Muhammadu Buhari and Donald Trump in Nigeria-US Relations: A Prolegomena to their April 30 Meeting

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With Bola Akinterinwa

Many factors defined Nigeria’s relationships with the United States before the advent of Muhammadu Buhari and Donald Trump as elected presidents of Nigeria and the United States. The factors included trade, especially crude oil; African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA); multi-party democracy; presidential system of government; regional security cooperation; dependency syndrome; and development assistance.

Speaking generally, Nigeria’s relationship with the United States is warm but characterised by mutual suspicions. These mutual suspicions have been heightened under President Muhammadu Buhari (PMB) and President Donald Trump, who both constitute new and special dynamics in Nigeria-United States. In this regard, how do they impact on the bilateral ties between their two countries? What are the two presidents likely to discuss at the meeting scheduled for April 30, 2018 in Washington?

As revealed by Sarah Sanders, the spokesperson of the White House on Sunday 15th April, 2018, ‘President Trump looks forward to discussing ways to enhance our strategic partnership and advance our shared priorities,’ that is, ‘promoting economic growth and reforms, fighting terrorism and other threats to peace and security, and building on Nigeria’s role as a democratic leader in the region.’ Additionally, the United States believes that if there is security and economic growth in Nigeria, as well as leadership in Africa, the strong and deep relationship between the United States and Nigeria ‘will advance our mutual prosperity.’

From the statement of Sarah Sanders, there is no disputing the fact that greater emphasis is much likely to be placed on how to better conduct the war on terror, how to consolidate democratic values, and how to foster better economic ties. In light of this expectation, what is the likely impact of the would-be meeting? Will it really lead to improvement in bilateral understanding?

Vie Internationale believes, and strongly too, that not much would change following the scheduled meeting for various reasons: the main dynamics of Nigeria-US relations are constant until now and they are much likely to remain so for a long time to come. The main dynamic is competing sovereign equality and mutual suspicion, largely predicated on vertical dependence. Secondly, the domestic perception of the two leaders cannot be helpful to the development of better understanding. While Donald Trump’s attitudinal disposition to the maintenance of multilateral diplomacy, global peace and security is nothing to write home about, President Buhari is being accused of selective-driven anti-corruption war, nepotism, and ill health. Donald Trump is promoting national protectionism to the detriment of protection of collective interest, while Muhammadu Buhari is seriously challenged by deepening threats to Nigeria’s survival.

The mania of foreign policy management under Donald Trump is another problem entirely: it is without extension of diplomatic courtesies to other sovereign leaders, but with use of arrogant foul language. In the eyes of Donald Trump, other elected presidents can be talked to, and not necessarily talked with. Donald Trump addresses the Nigerian leader as a sub-president, and this has precisely been a major dynamic of the relationship between Donald Trump and Muhammadu Buhari in their individual capacities as leaders of their two countries.
In fact, how does Donald Trump see Nigeria and PMB? How does the perception affect or likely to affect Nigeria-US relationship in the foreseeable future? In responding to the foregoing questions, it is useful to explicate the current situational reality of the relationship, and then put the challenges of mutual perception in it with the ultimate objective of articulating the possible direction of the relationship.

Nigeria-US Relationship under Trump
United States foreign policy under President Donald Trump is largely predicated on the principle of ‘America First’ within the framework of global concentricism. In the possible thinking of President Trump, there is no need differentiating between or among many foreign policy concentric circles. At best, we can talk about two, inner and outer circles. In this regard, the inner circle is America or the United States, while the outer circle is the rest of the world.

Unlike in Nigeria where Professor Ibrahim Gambari talks about geo-political foreign policy concentricism and Ambassador Oluyemi Adeniji also talks about beneficial and constructive concentricism, both of whom talk about prioritisation of concentric circles and the protection of the national interest in each concentric circle, President Trump only has one priority, and that is ‘anything American’, that is, anything with American character, and anything considered to be American.

The principle of ‘American First’ is not at all different from Ambassador Adeniji’s beneficial and constructive concentricism: he agrees with Professor Gambari that there is goodness in prioritising Nigeria’s foreign policy areas, but also adds that the goodness will be more if Nigeria’s national interest is first articulated within each prioritised concentric circle. When compared to Donald Trump’s ‘America First,’ the whole world is one concentric circle, meaning that Donald Trump is talking about ‘global-centricism’ as the epicentre of US foreign policy.

