Buhari in Washington: Five things Nigeria could actually achieve
His meeting with Trump may have symbolic importance, but what concrete results could Buhari bring back from his US visit?
President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria will meet his US counterpart in the Oval Office in Washington later today as part of a three-day visit. This will make him Africa’s second leader – and sub-Saharan Africa’s first – to meet with President Donald Trump.
One key priority in the meeting between the two septuagenarians will be terrorism and the fight against Islamist militants Boko Haram. However, with the controversial saga regarding the purchase of 12 A-29 Super Tucano attack planes now seemingly resolved – Nigeria paid for the aircrafts in February and the US is scheduled to deliver them in 2020 – specific deliverables from the trip are more likely to come elsewhere. The fact that Defence Minister Mansur Dan-Ali doesn’t appear to be part of Buhari’s delegation reinforces this assessment.
Instead, any concrete outcomes from the trip are more likely to be economic. As well as meeting with political officials, President Buhari and his team are also scheduled to meet with executives of major US companies in sectors such as agriculture, aviation and transport.
Here are five possible developments to keep an eye on.
1) Finalising a $2 billion railway project
In May 2017, a consortium led by US multinational General Electric – and including South Africa’s Transnet, Dutch-based APM Terminals and China’s Sinohydro – won a bid to complete an ambitious $2 billion railway project. This would see the group upgrade and operate Nigeria’s Western line (from Lagos to Kano) and its Eastern line (from Port Harcourt to Maiduguri).
According to a press release by special presidential advisor Femi Adesina, this multi-billion-dollar deal will be “negotiated and finalized” during the trip. This would be a key and specific deliverable.
2) A well-timed lifeline for Nigeria Airways
Nigerian officials are set meet with Boeing regarding the “National Carrier Project”, Buhari’s pet plan to revive the defunct Nigeria Airways. This might be a fortuitous time to be dealing with US aircraft manufacturer. Boeing is reportedly looking to sign new contracts at the moment in order to cushion the potential loss of $17 billion in sales to Iran if the Iran nuclear deal collapses.
3) Launching the Commercial and Investment Dialogue
Last November, the US and Nigeria agreed of a Memorandum of Understanding establishing a Commercial and Investment Dialogue. The aim of this is to “strategically engage the private sectors of each country in strengthening commercial ties”. Although Adesina’s press release is silent on the matter, the Dialogue, scheduled to begin sometime early this year, could be launched or further progress towards it could be announced.
4) An competitive alternative to China
Buhari’s delegation is reportedly intending to “explore competitive financing arrangements” with the US Export-Import Bank and Overseas Private Investment Corporation. Some officials in Washington seem to have accepted that the US will not get far just delivering dry lectures on the dangers of Chinese infrastructure financing without offering a credible alternative.
Although he was fired moments after, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in Abuja last month that: “we are developing mechanisms and the President has charged some of his executive staff back home to begin to develop alternative financing mechanisms that will also create alternative opportunities to what China is offering”. We may see how far this initiative is in its gestation.
5) A free trade agreement
At the moment, America’s only African free trade agreement is with Morocco. But in January, Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer hinted that another one was being considered, saying that the US will soon strike a “model” free trade agreement with a “properly selected” African country. J Peter Pham, Director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center who was last year shortlisted to fill the still vacant role of the State Department’s top Africa envoy, has previously argued that Nigeria’s large economy and population makes it a viable candidate.
One key mitigating factor though is the protectionist mood currently in Abuja. Nigeria has recently refused to sign an Economic Partnership Agreement with the European Union and declined to sign up to the African Union’s Continental Free Trade Area.
Beyond any concrete deals, both Trump and Buhari will also be looking to project a broader message from their meeting. According to former US Ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell, Buhari will be hoping his visit can “enhance Nigeria’s leadership in West Africa”, while Trump will be hoping it offers “an opportunity to make amends” for his derogatory comments about Africa.
It is questionable whether either president will be successful in communicating these messages. Nigeria’s diminished regional stature stems not from a lack of visits to the White House, but its failure to provide regional public goods such as security and economic development. Meanwhile, the perception that Trump’s administration has little interest in, or understanding of, Africa will only be challenged when the White House unveils a positive vision – as opposed to just more drone bases and anti-China lecture tours – of how it wants to engage.