American-Nigerian cooperation: An uncertain start to the Buhari era

Editor’s note: Below is an introduction and transcript from a WBEZ 91.5 interview with Richard Joseph on Nigerian President Muhammad Buhari.

The hope that the July 20 meeting between President Barack Obama and President Muhammadu Buhari would heal the rift between their countries concerning the fight against Boko Haram was not fully realized. Two days later, Mr. Buhari repeated at the United States Institute of Peace the same charges against the U.S. that were leveled by the preceding Nigerian administration. His blunt criticism of America’s failure to equip Nigerian armed forces adequately has been widely disseminated:

“They do not possess the appropriate weapons and technology which we could have had if the so-called human rights violations had not been an obstacle.” “Unwittingly, and I dare say unintentionally, the application of the Leahy Law Amendment by the United States government has aided and abetted the Boko Haram terrorists.” With regard to the human rights violations, exhaustively documented by Amnesty International in a June 2015 report, Mr. Buhari’s spokesman, Lam Adesina, declared that this allegation is still being investigated. Until the process is completed, Mr. Adesina said, “it remains unproven”.

Back home in Nigeria, there were official claims that Mr. Buhari’s comments were misconstrued.  Great praise has been heaped on President Obama, on the United States, and on American-Nigerian relations. Such encomiums, however, cannot mask the persisting disagreement over how the asymmetric combat against an ever-morphing insurgency should be conducted – or how Boko Haram’s horrific atrocities do not excuse what Amnesty International has called “war crimes” by government forces.

Before the Obama-Buhari meeting on July 20, it was suggested that the moment was opportune for these leaders to put forward a “revitalized narrative”: “They must demonstrate that it is possible for democratic governments to foster inclusive growth, developmental governance, anti-corruption, and counterterrorism while also advancing political liberties and human rights.

President Buhari’s July 22 statement and his responses to questions at USIP deserve careful study. Despite the controversial remarks mentioned above, he provided much of the recommended “revitalized narrative”. The path of democratic governance, he declared, was critical to the future of not just Nigeria but all of Africa. At variance with his rebuke of the United States and the application of the Leahy Law, he contended that the military campaign against Boko Haram must be conducted “within the framework of the rule of law and in compliance with international human rights obligations”. Essential to this effort, he emphasized, was “the safety and protection of local communities”. Therefore, “rules of engagement” must include “protecting the rights of citizens.”

Mr. Buhari made as robust a case for the importance of democracy and good governance as President Obama has on many occasions. It would ensure, he said, inclusiveness, stabilize the polity, improve security, and help reduce corruption and the building of a fairer economy. However, his call for more counter-terrorism support from the U.S. “with minimal strings”, and his response to a question about the Niger Delta – that communities which gave 97% support to his candidacy should expect greater appreciation from government than those which provided only a few percentage points – were jarring. Mr. Buhari has not held high office for three decades and must still grow into the role of a national, continental, and global statesman. To that end, we provide an edited transcript of a July 20 interview of Richard Joseph by Jerome McDonnell (NPR/WBEZ) regarding his Washington visit and U.S.-Africa policies. It started, appropriately, with a discussion of the rift between the U.S. and Nigeria, and concluded with a call for President Obama to pay a state visit to Nigeria.

Jerome McDonnell (WBEZ): It seems as if the U.S. has to patch things up with Nigeria because it didn’t really see eye to eye with former Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan. Where did relations go wrong and what’s there to patch up?

Richard Joseph: The fundamental disagreement was over the provision of advanced weaponry to the Nigerian military forces which, as everyone knows, has been unsuccessful in the fight against Boko Haram. This action was impeded from the American standpoint for two reasons. The first is that the Nigerian military forces were in poor shape, and attempts to carry out training missions and other forms of cooperation were stymied. Secondly, human rights organizations like Amnesty International have reported the many abuses by Nigerian forces. So the U.S., because of its own laws, was constrained in meeting the weapons request. There were other reasons for the rift having to do with disappointment with the Jonathan administration in other areas, but the issue of high tech weaponry was the critical gap between the two countries. 

