Nigeria’s Democratic Success: Time for Greater U.S. Engagement – By Johnnie Carson
The United States needs to act fast, wisely and comprehensively to shore up and strengthen its relations with Nigeria following that country’s recent successful national elections. Nigeria’s presidential and gubernatorial elections (held respectively March 28 and April 11) were a political triumph for the people of that country as well as for the continued positive trajectory of democracy across sub-Saharan Africa.
In the run up to Nigeria’s elections, there was widespread apprehension that the elections would undermine Nigeria’s stability, that there would be pre- and post-election violence, that the insurgent group Boko Haram would disrupt voting, that thousands of citizens displaced by violence would not be able to vote, and that introduction of new voting technology would lead to chaos and confusion at the polls. None of these things happened, and Nigeria probably conducted the best elections in its fifty five years of independence.
As Nigeria prepares for a democratic transition of presidential power on May 29, the United States needs to focus again on Nigeria’s importance in Africa and in the global community as well as the significance of its latest democratic achievement.
Nigeria is by far the most important country in Africa. Although weighted down with a number of challenging problems, Nigeria is Africa’s leading economic and commercial powerhouse. Nigeria’s economy is twice the size of South Africa’s industrial base and a third larger than Egypt’s. Nigeria’s economic importance is both regional and global. With an output of over 2.2 million barrels of petroleum a day, Nigeria is Africa’s largest oil and gas producer and the sixth largest global oil exporter. In West Africa, Nigerian companies dominate the banking, insurance, transportation, telecommunications and manufacturing sectors. Nigeria’s major seaports in Lagos, Calabar and Port Harcourt serve large parts of West Africa.
The success of Nigeria’s recent elections has also raised its political profile. Nigeria has now held five successive multiparty democratic elections and is enjoying the longest period of civilian rule since its independence. It has a vibrant civil society, which helped ensure the success of the recent elections, a free and lively media and a rich blend of Muslim and Christian cultures. More importantly, with a population of 180 million people, it is Africa’s largest democracy — and the sixth largest democracy in the world.
The United States needs to move quickly to strengthen its relationship with Nigeria — as a fellow democracy – and to reach out to broaden and deepen its relations with the new Nigerian government under President-elect Muhammadu Buhari, a widely respected Muslim leader from the northern part of the country. Relations between Abuja and Washington have frayed over the past two years, largely over security issues and differences in approach of Nigeria’s handling of the Boko Haram problem. Nigerian officials were deeply upset when Washington refused to permit the sale of American-built Cobra helicopters from Israel to the Nigerian military. Nigerian officials also complained about lack of information and intelligence sharing and the reluctance of the United States to supply other training and equipment. Nigerian officials also felt snubbed by President Obama’s decision not to visit Nigeria during his July 2013 swing through Africa.
In Washington, officials at both the State Department and the Defense Department were exasperated with President Goodluck Jonathan for his reluctance to appoint competent military commanders, to deal with growing levels of corruption in the army, and to adopt a more effective and comprehensive security and economic revitalization strategy to deal with the Boko Haram militancy in the northeastern part of the country. American officials were also concerned about growing levels of corruption across government, especially in the oil sector, as well as the government’s failure to move forward on the passage and implementation of a new Petroleum Industries Bill — long sought by American energy companies to help jump start new international investment in Nigeria’s energy sector.
President-elect Buhari has already indicated that he wants to establish a better relationship between Abuja and Washington, especially in the security arena. In an editorial page article in the New York Times on April 14, Mr. Buhari said: “My Administration would welcome the resumption of a military training agreement with the United States, which was halted during the previous (Jonathan) administration.”
The United States should move fast to reciprocate. Over the next six months, there are a number of ceremonial and substantive actions the United States should take.
- President Obama should stop in Nigeria on his forthcoming July 2015 trip to Africa. Strengthening democratic institutions has been the Administration’s number one priority in sub-Saharan Africa. President Obama made this point in his first presidential trip to Africa in a speech before the Ghanaian parliament in July 2009. It is a theme repeatedly echoed since then and firmly reiterated in the president’s most important policy document on Africa, published in June 2012. President Obama is slated to visit Kenya (a longstanding economic, democratic and security partner) and Ethiopia (an important security partner whose democratic and human rights performance has been strongly criticized in the international community.) It would be deeply troubling for many Nigerians to see Africa’s largest democracy snubbed at this important moment in its history.
