US-Nigeria talks: Spring of hope or winter of despair?
There was an awful lot for the two presidents, Muhammadu Buhari and Barack Obama, to discuss last week when the Niger ia n head of s t at e vi s i t e d Washington DC.
From democracy to terrorism, crude oil to gay marriage, the two heads of state had many topics on the roster, not all of them complementary or – particularly in the case of gay marriage – areas of agreement.
Nigerian views on the trip and its results have varied widely. Yes, it ’s a point of pride that Buhari should visit Washington and the leader of the world’s biggest economy, so soon after his election, but then Goodluck Jonathan also visited DC and look how that turned out.
Some Nigerians wanted Buhari to encourage Obama to give more help tackling Boko Haram; others wanted confirmation that the US would be supplying more arms, as well as more money.
Then there were those who wanted Buhari to take on many Nigerians’ biggest complaint of all – visas. Could the Nigerian president convince the American president to soften t he immigration stance on Nigeria and perhaps exercise a freer hand with the green cards?
When the statement came from the two leaders, it was, as you might expect, rather anodyne and not replete with hard news, but it was clear the two men were thinking one thing along the same lines: security, security, security.
Interestingly, Obama st ressed Buhari’s “very clear agenda” on tackling both Nigeria’s security challenges and its horrendous record for corruption. These aren’t agendas Nigerians have yet seen from their slow-moving leader, much less that they consider evident. It’s true to say Buhari has a very clear mandate, but the suggestion of an agenda is a suggestion of a plan. The suggestion of a plan is a hint that there may be more cooperation to come between the US and Nigeria.
It would be a stretch given all we (don’t) know about Buhari’s plans to suggest he’s been waiting for the Washington trip before returning home and announcing complete and considered military proposals. But with the state of the oil price and the country’s coffers, help from the US would be welcome, especia ll y a f ter t he period when diplomatic cooperation between the two countries had cooled significantly.
Buhari called the US out on this last week, saying America had aided and abetted the insurgents in recent times in its refusal to sell arms to Nigeria. The US attributed that decision to the Nigerian army’s questionable human rights record.
Last month America gave Nigeria $5m (R63m) to f ight Boko Haram in a sign of improving relations. But relative to the scale of the problem, the reconstruction efforts necessary in the stricken northeast and the insurgents’ recent alliance with Islamic State, this is the clichéd drop in the ocean.
Nigeria needs more f unds, more training and more equipment if it is to defeat Boko Haram, and that’s not cash swilling around at home. The country waits with interest to see the fruits of the very clear agenda, and the US’s part in it.
Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari shakes hands with US president Barack Obama during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC on 20 July.