Nigeria revamped its strategy with covert U.S. help
by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
In early December 2016, Nigerian helicopter gunships and attack planes swooped down and blew up fuel dumps belonging to Boko Haram in the Sambisa forest — a rugged refuge for the insurgent group in the country’s northeast.
In August, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau narrowly escaped with his life after Nigerian jets bombed his hideout. The month before that, a Nigerian Alpha Jet rocketed and bombed several Boko Haram fighters in Toyota Hilux pickup trucks — machine guns mounted on the beds — waiting to ambush a convoy of multi-national troops hunting the insurgents in Sambisa.
But four years ago, the Nigerian Air Force was in serious trouble.
Boko Haram — a terror group affiliated with the Islamic State which translates to “Western education is forbidden” — metastasized across northern Nigeria, helped by support from the local population, weak governance and prevalent corruption.
The Nigerian Army was also poorly led, and officers pilfered and resold weapons intended to reach soldiers fighting and dying in remote villages.
The Air Force was of little help. Much of its inventory — including nine Israeli-made Aerostar surveillance drones — sat unused and starved of spare parts. Crews cannibalized parts where they could. Boko Haram targeted pilots for assassination and in December 2013, overran an air base in Maiduguri, destroying two helicopters.
In April 2014, militants swept into Chibok and kidnapped 276 schoolgirls, but the Air Force was nowhere to be seen despite the Nigerian military having several hours of advance warning. The following May, Boko Haram gunmen stormed into the town of Gamborou Ngala and murdered around 300 people.
Again, the Air Force was absent.
“Our problems have been multiplied,” A.A. Zannah, the Nigerian Air Force’s policy chief said during a January 2015 conference in London. “For various reasons we had to deploy to lots of different places. It remained practically impossible to deploy to all.”
Lack of intelligence imagery worsened the problem.
“Despite the advantage of precision airstrikes, air power largely proved inadequate in the search and destroy of the insurgent facilities such as camps, bunkers, production sites, warehouses and supplies in the Sambisa forest and elsewhere in the COIN theater until recently,” Samuel Oyewole, a political scientist at the University of Ilorin wrote in a 2016 paper on developments in Nigeria’s Air Force.
Air strikes killed civilians, which kept Western governments wary of supplying weapons. Nigerian troops have frequently engaged in torture and killings in both the counter-insurgency war on Boko Haram and in other circumstances.
Soldiers have also shot and tortured to death at least 150 pro-Biafra activists since August 2015 in what Amnesty International called a “chilling campaign of extrajudicial executions and violence.”
The Nigerian military is still no less brutal. But the Air Force has improved, according to Oyewole. Since 2015, Nigeria has refurbished its aircraft and improved how the Air Force coordinates with ground troops — with help from Western powers.
In 2015, the U.S. military began flying MQ-1C Gray Eagle surveillance drones from a secretive base in Cameroon. French drones arrived in the region, and the British sent a modified business jet loaded to the gills with spy gear and Tornado fighters configured for surveillance missions.
Western governments are still reluctant to sell weapons, and the United States in 2015 put the kibosh on an Israeli plan to sell Cobra gunships to Nigeria. But the U.S. government has few hesitations to reconnoiter targets for Nigeria’s Air Force, and for other no-less-brutal powers in the region such as Cameroon.
But the surveillance — and Nigeria’s warplanes and helicopters — began to see results. One unnamed diplomat later told The Intercept that the U.S. drones were “an absolute game changer.”
Beginning in 2015, “a series of concentrated airstrikes reduced Boko Haram capabilities and motivations, and paved the way for the ground troops to recover the occupied territory with little resistance,” Oyewole added.
The bulk of Nigeria’s air power remains its 22 Hind helicopters, 12 F-7 multi-role fighter jets — a Chinese variant of the MiG-21 — and 17 Alpha Jets.
The Alpha Jets are small, modified jet trainers equipped with bombs, rocket pods and a 27- or 30-millimeter cannon. While not sophisticated, they don’t need to be, as they’re cheap to fly and maintain.
However, Washington has held up a potential sale of Super Tucanos, Brazilian trainer aircraft that can double as light-attack planes. But in any case, Nigeria can choose buyers elsewhere in the world who don’t ask many questions about human rights.
In December 2016, Nigeria acquired its first of 10 Super Mushshaks, a Pakistani trainer plane. These light aircraft include six hardpoints under their wings allowing them to carry small bombs, rocket pods and small cannons.
More significantly, Nigeria wants to buy at least three JF-17 Thunders — an equivalent to the F-16 manufactured jointly by China and Pakistan. It makes sense, as the Thunder is essentially a greatly improved MiG-21, the basis for Nigeria’s F-7s.
Except the Thunders have a bigger radar, better wings, modern engines and a whole lot more. Which goes to show that it’s not just Europe and the United States with interests in West Africa.