John Kerry’s Recent Visit to Nigeria: The Untold Dimensions of Nigeria-US Relations

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Vie Internationale with Bola A. Akinterinwa Telephone : 0807-688-2846 e-mail: bolyttag@yahoo.com

John Kerry is the incumbent US Secretary of State, the equivalent of Nigeria’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. He had come on official visit to Nigeria twice in the past. His third and most recent visit to Nigeria was on Monday 22 and Tuesday 23, August 2016. It was a two-day visit. The visit generated much interest from different perspectives: why did the visit take place at this material time? Why didn’t President Barack Obama come in person in the spirit of reciprocity, especially that President Muhammadu Buhari (PMB) had paid official visits to the United States, and more so that President Obama had also visited many African countries without deeming it fit to visit Nigeria, a de facto giant leader in Africa? What does John Kerry want in, or from, Nigeria with his august visit? In fact, the question has also been asked: of what benefit is the visit at this time in the context of Nigeria-US bilateral relations which are still fraught with suspicions?

If questions are raised as to why the US president did not come himself to Nigeria, several reasons can be adduced. First, Obama may have a very tight schedule already agreed to several months back. Presidential visits take a long time to plan. Besides, Nigeria’s relations with the US were not all that good towards the tail end of the administration of President Goodluck Jonathan, hence contemplating a US presidential state visit to Nigeria would not have been a priority. Unless there are critical issues warranting an urgent attention, there wouldn’t have been any basis for giving priority to visiting Nigeria.

Second, if we admit that Nigeria is important enough to warrant the visit of the US president, a two-day visit may also not be enough for a state visit. In other words, Obama is not likely to just come to Nigeria on a simple working visit, or officious or official visit. What will be befitting is a state visit but the little time left for him to complete his second term in office cannot easily allow, hence the need to send his Secretary of State.

Third, it may also be that the issues to be attended to are not worth the while of the US president. In fact, it does not make much sense for the US President to visit Nigeria now when there is no accredited Nigerian ambassador to the US who would have the responsibility to coordinate the visit with the US Secretary of State. The best that could happen was the visit of John Kerry.

In any case, there is no way John Kerry would have come to Nigeria without a purpose, thus legitimising the many questions asked. First, deepening threats of insecurity can be one of the major rationales for the visit. The US government had given an advisory according to which American citizens residing in Nigeria should be more security conscious when travelling to some states that are considered conflict spots. Demands for self-determination are increasingly made forcefully. Nigeria has also been recognised as another terra cognita for international terrorism. In fact, the US led the international recognition when it labelled the Boko Haram as a terrorist organisation and as the deadliest in the world.

Second, Nigeria has also been internationally described as fantastically corrupt. The US is pretty much interested in PMB’s anti-corruption drive, and may therefore want to give active support to PMB’s effort. The interesting question to ask is that everyone knows that Nigeria is quite corrupt and that, according to the Chairman of the Political Bureau, Professor J.S. Cookey, in 1987, corruption and indiscipline constituted the bane of the Nigerian society since 1967. Why did the developed countries of the world keep quiet about it? At the La Baule Conference in France in 2005, emphasis was not only placed on good governance, democracy was also made a conditionality for any development assistance. Are the developed countries unaware that, since 2005, corruption still remains the bane of the Nigerian society?

Thirdly, and specifically on US interest in John Kerry’s visit to Nigeria, it can be posited that Barack Obama is already preparing for his end-of-tenure report card. In this regard, how many of the US allies are still with him as at today when compared with the time he assumed duty as US president? Will Nigeria still remain friendly or friendlier, especially in light of the deepening special entente with the Chinese? In fact, will US interests and expectations in Nigeria be better protected? These questions cannot but have informed John Kerry’s visit.

The Politics of the Visit
John Kerry’s visit is another best business as usual. It appears to be more of an evaluation of the Nigerian situation for purposes of redefinition of US strategy towards Nigeria, in particular, and Africa in general. Besides, Nigeria-US relationship is always vertical in which the US always offers an advice to Nigeria on what to do in dealing with her problems and Nigeria will not only accept with much gratitude, but will also be asking for more help. Additionally, it was the usual visit during which both parties would have one another tell the other what it wants to hear. The US would not only expect expression of gratitude for what it had done for Nigeria in the recent past but would also await possibly a new list of requests. This has been one of the patterns of the relationship, even though both countries are said to have sovereign equality on paper, especially at the political level.

