Many Wins of Buhari‘s US Visit

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Last week’s bilateral meetings between President Muhammadu Buhari and US President Donald Trump at the White House, including Buhari’s meetings with top executives of some US companies, got a lot of wins for Nigeria. Tokunbo Adedoja writes

For the better part of last week, global media focus was on Nigeria as United States President Donald Trump hosted President Muhammadu Buhari in the White House. Buhari’s visit to the White House, the first by any sub-Saharan Africa leader since President Trump assumed office over a year ago, enjoyed days of media blitz. Expectedly, the keen interest in Buhari’s visit among U.S. media outlets was somewhat tied to the alleged vulgar remark made by Trump a few months earlier about African countries. 

From the preview of his arrival in the U.S. to the joint press conference in the Rose Garden, coupled with the warm handshake by both leaders and that remarkable photo opportunity with Trump grinning and leaning over Buhari’s shoulder while (Buhari) was signing the visitor’s book in the Oval Office, images and clips of the visit went viral on the internet. 

The reports, images and video clips of the leader of the free world and the largest economy with the leader of Africa’s biggest democracy and its biggest economy sent an unambiguous message about the strategic partnership between Nigeria and the U.S. 

 A week after the visit, the media have not stopped appraising Buhari’s engagements in Washington. The common thread in all the reports was the conclusion that he returned home with a basket full of wins for Nigeria.

Prior to the visit, both the White House and Nigerian State House had released statements on issues that would come up for discussion. The statements listed security, trade and governance as key focal points of the bilateral talks.  These issues were discussed at the meeting between the two presidents in the Oval Office, at the working lunch of 1+10 on each side at the White House, and emphasised at their joint press conference. 

Investment and financing opportunities were also explored at the meetings Buhari held with top executives of some U.S. companies at the Blair House where he stayed during the visit. 

The round-table discussions provided the opportunity for top Nigerian companies and business leaders to interface with top executives of U.S. companies, where Nigerian policymakers, led by the president, were seated. There couldn’t have been a better demonstration of Nigeria’s commitment to the investment talks.

Even before their departure from the U.S., members of the Nigerian delegation were confident that the engagements they had were fruitful and beneficial.  They were of the view that they got all they wanted.

“It was a good meeting and it’s a win-win for both Nigeria and the U.S.  There were a lot of wins,” Foreign Affairs Minister Geoffrey Onyeama enthused.

“Today has been a good day for the United States and it’s actually a good day for Nigeria,” Industry, Trade & Investment Minister Ikechukwu Enelamah said, adding that in those meetings,  “businesses were literally striking deals”.

One of such business deals was struck two days before the arrival of Buhari in Washington. It was a deal with the GE Consortium, comprising SiniHydro, Transnet and APM Terminals for the interim phase of the Nigerian narrow-gauge railway concession.   

That interim agreement would last for 12 months during which remedial works will be carried out on part of the narrow-gauge rail line system to make it technically and economically operable. A joint operation will also be established between the consortium and the Nigeria Railway Corporation with an initial supply of 10 locomotives and 200 wagons.  

The second phase will revamp the existing rail network and build new ones.  The first phase is valued at over $40 million while the second phase is $2billion.

There were also several expressions of interest in investing in Nigeria at the meetings held at the Blair House with top executives of some U.S. companies, including those in agro-businesses. For example, John Deere – a U.S. company that manufactures agricultural, construction, and forestry machinery – was said to be looking into assembling and supplying tractors in Nigeria. It will start with a few hundred, then thousands and its full expression, it is expected to exceed 10,000 tractors.

Another major win for Nigeria was the unambiguous expression of support for the battle against terrorism without preconditions. Efforts by Nigeria in the past to get military hardware from the US had met with several hurdles involving allegations of human rights abuses and lack of corporate governance. 

Though prior to the visit, Nigeria had secured America’s nod to purchase 12 Super Tucano aircraft for deployment in the ongoing counter-insurgency and anti-terrorism campaign and had even partly paid for the aircraft, the meeting between Buhari and Trump erased fears that it was a one-off deal. 

Trump emphatically stated, in response to a question on how soon those aircraft would be delivered, that those reasons that denied Nigeria access to such military hardware were not tenable. 

“Part of the problem is you weren’t allowed to buy helicopters in our country and now you are. I worked that out so that now you can buy the helicopters that you want.

