Nigeria/US: Can Blinken repair Trump-era damage, while pushing for improvement from Abuja?

By Dele Yusuf, Julian Pecquet
Posted on Friday, 19 November 2021 12:54

U.S Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks at the U.S. Embassy in Abuja
U.S Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks to the staff at the U.S. Embassy in Abuja, Nigeria November 19, 2021. Andrew Harnik/Pool via REUTERS

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is in Nigeria as part of his three-nation tour in Africa. In the course of his meetings with President Muhammadu Buhari and other top government officials in Abuja, he will be sending a strong message to China, its long-standing rival in the continent, that Africa’s largest democracy and economy remains its key ally. But what about priority areas in building stronger ties between the two countries? 

In his first visit to Nigeria since the beginning of the Biden administration, Blinken spoke Thursday of America’s commitment to building stronger ties as well as supporting democracy and governance in Africa’s most populous country.

He followed up Friday in a speech before the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) with the announcement that President Joe Biden would be hosting a US-Africa Leaders Summit at a date yet to be determined “to drive the kind of high-level diplomacy and engagement that can transform relationships and make effective cooperation possible.”

However, Matthew Page, an associate fellow at Chatham House and former US intelligence official, doesn’t seem convinced. “Secretary Blinken missed an opportunity to fix Washington’s weak, dissonant approach toward Nigeria,” Page tells The Africa Report. “His talk of Washington’s ‘strong partnership’ with an increasingly authoritarian government no doubt puzzled Nigerians, many of whom are struggling amidst rising insecurity and worsening hardship caused by poor governance, official corruption, and economic mismanagement.”

Addressing a room filled with journalists, diplomats and government officials at Nigeria’s seat of power in Abuja on Thursday, Blinken said his engagements in Nigeria “reflect the depth of this partnership (between Nigeria and the US) of now more than six decades and the way that our collaboration is vital – and maybe more vital than ever – to tackling shared challenges and actually delivering results for our people.”

He made some pledges in addressing partnerships between the two countries, including more support for fighting the pandemic and working with Nigeria to foster “inclusive and sustainable economic growth”. Security was also a key highlight.

With Nigeria battling increasing security challenges, such as the Boko Haram insurgency, armed violence and kidnapping on various fronts, the US government, Blinken said, is looking at a “comprehensive approach that builds effective security forces, addresses the underlying drivers of extremism, and respects Nigerians’ basic human rights.”

It is not just enough for the US to provide military hardware and training, the US should also get the Nigerian government to improve its own efforts in terms of governance”

He said the Biden administration is also focusing on solving the key drivers of insecurity “by continuing to invest in our security partnership and the institutions that strengthen the rule of law and that hold accountable those who commit human rights abuses, corruption, and other acts that harm the Nigerian people.”

Nigeria’s foreign affairs minister, Geoffrey Onyeama, agreed with Blinken that the future looks bright for both countries and said his visit “shows the importance you attach to the relations between our two countries.”

He expressed high hopes for a beneficial partnership for Nigeria in various areas, including:

  • Support for “the real challenge” in fighting the pandemic which he said is producing a local vaccine to enable Nigeria to vaccinate up to 70% of the country’s 200 million people.
  • Easing the regime of visa applications to travel to the US.
  • Expectations for continued support to fight insecurity regarding areas of selling military hardware, sharing intelligence and training of Nigeria security personnel.
  • Expectations for more benefits from the African Growth Opportunities Act, which facilitates market access for African countries.

Falling below expectations

Blinken’s Nigeria visit, however, did not seem to meet the high expectations of citizens (more than 200 million) whose government has been accused of failing on many fronts, especially in terms of delivering on the promises of good governance and respect for human rights.

For Page, who is a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Blinken’s praise of Nigeria’s democracy “rang hollow in light of the ongoing Twitter ban, government efforts to restrict civil liberties, and top politicians’ use of the public funds to finance their 2023 election campaigns.”

“He glossed over the fact that the Nigerian military – a force with which the US is keen to partner and sell arms – is deeply corrupt, unprofessional, and routinely kills civilians, including those unarmed protestors killed at the Lekki tollgate just over a year ago,” Page says.

“This trip could have been a moment when US-Nigeria policy moved in a more principled, dynamic, and more constructive direction. Instead, America’s top diplomat delivered a series of stale, familiar talking points utterly disconnected from the challenges of the moment.”