In light of this, it is argued in this column that what is known about the visit is not as much as what is not known about the visit. The untold aspects of the visit are multidimensional in design and strategy, and therefore go beyond the visit. They concern more about the US global strategy. But let us first focus attention on the reported conversations of the visit which has both an official and officious character.

It is an official visit because it has a government-to-government content. John Kerry met with the elected President of Nigeria, PMB. He was not only given a presidential audience but also had the opportunity to exchange official views on issues in Nigeria-US relations. It is also officious because, as a government man, John Kerry visited the palace of the Sultan of Sokoto, a quasi-government establishment, to discuss the aspect of religious tolerance in containing Islamic extremism.

At the official level of Buhari-Kerry dialogue, emphasis was placed on insecurity, democracy, corruption and the economy, as well as on US assistance. On insecurity, PMB acknowledged the training and intelligence given to Nigeria, both of which, in the words of the Nigerian leader, ‘has made Boko Haram less of a threat to Nigeria and the Lake Chad Basin region, while the military hardware has given our troops added confidence.’ The appreciation is largely predicated on the consideration that Nigeria, on her own, is not in the position to muster them. In this connection, PMB said he would not use real force in dealing with the Niger Delta militancy, except when constrained to do so. The issue is the determination of the extent of the tolerance: At what juncture will the constraint come in?

In terms of democracy and corruption, PMB was not in any way surprised that the US intervened before the 2015 presidential elections in Nigeria to demand for free and fair elections. This is because of what the US stands for in international relations. In the words of PMB, the US did not intervene ‘because of what it stands to benefit from us. You (the US) did it for the Nigerian people. It tells so much what the US stands for in the world.’ Interpreted differently, the US was only protecting its own vested interests by seeking to defend free and fair election. Democracy is a western value that all efforts are being made to market to the whole world to buy, keep and cultivate.

The issue of corruption was given greater attention for obvious reasons: it is acknowledged to be the major source of development setbacks in Nigeria. PMB made it clear that the anti-corruption war will be sustained and institutionalised in such a way that the war on corruption will be irreversible in the short and long run. As he explained it, public servants will be retrained and government will ‘insist on the standards we’re establishing. We are laying down administrative and financial instructions in the public service that must be obeyed. any breach will no longer be acceptable.’

More significantly, Government ‘will re-train our staff, so that they understand the new orientation. And those who run foul of these rules will be prosecuted, no matter who is involved. But we will be fair, just and act according to the rule of law. Anyone perceived (to be) corrupt is innocent till we can prove it. We will work very hard to establish documentation for successful prosecution, and those in positions of trust will sit up.’ This statement looks good, except to the extent of its assumptions. It first assumes that the agents of corruption are only Nigerians and that the commission of an act of corruption is not a resultant of trans-border networking. In other words, how will the Government of Nigeria prosecute those who aid and abet corruption in Nigeria but do in countries with which Nigeria does not have extradition treaties?

Secondly, it is assumed that corruption in Nigeria is not largely driven by Nigeria’s political system. The Nigerian system itself is sharply corrupt, especially by rewarding and honouring people who should not have been honoured. Seeking to punish offenders without reviewing the laws that gave room for such corruption cannot but be an effort in vain.

On the issue of the economy, PMB also made it clear that the main focus of his administration is diversification in order to limit the much dependence on oil. A breakdown of the modalities for the diversification was not given and it was not also clear from the Buhari-Kerry conversation the extent to which the US would want to provide assistance to Nigeria on the diversification strategy.

In all the foregoing, John Kerry heard what he expected to hear. He said what he heard constituted opportunities and challenges on the basis of which to build stronger ties, cooperation and commitment. It was in light of this that he commended PMB for all his efforts. In presenting the position of the US, he said: ‘we applaud what you are doing. Corruption creates a ready-made playing field for recruiting extremists. 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.’

