Abuja, Nigeria – Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine has upended geopolitical and commercial relations around the world, from the purchase of military equipment to increasingly expensive wheat and oil.
But for Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, there is an added dimension given its military relationships with all the major players, especially Russia.
Historically, both countries have explored areas of cooperation in defense and arms trade. One of the parallel plots of the long Cold War era was that during Nigeria’s 30-month civil war that ended in 1970, the Soviet Union provided military assistance.
Only last year, Abuja signed an agreement with Moscow for the supply of military equipment, personnel training and technology transfer.
The outcome of that deal has become increasingly visible since, given the acquisition and use of Russian-made combat and transport helicopters such as the Mi-35M and Mi-171E, both export variants of the Mi-24 and Russian Mi-8, for military purposes. operations in Nigeria.
But since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the gains from the relationship may be eroding.
The West has responded to the crisis by deploying deadly military support, including anti-tank and surface-to-air missiles to NATO countries close to Ukraine, such as Poland. A barrage of sanctions has also been targeted at individuals and entities in Russia. On March 24, the United States announced sanctions on multiple companies in Russia’s defense industrial sector, some whose weapons are being used in the invasion.
The new sanctions and financial restrictions that align with previous actions and those taken by the European Union, the United Kingdom and Canada, are designed to have a profound and lasting effect on the Russian defense sector.
They are going to avoid Russia’s access to cutting-edge technologies inevitably disrupts supply chains and production, particularly for specific defense companies like Russian Helicopters JSC.
This, in turn, will affect its ability to provide efficient maintenance support and additional aircraft to foreign customers, including the Nigerian Air Force.
The Nigerian military is currently struggling with persistent domestic conflicts on multiple fronts, including uprisings in the northeast by Boko Haram and the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), banditry in the northwest, and increasingly violent separatist rebellions in the southeast.
It is also fighting maritime piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, one of the world’s most dangerous shipping lanes.
Without its Russian arms supply, Nigeria’s firepower will be severely lagging.
A perforated supply chain
Russia is the world’s second largest arms exporter, behind the United States.
Between 2017 and 2021, it was notably Africa’s largest supplier, accounting for 44 percent of major arms imports to the continent, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which tracks the international arms trade.
Your 2021 report reveals that Nigeria received weapons from 13 suppliers in the same five-year period, including 272 armored vehicles from China, seven helicopter gunships from Russia, three fighter jets from Pakistan and 12 light combat aircraft from Brazil via the US.
Over the past decade, Russian transport and combat rotary aircraft equipped with modern technological systems and sensors have become an integral element of Nigeria’s bid to expand its Air Force’s combat capabilities.
But the delivery of more Mi-35M gunship units suitable for close air support missions has already been marred by controversy. In 2019, the Nigerian ambassador to Russia implied into a brick wall in the supply chain: a consequence of pre-existing sanctions.
Two years earlier, the US had signed the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) aimed at disrupting the flow of arms exports after the US annexation of Crimea. of Russia, involvement in the Syrian civil war, and meddling in the 2016 US presidential election.
In its 2022 budget, the Nigerian government has made provisions for regular depot maintenance and upgrading of three older MI helicopters. The Mi-24V and Mi-35P variants are known to be used by the Air Force.
A few years ago, Russian Helicopters JSC thrown out upgrades for the Mi-35P variant including an improved target sight system, digital flight control system, and night vision goggles.
Those would be perfect for Nigeria’s counter-insurgency operations against increasingly sophisticated armed groups in and around its borders. But the stream of new sanctions targeting the Russian defense sector creates obstacles to Nigeria’s upgrade plans.
Belarus trained AFSF
The sanctions also extend to Russian ally Belarus, which continues to provide support for Russia’s attack on Ukraine.
Such support could jeopardize military cooperation between Nigeria and Belarus, which hosted the 2014 training of Nigeria’s elite tactical unit, the Armed Forces Special Forces (AFSF). The AFSF was formed as part of the Nigerian military’s revamped response to the growing threat of Boko Haram.
There have been rumors of other planned deployments, but nothing has been confirmed, except for a visit by the head of one of Nigeria’s civil defense forces and senior officials from the Interior Ministry to Minsk last August.
Ukrainian tanks, artillery and armored personnel carriers
The war is also depleting Ukraine’s military hardware manufacturing and export capacity and that could hurt Nigeria as well.
Between 2014 and 2015, Nigeria acquired military equipment from Ukraine, including T-72 tanks, D-30 artillery and BTR-4EN armored personnel carriers, before increasingly turning to China for assets.
All of that could push Abuja to find new markets for alternative helicopters capable of performing similar roles as effectively as the Russian ones, requiring new investment to develop technical capacity and supporting infrastructure.
Still, there could be other political obstacles.
Last July, the bipartisan US Senate Foreign Relations Committee. stopped the proposed sale of 12 AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters and accompanying systems worth $875 million to Nigeria, amid concerns about the government’s human rights record.
Nigerian Minister of Information denied knowledge of the situation, but his foreign affairs counterpart, Godfrey Onyeama, was more forthcoming. “We have a little problem with some attack helicopters, but that’s more on the legislative side and not the executive side.” said Onyeama during a meeting last year between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Nigerian officials in Abuja.
The short and long-term effects of the invasion of Ukraine and the continuing flow of sanctions provide new opportunities for collaboration with Nigeria, once known for its professional military standards and willingness to participate in international peacekeeping missions in Africa. .
For now, that could also mean more arms trade with China, the world’s fifth largest arms exporter, given the West’s reluctance, despite differences in quality, operability and technical support.
In 2019, Gen. Stephen Townsend, then a candidate for the post of commander, US Africa Command (AFRICOM), informed The US Senate Committee on Armed Services reported that China provided Nigeria with armed unmanned aerial systems to enhance its counterterrorism capabilities, but poor quality contributed to their infrequent use.
But the following year, the Nigerian air force acquired a number of drones, including Chinese Wing Loong II drones that resemble American MQ-9 Reaper drones. While the MQ-9 Reaper is reported to cost 30 million dollars, the Wing Loong II costs between 1 and 2 million dollars.
These drones are known to lack the sophistication and technical capability of their Western counterparts, but without many options, African countries could soon turn to them.
China’s relatively affordable and accessible military hardware could easily attract countries like Nigeria and Sahelian states looking for alternative markets for asset acquisition.