4 September 2021
The fall of Kabul to the Taliban and the group’s capture of U.S. military materiel highlights the risk inherent to U.S. arms deals with countries wracked with insecurity.
The Nigerian Air Force (NAF) has officially placed in service six A-29 Super Tucanos, light turboprop aircraft manufactured by Embraer (Brazil) and the Sierra Nevada Corporation (United States). Six more Super Tucanos will be delivered later this year in a deal set to cost the Nigerian government about $500 million. According to the American embassy in Abuja, the sale is the largest in sub-Saharan Africa under the U.S. Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program. Presumably the NAF will deploy the aircraft at low altitude against jihadis operating in the north in areas of scrub and forest. The Super Tucanos were long part of a menu of military materiel Nigeria sought to purchase from the United States.
According to the embassy statement, the United States is providing $36.1 million in infrastructure support at the Kanji Air Base, where the Super Tucanos will be housed. It has also trained sixty-four Nigerian pilots at an American air force base. According to the embassy, that training included a major human-rights component and development of strategic targeting skills.
The United States had sold the Afghan government twenty-three Super Tucanos for deployment against the Taliban. With the collapse of the Afghan government and the fall of Kabul, not all of the aircraft have been accounted for. Some Afghan pilots flew their planes out of the country. However, at least one Super Tucano is now in the hands of the Taliban.
The sale of Super Tucanos to Nigeria was met with significant opposition by human rights groups and some members of the U.S. Congress. Following initial approval, the deal was suspended under the Obama administration. Critics expressed concern about deepening an American relationship with the Nigerian military, which was notorious for its human rights abuses. Others questioned whether Nigeria, with its myriad challenges, could afford to buy the aircraft. The suspension contributed to the souring of the bilateral relationship. A Nigerian ambassador to Washington accused the United States of unintended complicity in Boko Haram terror because of the refusal to sell the equipment Nigeria wanted.
Supporters of the sale argued that it was in interest of the United States to enhance the security capacity of partners and the destruction of jihadi terrorism must be a priority. Further, the Super Tucano had been developed specifically to assist partners struggling with low-intensity terrorism. Citing experience with Super Tucanos in Afghanistan and Iraq, some proponents argued that the planes could improve targeting, thereby decreasing unacceptable civilian casualties and alienation from the government deploying them and, potentially, its American partner. A sale could also be seen as an American vote of confidence in Nigeria’s struggle against jihadi terrorism. In 2017, the Trump administration authorized the sale to go forward.
Now that the Super Tucanos are part of the Nigerian Air Force, an issue will be how they are used. Will they be used only against jihadi terrorists in the north, or will there be the temptation to use them against other targets, such as Biafran separatists, Delta militants, or even cattle rustlers? Broader use increases the potential for civilian casualties. A Biafran separatist movement, the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), is suing to block the sale in a Washington, D.C. court. Though it seems unlikely at present, there is also the potential that a Super Tucano could fall into the hands of a jihadi terrorist group, as has happened with much other military materiel in Nigeria.
By John Campbell. This piece first appeared on the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) website.