JM: How can they turn the page? There’s talk about the U.S. re-establishing military relations with Nigeria. Is that essential here? Is that what must happen for Nigeria to be more effective against Boko Haram? How much help is it for the U.S. to patch things up with them?

RJ: First of all, relations were never broken; they just became very strained. Since Buhari’s election, there’s been a lot of communication and diplomatic visits. A lot of ground work will already have been done by the time the two leaders meet. I expect that a plan of enhanced military and intelligence cooperation has been worked out and the two men are basically sealing what has been decided by their staffs. This issue is not just between the U.S. and Nigeria. Other Western countries with close relations with Nigeria such as the U.K. will also have had the same experiences [in military relations]. So, with regard to this problematic area in the U.S.-Nigeria relationship, we should consider it to be behind us. Of course, implementation is something else. Buhari has himself been very critical, as a former military commander, of the Nigerian armed forces. Of course, he’s already removed the military chiefs and relocated the headquarters of military operations against Boko Haram.

JM: His approach seems to be that he wants to rely more on international cooperation with neighbors to quell the Boko Haram situation. But can he do something really different? Since the Nigerian military seems to have its own way of doing business, I don’t know if just removing the guys at the top is going to change everything.

RJ: You’re correct. It’s not just with the Nigerian military. So many Nigerian institutions have become hollowed out and dysfunctional because the level of corruption is absolutely extraordinary. However, getting back to your point about cooperating with neighboring countries, Mr. Obama made a pertinent remark when he spoke at the Pentagon on July 5th. He stated how important it is to build relations with local actors, and how much regional political efforts are needed to counter extremist violence.

The government of Chad, for example, has been very critical of the lack of cooperation on the ground. Several weeks ago, Chadian forces succeeded in pushing Boko Haram away from some border areas. They then sat for days waiting for Nigerian troops to come and replace them. Buhari is sending a message that Nigeria has once more a true commander-in–chief. He is sending a message that, at all levels, military personnel have to function as members of the army that Nigeria once knew.

JM: I read a piece on the BBC website by a Nigerian who spoke of the sky-high expectations for Buhari. He’s going to come in and kick some rear on everything because that’s the kind of guy he is. He’s going to fix corruption, fix the financial situation, and fix the military. But then there’s disappointment that he hasn’t cleaned slate and done more. What’s the realistic expectation of what Buhari can get done?

RJ: I think realistic is a very good word. First of all, Nigeria is a very big country, over 170 million people. It is also very complex, ethnically, religiously and otherwise. After less than two months since Buhari’s inauguration, we have to be careful about our expectations. Also, there is a lot of rot in the system. We should not expect that Buhari will wave a magic wand because he doesn’t have one. His removal of the military leadership is important. So are his actions regarding the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC): He just fired the whole board.

Of course, the NNPC is notoriously dysfunctional. My colleague Professor Rotimi Suberu, writing in AfricaPlus, came up with several negative adjectives to describe how distressing that situation is. I think Buhari is taking each one of these problems in turn. He’s been criticized for not appointing all the members of his cabinet. One huge challenge in Nigeria, however, is the politics of ethnic arithmetic that Suberu ably describes. The quality of many individuals appointed in this way turn out to deficient. This is also true of other office-holders such as legislators. It is better that Buhari take his time and really have a first-rate set of people around him. In large part, this was not the case for Goodluck Jonathan. What’s important is that, by the end of the process, the government has the kind of team that Nigeria needs and which also reflects national diversity.

JM: I was reading up on this process. Cabinet ministers have to be appointed from every state in the federation. Since there are many states, double ministers end up being appointed in some situations. It doesn’t sound like a model of efficiency.

