BY TOKUNBO ADEDOJA
Today, President Muhammadu Buhari and United States of America’s President Donald Trump will hold a bilateral meeting at the White House. The meeting of the two leaders is important because it underscores Nigeria–U.S. longstanding friendship – a friendship that dates back to 1960 when the U.S. established diplomatic relations with Nigeria after it gained independence from Britain. Though that friendship was negatively affected by decades of military rule; however, since the return of democracy in 1999, relations between the two countries have improved tremendously, particularly in the areas of trade and regional security.
The signing of a bi-national commission agreement in April 2010 further deepened relations between the two countries. The U.S.-Nigeria Bi-national Commission Agreement is a forum for focused high-level discussions. Since that agreement was signed, top officials of both countries have met regularly on key areas of mutual interests.
The upcoming meeting between the two leaders is, however, coming at a time when foreign policy analysts are of the view that Africa is of little or no priority to the foreign policy agenda of the Trump administration, and barely three months after President Trump derisively referred to Haiti and some African countries as ‘Shithole countries.’
Therefore, today’s meeting provides a great opportunity for both countries to discuss their shared interests and seek ways of achieving goals enunciated in the bi-national commission agreement. The BNC has five key components: Good governance, transparency, and integrity; energy and investment; regional security; the Niger Delta; and agriculture and food security.
But so much has changed since that agreement was signed in 2010. The U.S. has moved from being a major buyer of Nigeria’s crude oil largely due to the surge in production of Shale oil and renewable energy agenda of the Barack Obama administration.
A new government has also emerged in the U.S. with a President that preaches nationalism and promoting ‘America First.’ In Nigeria, an opposition party has taken over power with new priorities. Nigeria also moved from being just a major economy in Africa to the largest economy on the continent.
Coming at a time when Nigeria just exited its worst recession in decades and at a period when it is desperately working towards diversifying its economy from dependence on oil, this meeting is not only timely but also holds promise for Nigeria and U.S.
For President Buhari, he is making history as the first African leader to be so honoured with an invitation by the Trump administration to visit the White House. Although, it is his second visit to the White House in less than three years.
He was hosted by President Obama in the Oval Office in July 2015 barely two months after his inauguration. That meeting was meant to express U.S. government’s support to the new Nigerian government which emerged after a historic election and peaceful transfer of power from a ruling party to an opposition party.
Today’s meeting with President Trump, therefore, presents another opportunity to discuss, at the highest diplomatic level, the support needed for key agenda of the Buhari government, like oil sector reform, power sector reform, infrastructure development, anti-corruption war, counter-insurgency and anti-terrorism campaign, and of course, trade and investments.
Buhari will also be meeting with a group of business persons with interest in agriculture and agro-processing, dairy and animal husbandry later today, according to a statement from the State House. This is not surprising. Since he came to power in 2015, he has made agriculture one of the focal points of his government.
High-level meetings have also been arranged between some Nigerian officials and top executives of some major American companies, including Boeing, GE and U.S. Exim Bank. The focus of these discussions will be around the national carrier project, implementation of the narrow gauge rail concession, agriculture and agro-processing including the exploration of competitive financing arrangements.
The unending insurgency and terrorism in the North will also come up at the meeting between the two leaders. While the U.S. has helped in the area of military training and intelligence, Nigeria believes it has not received adequate support in the area of military hardware to effectively prosecute the war because of several hurdles, which include governance and human rights issues. Even though there were high-level engagements between the immediate past administration in Nigeria and US government for the supply of military hardware to combat insurgency and other security challenges, those hurdles ensured the engagements did not achieve those objectives.
Nigeria is currently seeking to buy Tucano aircraft from the U.S. to prosecute the anti-terror war in the North-east. President Trump has offered his support for that bid while President Buhari has approved the release of money for the aircraft.
One key issue not listed in the agenda of today’s meeting in the statement released by the State House is the issue of Nigeria’s bid for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. Nigerian leaders that were hosted at the White House in the past 10 years had consistently sought the U.S. support for Nigeria’s bid for a permanent seat on the Council as one of their talking points. Could this be a deliberate omission or an oversight?
Going by discussions between the U.S. and Nigerian leaders in some past bilateral meetings, it is safe to say that U.S. will be seeking to encourage a two-way trade and investment, support improvements in agricultural productivity and the delivery of reliable and affordable energy, help strengthen democratic institutions, improve governance, transparency and accountability, build institutional capacity and assist in professionalizing Nigeria’s security forces.
It is not unlikely that it will be looking at curtailing the growing influence of China on the continent, particularly with regards to Nigeria, which has in the past few years increased relations with China. Today’s meeting presents a good opportunity for the U.S. to further strengthen its relations with Nigeria, a strategic partner it cannot afford to lose to the growing Chinese influence.
Nigeria’s strategic importance to the U.S. cannot be over emphasized. About a million Nigerians work, study and live in the U.S. while about 25000 Americans are said to be living in Nigeria. A major oil producer in Africa, Nigeria is the continent’s most populous country, a key contributor to UN peace-keeping force and a major power in West Africa.
No doubt, Trump came to power with a wrong view of Africa and his administration is gradually realising that America is losing grounds on the continent to China. A key indication of that realisation is the decision of President Trump to send former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to Africa to engage leaders on the continent a month ago. Nigeria was one of the countries he visited. A new secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, has been appointed and foreign policy analysts are watching to see how he will consolidate on the gains of the Tillerson visit and coordinate the implementation of the decisions of the bilateral meeting between Buhari and Trump.
Today’s meeting certainly holds great promise for Nigeria-U.S. relations going forward.
•Adedoja, THISDAY Digital Editor, writes from Washington D.C.