The immediate implication of this for the tête-à-tête between Trump and Buhari scheduled for April 30 is to expect the rigid application of the principle of ‘America First’ at the various levels of the bilateral talks. Explained in other words, President Trump should not be expected to negotiate away any US interest, implying that Nigeria has been boxed to the corner before negotiations even begin. But put interrogatively, has Nigeria any policy or principle of ‘Nigeria First’ to serve as a counter-philosophy? Where Nigeria’s national interest conflicts with that of the United States, what are the likely bargaining factors on which Nigeria can capitalise during such bilateral talks?

Secondly, the visit of Rex Tillerson, former US Secretary of State to Africa also raises questions about Donald Trump’s attitude towards Africa. Tillerson made a tour of some African countries with the ultimate objective of helping to build a new and better image for Donald Trump in Africa. His visit to Nigeria was the last in the series. It was quite brief as Tillerson had to rush back home to be sacked as Secretary of State. Why was his sack immediately following his visit to Nigeria?

True, Donald Trump had, before then, told all Americans, particularly his close collaborators, not to abuse or condemn Russia on any matter. Tillerson was on record to have breached this directive. Was this the factor that explains his sack? Was there anything Tillerson did during his short stay in Nigeria that infuriated Donald Trump? It is our belief that, contrary to popular diplomatic belief, Nigeria’s relationship with the United States under president Donald Trump and President Buhari is neither warm nor deep. Before the advent of the two leaders, the relationship was fairly warm in attitudinal disposition and deep in scope of areas of cooperation. Beyond that, the relationship has been that of crises and conflicts.

Third, on the basis of Trump’s animosity vis-a-vis Buhari, the 2019 re-election agenda of PMB may not be ruled out in the expected tête-à-tête on April 30. In other words, does Donald Trump really want PMB re-elected? Why would Muhammadu Buhari be invited to Washington only to be told not to contest? Why should it be the responsibility of Donald Trump to encourage Buhari to contest? Article 2:7 of the UN Charter prohibits unnecessary interference and intervention in the domestic affairs of other sovereign states, meaning that the re-election of Buhari should not be a major preoccupation of the United States. However, is US interference preventable if the issue of democracy comes up? Is it preventable when the questions of corruption and Chibok or Dapchi girls are raised? Is it preventable in light of the allegation by former Minister of Defence, Lt-General Theophilus Danjuma, an allegation of ethnic cleansing by the Nigerian military, and his advice that Nigerians now owe it a responsibility to defend themselves?

As General Danjuma put it when he noted on Saturday, March 24, 2018 at the inaugural convocation of the Taraba State University, ‘there is an attempt at ethnic cleansing in the state, and, of course, some rural states in Nigeria. We must resist it. We must stop it. Everyone of us rise up.’ More important, General Danjuma observed that ‘our armed forces are not neutral. They collude with the bandits to kill people, kill Nigerians. The armed forces guide their movements; they cover them. If you are depending on the Armed Forces to stop the killings, you will all die one by one.’ Consequently, he advised everyone ‘to be alert and defend your country (Nigeria), defend your territory and defend your state because you have no other place to go.’

With this public statement, which has been widely reported and which, without jot of doubt, would have been duly reported by all accredited diplomatic missions to Nigeria back home, PMB must prepare more cautiously for the response, even if it is not directly raised by Donald Trump. The important implication of the observation is that it has been raised by a Nigerian with credibility and integrity, an altruist and patriot, Theophilus Danjuma, and not by a foreigner.

And perhaps more disturbingly, PMB will need to also prepare for another allegation by the Taraba State Government that it informed the Federal Government about the security threats and the soldiers’ misconduct, but the Federal Government opted to keep silent about it. This is an allegation that may not be separated from that of General Danjuma. Both allegations are issues any US president would want to be interested in.

Fourth, there is the issue of alleged support of Donald trump for the proponents of a sovereign state of Biafra. The MASSOB (Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra) and the IPOB (Indigenous People of Biafra) expressed open support for Donald Trump’s election, reportedly because of his sympathy for oppressed people. On which side is the United States in matters of national unity, national restructuring?

Without doubt, Buhari is more experienced as a statesman and president, having been a military head of state and also an elected president. However, Buhari cannot be said to have the exposure of the president of a superpower with all the attendant political intrigues involved in it. President Buhari will need to factor into his discussions the physiognomic factors. In many developed democracies, physiognomy is taken seriously. In Nigeria, it is not a big deal most unfortunately.

