Nigeria and the US press the reset button on relations – By Lagun Akinloye
The four day official visit to the United States embarked upon by President Muhammadu Buhari drew to a close last Wednesday as he arrived back in the Nigerian capital, Abuja. The trip, heralded as a thaw in relations between both countries, was aimed at repairing and renewing a partnership that had faltered during the administration of Goodluck Jonathan.
Buhari and his visiting delegation were greeted with pomp and pageantry reminiscent of the visit of President Shehu Shagari to the White House on the invitation of Jimmy Carter in 1980. Carter would describe Nigeria as “one of the greatest democracies on Earth”, adding that both countries shared “a great deal”. And though a lot has changed since then, the warmth in which Buhari was received signifies an attempt at resetting the once strong relationship.
With a new wave of cordiality between both countries, the gravity of Buhari’s need for assistance in effectively suppressing Boko Haram was not lost on either party. President Obama also took the opportunity to stabilize the US’s waning influence in the region by shoring up an alliance with Africa’s most populous nation and largest economy.
From East to West
Since the assent of former President Goodluck Jonathan to the Nigerian presidency in 2009 there has been a seeming political shift towards the east. Political differences, oil installation sabotage and the boom in shale gas production severed the reliance of the US on Nigerian oil, opening the doors to competing interests.
2014 oil export figures saw India replace the US as the single largest importer of crude oil from the country in 2014. Sales to the US fell from 1,000,000 barrels per day in 2013 to zero by January 2015. This signalled the first time since 1973 that the US did not import oil from Nigeria.
China, whose influence in the Nigeria has risen in recent years, has continued to heavily invest in infrastructural projects in Nigeria whilst providing generous soft loans to the federal and state governments. Their expanding reach into the oil industry culminated in the purchases of lucrative offshore oil reserves, and the acquisition of French major Total’s stake in the OML 138 oil block at a cost of $2.5bn in 2013, thus cementing their presence in the country.
A further schism between the Jonathan administration and the White House occurred when the US blocked the sales of Israeli Apache helicopters to Nigeria in December 2014, with The New York Times reporting “concerns in Washington about Nigeria’s ability to use and maintain that type of helicopter in its effort against Boko Haram, and continuing worries about Nigeria’s protection of civilians when conducting military operations.” This led to the cancellation of joint US military training program by Nigeria and the order of similar weaponry from America’s perennial arch-rival’s Russia, who happily obliged.
The US had seemingly lost faith in Nigeria, citing the government’s inability to stem the growing tide of corruption, numerous human rights abuses in the fight against Boko Haram and dislike of the country’s new friends, bringing their relations to their lowest ebb.
In the run up to the April election, US Secretary of State John Kerry visited both presidential candidates Jonathan and Buhari in Abuja and made it clear “The US. government strongly believes in Nigeria having credible, free and fair elections next month,” and relayed the wishes of President Obama for “a violence-free election”.
Buhari’s four day official visit underscored the importance the US attached to restoring good relations with Nigeria. During a meeting hosted in the Oval Office, President Obama praised Buhari for having “a very clear agenda in defeating Boko Haram and a very clear agenda in terms of rooting out corruption,”. Buhari also thanked the US for the support they gave Nigeria during what many had wrongly predicted would be a turbulent and possibly violent election.
The visit afforded Buhari the opportunity to meet major US industry players and organizations, which resulted in a $2.1bn loan by the World Bank to help rebuild parts of the North East of Nigeria ravaged by the Boko Haram insurgency, and a pledge of $300m by the World Health Organization (WHO) to invest on immunisation against malaria. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation also signed a partnership with the Dangote Foundation to help eradicate polio in the country.
In addition, a meeting with Loretta Lynch, the US Attorney-General, culminated in a promise to assist Nigeria in recovering an estimated $150-200bn worth of assets stolen in the past 10 years and hidden outside of Nigeria, one of Buhari’s main campaign promises.
A friend in need
Yet questions still remain whether the trip produced the desired results with the National Publicity Secretary of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party, Olisa Metuh, declaring “nothing whatsoever has been learnt or gained.”
Nigeria failed to extract firm assurances from the US on military assistance and entered in a minor diplomatic spat as Senator Patrick Leahy reiterated the fact the Nigerian army must curb their gross human rights violations before pointing fingers at the US for not providing advanced weaponry. Leahy asked the Nigerian president in a post that appeared on his website to “face up to his own responsibility to effectively counter Boko Haram.”
An opportunity to prop up Nigeria’s faltering economy may have also been missed as Buhari travelled to the US without a strong trade delegation due to the delay in fashioning his economic policy and cabinet appointments.
Positives can still to be drawn from the rapprochement between Nigeria and the US, as the conversation between both countries has encouragingly changed. Buhari’s invitation to the G7 summit in June and the subsequent visit to the US signifies their willingness and that of the international community in helping Nigeria achieve its developmental goals.
But how honest are their intentions and commitment to Nigeria, whose growing trade with China exceeded $16 billion in 2014? In fact, this underscores that a renewed alliance with Nigeria is strategically important for the US.
The Director-General, Bureau of Public Enterprises (BPE), Benjamin Ezra Dikki, stated that Nigeria needed $113bn worth of domestic and foreign investment over the next 6 years to fix decaying infrastructure in three critical sectors of the economy which include oil and gas power generation and rail/road transportation – in which the US is now expected to play a big part.
And when placed alongside Nigeria’s request for technical assistance and military hardware in order to effectively combat the Boko Haram insurgency, the coming months will determine if America’s favourable attitude to the Buhari administration is purely for geo-political advantage and influence or whether they are truly willing to help Nigeria discover its unfulfilled potential.
Lagun Akinloye is a journalist and Nigerian political analyst.