Nigerian president says US arms ban is 'aiding' Boko Haram

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari speaks at the United States Institute of Peace on July 22 in Washington, DC.
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari speaks at the United States Institute of Peace on July 22 in Washington, DC. AFP/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI

Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari said Wednesday that a US ban on arms sales to Nigeria has “aided and abetted” Boko Haram's Islamist insurgency. The so-called Leahy Law bans US arms sales to nations suspected of human rights abuses.


"Regrettably, the blanket application of the Leahy Law by the United States on the grounds of unproven allegations of human rights violations levelled against our forces has denied us access to appropriate strategic weapons to prosecute the war," Buhari said.

A former general, Buhari, 72, has been warmly received in the US capital in recent days on his first visit since his March election. But he departs with little practical military assistance in the battle against the Islamist militants who have killed more than 13,000 Nigerians since 2009 and displaced an estimated 1.5 million others.

Addressing an audience of policymakers, activists and academics at the US Institute of Peace in Washington on Wednesday, Buhari said that Nigerian forces had been left "largely impotent" in the face of Boko Haram, which declared allegiance to the Islamic State group in March.

"They do not possess the appropriate weapons and technology, which we could have had if the so-called human rights violations had not been an obstacle," he said.

"Unwittingly, and I dare say unintentionally, the application of the Leahy Law amendment by the United States government has aided and abetted the Boko Haram terrorists."

Buhari appealed to both the White House and the US Congress to find a way around the law  ̶   introduced by Senator Patrick Leahy in 1997 ̶  and to supply his troops with high-tech weapons under a deal "with minimal strings".

The request came as at least 40 people were feared dead on Wednesday after twin bomb blasts in Gombe city in a suspected Boko Haram attack.

Human rights concerns

The US government has vowed to help Nigeria defeat the Boko Haram insurgency but is required under the Leahy Law to ensure that the recipients of arms exports “have not committed gross human rights abuses”.

A 2014 State Department report on human rights in Nigeria found that: “In its response to Boko Haram, and at times to crime in general, security services perpetrated extra-judicial killings and engaged in torture, rape, arbitrary detention, mistreatment of detainees, and destruction of property.”

An Amnesty International report released in June was just as damning. It called for senior members of Nigeria's military to be investigated "for participating, sanctioning or failing to prevent the deaths of more than 8,000 people murdered, starved, suffocated, and tortured to death" as part of the campaign against Boko Haram.

Washington’s unease over these and other allegations prompted it to block Israel from selling American-made Cobra attack helicopters to Nigeria last year.

But the United States is also actively looking for ways to help Abuja defeat the Islamists. Obama said on Monday that the US wants to cooperate more closely with Nigeria on counter-terrorism and Buhari met the following day with the top US security officials  ̶  CIA Director John Brennan and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey.

Buhari acknowledged US concerns that the Nigerian military had committed human rights abuses during his visit to Washington, saying his new military chiefs were retraining their forces and would adhere to internationally acceptable rules of engagement in the future. Buhari fired the top brass of the once-mighty Nigerian army earlier this month, accusing them of corruption.

And Buhari himself has been upbeat recently in his assessment of the chances for defeating the Islamists. In an interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday, Buhari predicted that Boko Haram would be defeated within 18 months with the help of troops from Benin, Chad, Cameroon and Niger as part of the new Multi-National Joint Task Force, which he said would be ready to launch operations at the end of the month.

But he conceded that Nigerian authorities had no new information about the hundreds of schoolgirls still missing after 273 girls were kidnapped in the northern town of Chibok in April 2014. The abductions sparked international outrage and a global "Bring Back Our Girls" campaign that reached as far as the White House, with First Lady Michelle Obama lending her support.

Dozens of girls escaped after they were taken but 219 remain missing. Boko Haram threatened to sell the girls and has since said that some were "married off".

(FRANCE 24 with AP and AFP)

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning