The A-29 Super Tucano fighter jets, manufactured by the Brazilian company Embraer in the United States, are at the center of a legal dispute that brings to life one of the most dramatic wars of the 20th century.
On July 31, a separatist group in the Biafra region of eastern Nigeria filed a lawsuit in federal court in Washington, the US capital, against two key members of President Joe Biden’s government: the Secretaries of State Antony Blinken and Defense, Lloyd Austin.
The aim is to block the sale of 12 combat units to the Nigerian government, on the grounds that they can be used against the people of Biafra, in the same way as in the past.
The reference is to a conflict that took place between 1967 and 1970, when the region attempted to become independent, which left around 2 million dead and became known for the images of starving children, which generated an international mobilization unprecedented at the time.
The lawsuit is filed by the Ipob group, acronym for Original Peoples of Biafra, which calls for a plebiscite on the independence of the nine Nigerian states that now make up the region.
The new country would have 8% of the current area of Nigeria, a territory slightly smaller than that of the state of Santa Catarina, but would have 30% of the population of the country, or 65 million inhabitants, of which a large part of the oil reserves of the African nation. .
Established in 2012, Ipob is considered by the Nigerian government to be a terrorist organization, and its leader, Nnamdi Kanu, was arrested in June while in Kenya. The group’s command, which has a lot of strength in the American diaspora, denies the use of violent methods.
“We are a peaceful people who want to live with everyone. But we have been persecuted since the 1967 war, ”says Oliver Obi, coordinator of Ipob in the USA, whose strategy to achieve popular consultation is to exert pressure through strikes and marches. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the separatist group by famous lawyer Bruce Fein, a constitutional law expert and regular on American television shows. Wanted, he did not respond to interview requests.
The fighters are made in Florida, the result of a joint venture between Embraer and the American company Sierra Nevada, and are considered ideal for combating insurgent movements, as they are light and versatile, and can carry bombs, rockets and machine guns.
In Afghanistan, where they were employed by the former government against the Taliban, however, their performance has been criticized for not stopping the advance of fundamentalists. Nigerians say the plane will be used against Islamist terrorists Boko Haram, who operate in the north of the country, far from Biafra. The separatists say they are certain that the equipment will also be used against them.
“What we did was find a way to protect ourselves. We’re not going to sit here and watch and wait for these planes to be used, ”Obi says.
The plane contract, worth $ 593 million (R $ 3.2 billion), comes from the government of Barack Obama (2009-17). The then US president blocked the sale, however, citing the story of the lack of respect for human rights by the African country’s armed forces.
The sale was finally unlocked by Democrat’s successor Donald Trump in 2017. A first batch of six planes was delivered to Nigeria last month, with the remaining six expected to follow by the end of the year.
The judicial process intends to force the return of combatants who have already been sent and the blockade of those who have not yet been delivered. One argument of the separatists is the existence of US laws prohibiting the sale of arms to regimes that can use them to commit atrocities. “In the case of Nigeria, it’s no longer a hint of human rights violations, it’s already proven,” Obi says.
At first, he says, there are no plans to file a complaint against the sale in Brazil or against Embraer. The path chosen is American justice because the devices were manufactured and marketed in the USA.
The activists are also seeking other contracts for the purchase of US arms by Nigeria which have been blocked by the US Congress due to human rights concerns. Last month, Foreign Policy magazine reported that a billion-dollar deal involving 12 Cobra attack helicopters, plus 2,000 precision bombs, had been suspended by US lawmakers.
The African country is chaired by General Muhammadu Buhari, a former dictator democratically elected in 2015 and head of a heavily militarized government. “Nigeria has a long history of military rule since the 1960s. The real problem for the military is to recognize that the fight against violent insurgencies goes beyond the use of bullets and bombs,” says Akinola Olojo , principal researcher on the Nigerian conflict at the Institute for Security Studies, Dakar (Senegal).
According to him, concern for human rights is a real problem in the country. “Concerns have been raised in recent years, and there are cases where security forces and official agencies have been implicated in violations. There have been lessons about it, but there is still a lot to do, ”he says.
There is no credible research on supporting separatism in the region today, half a century after the war ended, but the researcher says it is still important.
One of the factors that nourish this feeling is ethno-religious. The territory of Biafra is predominantly Christian, dominated by the Igbo group, while the country in general is predominantly Muslim.
“Biafra remains a wound that has not yet healed, and the sensitivities linked to the memory of the conflict are still great. There is clearly a need for a real dialogue in the country, because these separatist feelings are not limited to this region, ”said Olojo.
Wanted to comment on the imbroglio, Embraer did not respond to questions sent. The US State and Defense Departments have not commented either. A spokesperson for Nigeria’s Justice Department told Bloomberg that the country’s government is “globally recognized for its respect for human rights” and the accusations are “speculative.”