Home » Blinken Visits Nigeria as Questions Swirl About Civilian Deaths and U.S. Security Ties

Blinken Visits Nigeria as Questions Swirl About Civilian Deaths and U.S. Security Ties

The Nigerian military conducted an airstrike last month on a religious festival in the northern part of the country, killing scores of Nigerian civilians. Thirty minutes later, the military launched a second missile, killing dozens more, including people trying to rescue victims of the first strike.

The December 3 attack killed more than 120 villagers celebrating Maulud, the birthday of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, according to Amnesty International. But in a press call ahead of U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s trip to Nigeria and several other African nations this week, a State Department official expressed annoyance when journalists asked about regional insecurity and coups, complaining that the press was not focusing on the “fun” aspects of the trip. She then challenged The Intercept’s characterization of the drone attack and defended Nigeria’s handling of the aftermath of the December airstrikes in the village of Tudun Biri.

“I wouldn’t call it an attack,” Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Molly Phee told The Intercept on the January 18 call. “The Nigerians have admitted it was an operational error that tragically killed people in Kaduna State.”

“The one thing that is clear in this case is the fact that the military launched an attack which inadvertently killed innocent people,” Anietie Ewang, Human Rights Watch’s Nigeria researcher told The Intercept. “There should be less focus on semantics and more effort to ensure accountability and a stop to these unacceptable mistakes that have caused needless deaths, pain, and suffering.”

Last month’s attacks were just the latest of hundreds of Nigerian airstrikes that have killed thousands of Nigerians, including a 2017 attack on a displaced persons camp in Rann, Nigeria, that killed more than 160 civilians, many of them children. In 2022, The Intercept exclusively revealed that the attack was referred to as an instance of “U.S.-Nigerian operations” in a formerly secret U.S. military document.

While the drone that conducted the December 2023 attack was most likely a Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2, Nigeria has killed a growing number of civilians even as the United States has strengthened military ties with the West African nation and signed off on its purchase of attack aircraft and lethal munitions. The strike on Tudun Biri came just two days before a group of senators urged the Biden administration to ensure greater oversight of Israel’s use of U.S.-provided weapons in Gaza. The State Department did not answer questions about U.S. monitoring of American weapons transferred to Nigeria.

“In addition to recognizing civilian harm when it happens, it’s also important that the U.S. push for accountability and justice for that harm — both in U.S. military operations and also in partner operations, like with the case in Nigeria,” Rep. Sara Jacobs, D-Calif., told The Intercept. “I have long emphasized the importance of upholding human rights in our security relationship with Nigeria and will continue to push the State Department on this issue.”

“You Guys Are Bumming Me Out”

Phee spoke with reporters on a conference call ahead of Blinken’s trip to Cabo Verde, Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria, and Angola. The visit is his third overseas mission of 2024, following a 10-nation trip to the Middle East and a three-day sojourn to the World Economic Forum in Switzerland and amid ongoing crises in Ukraine, Gaza, and the Red Sea that have buffeted the Biden White House. The State Department emphasized that Blinken would “highlight how the United States has accelerated the U.S.-Africa partnership” regarding climate, food, and health security. During the press call, Phee took exception to repeated questions about turmoil in the West African Sahel that strayed from her “positive” messaging. “You guys are bumming me out because you’re not talking about any of the really fun and positive, forward-looking things we’ll be doing,” she said.

Blinken will spend Tuesday and Wednesday in Nigeria, where he will meet with President Bola Tinubu and Foreign Minister Yusuf Tuggar to discuss economic opportunities, trade, and countering terrorism.

Nigeria is West Africa’s economic leader and plays a major role in regional security issues, including responses to the coups and spiraling militant Islamist violence in the Sahel region. The country is also waging a long-running war against extremist militants and armed groups that it typically refers to as “bandits.”

Between 2000 and 2022, the U.S. provided, facilitated, or approved more than $2 billion in security aid and weapons and equipment sales to Nigeria, according to a report by Brown University’s Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Studies, the Security Assistance Monitor at the Center for International Policy, and InterAction. Over that time, the U.S. also carried out more than 41,000 training courses for Nigerian military personnel.

In 2021, the U.S. delivered to Nigeria 12 Super Tucano warplanes as part of a $593 million package, approved by the State Department in 2017 that also included bombs and rockets. Last May, as part of the sale, the U.S. completed a $38 million project to construct new facilities for those aircraft.

