was held on Saturday and Sunday. In a statement released Wednesday, INEC chairman Attahiru Jega stated, “Muhammadu Buhari, of the APC, having satisfied the requirement for the law and scored the highest number of votes, is hereby declared the winner and is returned elected.”
In an unprecedented step, which will likely help to defuse anger amongst disgruntled supports of the former president, Mr Jonathan called Gen Buhari at 5:15 PM (1615 GMT) on Tuesday, prior to the final results being declared, to concede defeat. A spokesman for Gen Buhari’s APC party praised Mr Jonathan, stating, “he will remain a hero for this move. The tension will go down dramatically,” adding “anyone who tries to foment trouble on the account that they have lost the election will be doing so purely on his own.” In a statement released late Tuesday, Jonathan stated, “I promised the country free and fair elections. I have kept my word.” He urged disputes over the results to be settled in court rather than on the street, adding, “nobody’s ambition is worth the blood of any Nigerian.” Jonathan will officials hand over power to Buhari on 29 May.
Gen Buhari’s move is a significant moment in Nigeria’s history, as never before has a sitting president lost an election. Jonathan had led Nigeria since 2010. While he won elections in 2011, over the past year, Nigeria has suffered a series of major attacks carried out by Boko Haram militants, with many believing that Gen Buhari is better positioned to defeat the militant group after Jonathan failed to maintain his promise of ending the six-year insurgency. While military gains against the militant group in recent weeks were welcomed, they were also seen as too little too late, particularly by those who have lived under constant threat. This was reflected in Borno state, which has been the worst-affected region by the Islamists rampage. Initial results indicated that Buhari won 94 percent of the vote in the state as hundreds of thousands of people defied threats of suicide attacks and bombings to vote. While Buhari has acknowledged that the task of completely defeating Boko Haram will be challenging, along with other challenges, including dealing with widespread poverty, his military background resulted in many believing that the former leader is better equipped to fight the insurgents.