“They weren’t allowed to buy the helicopters for various reasons, which frankly weren’t good reasons. Now they get them, and they get them very quickly, and they are the best helicopters in the world.

“We are also helping our Nigerian partners by facilitating intelligence cooperation and providing training and military equipment to Nigerian forces. For example, we recently sold to Nigeria 12 US A-29 Super Tucano aircraft, great aircraft, in the first-ever sale of American military equipment to Nigeria,” Trump said.

Trump’s acknowledgement of the effort to redeem Nigeria’s “massive reputation of corruption” through the current anti-corruption crusade, which had been faulted severally by critics as a witch-hunt and one-sided, was a big win for Buhari. 

Coming at a time when there were allegations of selective application of his anti-corruption crusade, the thumb’s up from Trump will be a talking point for the regime as it approaches the 2019 election.

Buhari’s visit to Washington also raised the possibility of Trump visiting Nigeria “soon”.  At the joint press conference with Buhari, Trump said he would love to visit Nigeria, although he did not provide specific timelines. A visit by the U.S. president places the country visited under global media attention. If Trump does, then he will be the first U.S. president to visit Nigeria in a decade.   

Foreign Affairs Minister Onyeama noted that presidents’ schedules were usually tight and that it could take a year to plan such visits. He, however, said: “Maybe sometime next year we could envisage something like that.”

The United States got its own wins, so did President Trump. One of such wins was the call for the removal of trade barriers which has now been brought to the front-burner of discourse between the two countries. The balance of trade between Nigeria and the U.S. shows Nigeria has a bigger balance sheet, but that is because of Nigeria’s oil exports to the U.S. 

Trump canvassed for the removal of trade barriers that affect U.S. agriculture produce, but that could also aid Nigeria’s agriculture exports. Nigeria does not seem to be averse to Trump’s call.  Industry, Trade & Investment minister said: “The important thing is that the balance of trade should grow on both sides and it should be a win-win. And that is exactly what will happen based on what we see today.”

Former U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria, John Campbell, said Buhari’s visit to Washington was a small win for Trump. He said Buhari’s response to a question on Trump’s derisive description of some African countries as “shithole countries” took that issue off the table and provided a venue for Trump to appeal to his own political base, with his remarks on the killing of Christians by Islamist groups and the call for the removal of trade barriers, which his business friends in America would want to hear. 

“Among other things, Buhari’s visit may have at least partly defanged criticism of Trump that he is racist vis-à-vis his alleged derogatory remarks about Africa. However, the Buhari visit is likely to have only a limited impact on American domestic politics in the run-up to the mid-terms in November,” the former U.S envoy said. 

Campbell further noted:  “For Buhari, the trip was a win in ways that are more concrete. President Trump reaffirmed Nigeria’s regional leadership role, promised security cooperation, and promised that the attorneys general of the two countries are looking for ways to return stolen Nigerian funds, estimated at $500 million, parked in the United States.”

In the Nigerian government circles, optimism about concretising the outcomes of the bilateral meetings is high. This is because the engagements in Washington had the fundamental ingredients required for successful outcomes. 

Drawing from his experience of engagements with nations and businesses as trade and investment minister for close to three years, Enelamah posited that economic cooperation requires working at it from three levels, and those three levels must click for cooperation to go far. 

He listed the three levels as a government to government cooperation; government to business cooperation; and business to business cooperation.  

“At this particular meeting, the government to government level involved not only the two presidents meeting but also cabinet members were there,” he noted, adding that for the government to business level, President Buhari met with various businesses and had very productive and engaging discussions with them. 

“I think the necessary thing now is follow-ups. We stay engaged and build on what we know to be a good relationship between Nigeria and the U.S. I think what happened just underscored it and we will not take it for granted,” Enelamah said. 

Already, follow-up meetings have commenced. Attorney General Abubakar Malami met with his U.S. counterpart Jeff Sessions last Tuesday in Washington to work out modalities for the return of Nigeria’s stolen money. Those discussions are expected to culminate in the repatriation of over $500 million stolen from Nigeria and stashed in banks in various jurisdictions.

In a couple of weeks, Enelamah will also be meeting with U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross to look at the commercial and investment dialogue in details. The call for the removal of trade barriers would be part of the discussions. 

More of such follow-up meetings will hold on other issues discussed in the bilateral meetings in the coming weeks and months to fully concretise the outcomes of the bilateral talks.