Bidenplomacy and Buhariplomacy in a World of Permanent Crisis: The Challenge of Boko Haramism

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By Bola A. Akinterinwa

Bidenplomacy is coined from Biden (Joe Biden) while Buhariplomacy is coined from Buhari (Muhammadu Buari). Joe Biden is president-elect of the United States while Muhammadu Buhari is President of Nigeria. The two concepts are conceived in this article to mean the strategy, policy and technique of conducting and managing United States diplomacy under President-elect and future president Joe Biden, as distinct from that of President Donald Trump, on the one hand, and Nigeria’s diplomacy under President Muhammadu Buhari.

Without doubt, diplomacy is either considered as an art or as science and field of study. Vie internationale is more concerned with diplomacy as an art, which requires the use of tact, mental alertness, vibrant negotiating skills and strategic focus in the management of international relations and questions Grosso modo, the dynamics of diplomacy are multidimensional in character, unlimited in scope, issue-driven in conduct and management and always national interest targeted in outcome. In this regard, some dynamics have a permanent character, such as self-preservation and security, while the tactic or technique of the conduct constantly changes. For instance, US foreign policy can always be expected to always seek the protection of democracy and human rights the world over, simply because Americans see themselves as the bastion of democracy and the terra cognita of human rights values. Consequently, whenever and wherever democracy is seen to be threatened or there are violations of fundamental human rights, US hostile reactions should be expected.

Perhaps more important is the domestic and external environment of diplomacy. The current global environment is that of technology-driven globalisation, increasing threats to multilateralism, unaccepted quests for nuclearisation as an instrument of national self-defence, and emerging new Cold War between China and the United States of America. Put differently, the global environment is increasingly becoming inclement for the use of diplomacy to resolve international misunderstandings. In fact, the threats of use of nuclear arms are another major problem entirely. China is aspiring to step into the shoes of the United States as leader of the world, the United States under Donald Trump not only wants ‘America First’ in every socio-political, economico-strategic undertakings in international relations, but also aspires to ‘Make America Great Again.’ The implication is that the United States still wants to continue to sustain its leadership of the world.
It is against this background that the discussion of bidenplomacy should be understood. In also understanding it, there is the need to also put it in the context of issue-oriented analysis. This will enable the explication of the difference in attitude of Donald Trump and Joe Biden, on the one hand, and buhariplomacy and boko haramism, on the other.

Global and Regional Questions

Donald Trump’s policy of ‘America First’ is necessarily isolationist in design and practice. It is a policy that seeks self-redress and self-recovery, with the ultimate objective of increasing the declining level of productivity at the domestic level. China, in particular, is perceived to have overtaken the United States in development of technology and if China had overtaken the United States, it cannot but be because she had stolen US technological know-how. This perception of the United States is quite arguable.

In the same vein, ‘Make America Great Again,’ is a further extension of ‘America First’ policy. By the time the United States would have fully recovered as the world leader in technology, military power, economic wealth and democratic governance, the United States can be expected to begin to re-assert itself in international relations. With the rejection of Donald Trump for a second presidential term, the whole world is now left with bidenplomacy to contend with. How is President Joe Biden likely to relate to the world and to international questions?

Beginning with the question of ‘America First’ and ‘Make America great again’; President Joe Biden is most likely to maintain the two policies but in a different context. The conduct will be different: rather than Making America Great Again (MAGA), the approach cannot but be to ‘Make America Respected Again (MARA). In bringing about respect for the people of the United States, all policies adopted under Donald Trump are most likely to be revisited.

First, at the global level, the United States is likely to return to some world organisations from which President Donald Trump has withdrawn the membership of the United States or has given notice to withdraw it from. They include the UNESCO and the World Trade Organisation. There are also some international agreements from which the United States has withdrawn from. They include the 12 December 2015 UNFCCC Paris Agreement on Climate Change which is done to keep the global temperature rise below two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and possibly to also limit the temperature increase further to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Additionally, there is also the 14 July 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action done by the Five Permanent Members of the UN Security Council, Iran, Germany, and the European Union, which took effect from 18 October 2015 and the implementation of which started on 16 January 2016. The ultimate aim was to ensure nuclear non-proliferation.

