Nigeria calls for a re-think of the Leahy law

With Boko Haram gaining ground almost every day, Nigeria is at a crossroads. Moreover, the country is set to hold presidential elections in this tense atmosphere on February 14, when incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan will face off against former general and one-time military dictator Muhammadu Buhari. The stakes are high, as a Buhari win would undoubtedly be bad news for Nigeria and her allies. The former general has previously declared his unwavering allegiance to the implementation of Sharia in Nigeria and oversaw one of the country’s most repressive and least popular regimes in the 1980s. Seeing how the Nigeria is Africa’s most populous nation and largest oil exporter, its strategic value for the U.S. goes without question. Yet Washington’s response so far in tackling Boko Haram has been sheepish at best. 

For the 2015 Fiscal Year, a mere $700,000 have been allocated to Nigeria, and the Obama administration sparked a massive diplomatic row with the African country in autumn when it blocked the sale of Cobra helicopters citing a high-minded yet unequally applied legal provision to the Arms Export Control Act, called the Leahy amendment. During a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee hearing on January 27, prompted by Boko Haram’s catastrophic attacks from earlier this year, Robert Jackson, a State Department official, boasted that so far 100 units have been vetted and deemed worthy of U.S. assistance, but also suggested that Nigeria should strike up partnerships with other exporting countries, as Washington will not sell weapons to the embattled country. But what is this all about?

{mosads}Essentially, the Leahy amendment prohibits the U.S. from offering weapons or training to “to any unit of the security forces of a foreign country if the Secretary of State has credible information that such unit has committed a gross violation of human rights.” The eponymous Vermont Democrat who sponsored the law in the late 1990s argued that taxpayers shouldn’t finance regimes that could then use the equipment against political opponents or citizens. Indeed, from a historical point of view, the amendment makes sense, as the U.S. has had a less-than-stellar track record in exporting weapons. In the past, American gear has helped the tyrannical regimes of Central America and Asia stifle civil resistance and/or persecutes opposition figures. Closer to our days, Bahrain used American-made teargas and riot control equipment to crack down on its citizens during the Arab Spring.

But how widespread is the use of the Leahy law? In 2011, out of 200,000 cases that were subject to the Leahy vetting mechanism, less than 1 percent of candidates, or 1,766 individuals, were denied assistance. Alongside Nigeria, the list also includes military units from Pakistan, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka. But many see this argument as selective, pointing to countries such as Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which despite numerous human rights controversies have been constant recipients U.S. military gear. Thanks to a loophole existing in the law, the Secretary of Defense can waive the Leahy prohibition if “such waiver is required by extraordinary circumstances.” What’s more, the law doesn’t apply to the assistance provided by private contractors carrying out U.S. operations.

Egypt for example, which has received a steady flow of American weapons since 1979, has been denied four large-scale weapons systems by the State Department, “pending credible progress toward an inclusive, democratically elected civilian government.” In spite of the ban, the Obama administration has continued to send millions of dollars worth of parts and guided missiles to Cairo, before lifting part of the embargo in December, when 10 Apache attack helicopters were delivered. Similarly, in May 2012, the U.S. has resumed military sales to Bahrain, after a brief lull following the Arab Spring.

In this context, the refusal of the U.S. to help arm the Nigerian military for its fight against Boko Haram seems arbitrary and even paternalistic. By refusing to invoke the waiver within the Leahy law on “extraordinary circumstances,” Washington fails to see that enabling Nigeria to combat one of the most heinous terrorist groups of the 21st century, a group that has killed more than 2,000 people in 2015, is in itself a human rights concern. 

Opeyemi is a Nigerian law student based in Lagos.


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