Fifthly, one of the foreign policy objectives of Nigeria is the respect for international treaties and other agreements. This is consistent with the principle of sanctity of agreements or pacta sunt servanda. The principle does not any longer mean anything to Donald trump as he has been reneging on many of US obligations on the basis of ‘America First.’ To what extent will PMB be able to also behave irrationally like Donald Trump? What the United States is basically interested in is consolidation of democratic values, regional peace and security, conducive business environment, and, of course, a Nigeria that will not become a challenge to US foreign policy interests in international relations.

In other words, the goodness in, and development of, the bilateral ties must not be to the extent of enabling Nigeria to be strong enough to be able to effectively challenge the directives or positions of the United States in inter-state relations. This is true of the foreign policy interest of the great powers. No country wants any other country that will be able to challenge it. In fact, this is why admission of new members into the UN Security Council has not been favourably entertained. In the same vein, the current political challenge with which the whole of the European Union countries are faced is the new and more militant Russia, which has reportedly been undermining European strategic interests. Thus, the new strength of Russia and the technological capacity with which it is springing surprises is the main issue now.

Mutual Perceptions
The perception in Nigeria of the people of the United States is mixed. Americans are considered great and a role model, especially in light of their principle of protection of the citizen of America in all circumstances. The technological feat and industrial development is seen to be a major source of sweet inspirations.

On the other hand, many Nigerians also see Americans to be very arrogant and their government carry this arrogance to the international arena, to the extent that they are no longer able to see any limitations in the conduct and management of their foreign policy outside America. In fact, whatever the United States does is regarded always correct. When another country does exactly the same, it is presented as a breach of international civilisation, if not an abuse of international fundamental rights. It is from this perspective that Donald Trump’s foreign policy pronouncements should be seen and explained.

Ever before Donald Trump took over the mantle of leadership of the United States, Nigeria’s PMB was never in the good books of the US leader. For instance, as presidential candidate, Donald Trump not only criticised PMB of coming up with a negative and painful change, arguing that what PMB had done was to be sponsoring Islamic agenda, but also said that PMB’s victory was questionable. In fact, in the eyes of Donald Trump, PMB is, at best, irresponsible. As Donald Trump put it, ‘no sensible president continuously travels round the globe while his country is in terrible hardship and economic mess. It can only happen in Nigeria where all that matters to the president is the full introduction of Islam, annihilation of his political opponents and absolute extermination of the people of the old Eastern Nigeria.’

Additionally, Donald Trump accused PMB of making lots of promises at the polls which he has ‘obviously failed to keep, and, in most cases, denied…. It wouldn’t be wrong to assert that what PMB promised as change is negative.’

Apart from the presidential dimension, the perception of the people of Nigeria and their leaders is equally noteworthy. At a rally held in Wichita, Kansas, United States, President Trump opined that ‘Nigerians and Mexicans have taken all the jobs meant for honest, hard working Americans… Why can’t they stay in their own country? Why? Donald Trump provided one possible answer: ‘because they are corrupt. Their governments are so corrupt. They rob the people blind and bring it all here to spend and their people run away and come down here and take our jobs. We need to get the Africans out. Not the blacks, the Africans. Especially the Nigerians. They are everywhere. We can’t have that. If I become president, we’ll send them all home. We’ll build a wall at the Atlantic shore.’

And perhaps most interestingly, Donald Trump was able to note that, when he went for a rally in Alaska, he met ‘just one African in the entire state. ‘Where was he born?’ he asked and the answer is Nigeria. As submitted by Trump, ‘he is in Alaska taking our jobs. they are in Houston taking our jobs.’

Thus, in the eyes of Donald Trump, Nigerians are not only corrupt but also constitute an economic burden, who should be declared persons non-gratae if elected the US President. And true enough, he has been elected and has been trying tooth and nail to get his racist policy of national development implemented. However, the polity has not been quite favourable but there is no disputing the fact that he nurses unlimited animosity vis-a-vis Africans in the US. This point should be specially noted because he distinguishes between the blacks and Africans.

Now that Donald Trump has been elected, to deport Africans or Nigerians in particular is a matter of time if Donald Trump is not impeached. If the polity places barriers that have hitherto prevented him from acting, it is important to note that Donald Trump is only tolerating Africans in his country.

It is against this background that Nigeria’s PMB has been invited to pay official visit to Washington to discuss the modalities for further improvement in the relationship. Nigeria’s delegation to the US must therefore plan well and provide answers well in advance to Donald Trump’s ‘America First.’