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Analysts Weigh Nigeria-Russia Arms Deal

This May 13, 2013 file photo shows a Mi-17 helicopter, used by the Afghan air force sitting on Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan. It is one type of helicopter Nigeria is buying from Russia.
This May 13, 2013 file photo shows a Mi-17 helicopter, used by the Afghan air force sitting on Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan. It is one type of helicopter Nigeria is buying from Russia.

Nigeria has turned to Russia to buy heavier weapons following a recent strain in relations with the United States. After the U.S. rejected a request for Cobra attack helicopters, Nigeria cancelled a U.S. military training program linked to the fight against Boko Haram militants. Analysts now are weighing the effects of the arms deal with Russia.

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Jennifer Cooke of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies follows U.S.-Nigeria relations.

“In the broad sense, I think the relationships are good and enduring," she said. "But at this particular moment there is a great deal of tension particularly over the security relationship.”

Cooke is director of CSIS’ Africa Program. Also watching developments in Nigeria is Ben Moores, senior analyst at the defense and security analysis organization IHS Jane's 360.

“I think the U.S. is still fully committed to supporting democracy in Nigeria in terms of a trading relationship, in terms of military equipment. I think it has changed somewhat with [the] withdrawal of trainers – a training team from Nigeria,” he said.

There are several reasons, Moores said, why the U.S. would not sell Nigeria advanced weapons systems.

“The advanced helicopters and fighter jets the U.S. has, they wouldn’t want to go to Nigeria because that equipment could be passed onto a third party. And also selling fighter jets and attack helicopters to Nigeria doesn’t perhaps solve the problem that Nigeria has when dealing with the insurgency. What you really need is a better motivated force, a more professional force to deal with some of the social and cultural problems that exist in Nigeria.”

Jennifer Cooke said that each side has a different perception of the situation.

“Nigeria’s perception [is] that the U.S. is somehow abandoning Nigeria in its moment of need as it’s threatened by Boko Haram and not providing the kind of security and military assistance that Nigeria feels it needs right now. For the United States, there’s deep concern over Nigeria’s response to Boko Haram – a very military heavy response -- and one that has raised a lot of allegations about mass human rights abuses,” she said.

Rights groups have reported those abuses include the killing and detention of innocent civilians. Cooke said the U.S. considers human rights an important issue in Nigeria.

“The human rights standard is not just for moral reasons. It’s that the U.S. has learned the hard way that human rights abuses in failing to engage communities really becomes a security setback over the long-run, as well,” she said.

But defense analyst Moores said U.S. concerns go beyond human rights when it comes to weapons sales and military training.

“My understanding is that there were leaks or moles inside the Nigerian military, who were leaking information to Boko Haram. They were leaking certain bits of information, training information and perhaps information on the team itself.”

Moores explained why Nigeria would turn to Russia for the types of weapons it could not get from the United States.

“Russia is known to sell equipment at a relatively low cost. It’s known to sell to pretty much anyone without any questions asked. It doesn’t ask for any guarantees in terms of the where the equipment will go – how the equipment is used. There’s no oversight. They don’t have to sign up for agreements. Not only that, but Russia is able to supply equipment relatively quickly – and to supply equipment that is fairly easy for less technically capable militaries to get that equipment into the frontline at a relatively fast pace,” he said.

What’s more, he said, Russia may give Nigeria a billion-dollar line of credit to buy the weapons.

The IHS Jane’s analyst said that Nigeria has a long wish list of military hardware, including jet trainers, light to medium fighter jets, some tactical transports and ground attack helicopters. Moores added that Nigeria has agreed to buy some Russian MI-35s and MI-17s.

He said, “These are fairly older aircraft and quite expensive to run. So, that’s probably why the Nigerians would have wanted to go to America first.”

Moores also said that Russia is now training Nigerian Special Forces.

Cooke, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the Nigeria/Russia relationship is one to watch.

“Russia is willing. It has arms available to sell. It’s willing to train. And it’s early to tell, but one wonders if there’s maybe a larger play by Russia in terms of winning new partners and poking a stick in the eye of the United States, for example. I think the Nigerian government, right now, is looking for help wherever it can get it.”

Cooke said it’s easy to criticize Nigeria for alleged human rights abuses and corruption. However, she said, it’s important to understand the position that Nigeria is in.

“I think there has to be this fundamental acknowledgement of what a difficult problem they’re facing when a group straps suicide bombs onto 14-year-olds -- or suicide bombers into mosques – or dresses up as police and security forces and kidnaps hundreds of girls. The Nigerian government does not have the kind of training, the kind of equipment, the kind of command and control that the U.S. military has.”

Cooke said the U.S. should have a more positive and constructive dialogue with Nigeria. A lot of that, she says, has to do with diplomatic tone.

The relationship between the U.S. and Nigeria has changed in another way, too. The U.S. used to buy a lot of Nigerian oil. But sales have dropped sharply as the United States has become much more energy independent. The U.S. itself has become a major exporter.

Oil prices have plunged this year and more declines are forecast for next year. That means a lot less money in Nigeria’s coffers, as it does for Russia, also an oil exporter. Russia’s economy has also been hit hard by economic sanctions due to its political and military moves against Ukraine.