In 2022, the State Department approved the sale to Nigeria of nearly $1 billion in AH-1Z attack helicopters and supporting munitions and equipment. “The proposed sale will better equip Nigeria to contribute to shared security objectives [and] promote regional stability,” reads a Defense Department press release.

Last year, Reps. Jacobs and Chris Smith, R-N.J., called on the Biden administration to scuttle the nearly $1 billion attack helicopter deal. “We write to express our concern with current U.S. policy on and military support to Nigeria,” the lawmakers said, urging “a review of security assistance and cooperation programs in Nigeria, including a risk assessment of civilian casualties and abuses.” The Biden administration eventually held a classified briefing to address lawmakers’ questions, according to a source on Capitol Hill.

“The United States and other countries providing security assistance to Nigeria must conduct thorough assessments of civilian harm risks and condition their assistance on thorough investigations into civilian harm incidents as well as concrete changes to rules of engagement and procedures that address the risks and gaps identified,” said Vianney Bisimwa, the regional director of the Sahel program at Center for Civilians in Conflict, or CIVIC.

“A Propaganda Scheme”

Phee lauded the Nigerian government’s response to the December 2023 drone strike. “They acted with transparency, immediately acknowledged the horrific accident. They set up a reparation process and a transparent investigation,” she told The Intercept. “So, they have, I think, responded to that tragedy in a constructive way that will contribute to rebuilding confidence of the Nigerian people and the security services.” Amnesty International reported, however, that the Nigerian military engaged in a cover-up and offered contradictory explanations for that attack — first claiming the airstrike was a mistake and then, as Amnesty put it, that “suspected bandits had embedded with civilians.”

The Nigerian military has a long history of errant attacks on innocent people and has repeatedly denied responsibility for strikes and frequently been accused of covering up civilian deaths, including running what a 2023 investigation by Nigeria’s Premium Times called “a systemic propaganda scheme to keep the atrocities of its troops under wraps.”

In addition to the December 2023 strike in Tudun Biri, an attack last January killed 39 civilians and injured at least six others. Witnesses and local officials said a December 2022 strike that targeted “bandits” killed at least 64 people, including civilians. An August 2022 attack that the Nigerian military said killed a Boko Haram commander actually left at least eight civilians dead. In February 2022, a reported Nigerian airstrike on a village in neighboring Niger killed at least 12 civilians. In September 2021, following an initial denial, the Nigerian Air Force admitted that it attacked a village, killing 10 civilians and injuring another 20. That April, a Nigerian military helicopter reportedly launched indiscriminate attacks on homes, farms, and a school. And the January 17, 2017, airstrike on a displaced persons camp in Rann, Nigeria — which a secret U.S. military investigation said involved the United States — killed more than 160 civilians and seriously wounded more than 120 people.

In 2022, the Protection of Civilians in Conflict Caucus — of which Jacobs is a founder — called on Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to disclose details of the U.S. role in the 2017 airstrike on the displaced persons camp. That year, the Pentagon missed a 90-day deadline to provide answers and, last week, refused to say whether Austin ever provided the information. “As with all correspondences received, the Department responds to the authors of the letter as appropriate,” Pentagon spokesperson Lisa Lawrence told The Intercept. “I do not have anything further to share at this time.” 

A source on Capitol Hill told The Intercept that the Biden administration briefed members of Congress on the 2017 attack but declined to provide details because the information was classified.

A 2023 Reuters analysis of data compiled by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, a U.S.-based armed violence monitoring group, found that even outside Nigeria’s three northeastern states beset by its long-running war against Islamist militants, more than 2,600 people were killed in 248 airstrikes during the previous five years. Most victims were identified as “communal militia,” a catchall category that includes local self-defense forces, criminal gangs, and so-called bandits. An analysis by Action on Armed Violence, a U.K.-based organization that investigates civilian harm, counted 14 airstrikes that killed 399 civilians and injured 310 others between 2010 and 2023.

“There has been a concerning pattern of deadly strikes in Nigeria and civilians have paid a heavy price. This cannot go on,” said CIVC’s Bisimwa. “Scrutiny into the conduct of military operations of Nigeria’s air force is a must.”

Phee told The Intercept that Blinken would “definitely” speak to Tinubu about the strikes on Tudun Biri, noting that “promoting and protecting human rights” is “part of our ongoing dialogue” with Nigeria’s government. She went on to say that the State Department hosted a Nigerian delegation for four hours of discussion last week on such issues. “So, I’m certain,” she said, that “the Secretary will talk about it when he sees the president and the foreign minister.”

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January 2024