RJ: Yes. There are two sides of to this issue. The good side, and something I keep stressing, is that Nigeria is a democratic federation. Nigeria has always been committed, even during the military eras, to being a constitutional republic like the United States. The second side is, as you and I talked a few years ago regarding my book on prebendalism, that politicians regard government offices in Nigeria as opportunities to be exploited to garner financial gains for themselves, their cronies, their kinfolk, and so on. That system has become further entrenched. In fact, it is the system.

Mr. Buhari declared at his inauguration: “I belong to everybody and I belong to nobody.” Nigeria needs a leader who will respect the constitution, be lawful in his conduct, while also rising above the morass of prebendalist politics. It turned out that Nigeria now has a president who is in a position to do this. We know from his career that he’s not about self-enrichment. When governors and others come knocking on his door seeking to have funds drawn from the Excess Crude Account and similar revenue-draining practices, Nigeria needs a president who knows when to say NO. 

JM: President Obama seems to have had an attitude toward Africa that is: “I will reward the countries that are doing well in democracy.” He’s gone to Ghana and places that look good. Now he’s engaging with Nigeria that has all these issues. He’s making a trip to Ethiopia where the ruling party and its allies got 100% in the recent parliamentary elections, and to Kenya which has a troubled electoral history. Can President Obama pivot and be helpful to countries that are struggling along different paths?

RJ: That is a really important question. We are aware of what’s going on in the world with all the chaos and disorder, horrific acts of mass violence, and so on. That is the global reality and also the reality in parts of Africa, especially where President Obama will visit in a few days: the northeast of the continent. But again, going back to his July 5th statement at the Pentagon, Mr. Obama talked about the power of our values. We also just heard British Prime Minister David Cameron say that we have to stand up for our liberal values in confronting global terrorism.

I personally believe it is much more fundamental than that. I think it is a civilizational struggle. It is a case of human civilization confronting the inhuman activities being perpetrated. This is the reality that President Obama is facing. It is important that he deals with the realities on the ground, which includes whether governments have the capacity to project power domestically and externally. On the other hand, there is disorder, state failure, and humanitarian crises to be confronted. While doing so, the essential commitments of America to democracy, good governance, human rights, and constitutionalism must be maintained. Those are ideals that Nigeria also stands for, and these should be the axis of American-Nigerian relations.

Kenya has been ambiguous, with democratic gains as well as setbacks. Ethiopia is much more problematic because, as you mentioned, the ruling party and its allies captured 100% of legislature seats in the May 2015 elections. The ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Party (EPRDF), stayed at its comfort level in the legislature which is garnering over 90% of the seats. There’s no mystery about how such a lopsided outcome is achieved. On the other hand, the Ethiopia government has been a strong ally of the United States. The U.S. and other nations have relied on Ethiopia to be a gendarme in the region with regard to such intractable situations as war-torn Somalia. In the case of the terrible catastrophe in South Sudan, meetings to achieve a resolution often take place in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.

Of course, we have a history of working with autocratic regimes, whether Russia, China, or others. In international affairs, you often have to deal with people who you do not share your fundamental principles about politics and government. President Obama, however, is in a position to make clear that we while we seek the capacity to implement policy and preserve order, we also want to see progress towards democratic government and the observance of human rights – starting from whatever stage countries happen to be in their political evolution. I think it is really important, therefore, that he is meeting with the leaders of Nigeria, Kenya, and Ethiopia.

Permit me to add one thing. It has been said that the upcoming trip is likely to be Mr. Obama’s last one to Africa as U.S. president. Well, I believe he should definitely visit Nigeria before he leaves office. I was in Nigeria, teaching at the University of Ibadan, when President Jimmy Carter paid a state visit in 1978. Subsequent visits by high-ranking officials, including secretaries of state Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, have taken place. But President Obama must go to Nigeria. Bear in mind that Nigeria has thirty-six states, some of which are larger in population than many African countries. The people of the Nigerian Federal Republic deserve a visit, almost four decades after the last one, from the President of the United States.