- President Obama should send a high level delegation to President Buhari’s inauguration on May 29. Ideally, this delegation should be led by Vice President Biden who engaged with both President Goodluck Jonathan and with president-elect Buhari in the run-up to Nigeria’s March 28 presidential contest. If Vice President Biden is unable to go, Secretary John Kerry, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson or Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack should lead the delegation. The delegation should also include senior level officials from several cabinet departments, including the Department of Defense.
- President Obama should formally invite President-elect Buhari for an official visit soon after the new president is sworn in. If the White House does not send an appropriately high delegation to the inauguration in Abuja, an official visit takes on greater urgency.
- The United States should reinvigorate, strengthen, and elevate the U.S.-Nigerian strategic dialogue that was established seven years ago by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The U.S-Nigerian dialogue should be placed on the same plane as those with India, Brazil, and China. The next dialogue should be held at the foreign minister level, with Secretary Kerry leading the U.S. meeting in Washington and Deputy Secretary Antony Blinken leading the subsequent meetings.
- The Administration should use this opportunity to deepen the commercial and trade relationship between Nigeria and the United States and to build off of the successful U.S.-Africa business summit of 2014. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, who has shown great interest in Africa, should be encouraged to travel to Nigeria with a delegation of American business leaders and investors and to work with the Nigerian government and with Nigeria’s leading companies to organize several high level trade and investment conferences in Nigeria to promote greater interest in Africa’s largest and most populous economy.
- The Administration should re-establish and elevate the broken military to military relationship between Abuja and Washington. This will require some sensitive diplomacy and the White House should send the Chairman or the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to demonstrate a strong commitment by the U.S. to get this important relationship right. Once this is done, the AFRICOM commander can take the lead, but given the harsh feelings toward Nigeria at AFRICOM headquarters and by some in the Pentagon, the Chairman or the Vice Chairman should go out first.
- The State Department should be strongly encouraged to revisit the establishment of a Consulate General in northern Nigeria, probably in Kano, Nigeria’s second largest city. Northern Nigeria is extremely important. It is home to Africa’s largest Muslim population, a Muslim population that exceeds that of Egypt, and a population that has made Nigeria the fifth largest Muslim country in the world. The U.S. has very little presence, access or influence in the north, and the U.S. should act rapidly to change this. Secretary Clinton approved the opening of a consulate in the north in 2009. The effort should be revisited as quickly as possible.
- The United States should help Nigeria with its most serious impediment to advancing and taking its economy to the next level — access to reliable, inexpensive and readily available power. In a country of 180 million people, Nigeria produces only 4,000 MW of power, less than New York City and its surrounding suburbs. President Jonathan’s inability to improve the situation is one the reasons he was thrown out of office. Power Africa has been one of the Obama Administration’s most significant initiatives. The Administration needs to double down on its efforts to assist Nigeria in addressing its energy needs by bringing together major American power producers to work with, partner and invest in Nigeria’s power sector.
- The Administration should encourage an early trip to Nigeria by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, accompanied by some of the leading American agro industry companies and the deans of some of America’s leading agricultural colleges – to help Nigeria revitalize and grow its agricultural sector. Once self-sufficient in food and one of Africa’s largest exporters of groundnuts, cocoa, cotton and palm oil, Nigeria is now a major food importer, spending between four and five billion dollars annually to feed the nation. U.S. support to strengthen Nigeria’s agricultural sector offers another opportunity for serious and sustained U.S. engagement in Nigeria whose population is expected to grow from 180 to over 400 million by 2035.
- The Administration should also consider revamping MCC to help some of Nigeria’s progressive, honest and forward thinking state governors with their sound economic development plans. In the past MCC has only helped national governments. Given the growing influence and important work that is being done at the state level, the Administration should seek changes in the MCC statute in order to directly assistance state governors and governments that are performing well, implementing sound development projects, and providing improved services to their people.
Nigeria is important. We should not hold back. And we should not miss this opportunity to engage with Nigeria’s new government. Strong support for Nigeria will help strengthen its democracy, support its economic grow and enhance its security and stability. An economically vibrant and democratically robust Nigeria is in the interest in Africa, the United States and the broader global community.
Ambassador Johnnie Carson. former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, and currently Senior Advisor, United States Institute of Peace and Visiting Senior Fellow at Yale University.