This statement does not say much in terms of real commitment beyond applauding what Nigeria is allegedly doing. And inquisitively enough, what really is Nigeria doing? PMB is trying to bring to book those who had allegedly embezzled public money but also consciously or otherwise covering up what the Government had stolen from the general public. Government collected deposits from the general public in 1994 for houses that would not be built. Government has neither allocated any house, nor refunded the monies it collected, nor bother to want to have it discussed even as at 2016. How do we describe this type of government theft of public money? Is corruption not made endemic because of Government’s own malpractices?

John Kerry pledged support for Nigeria in the fight against corruption and insecurity. but subject to capacity and capability of his country. More notably, the US does not intend to interfere in Nigeria’s domestic affairs but wants to provide opportunities if required. In other words, Nigeria will need to make a demand for the opportunities to be created. This is how Nigeria has always been forced to be happily dependent on the US and its allies in such a way that Nigeria has never seen the light to seek development on the basis of self-reliance. In fact, John Kerry has it further that, in dealing with humanitarian challenges in the Boko Haram-inflicted terrorism areas in the North-East of Nigeria, the US pledged to get the UK, France and other allies ‘to augment the support,’ because Nigeria is of priority and the US ‘won’t miss the opportunity to work together because you (Nigeria) are making significant progress.’

At the officious level, John Kerry not only condemned the Boko Haram insurgency, arguing that it does not have any agenda beyond burning schools and places of worship, killing and maiming of people, especially teachers which ‘is the opposite of religion,’ but also noted that extremism cannot be defeated by repression or fear. Additionally, he noted that corruption costs the world $2.6 trillion annually and that this amount was enough to improve the living standard and provide decent livelihoods for them.’ More importantly, he said that ‘corruption is not only a crime but also very dangerous and it must be tamed.’ He expressed the US commitment to fight corruption and ensure the entrenchment of good governance globally.

The Untold Dimensions
The national strategic interest of the US is crystal clear but that of Nigeria is not, and it is, at best, arguable. The US wants to maintain its strategic leadership of the world, thanks to unipolar politics, until 2030 at least. This is why emphasis is largely placed on the AFRICOM (Africa Command) which was set up in February 2007, launched officially on October 1, 2007 as a sub-unified command under the US European Command (EUCOM),, and an autonomous command with effect from October 1, 2008. The mandate of the AFRICOM is to promote US national security objectives in the whole of Africa but with the exception of Egypt.

About ten years ago, the Washingtonian authorities made strenuous efforts to relocate the headquarters of the AFRICOM from Stuttgart, Germany to Africa. The US had much interest in Nigeria hosting it but the Nigerian environment was quite hostile to it. Many other countries expressed interest in hosting it but the US was not pleased with such requests. This prompted the decision to suspend the relocation of the AFRICOM for ten years. It is almost ten years now, the US may be re-strategising for its relocation in the belief that the Buharian environment is much likely to be more favourable.

Secondly, there are currently four competing main centres of global power: the US, the European Union, China and Russia. All of them, excepting the US, have a foreign policy favouring multipolar politics. They are staunchly against unipolarism, that is, they want several centres of power. hence they are directly and indirectly against the US. In fact, a new Cold War, particularly between the US and Russia is currently in the making, while China is already also giving the US a sort of dog-fight in the quest for global leadership. Consequently, the US needs very strong and reliable partners in Africa in dealing with China and Russia in the foreseeable struggle. US needs are no longer essentially oil or raw materials for now, but reliability of its so-called friends.

Most unfortunately, Nigeria only has tactical strategic interests that do not respond to any ultimate-goal setting strategic interest. Nigeria’s foreign policy has generally been reactive. If there is to be any seriousness of purpose in Nigeria’s foreign policy, what prevents Nigeria from seriously partnering with the US on the condition that the US will give active support to making Nigeria the Africa’s power house? What also prevents securing the US support for a future Permanent Seat on the UN Security Council? It has now become necessary to do away with all the so-called partnerships, strategic partnerships, commissions and bi-national commissions, etc, if they will not be predicated on an evolved national strategic interest.

If Nigeria is to really have a great power status in international politics, there will be need to revisit some of Professor Bolaji Akinyemi’s arguments on the need to use Nigeria’s current elements of power to achieve greatness through active participation in global diplomacy in well-defined forms. The Concert of Medium Powers was a case in point.