DAKAR, Senegal — Separatists in Nigeria have sued two of the Biden administration’s top officials for clearing the sale of warplanes to Africa’s most populous country, asserting the military aircraft will harm civilians supporting a decades-long push to form a new nation.
The lawsuit reflects rising tensions between the Nigerian government and those pushing to revive the short-lived state of Biafra. Half a century after Nigeria’s civil war — a three-year conflict that claimed up to a million lives — some in the southeast are still vying for independence, citing discriminatory treatment of the region’s predominant ethnic group and bloody encounters with Nigeria’s military.
“Selling the fighter jets to Nigeria means the U.S. is complicit in killings,” said Ugochukwu Onyejiaka, a spokesman for the separatists.
The group is asking a federal judge to compel Blinken and Austin to halt a shipment of six A-29 Super Tucano planes to Nigeria, which is expected to arrive by the end of the year, as well as reverse the sale of six that already landed there in July.
The U.S. State Department declined to comment on pending litigation.
The Nigerian Air Force denied targeting civilians.
“The NAF has not and will never single out any movement, group, organization or association for attack,” said a spokesman, Air Commodore Edward Gabwet. “Ours is to ensure, along with other security agencies, that the lives and properties of all Nigerians are secured.”
Gabwet said the attack planes would be used against extremists in the northeast, where Boko Haram and an offshoot loyal to the Islamic State have killed more than 30,000 people over the past 12 years. Other targets include gangs that have kidnapped hundreds of schoolchildren in recent months.
“Aircraft will be used for what they are primarily meant for,” Gabwet said. “Fighting all forms of criminality: Terrorism, insurgency and banditry.”
The separatists said they fear a too-broad definition of criminality. Ordinary people are lumped together with militants, they say, as Nigeria confronts multiple security crises.
State agents killed 115 people in the southeast between March and June, according to a report this month from Amnesty International. Many of the victims were civilians.
The military said it was countering the IPOB’s armed wing, the Eastern Security Network, which the government has accused of launching attacks on government buildings and police stations. Dozens of officers have died in the violence.
“They assign collective guilt,” said Nkasi Wódu, a human rights lawyer in the southern city of Port Harcourt. “The problem is: They often have no way of knowing who is a member of a separatist group and who is an ordinary person in the southeast going about their business.”
A legacy of division
The Trump administration greenlit the nearly $600-million Super Tucano deal in 2017, ending an Obama-era ban of selling weapons to Nigeria.
“We make the best military equipment in the world, and our friends can now buy that equipment,” Trump of the transaction.
The previous administration had imposed a prohibition after condemning the military’s record of extrajudicial killings, torture and forced disappearances. Such abuses persisted in 2020, according to the State Department’s most recent report on Nigeria.
At the time of the warplane sale, Trump officials said they wanted to help the country battle Boko Haram.
The A-29 is a turboprop light attack aircraft built by Brazilian manufacturer Embraer, which has a production facility in Florida.
The Pentagon has purchased the A-29 for use in Afghanistan, where U.S.-trained pilots have used them to attack Taliban strongholds. Brazil has wielded them against drug smuggler hideouts, and Colombia has deployed them on rebels.
Nigeria’s secessionist turmoil drew a global spotlight in June when President Muhammadu Buhari — who led troops against Biafra in the 1967-70 civil war — alluded to responding with violence in a tweet.
“Those of us in the fields for 30 months who went through the war will treat them in the language they understand,” he wrote, prompting Twitter to freeze his account.
Days later, Nigeria banned Twitter.
The separatists’ lawsuit alleges that Nigerian security forces have abducted, beaten and killed dozens of people this year in the southeast. Homes and businesses have burned down in the clashes.
People “reasonably fear that the A-29 Super Tucano aircraft will be used imminently to kill or maim them physically or to destroy their property,” according to the complaint, which was filed by American lawyer Bruce Fein.
The rift deepened after Nigeria detained IPOB’s leader, Nnamdi Kanu, in June under murky circumstances.
Despite hiding in exile for years, Kanu had built a wide following with fiery broadcasts. He seized on views that the government neglects Nigeria’s third-largest ethnic group, who are concentrated in the southeast: the Ibo. (He’s also known for peddling bogus theories, including that the Nigerian president secretly died and was replaced by a clone named Jubril.)
Kanu’s message resonated with many in the region, where four of the five states have employment rates higher than 40 percent — well above the national average.
“This is why you see people in their 30s, 20s and teens taking up the Biafra cause, even though they have no memory of the civil war,” said Idayat Hassan, director of the Centre for Democracy and Development in Abuja. “People feel marginalized.”