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Opaque Spending Culture Shadows U.S.-Nigeria Arms Deal Worth Nearly $1bn

Nigeria's expensive and foggy attack helicopter deal with the United States raises concerns about the importance of transparency as the country struggles with scarce resources and widespread insecurity.

Nigeria’s government has struck a deal with the United States for the supply of 12 attack helicopters and associated equipment worth nearly $1 billion but it has kept the details away from the public. Much of the information available, whether leaked or official, has come from the U.S., reflecting Nigeria’s opaque military spending culture and gaps in the bilateral partnership.

Last month, the U.S. authorised the potential sale of AH-1Z attack helicopters designed and developed by Bell Textron, alongside related equipment including engines, communication equipment, electronic warfare systems, and Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System (APKWS) to Nigeria for a value of $997 million. 

The notification on the contract also had details on technical and infrastructure support such as training of personnel and construction of facilities for the aircraft. In contrast, the Nigerian government has provided little information as the deal remains off the radar and buried by a culture of secrecy that hinders accountability. 

“The lack of transparency surrounding this and other deals is unsurprising. Neither Abuja nor Washington believes that they have an obligation to justify these transactions to their citizens,” says Matthew Page, an Associate Fellow at Chatham House, an international affairs Think-tank. He adds that for Nigerian officials, the secrecy surrounding military procurement is a legacy of military rule and remains a convenient enabler of defence sector corruption.

The U.S., he says, does not have that excuse and, despite being more transparent about the deal than Abuja, it still reflexively stonewalls when pressed for unclassified details about major arms sales. Nearly five years after Page filed a Freedom of Information Act request for basic details about the A-29 Super Tucano deal, he is still waiting for the Departments of State and Defense to fulfil it. 

It’s unclear why the U.S. government is withholding such information. Moreover, most of the available information on the $593 million A-29 aircraft deal before delivery was shared by the U.S., including through the arms sale notification

The leak and controversy

The first hint on the proposed AH-1Z sale surfaced in a Foreign Policy report last year. The outlet revealed that top Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee had paused the sale. 

The revelation was subsequently followed by divergent statements from the Nigerian government including a denial of the existence of such a contract by the country’s Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed. Shortly afterwards, ranking members of the country’s parliament confirmed knowledge of the acquisition setback and their readiness to seek legislative and diplomatic interventions. 

Months later, the first public confirmation that Nigeria was interested in an American built helicopter appeared in the remarks made by state officials and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the signing ceremony for a $2.1 billion development assistance agreement, which took place in Abuja. 

Foggy arms deal

The helicopter deal follows a pattern. Despite the arms scandal of the past government and calls for transparency in military and security procurement, the process has mostly remained impenetrable and characterised by the use of auxiliary budgets. Generic lines in the annual budget, which do not provide information on the nature of the equipment, vendors, and value for taxpayers’ money, are also common. 

For Page, the sale suggests that despite the change in the U.S. administration, Washington’s approach to Nigeria remains shortsighted, inconsistent, and anchored around flawed assumptions about U.S. interests in the country.  He argues that instead of looking for concrete ways to incentivise good governance, much-needed security sector reform, push back against democratic backsliding, and constrain Nigeria’s kleptocratic elite, U.S.-Nigeria relations disproportionately brush aside democracy, human rights, and governance concerns in the pursuit of budget-busting arms deals. 

HumAngle understands that, in addition to issues around the lack of transparency, there are other concerns related to the cost of the contract, particularly at a time when the country is grappling with limited resources and the need to maximise military spending through cheaper and efficient alternatives. Observers are also worried about the potential logistic bottlenecks and limitations of the expensive weapon systems.

According to Chidi Nwaonu, a security analyst and Director of London-based Peccavi Consulting, the deal is a bad idea that would require a new supply chain and learning of new technology, tactics, and procedures. He says the aircraft “is a purely kinetic platform that does nothing to assist the non-kinetic multifaceted approach to solve Nigeria’s security problems”.

Nwaonu adds that “if we need attack helicopters, then [we should be getting the] Mi-24. We are used to it and it can carry troops as well. But the focus should be on building up manpower”. The Mi-24 variants, particularly the Russian built Mi-35M, are an integral part of the Air Force’s offensive capabilities. However, additional supplies of the platforms could likely be affected by Western sanctions targeting Russia’s military-industrial complex as a result of the invasion of Ukraine.

The growing dependence of Nigeria’s airborne combat systems on the U.S. and the west is also associated with risks from sanctions and end-user restrictions. However, the increasing security ties between the parties provide opportunities for promoting professionalism, security sector reforms, human rights, good governance, and transparency. 

This report was produced in partnership with the MacArthur Foundation under the ‘Promoting Transparency in Insurgency-Related Funding in Northeast Nigeria’ Project.

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Murtala Abdullahi

Abdullahi Murtala is a researcher and reporter. His expertise is in conflict reporting, climate and environmental justice, and charting the security trends in Nigeria and the Lake Chad region. He founded the Goro Initiative and contributes to dialogues, publications and think-tanks that report on climate change and human security. He tweets via @murtalaibin

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