At the regional and national level is the critical issue of terrorism. It is, indeed, an international problem that is more manifested at the national and regional levels. It is conceived at the national level but executed outside of the national framework of conception. Terrorists have multiple nationality. The victims are always of different nationalities, thus requiring a concerted international effort in containing it. How far can bidenplomacy, in collaboration with buhariplomacy, contain boko haramism? Can boko haramism be defeated militarily without also simultaneously addressing its ideological foundations? Is fighting Boko Haram not also directly fighting Al Qaeda, meaning that the problem is quite complex?

Bidenplomacy, Buhariplomacy and Boko Haramism

Boko Haramism, is a national, regional and global security issue. It is in this regard that bidenplomacy is relevant for analysis.

And true, US security policy is largely predicated on counter-terrorism and, in the eyes of the United States, the Boko Haram is nothing more than the worst terrorist organisation. From the perspective of the Nigerian military, the Boko Haram has been technically defeated, and yet, the defeated boko haramists continue to increasingly create more havoc on the civil societies to the chagrin of everyone.

A fortnight ago, an agreement between Nigeria and the United States was done with the aim of establishing an international coalition against the Boko Haram insurgency. This is a welcome development. However, the coalition is likely to be challenged by three factors.

First, the United States has refused to sell some Tucano military aircraft required to fight decisively Boko Haram terror. The reason for the refusal has been that the Nigerian military would not be careful enough to prevent the loss of US technology to the terrorists. This is one major rationale for also blocking the purchase of the Tucano for Israel and South Africa both of which are given production licence.

There is the second factor of existence of many Boko Haram agents and sympathisers in government, and particularly among the policy-making class. The problem is so critical to the extent that there is no anti-Boko Haram decision taken that is not immediately known by the Boko Haram organisation. In fact, as differently put by the Global Terrorism Index, Nigeria is the third most terrorised country in the world for the sixth consecutive time. According to the index, ‘Nigeria had the second largest fall in total deaths, owing largely to a 72 percent reduction in fatalities attributed to Fulani extremists. Despite this decrease, the number of deaths attributed to Boko Haram increased by 25 percent from 2018 to 2019.’ In fact, the index reveals, ‘renewed activity by Boko Haram in Nigeria and neighbouring countries, including Cameroon, Chad and Niger, remains a substantial threat to the region’ (vide Vanguard, Friday, November 27, 2020, p. 6).
Thirdly, unlike classical international terrorism (letter and parcel bombs, kidnapping and skyjacking, suicide-bombing, etc), which was essentially anti-big powers’ politics in design, boko haramism, as a terrorist activity, is mainly to undermine Nigeria’s sovereignty, introduce an Islamic State, particularly in the North, and replace western way of education and lifestyle with Islamisation. If there is a coalition against boko haramism it is more of self-interest protecting than protecting Nigeria’s interest. Boko haramism is, indeed, a threat to global security. How do we understand bidenplomacy in this regard?

Boko haramism, within the framework of bidenplomacy, is best investigated and appreciated in the context of buhariplomacy, which, at best, has been reactive, on the one hand, and in the context of Nigeria’s governmental image-laundering, rather than in the context of any specific national interest protecting, on the other. Nigeria is not on record to have particularised foreign policy on countries, for instance, vis-a-vis specific major powers, or towards specific regions of the world. By signing multilateral agreements on some international questions, it can be arguably posited that Nigeria has a policy towards such international questions.

However, the critical challenge remains at the level of how to benefit from such multilateral agreements, how to engage effectively in influence politics within the multilateral framework. In this type of reactive buhariplomacy, bidenplomacy cannot but have a completely free space to do whatever the United States wants in Nigeria’s sphere of influence. Nigeria, in some cases, can be a beneficiary from US policy stand, especially when the values involved have a shared character. An example is the politics of the World Trade Organisation in terms of the difference in attitude of Donald Trump and Joe Biden towards the organisation.

The immediate impact of bidenplomacy, in spite of Joe Biden still being a President-elect, can first be gleaned at the level of the WTO. With the presidential election defeat of Donald Trump at the home level, United States is also necessarily defeated at the external level of the WTO. United States under Donald Trump was sustaining the candidature of a South Korean, Yoo Myung-Hee, the country’s Minister of Trade, for the position of the Director General of the WTO.

Myung-Hee’ candidacy was withdrawn last week apparently in light of the recognition that there will be no more Donald Trump to support the South Korean candidate. The United States of Joe Biden is likely to reconcile American differences, not only with the WTO, but also with China in the WTO. The implication is the gain for Nigeria with the endorsement of Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the successor to Roberto Azevedo, following his resignation as Director General.

A second challenge is the proposed international coalition against boko haramism. Two preliminary points are noteworthy in this case: bidenplomacy may not change the approach of Donald Trump to the anti-terrorism war. Donald Trump strongly believed that a very tough approach should always be adopted. During his presidential campaigns in 2016, he not only called for the re-introduction of water-boarding, but also ‘for more worse things.’ He advocated torture of terrorist suspects as means of extracting information from suspects. Expectedly, bidenplomacy cannot condone the use of terror in international life. Terrorism is a common public enemy number one. Consequently, the challenge is the method of strategic calculations required in carrying out the war on the use of terror. Will President Biden accept water-boarding? Will he engage in torturing of the terrorist suspects?

On the other point, Donald Trump, more often than not, sidelined the Department of State in many critical foreign policy decisions.

The White House was essentially responsible for foreign policy-making. In the context of bidenplomacy it is more likely that the Department of State will be greatly involved in the foreign policy process. Specifically in the context of the international coalition against Boko Haram in Nigeria, has Nigeria any specific policy attitude on Boko Haram? Are the boko haramists considered as terrorists in Nigeria?

More important, Government adopted the policy of granting amnesty to captured boko haramists who have repented. They were rehabilitated, but after their rehabilitation and training, reports have shown that some of them have re-engaged in insurgency. And true enough, Boko Haram attacks have been on the increase. This raises question of whether there is wisdom in the granting of amnesty. It also raises the issue of boko haramists in government. In this regard, how will the international coalition deal with the Boko Haram in government? The enemy within appears to be quite stronger than any coalition of armies and more dangerous than the boko haramists fighting outside.

Fourthly, in Asia, there is no way China and Taiwan will not be an important issue under bidenplomacy and Nigeria-US relations. In the eyes of the United States under Donald Trump, China is manipulating currency, counterfeiting American products, and stealing US trade secrets. Donald Trump was very critical of alleged China’s ‘illegal export subsidies and lax labor and environmental standard.’

While the United States has difficult relations with the People’s Republic of China, the same is not true of Nigeria-China relations. China is doing a lot of businesses in Nigeria. In fact, Chinese economic presence in Nigeria is increasing to the point that the United States is now beginning to feel seriously threatened and does not want Nigeria to be more engaged with China. Under bidenplomacy, especially in the first two years, there may not be any seriousness of purpose in Nigeria-US ties, mainly because of Nigeria’s lack-lustre foreign policy. Nigeria’s foreign policy, as it is today, is not programmatic in design. It is not focus-driven in terms of strategic planning.

Besides, Nigeria is not yet a top priority in US foreign policy strategic calculations and the reason cannot be far-fetched. As observed by Letitia Lawson, ‘during the Cold War, United States foreign policy toward Sub-Saharan Africa had little to do with Africa’ (see his article, ”US Africa Policy Since Cold War,” Strategic Insights, Vol. VI, Issue 1, January 2007). Letitia Lawson noted further that, in 1995, the Department of Defence outlined its view of Africa in the US Security Strategy for Sub-Saharan Africa that the United States ‘sees very little traditional strategic interest in Africa.’

True, the United States only needed Africa to fight proxy wars against the Soviet-led Eastern European communists during the Cold War. However, with the terrorist attacks on US diplomatic missions in East Africa in 1998, the need to build indigenous security and intelligence capability in Africa became a desideratum with emphasis on the ‘coalitions of the willing.’ And perhaps more significantly, with the emerging new Cold War between the United States and the People’s Republic of China, the United States cannot but want to have Nigeria supporting the United States against the Chinese. This requires the balancing of interests in buhariplomatic calculations.

In this regard too, there is the related case of Taiwan on which the US-Nigeria policies do conflict. The United States favours an independent Taiwan, contrary to China’s policy of ‘One China, Two Systems.’ Nigeria supports Chinese policy attitude. In the context of bidenplomacy, Sino-US competition for influence in Nigeria can be expected and to be quite strong, especially in terms of the status of Taiwan.

President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan is on record to have, on December 2, 2016, congratulated Donald Trump as president-elect and president, a rarity since 1979. In reaction, the People’s Republic of China lodged a diplomatic protest and Donald Trump had to explain that he would not be bound by the United States traditional policy of ‘One China’ and that the matter had to be negotiated. In this regard, bidenplomacy is not likely to shift ground, because of the capitalist and democratic character of Taiwan and its attachment to the West over time. By implication, it means that bidenplomacy cannot but be in conflict with buhariplomacy because of Nigeria’s active support for ‘One China policy.’

And true enough, Nigeria only supports a Taiwanese Trade Mission in Nigeria and not a sovereign diplomatic mission in Nigeria. More notably, when Taiwan tried to move its trade mission from Lagos to Abuja to settle down as a diplomatic mission in Abuja and was wrongly issued with diplomatic plate numbers by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Chinese lodged again a diplomatic complaint and Nigeria’s diplomatic gaffe was quickly corrected to ensure that policy declaration is consistent with practice.

The United States Africa Command cannot but also remain another security question to be addressed. The United States prefers to have the headquarters of its Africa Command, currently located in Stuttgart, Germany, to be in Lagos in order to be able to effectively control movements in the Gulf of Guinea. When request was first made about fifteen years ago, the request was rejected by Nigeria. Some West African countries which offered to play host to the Africa Command were not considered by the United States. This prompted the suspension of the transfer of the Command for ten years. The issue of transfer of the Command to Africa has not been thrown into the dustbin of history.

Buhariplomacy should therefore anticipate this in strategic calculations.

In essence, United States foreign policy interest is not going to change with bidenplomacy. The quest to protect democracy the world over cannot but remain a top priority. Press freedom and protection of human rights will also remain on top of the agenda. In this regard, buhariplomacy is most likely to be seriously challenged by the CNN reports on EndSARS protesters, as well as the impending sanctionary measures being contemplated by the British Parliament. Denuclearisation policy cannot be jettisoned and so cannot capitalism. Without iota of gainsaying, buhariplomacy is lax and unnecessarily too reactive, and therefore, it is not likely to be able to contend well with bidenplomacy worldwide. Consequently, the coalition of forces against boko haramism can always be expected to be defined, conducted and managed on the basis of bidenplomacy, especially that Nigeria does not really have the capacity to defeat an Al Qaeda-supported Boko Haram.

Nigeria can conveniently defeat boko haramism if Government first seriously addresses the Boko Haram agents in Government and public service and secondarily, if it also carries the totality of the people of Nigeria along, particularly in intelligence gathering and speaking with one voice against the Boko Haram insurgency. Without this, boko haramism has the potential to remain a permanent challenge.