President Donald Trump is struggling to convince Americans that heâ€™s the right man for the job, enduring record low popularity ratings during his first few months in office. The annual Pew Research Center survey on global attitudes to the U.S. and its president, published on June 26, made for grim reading for Trump. Across the 37 countries surveyed, a median of just 22 per cent had confidence in Trump to do the right thing in international affairs.
Comparably, Trumpâ€™s predecessor Barack Obama scored a median of 64 per cent towards the end of his second term. But in a few countries, Trump seemed to be at least as popular as his predecessorâ€”if not more. One of those countries was Nigeria, the West African nation of 180 million people.
Of the six sub-Saharan African nations surveyed by Pew, Nigeria was the most confident, at 58 per cent, that President Trump would do the right thing in world affairs. This figure was actually the joint-second highest overallâ€”level with Vietnam and behind the Philippines as 69 per centâ€”and Nigerians expressed more faith in Trump than in Germanyâ€™s Angela Merkel, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian leader Vladimir Putin. More than half of Nigerians said relations between the two countries would improve under Trump, while 55 per cent of Nigerian respondents thought of Trump as â€œcaring about ordinary peopleâ€â€”the highest among all the countries surveyed. By contrast, 23 per cent of Canadians expressed the same sentiment.
Nigeria is an extremely diverse country, home to more than 200 ethnicities and a roughly equal split between Christians and Muslims, so it is unlikely that the survey is representative of all Nigerians. Some of the views varied according to their faith: around 70 per cent of Christians in Nigeria expressed confidence in Trumpâ€™s international leadership abilities, compared to 46 per cent of Nigerian Muslims.
But on the whole, Trump seems to be viewed positively in Nigeria. Why might that be?
Nigerians Like a Strongman Leader
Nigeria only witnessed its first democratic transfer of power in 2015, when President Muhammadu Buhari came to office. Prior to that, power had been seized in a series of military coups, including one by Buhari himself in 1983.
The country is therefore used to powerful figures making forceful decisions. In Nigeriaâ€™s current situationâ€”where Boko Haram continues to ravage northeast Nigeria and the country is mired in recessionâ€”qualities such as boldness and impulsive decision-making can seem appealing, says Elizabeth Donnelly, Nigeria expert at Chatham House, an international affairs think tank. â€œIn a context where you have deep insecurity in certain areas and an economic recession as well, possibly that kind of decisive, sharp, brash approach to things can have some appeal,â€ she says.
Trumpâ€™s regular use of executive orders and flagrant disregard for international condemnationâ€”exemplified in his decision to pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate accordsâ€”has already evoked comparisons with archetypal African leaders, including one by South African comic and Daily Show host Trevor Noah.
Trumpâ€™s Values Resonate
Part of the reason for Trumpâ€™s popularity in Nigeria may be the resonance of certain socially conservative values promoted by the Republican Party, according to Nic Cheeseman, an expert on African democracy at the University of Birmingham, U.K. For example, abortion is illegal in Nigeria, except when performed to save a womanâ€™s life, and 98 per cent of Nigerians said that society should not accept homosexuality as a way of life in a 2013 Pew survey, the highest figure of all countries surveyed.
Trump signed an executive order on his first day in office banning federal money going to international groups that perform or give information on abortions. And while the president has said he is â€œfineâ€ with same-sex marriage, the Republicans expressed a desire to overturn the legalisation in their 2016 election platform. â€œIf you imagine a hardline Republican candidate, they wouldnâ€™t be that far away on social issues from the average African voter,â€ says Cheeseman.
Trump is Willing to Sell Nigeria Weapons
Nigeria has been trying to buy attack helicopters from the U.S. since 2015 to expand its air capacity in the fight against Boko Haram. But under Obama, Washington demurred: The Nigerian military have a questionable human rights record and, when a sale looked imminent in early 2017, the countryâ€™s air force mistakenly bombed a refugee settlement in northeast Nigeria, killing more than 100 people.
President Buhari is one of the few African leaders to have spoken by phone with Trump. During the conversation in February, Trump â€œexpressed support for the sale of aircraft from the United States to support Nigeriaâ€™s fight against Boko Haramâ€. While there is no indication the sale has gone through yet, the change in tone would have been welcomed in Abuja, Nigeriaâ€™s capital.
Secessionists Believe Trump Backs Their Cause
An anomaly in Nigeriaâ€™s favorable view of Trump is the pro-Biafra movement, which campaigns for secession from Nigeria for a region known as Biafra. The region, in southeast Nigeria, was the subject of a three-year civil war from 1967-1970 after Biafrans declared independence; more than 1 million people died in the conflict.
Pro-Biafran activists lauded Trumpâ€™s election victory in November 2016; the wife of Nnamdi Kanu, a leading figure in the secessionist movement, told Newsweek at the time that Trump would â€œuphold the self-determination rights of the indigenous people of Biafraâ€. In January, Nigerian police disrupted a rally after hundreds of pro-Biafra activists gathered in southeast Nigeria to celebrate Trumpâ€™s inauguration.
The fascination appears to be linked to Trumpâ€™s public support of the Brexit campaign in the U.K., when he tweeted the following: Self-determination is the sacred right of all free peopleâ€™s, and the people of the U.K. have exercised that right for all the world to see.
Do Nigerians Want Their Own Trump?
Nigeriaâ€™s own president has been conspicuously absent for much of 2017. Buhari has been on medical leave in the U.K. since May 7â€”his second extended absence this yearâ€”and Nigerians have expressed frustration at the lack of clarity provided by the government on the presidentâ€™s state of health.
With Nigeria going through economic, political and security travails, Cheeseman suggests that the countryâ€™s population may look enviously at the U.S., where the president has emphasised domestic priorities, rarely travelled abroad, and used executive orders to force through decisions and get things done. â€œMaybe they see that as something they would like in their own country right now,â€ he says.