Reset for Nigerian-American Relations

Visiting the White House has become a rite of passage for newly elected Nigerian presidents. Olusegun Obasanjo was hosted by Bill Clinton in October 1999, five months after he was sworn in as Nigeria’s first civilian president in 16 years. His successor, Umaru Yar’Adua, was a guest of George W. Bush in December 2007 after he assumed office. Goodluck Jonathan visited President Obama days after his May 2011 inauguration.

Now it is the turn of Muhammadu Buhari, who in March became the first opposition Nigerian candidate to defeat a sitting president. On July 20, Mr. Buhari, who first ruled Nigeria as a military general when Ronald Reagan was president, will meet with Mr. Obama at the White House.

As with most of the other first presidential meetings, it’ll be a departing American president greeting a Nigerian counterpart who is just settling into office. (Nigeria’s elections precede America’s by about 18 months.) Not the ideal circumstances for building an enduring relationship, one might think.

Mr. Buhari’s work is cut out for him. On Mr. Jonathan’s watch, relations between the two countries deteriorated badly, culminating in last November’s bitter lament by the Nigerian ambassador to Washington about the lack of United States cooperation with Nigeria in its war against the Islamist insurgency of Boko Haram. Citing concerns about human rights abuses, the American government hesitated to supply weapons to Nigeria’s military.

The Nigerians turned instead to Russia and Ukraine, and to the black market in South Africa. They also canceled a joint military training program.

It is now up to Mr. Buhari to rebuild the relationship.

When he was the military head of state in the 1980s, Nigerian-American relations were at a nadir, largely because of Nigeria’s disgust at Mr. Reagan’s “constructive engagement” with apartheid South Africa — and his lack of engagement with most of the rest of the continent.

In the discussions this week, Mr. Buhari and his team must project a confident stance, one that does not reinforce the donor-beggar default for relations between the United States and many African countries. Nigeria is too important a country to cast itself in that demeaning mold.

Unfortunately, Nigeria’s last two presidents — Mr. Yar’Adua and Mr. Jonathan — were guilty in that regard, turning out to be leaders for whom the international community had little regard. When Mr. Yar’Adua visited in 2007, he told Mr. Bush — to the embarrassment of many Nigerians — that he felt “highly honored and privileged to be here and have the opportunity to share these few moments with you.”

Mr. Jonathan’s failing went beyond a lack of charisma; there was an intellectual incuriosity that belied his possession of a Ph.D. and manifested in cringe-inducing performances in interviews and diplomatic engagements. At home, the press tagged him “clueless.” Those sentiments filtered abroad speedily. In 2012, The Financial Times likened him to Chauncey Gardiner, the misheard name of a buffoonish character in the 1979 film “Being There”; earlier this year, The Economist summed him up as “an utter failure.”

The tardy response of Mr. Jonathan’s government to the 2014 abduction of 276 schoolgirls from Chibok, in northeastern Nigeria, consumed what little was left of his reputation. As a result, Hillary Rodham Clinton, former secretary of state, chided the Nigerian government for being “somewhat derelict in its responsibility,” while Senator John McCain proposed that the United States send Special Operations forces to rescue the girls without “waiting for some kind of permission from some guy named Goodluck Jonathan.”

It will take more than a foreign trip to rebuild global confidence in Nigeria’s leadership, but the White House visit would be a good place to start. Mr. Buhari’s choice of officials and businesspeople to accompany him will say a lot about the seriousness of his government. The delegation will have to show detailed proposals for how the American government and private sector can work to support Nigeria.

There has been too much vagueness in the conversations about foreign military assistance in the fight against Boko Haram: Mr. Buhari must make it clear that it’s in America’s interest to offer unconditional support to Nigeria in the war on terror. Only last week, Boko Haram published a beheading video, in what local media have described as a joint release with the Islamic State, a move that affirms the keenness of both groups to expand their influence.

Though mainly confined to the northeast of Nigeria, the terrorist insurgency has already, by some estimates, displaced a population larger than that of Hawaii’s. If Nigeria were to fall to Boko Haram, the mayhem of war-torn Syria would seem like child’s play.

Taking advantage of the current pro-Nigerian enthusiasm among America’s leadership, Mr. Buhari should also press for assistance in the fight against corruption. According to the governor of Nigeria’s central bank, by 2013 the country had become the world’s leading importer of American dollars. Much of this demand is driven by corruption, when people convert looted government funds from bulky bundles of local currency into smaller, easier to hide wads of dollars.

I’ve no doubt that Nigerian officials would behave more responsibly if the United States visa bans (extending to family members) and property seizures came as part of a package of retribution for public servants found guilty in corruption. Few things would hurt those who robbed the state as much as penalties against their American homes, holiday trips, university education and medical care.

This presidential meeting could provide a perfect opportunity for America to prove that its penchant for dispensing advice about Africa’s ills could be turned from condescension to tangible action.

Tolu Ogunlesi is the West Africa editor for The Africa Report and the author of, most recently, the novella Conquest and Conviviality.

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