United States Secretary of States John Kerry’s visit to Nigeria elicited celebration within government circles, but it has also left an eerie atmosphere in some quarters, as the Christian Association of Nigeria says the visit is divisive and accuses the Obama administration’s top official of discriminating against Christians. Paul Obi writes
Nigeria’s relations with the United States between 2014 and 2015 was everything but cordial. The two had had a frosty relationship during the days of former President Goodluck Jonathan over US refusal to support Nigeria’s anti-insurgency war. That cat and mouse relation dovetailed into the 2015 general elections, where US Secretary of State, Mr John Kerry, was instrumental then in getting the commitments of both Jonathan and President Muhammadu Buhari for peaceful polls. As the events turned out, Buhari emerged victories under the All Progressives Congress. Since then, the Buhari administration has been trying to rev up the friendship.
With several visits by Buhari to the US, the American government had appeared to resurrect the friendly relationship it once sent to the coolers. Months back, speculations were even public of a possible Obama visit. It remains uncertain whether Kerry’s visit was in preparation for the Obama visit or the administration’s farewell to Nigeria, as Obama prepares to leave the White House next January.
On his arrival in Nigeria, Kerry was ferried to the caliphate, Sokoto, the capital of Sokoto State, to felicitate with the Sultan of Sokoto, Sa’ad Abubakar III, and discuss important issues. Speaking at the Sultan’s palace in company with the governor of the state, Aminu Tambuwal, Kerry declared his journey as a “great visit”, adding, “Sokoto, a place of faith, tolerance and scholarship, honoured to be hosted by the Sultan Abubakar.”
On a good day, a mere visit by any ordinary American to the caliphate will not raise eyebrows; neither will it spark some religious colouration. But a visit by US Secretary of State carries with it a good deal of officialdom that Nigeria’s polar religious divide of Christianity and Islam would want to court. According to the Christian Association of Nigerian, it is that failure by Kerry to understand the peculiarities of Nigeria’s ethno-religious strand of politics that stirs suspicion about his visit.
To make matters worse, Kerry, aside from only visiting the Sultan of Sokoto, met with the 19 northern governors, only three of whom are Christians. At the Presidential Villa, where Kerry was hosted by Buhari, the US top official only met with select northern governors, which also irked critics who questioned the selection process of his hosts.
CAN President, Rev. Ayo Ayokunle, condemned in strong terms Kerry’s visit to Nigeria, describing the visit as discriminatory, personal and divisive. He said the visit was warped with a grand agenda to further the federal government’s plan to isolate the teeming population of Nigerian Christians.
Ayokunle lambasted Kerry’s lack of respect for the heterogeneous nature of Nigeria, accusing him of nakedly favouring northern Nigeria and Muslims to the detriment of the Christian community. While calling on Kerry to “stop interfering in Nigerian affairs,” the CAN president explained that the visit was a complete fiasco and exposed Kerry’s negligence of Nigeria’s unity in diversity ideology that has remained the foundation of the country.
“Why did he meet with 19 states governors, without southern governors? Is Nigeria the North alone, why did you go to the North alone?” the CAN president asked. Ayokunle contended that Kerry’s visit sent a wrong message and confirmed the report that Christians under the Buhari administration were under siege. “There’s a siege on Christians. Kerry, his actions speak volumes, his actions, body language were very divisive.”
Ayokunle added, “If US Secretary of States is coming for official visit, it’s understandable, but we demand explanation why he was selective. Has the Sultan’s palace become another State House? Was Kerry invited by the Sultan? We have 36 states in Nigeria; he only selected northern governors to meet with them. It was a visit to the North, not to Nigeria. It was surely a very divisive visit. With the visit to the North, Kerry’s visit has heightened fear and tension among Christians in Nigeria, if they cannot bring us together, they should not interfere in our affairs.”
In a similar vein, the president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria and Archbishop of Jos, Ignatius Kaigama, told THISDAY that Kerry’s visit would have been more packaged and considerate, taking cognizance of Nigeria’s religious sensibilities. In the opinion of Kaigama, both the Nigerian government and the diplomatic contacts that superintended the visit failed woefully in that regard. “He should have been more sensitive; he would have sort advice on more strategic places to visit and how to go about it. Granted, there are serious problems in northern Nigeria, he should have known that there are other Nigerians in the South also. He should have been more inclusive,” the CBCN president stated.
Kaigama insisted that though Kerry has the right to visit anywhere he chooses, an understanding of Nigeria’s multi-ethnic and religious nature would have saved the visit the current controversy. “Kerry is free to visit anywhere he likes, anyone he likes, it is his right. Understandably, he wouldn’t have been able to visit everywhere in Nigeria, but they would have invited traditional rulers, Muslims and Christians leaders and talked with them about peace, not just northern governors. There are diplomatic contacts, those who invited him, should have briefed him properly, that he should visit the North and somehow the South, we have problems in the South too,” he told THISDAY.
The Catholic clergy also tackled the Obama’s administration over his Nigeria policy. He argued that given Nigeria’s status, pedigree among the comity of nations and standing in the history of the black race, America’s first black president should treat Nigeria with more respect. The Archbishop explained that US treatment of Nigeria since Obama’s ascension had not accorded Nigeria its rightful place. “They should do their homework so that they don’t create alienation. Remember President Obama visited Ghana and did not visit Nigeria. All through his administration, he did not visit Nigeria, the most populous black nation and a strong economy. So I don’t know what criteria the Obama administration uses,” Kaigama stated.
Kerry’s lopsided visit to northern governors and the caliphate came at a time Nigerian Christians were crying over killings of their members in the North, including overt marginalisation of the faithful. Already, apprehension among the Christian community was in the air, fostering distrust across the broader society. The Nigerian Christian Elders Forum highlighted this fear during the week, stating that the discrimination against Christians has sent fears among members.
NCEF decried the situation where “those in the ‘Security and Intelligence Committee’ of the federal government, who by some unexplained reasons are mainly Muslims. President Buhari, (Muslim), Chief of Defence (Christian), Chief of Army Staff, Chief of Air Staff, Minister of Defence, Minister of Internal Affairs, Inspector General of Police, National Security Adviser, Director General of DSS are all Muslims from the North.” The group said Christians were apprehensive about the situation.
Even in the midst of the public outcry against Kerry’s visit, it remains uncertain what went wrong. As journalists were barred from covering the visit, economic deals might have been struck, and security and counter-terrorism agreements made in the interest of Nigeria. The visit itself, according to diplomatic circles and Nigerian officials, was beneficial and underscores Buhari’s quest to reset Nigeria as a dependable nation. That in itself is a plausible venture. The snag lies in its absolute lack of inclusiveness. Nigeria is a heterogeneous country, practically divided along religious lines.
Observers believe that government’s penchant for isolation, including marginalisation of a section of Nigerians in the last one year, might have inflamed the toga of diversion and divisiveness over Kerry’s visit. Neither did the planners try to save the best for the last. The Obama administration’s relationship with Buhari’s government has only four months left. After then, a new chapter of friendship would ensue either with Republican Donald Trump or Democrat Hilary Clinton.