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Fourteen months after the election of President Muhammadu Buhari in Nigeria, the Obama administration is considering selling his government 12 warplanes. It is a thorny decision because Mr. Buhari is an improvement over his disastrous predecessor, Goodluck Jonathan, and is fighting Boko Haram, the Islamist extremists who have terrorised the region. But he has not done enough to end corruption and respond to charges that the army has committed war crimes in its fight against the group. Selling him the planes now would be a mistake.
Under Mr. Buhari, Nigeria has cooperated more with Chad and Niger to fight Boko Haram. The group, which emerged in the early 2000s, has seized land in the northeastern, predominantly Muslim section of Nigeria. Thousands of people have been killed and 2.2 million displaced. The group’s depravity captured world attention in 2014 when it kidnapped 276 girls from a secondary school.
While violence is down and some hitherto occupied territories have been recaptured, the group continues to attack remote villages and refugee camps, and it is using women and children as suicide bombers. American military officials say that Boko Haram has begun collaborating with the Islamic State and that the groups could be planning attacks on American allies in Africa.
Yet Nigeria’s government cannot be entrusted with the versatile new warplanes, which can be used for ground attacks as well as reconnaissance. Its security services have long engaged in extrajudicial killings, torture and rape, according to the State Department’s latest annual human rights report. Amnesty International says that during the army’s scorched-earth response to Boko Haram between 2011 and 2015, more than 8,200 civilians were murdered, starved or tortured to death.
The Obama administration was so concerned about this record that two years ago it blocked Israel’s sale of American-made Cobra attack helicopters to Nigeria and ended American training of Nigerian troops. American officials even hesitated to share intelligence with the military, fearing it had been infiltrated by Boko Haram. That wariness has eased and American officials say they are now working with some Nigerian counterparts.
Since winning election on a reform platform, Mr. Buhari has moved to root out graft and to investigate human rights abuses by the military. But the State Department said Nigerian “authorities did not investigate or punish the majority of cases of police or military abuse” in 2015.
That hardly seems like an endorsement for selling the aircraft. Tim Rieser, a top aide to Senator Patrick Leahy, who wrote the law barring American aid to foreign military units accused of abuses, told The Times that “we don’t have confidence in the Nigerians’ ability to use them in a manner that complies with the laws of war and doesn’t end up disproportionately harming civilians, nor in the capability of the U.S. government to monitor their use.”
To defeat Boko Haram, which preys on citizens’ anger at the government, Mr. Buhari will need more than weapons. He has to get serious about improving governance and providing jobs, roads and services in every region of Nigeria. Until then or until Congress develops ways to monitor the planes’ use, it should block the sale.
•This New Times Editorial was published on May 18, 2016