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United States Secretary of State, John Kerry’s visit to Nigeria few days ago has left some questions hanging in the air with respect to motives, timing and choice of engagements during his short stay. On the surface, the visit surely demonstrated good bilateral relations between the two countries. But what exactly did Mr. Kerry come to achieve for his country? Beyond the message he brought and shared with his hosts as released to the media, what are the underpinning factors that determined this diplomatic shuttle and how did these coalesce into the real crux of the matter he deliberated on with the authorities?
Don’t get me wrong here. I am not raising these questions as feeds for conspiracy theories or to enable the theorists in their quests. My intention is simply to interrogate what is left unsaid in the public domain but broached in the privacy of the inner curtains of the Caliphate and the presidential villa. Some may call this an engagement in speculation but is it not trite knowledge in international relations and diplomacy that a top envoy as a foreign minister would not make a state visit just to smile for the cameras or address a group of adolescents? So what exactly did John Kerry come for? What message did he bring for President Muhammadu Buhari and His Eminence, Sa’ad Abubakar, the Sultan of Sokoto? Can the visit be rightly and convincingly situated only within the realms of existing bilateral areas of engagements between Nigeria and the United States?
There is no doubt that the US has been a strong ally of Nigeria especially with respect to the promotion of the latter’s renascent democracy and democratic practice. The support of the US Government to our electoral institutions and processes for instance, speaks volumes to this.
There have also been economic and military/security cooperation involving both nations too, even though expectations have remained higher than deliverables in these regards. Relations have has also featured around good governance, human rights and corruption even though there has often been mismatch between perceptions, standards and reality on these subject matters. In any case, to the extent that both countries maintain a bilateral commission on some clearly identified themes attest to the vibrancy of relations. However, that Kerry’s visit featured a little more than these fundamental issues hitherto in focus raises a red herring that there is more to this shuttle diplomacy than meets the eyes. But first, let us make a take of the official communication and coverage of the visit from relevant angles.
The US Embassy on Friday, August 19 released a short statement on the visit which announced the schedule of the Secretary of State thus: “Kerry will meet with President Muhammadu Buhari to discuss counter terrorism efforts, the Nigerian economy, the fight against corruption and human rights issues. In Sokoto, he will deliver a speech on the importance of resilient communities and religious tolerance in countering violent extremism. In Abuja, the Secretary will meet with a group of adolescent girls working to change community perceptions that devalue the role of girls in society. He will also meet with northern governors and religious leaders.”
According to the News Agency Nigeria (NAN), Kerry’s visit to the Palace of the Sultan focused on promoting religious tolerance and extremism. The report said “the United States would continue to identify itself with the Sultanate in strengthening religious tolerance and understanding among Nigerians,” and that “the first secretary of state to visit the seat of the caliphate, all hands should be on deck towards strengthening religious knowledge among Nigerians.” It then stated that “Kerry had a closed door meeting with Sultan Sa’ad Abubakar and some leaders of the two major religions.”
Although what is paramount in situations like these is what happens away from the prying eyes of the press, the account as narrated above can be situated within the purview of counter-terrorism as an item on the agenda of the visit. Against the backdrop of the brand of terrorism fueled by religious extremism across the world, Kerry’s encounter with the Sultan of Sokoto can be interpreted as a step in the right direction. And coming down to the Nigerian context where there has been a recent trend of Islamic extremism especially targeted against Christians, a conscious deliberation of the matter between the United States Foreign Minister and a very key custodian of the faith like Sultan Abubakar is a wake-up call that cannot be ignored.
And then it shows the world is watching and perhaps worried by the rising wave of religious intolerance gradually finding space in our public life. Experiences like the Zamfara Muslim mob killings few days ago; the brutal murder of a pastor’s wife on early morning evangelism mission in the suburb of Abuja; and then the reprehensible and spine-chilling slaughter of a Christian Igbo woman Kano weeks ago by an irate mob in supposed defense of their faith are all indications that religious extremism may have become the emergent variant of terrorism plaguing Nigeria. Add of these to the incessant attacks of herdsmen that have left some communities across the land in desolation with many inhabitants dead, wounded and stripped of farmland and other livelihoods, then having Islam-linked extremism featuring in Kerry’s engagement in Sokoto cannot be out of place.
But beyond the seeming altruistic intervention on a matter of grave concern as curtailing religious extremism, what did John Kerry discuss with Sultan Abubakar behind closed door? What special missionary role has Uncle Sam suddenly found for which the supreme head of Nigeria’s Islamic community fitted to perform? Is there any correlation between Kerry’s visit to Sokoto and US Vice President’s Joe Biden’s visit to the troubled nation of Muslim-dominated Turkey around same period? Does the fact that Kerry arrived in Sokoto from another official visit to Kenya where Al-Shabaab terrorists are daily struggling to make deadly headlines of any consequence to the meeting in the Caliphate? These are questions that can neither be answered in terse statements by State Department officials nor by opinion articles around the visit of Mr. Kerry. Answers rather, lie in the deep recesses of foreign relations where the interest of the state is being extended beyond geographical borders and boundaries. So the question in all of these is: What is Nigeria’s take away from Mr. Kerry’s stop-over in Nigeria last Tuesday?
This brings the discussion to what transpired in Abuja. Beyond the snippets Nigeria’s media (which was reportedly barred from covering the visit) reported about the visit what did Secretary Kerry discuss with President Buhari? According to reports, the American official praised his host on the war against corruption and restated the readiness of his country to continue to offer support. Describing corruption as a “ready-made playing field for recruiting extremists,” Kerry reportedly Buhari: “You inherited a big problem, and we will support you in any way we can. We will work with you very closely. We don’t want to interfere, but will offer opportunities as you require.” In his response, President Buhari spoke of efforts by his administration to fight corruption, diversify the economy and rein in the renewed militancy in the Niger delta, stressing that will not deploy military might “except when constrained to do so.”
But a report of Kerry’s visit by the New York Times however gave another insight into what transpired. It seemed as if the American’s visit was prodded by concerns about Nigeria’s military human rights records, same worries that had been used as excuse to deny the country access to weapons to battle Boko Haram terrorists to submission. According to the newspaper, “Secretary of State John Kerry issued a carefully worded warning on Tuesday to Nigeria’s military against committing human rights abuses as it goes about battling the Islamist militant group Boko Haram.”
After asserting that “Nigeria’s military has long been dogged by evidence that it has killed civilians, tortured prisoners and, more recently, detained mothers, children and other victims who had been kidnapped by Boko Haram,” the New York Times quoted Kerry thus: “It is understandable in the wake of terrorist activity, some people are tempted to crackdown on everyone and anyone who could theoretically pose some sort of a threat.
I caution against that today. Extremism cannot be defeated through repression.” So the question is if Mr. Kerry came by to sound a note of warning on how the military should wag the war against terrorism what message would he be taking back to Washington from Nigeria? Did President Buhari demand Secretary Kerry and his country to mobilize the world to help in the repatriation of Nigeria’s stolen funds locked in various financial capitals and hide-outs? Did Nigeria request more concrete assistance in rescuing the Chibok girls? Or a demand on how the US’ promise to assist the country with some &600m in 2016 be realized in clear terms? The weeks and months ahead will surely unravel the real motives behind Kerry’s August visit.