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World Trump promises Nigeria weapons to fight Boko Haram

A soldier stands guard in front of a banner with a picture of Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari in Gokana, Nigeria on June 2, 2016 REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

AFOLABI SOTUNDE/REUTERS

U.S. President Donald Trump has promised to "cut a new deal" to sell more weapons to Nigeria to fight the extremist Boko Haram militia, a Nigerian spokesman says.

The promise came in a telephone conversation on Monday between Mr. Trump and Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari – the first official conversation between Mr. Trump and a sub-Saharan African leader since he took office last month.

"President Trump assured the Nigerian president of U.S. willingness to cut a new deal in helping Nigeria in terms of military weapons to combat terrorism," a Nigerian presidential spokesman said after the phone call.

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Read more: Chibok schoolgirl saga reveals weakness of Nigeria's military

Also: School's in: See how educators are holding their ground against Boko Haram

Related: Survivors' stories show Boko Haram's shift to violence as driving force

The planned weapons sales will be controversial. In the past, the United States has often refused to sell weapons to Nigeria because of deep concerns over human-rights abuses by the Nigerian military.

In 2014, for example, the United States blocked the sale of U.S.-made Cobra attack helicopters by Israel to Nigeria because of concerns that the Nigerian army was failing to protect civilians during military operations. The Nigerian government, furious over the blocked sale, made diplomatic protests in Washington.

Many human-rights groups have documented atrocities by the Nigerian military in its battle against Boko Haram, a radical Islamist militia. Last month, a Nigerian warplane dropped two bombs on a refugee camp in northeastern Nigeria, killing more than 100 people, mostly women and children. In other well-documented incidents, the Nigerian military killed hundreds of Shia Muslims in northern Nigeria, bombed and strafed several hundred detainees who had escaped in a jailbreak, allowed thousands of detainees to die of starvation and torture at a military prison, and was reprimanded for the use of child soldiers in a government-sponsored militia.

Congressional rules have restricted U.S. arms sales to countries such as Nigeria where the military has a poor human-rights record. But last year, there were preliminary signs that the United States might be loosening these restrictions. The two countries have been discussing the sale of U.S. attack aircraft to Nigeria since last May, although the deal has not been finalized.

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In their Monday phone conversation, Mr. Trump and Mr. Buhari "discussed ways to improve co-operation in the fight against terrorism through provision of necessary equipment," the Nigerian spokesman said.

He said Mr. Trump invited Mr. Buhari to Washington and praised the Nigerian President for "the strides being taken by the Nigerian military." The U.S. President also lauded the release in October of 21 of the schoolgirls from Chibok who were kidnapped by Boko Haram, the spokesman said.

The phone conversation between the two leaders has sparked controversy in Nigeria, where many people have been angered by Mr. Buhari's mysterious disappearance from the country for the past three weeks.

Mr. Buhari travelled to London last month on what was initially reported as a vacation. Later, his office acknowledged that the 74-year-old President was receiving medical treatment for an undisclosed condition, and Nigeria was consumed by rumours that he was severely ill or even dead.

When news of the Trump-Buhari conversation broke on Monday, many Nigerians said Mr. Buhari should provide as much openness to the Nigerian people as he has to Mr. Trump.

Mr. Buhari's office said he spoke to Mr. Trump from London, but some Nigerians said they wanted to see video evidence of the call to evaluate their president's health, especially because Nigeria has a past history of leaders concealing their illnesses. In 2010, former president Umaru Yar'Adua died after a long illness that was covered up by the government.

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Shortly after speaking to the Nigerian President, Mr. Trump spoke by telephone to South African President Jacob Zuma. A statement by Mr. Zuma's office said they discussed trade and security issues, including "the quest for peace and stability on the African continent."

Mr. Trump has said almost nothing about his Africa strategy so far. But from questions given by his staff to the U.S. State Department, it is clear that Mr. Trump has little interest in U.S. foreign aid to Africa. Instead, he sees Africa primarily through the lens of security issues, especially the fight against Islamist radical groups. Stability and security issues dominated his phone calls with both African leaders on Monday.

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