Today’s White House meeting between President Obama and new Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari is more than a courtesy call. Rather, it is an opportunity to refresh a relationship that has the potential to be America’s most important strategic partnership on an African continent that the administration itself has repeatedly described as “more important than ever to the security and prosperity of the international community, and to the United States in particular.”
The timing of the visit is no accident, coming as it does on the eve of Obama’s third foray as president to sub-Saharan Africa, a voyage that will take him to his father’s country of birth, Kenya — now one of Africa’s burgeoning economies — where he will address the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, as well as to Ethiopia, a key U.S. ally in the region and headquarters of the African Union. But before embarking on this trip, it is important that the president directly engage with Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, the continent’s largest economy, and home to both its largest Muslim community as well as its largest Christian community. Despite its geopolitical and economic significance, the country’s ties with the United States went through something of a rough patch during the tail end of former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan’s tenure.
As previously noted, Buhari’s historic victory over his predecessor, the latter’s graceful concession and the smooth transition between the two less than two months ago represented not only a milestone for the West Africa country, but also a signal success for the Obama administration, which had made support for peaceful and fair elections a priority objective around which it had mustered political and diplomatic resources in a way it has done all too rarely. The new Nigerian leader himself acknowledged the importance of that engagement when he singled out the United States for special thanks on the morrow of his landslide win. All of this sets the stage for Obama and Buhari to “reset” relations between the two countries and there are several areas where more robust cooperation would be especially opportune.
First, security remains a leading concern. Despite the operational successes achieved during the waning weeks of the Jonathan administration by Nigerian military forces, operating in conjunction with those of its neighbors Niger, Chad and Cameroon, which deprived the Islamist insurgents of Boko Haram of the territorial dominion they had previously acquired over wide swathes of northeastern Nigeria, the extremists are far from finished. In fact, as it has in the past, Boko Haram has once again shown remarkable resilience following the battlefield setbacks it recently suffered. Pledging allegiance to the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and rebranding itself as the “Islamic State West Africa Province,” the group has launched dramatic assaults in Chad and Niger as well as continued its attacks within Nigeria.
Buhari, a retired general who made defeating the militants a cornerstone of his presidential campaign, has already made several key changes. Early on, he ordered the Nigerian military’s command center for operations against Boko Haram moved to Maiduguri, capital of Borno State, which has been the epicenter of the Islamist group’s activities for over a decade. Last week, he relieved the chief of the Nigerian Defense Staff and the heads of the country’s army, navy and air force of their commands. Several of the fired officers had been accused in an Amnesty International report last month of being responsible for systematic human rights abuses of civilians in areas where the military was engaged in counterinsurgency operations. In contrast, the newly appointed head of the army, Maj. Gen. Tukur Yusufu Buratai, is a native of Borno State and an alumnus of Government Teachers Training College in Potiskum, a town in neighboring Yobe State that has been particular hard hit by Boko Haram attacks. Another Borno State native, retired Maj. Gen. Babagana Monguno, a former head of Defense Intelligence who was named by Buhari as his new national security advisor, has also been closely touched by Boko Haram’s campaign of violence: As I recounted in congressional testimony last year, his octogenarian father, Shettima Ali Monguno, a Nigerian cabinet minister in the 1960s and 1970s, was the victim of a 2013 Boko Haram kidnapping.
The Nigerian president has already said that he will seek resumption of training of Nigerian troops by U.S. special operations forces, which was halted last year by the Jonathan administration. Given the growing virulence of what is clearly a regional threat posed by a declared ISIS-affiliated terrorist group, it is in the interests of the United States to not only find a way to resume the military partnership, but to ramp up efforts to build up the intelligence and police capacities of Nigeria and other regional coalition members.
Second, even if security looms large over meetings this week, commerce should not be forgotten, not least because without economic growth and the resulting opportunities, Boko Haram and other extremist groups will continue to find fertile soil for the poison they sow. Nigeria may be Africa’s largest economy and one that has diversified greatly in recent years, but its government finances remain heavily dependent upon revenue from the hydrocarbon sector, built on Africa’s largest proven petroleum reserves. The fall in global energy prices — and the prospect of a veritable glut in supply should the nuclear deal with Iran stick and sanctions hindering that country’s production are lifted — have wreaked havoc for the Nigerian treasury, leaving the government with scarce resources with which to not only to fight the Boko Haram, but also for the much-needed social and economic development programs to secure the population in both the northeast and the oil-producing Delta area, where the amnesty program for that region’s militants expires this year. And money is also needed for the infrastructure, both physical and human, needed to create opportunities for the country’s bulging youth population.
While U.S. imports of Nigerian crude have virtually ceased because of booming domestic production — a dramatic shift from the situation just a few years ago, when the West African country was the fourth-largest foreign source of America’s imported oil — there are other ways in which bilateral trade and investment could be strengthened. To cite just one example, coming to Washington with Buhari are five current governors and one former governor representing Borno, Edo, Imo, Nasarawa, Oyo, and Rivers States. Nigeria, like the United States, has a federal system of government in which states have considerable autonomy and resources as well as distinct needs — including infrastructure, health and other major undertakings which American businesses are well-positioned to assist with.
Third, the democratic transition in Nigeria was not only a critical milestone for that country, but a powerful boost for democracy across Africa, one which the United States and other countries would do well to support, including by helping the new president in his anti-corruption push by helping to recover assets stolen by former officials and squirreled abroad.
Moreover, given its geopolitical and economic heft, Nigeria is well-positioned to help consolidate the positive trends in good governance and the rule of law across the continent, but especially in its immediate West African neighborhood, where electoral shenanigans in fragile states like nearby Guinea, whose the presidential election is just three months away, threaten to spark civil conflict and regional destabilization. With U.S. Agency for International Development funding for democracy assistance in Africa having been regrettably cut by nearly half since 2009, Washington needs to strengthen its coordination with key regional states like Nigeria that are now in a position to bring their own influence to bear.
Over the years, the U.S.-Nigerian relationship has had its ups and downs. However, with Buhari’s election and the agenda he has embraced, there has been a burst of positive momentum which, if properly nurtured, can lead to the forging of what could be America’s most important Africa link.
Pham is director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center.
By J. Peter Pham, contributor | THE HILL