Policy Briefs

Buhari’s Bucket List to Washington

One week away from President Muhammadu Buhari’s visit to Washington on 20 July, 2015, attentive Nigerians should be considering the visit’s import and possible outcomes. For the trip, the President should have a Bucket List; not a Shopping List. A shopping list includes wishful takeaways. A bucket list is diplomatically collaborative and aimed at quid pro quos. The Washington trip is propitious in view of the premise enunciated by Ambassador Bulus Lolo, the Permanent Secretary in the Foreign Ministry, that the visit “is not an expression of romance… but a crystallisation of a relationship that is strong and mutually beneficial to the people of Nigeria and America.”  Yet, in welcoming this early engagement, it is hoped that the preparations for Washington will be better than that for the G-7 Summit outing, which revealed some snags and faux pas.

It is gratifying that the Washington trip had been preceded by visits to and return visits from our immediate neighbours and a visit to South Africa for the African Union Summit. That trajectory reaffirmed clear policy continuity of Nigeria’s ‘Africa is the centre piece of our foreign policy’ doctrine and Prof. Ibrahim Gambari’s concentric circle framework. However, some vitally important issues will be broached with Washington, even as Abuja-Washington relations have cooled discernibly and the engagement halting. Both sides may contest this point. But the true measure is that neither President Barack Obama nor Vice-President Joe Biden has visited Nigeria, which speaks volumes. One salutary point as President Buhari goes to Washington is that Nigeria’s sweet-crude-oil-relationship with the U.S. has turned lukewarm, thanks to global oil dynamics and realpolitik.  The unintended consequence is a level-playing field for the two nations to engage real-time and on strategic basis; with strict focus on their commonality of interests and shared responsibilities. As such, the President’s maiden visit to Washington will neither be a shopping spree nor a mutual attraction exercise. The President should not expect or demand too much.  And since Nigeria’s role as a strategic partner to the U.S. subsists, the visit ought not to be about Nigeria’s needs alone; but about envisaged Nigeria’s role keeping the sub-Saharan Africa region safe and stable, given the disconcerting developments in the Middle East and the Magreb.

The guiding principles of the talks will rest on the observations by Nigerian foreign policy experts that Buhari’s visit to Washington will occur against an ambiguous, but reality-check-laden backdrop. First, should Nigeria’s domestic uncertainties persist, that reality would continue to impact negatively on her proactive role in foreign affairs. After all, proactive foreign policy leadership draws its impetus from national will, domestic self-confidence and wherewithal. Nigeria proved that in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Second, in assessing Nigeria’s present capacity in global politics, there’s stark cognizance that failure to seize the moment, make a turnaround linked to her new leadership, will translate to further diminution of her influence. Third, for a nation once accepted as Africa’s foreign policy bellwether, Nigeria can ill afford to be risk averse and still expect to be taken seriously in international affairs.

Without prejudice to the briefs my erstwhile colleagues in the foreign ministry will proffer, the plausible approach to the visit would be for President Buhari to arrive Washington in a listening mode. Whereas the U.S. may no longer need Nigeria’s oil, hard lessons drawn from Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Libya, compels Washington to articulate and seek Nigeria’s role as an ally in Africa’s geopolitics. Secondly, despite her wherewithal, the U.S. is visibly stretched in its role as the global policeman. Washington will thus continue to favour a strategic partnership with Nigeria aimed at enhancing global security in the adversely altered post-9-11 environment. Moreover, the U.S. needs a stable Nigeria capable of playing a buffer role against existing or emergent non-state actors. Given its international peacekeeping track record, Nigeria remains a “capable partner who can take on more responsibility for low-end operations.” Besides, democracies favour each other; as such, even a nascent democratic Nigeria is to be preferred to non-democracies and rogue states.  Thus, U.S. will affirm its support for Nigeria’s democracy. Aware of the Nigeria’s challenges with Boko Haram, Washington has definitely gone beyond conjectures in evaluating the ruinous impact of a destabilized or dismembered Nigeria. Every evaluation of the havoc wrought on Somalia and its neighbouring states by Al Shabaab and the destructive disposition of the Levant ISIS in Iraq and Syria remain instructive.  Then also, the realization persists that the spillover effect of the breakup of Iraq and Libya will pale against such an occurrence in Nigeria. As the Economist observed recently, “If Nigeria fails it could bring down half a dozen neighbouring states with it.” U.S.  knows that a fractured Nigeria will pose vast risks and challenges to its economic and strategic interests.

Discussions in Washington will straddle bilateral and multilateral concerns. The top bullet talking point on President Buhari’s Bucket List should neither be an offer nor a demand. First, President Buhari should ask President Obama: “How can Nigeria partner with the U.S. to make sub-Saharan Africa secure for Africa, the United States and the rest of the world?” Prosaic as the question is, a secure sub-Saharan Africa will include Nigeria as well as U.S. strategic and economic interests, including core issues now before the U.N. Security Council, where Nigeria will hold the Presidency in August.  President Buhari should focus on few issues that are tangible and can be flagged as catalytic to advancing President Buhari’s national agenda for good governance. President Buhari should be prepared, therefore, to discuss such germane issues like corruption, impunity, insecurity, oil theft, money laundering, financial instability, elections and human-trafficking.  While thanking the U.S. for its guidance and support in containing the Ebola outbreak in Nigeria, the President should underline the need for U.S. support in three key areas. (1) Combatting corruption: U.S. should help repatriate or recover all the stolen funds that Nigerian anti-corruption will trace to U.S. Financial institutions. U.S. should not throw legal or administrative obstacles on the recovery of the funds.  (2) Overcoming Insecurity: There is need for vigorous support to fight Boko Haram by sale of military hardware, as well as resumption of training of Nigerian soldiers in counter-terrorism.  President Buhari should observe that in fighting the scourge of terrorism including Boko Haram, there can be no conscientious objectors, citing how Nigeria tackled the Maitesine Sect in the 1980s. (3) The Economy: Focus should be on U.S. support for developing and boosting electric power generation. President Obama has an Africa Power Initiative, which will need to be expanded in scale in order to accommodate Nigeria’s power needs.

It’s well known that U.S. spearheaded the countries that denied Nigeria arms for fighting Boko Haram on grounds of human rights violations, despite our missing Chibok Girls challenges. The U.S. will thus revisit human rights issues and even if obliquely, issues of personal choices –gay rights and same-sex-marriage- in the context of freedom of association. Mr. President should stress that while lines might have blurred sometimes in the fight against Boko Haram terrorists, the sanctity of Nigeria’s Constitution and its human rights provisions remain intact, despite the recent Amnesty International report. On gay rights, the President should push back very hard, as traditional norms here frown on such lifestyles and, in any case, this matter remains controversial in the US itself, inspite of recent Supreme Court ruling. Finally, Mr.  President should inquire when President Obama intends to visit Nigeria. A non-committal or non-definitive reply should be taken for what it is:  a continued unwillingness to engage Nigeria fully.

Oseloka Obaze, MD & CEO

Oseloka Obaze, MD & CEO

Mr. Obaze is the former Secretary to the State Government of Anambra State, Nigeria from 2012 to 2015 - MD & CEO, Oseloka H. Obaze. Mr. Obaze also served as a former United Nations official, from 1991-2012, and as a former member of the Nigerian Diplomatic Service, from 1982-1991.

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