On July 20, 50 days after taking office, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari will meet with President Barack Obama at the White House to jump-start frozen bilateral relations.
Security is likely to dominate the agenda. Since Buhari assumed office on May 29, Nigeria has seen an escalation of violence and killings by Boko Haram insurgents. But the two leaders are also widely expected to discuss measures to tackle Nigeria’s endemic corruption and opportunities for economic cooperation.
U.S.-Nigeria relations deteriorated last year after Buhari’s predecessor canceled U.S. military training for the Nigerian army, following Washington’s refusal to sell arms to Nigeria. U.S. weapons and intelligence will be pivotal to upgrade the Nigerian army’s the archaic and obsolete arsenal as it tries to eliminate the Boko Haram insurgency.
However, Nigeria’s previous requests for sophisticated American weapons were rebuffed by the Obama administration over human rights concerns and impropriety among top security personnel. Little has changed in this regard. For example, in a scathing report last month, Amnesty International accused Nigerian security forces of systemic human rights abuses. The Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 prevents the U.S. government from selling weapons or providing training to foreign military forces implicated in human rights violations.
Buhari, who has been slow to fill key cabinet positions, has recently dismissed the country’s army, navy, air force and defense chiefs. He has also relocated Nigeria's defense command center to Maiduguri, the epicenter of Boko Haram, to take the fight to the group. But it is unclear if these changes are enough to placate the Obama administration’s concerns about corruption and human rights, and lead to the re-authorization of weapons sales to Nigeria.
The Obama-Buhari meeting raises a lot of questions. How will the U.S. approach Nigeria and its new president? And how committed is the U.S. to Africa’s largest democracy and largest economy? Is the U.S. even willing to commit the resources to support Nigeria?
“Nigeria’s historic elections and peaceful transfer of power sent a powerful message to the region, to the continent and indeed to the world,” Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said during a press conference in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, on July 9. “The partnership we are forging is based on mutual interests and mutual respect … our relationship is defined not by what the United States can do for Nigeria, but rather what the United States can do with Nigeria.”
Blinken’s characterization of future U.S.-Nigeria relations is a welcome departure from the previous partner-patron relationship between the two countries. Obama is expected to remind Buhari that the U.S. wants to partner with Nigeria on economic and security reforms. Buhari must use the visit to reaffirm that Nigeria needs a handshake, not a handout.
Nigeria’s primary challenge is insecurity in the country’s Boko Haram infested northeast. Buhari is likely to seek direct U.S. assistance to fight the insurgency and the removal of restrictions on weapons sales. But Washington doesn’t have a magic wand to eliminate the menace of extremism. In fact, global terrorism gained greater force because of Washington’s misguided wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and its unabashed support for Israel and other Middle Eastern autocrats.
To be sure, Washington could easily reverse its policy on arms sales to Nigeria even though the human rights situation has not changed. Yet it can’t stop the insurgents from purchasing even more sophisticated weapons from other sources or buying U.S. supplied weapons from corrupt military officials. It would also be a mistake for Buhari to espouse a U.S.-style war on terrorism, which prioritizes counterterrorism efforts over civil liberties. Given Nigeria’s porous security system and corrupt security personnel and police, a counterterrorism measure fashioned after Washington’s template could further destabilize the country. Unlike the United States, which has a robust security apparatus, Nigerians can’t afford to live in a perpetual state of fear.
Ultimately, Buhari must leverage the prevailing international goodwill and media exposure to devise a Nigerian solution to fight terrorism, instead of looking for help from donors such as the United States. The Boko Haram insurgency is a political creation and any measure to eliminate the group must consider the forces of inequality, representation, youth unemployment and corruption. Buhari must act fast to narrow the country's gap between rich and poor. Nigeria’s growing poverty and inequality offers a fertile recruitment environment for Boko Haram. Indeed, the group has been successful in exploiting the gaps in governance across northeast Nigeria to lure desperate and disfranchised recruits by promising better services and security conditions than what the state provides.
But there are other areas where Buhari could use Washington’s assistance. For example, Nigeria could benefit from U.S. support in recovering funds stolen from the country’s treasury by Nigerian politicians living in the United States. During his brief tenure as Nigeria’s head of state in the early 1980’s, Buhari’s administration attempted to kidnap Umaru Dikko, the erstwhile transport minister from his home in London for allegedly stealing $1 billion from Nigeria’s coffers. While the effort failed, it underlined Buhari’s zeal to fight corruption and indiscipline.
Three decades on, Nigeria is yet to recover billions of dollars illegally siphoned off to U.S. banks and businesses. Buhari should ask the U.S. Justice Department to help track these funds. If DOJ’s recent indictment against officials of the Federation of International Football Association is any guide, the U.S. could easily catch Nigerians in the United States, who have enriched themselves using an ill-gotten wealth.
Finally, Obama should treat Buhari with the same level of respect and courtesy extended to other world leaders. At the conclusion of their meeting, the two leaders should hold a joint press conference, instead of just photo-ops to make good on Obama’s pledge to treat Nigeria as an equal partner. Last year, when Obama hosted African leaders during the first U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, D.C., he held a press conference without a single African leader by his side. In a telling of the disregard for Africa, of all six questions fielded by White House correspondents, only one made reference to Africa. None addressed the summit.
As Obama hosts the leader of Africa’s most populous nation and largest economy, his handlers should avoid repeating that blunder. Nigeria has turned the corner with its recent election and peaceful transfer of power. It is Obama’s turn to demonstrate his administration’s commitment to strengthening African democracy.