Human rights concerns remain

In 2015, while serving as deputy secretary of state under the Obama administration, Blinken was in Nigeria to meet with leaders and share his conviction that defeating the Boko Haram extremist group “requires a strong commitment to human rights, the absence of which only alienates the people and drives them toward Boko Haram.”

When he returned to Abuja on Thursday, he said the US remains committed to upholding human rights in Nigeria, especially amid allegations of their violations by the country’s security forces. However, Chidi Nwaonu, founder of Peccavi Consulting, an Africa-focused security firm, argues the US will have to balance its need for a relatively stable Nigeria with its human rights rhetoric.

The Nigerian elite fear US pressure and the penalties that might come with concerted US pressure such as travel bans, sanctions, etc.

Moreover, he says, even with Blinken’s statements on the need for respect for human rights in Nigeria, “it will not be a deal-breaker as long as the Nigerian government also plays the game and doesn’t commit any major violations for the duration of the visit.”

“The Nigerian elite fear US pressure and the penalties that might come with concerted US pressure such as travel bans, sanctions, etc. However, the US is fully engaged in its own internal issues, economic, political and cultural,”  Nwaonu tells The Africa Report.

China in focus

Asked about the implication of US-China competition in Africa, especially with “no-strings-attached” loans that China continues to offer countries like Nigeria, Blinken admitted that while China doesn’t influence US foreign policy towards Africa, it is like “a race to the top” when it comes to investments in infrastructure.

“Our engagement in Africa, with Africa – our partnership with Nigeria, with many other countries – is not about China or any other third party,” he said. “It’s about Africa. It’s about working together to make the investments in Africa, make the investments in its people, and ultimately to ensure that across the board we help create the conditions so that there are truly, ultimately African-led solutions to any of the challenges that Africa faces,” he said.

He also took an obvious swipe at Chinese President Xi Jinping. “We want to make sure that as investments are made, countries are not laboured with tremendous debt that they can’t repay – that’s something we won’t do,” he said.

Nigeria’s debt to China amounted to $3.402bn as of March this year, according to government data, and in addressing the country’s high debt burden of $86.5bn, Onyeama insists that despite criticism, Nigeria tries “to be extremely prudent” in the use of such funds.

“We don’t just borrow willy-nilly, and in fact, in reality, our debt-to-GDP ratio is still actually very good,” he says, adding that Nigeria continues to look to China for borrowings because “we saw a great opportunity with the Chinese” in meeting the need for industrialisation.

“And regarding US-Chinese competition in Africa, […] I don’t want to sound almost cynical about it, but sometimes it’s a good thing for you if people are – if you’re the attractive bride and everybody is offering you wonderful things, so you take what you can from each of them, so that could be the situation there,” he says. “But we have wonderful relations with the US, and we have wonderful relations with China – economic relations.”

Question marks back home

The Biden administration’s cozying up to Lagos has raised some eyebrows in Washington, where members of Congress on both sides of the aisle have expressed concerns about democratic backsliding under President Buhari.

Leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee are reportedly holding up a proposed sale of 12 AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters worth $875 million. Other lawmakers have denounced intra-communal violence against Christians in the Middle Belt and southeast Nigeria, influenced in part by lobbying by US Christian groups and Nnamdi Kanu’s separatist Independent People of Biafra (IPOB) movement.

The chairwoman of the congressional U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom denounced Wednesday’s decision to remove Nigeria’s designation as a “Country of Particular Concern” regarding freedom of religious as “unfathomable.” Nigeria was added to the list just last December, the first secular democracy so designated.

“Conditions on the ground haven’t changed, so why has the designation?” Nadine Maenza said in a statement.

Samuel Brownback, a former Republican governor of Kansas who served as US Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom under President Donald Trump, also denounced the decision.

“We should do everything we can to stop violence in Nigeria that’s targeting Christians and others but we do the opposite, rewarding the government for tolerating severe religious freedom violations,” he tweeted. “This sends the wrong message to extremists.”

The road ahead

The first sign of what could be a fallout of the trip came a day before, with America’s decision to delist Nigeria from countries blacklisted for “engaging in violation of religious freedom”, almost a year since it was listed alongside countries like China, Pakistan and Burma.

The US had said Nigeria was engaging in “systematic, ongoing, egregious religious freedom violations” amid speculations that the Trump administration had fallen for lobbyists’ claims of genocide against Nigerian Christians because of their faith.

However, Nigeria’s foreign minister, Geoffrey Onyeama, appreciated the US decision to delist the country from the “countries of concern” over such violations, but not without declaring that “Nigeria need not be a country of concern as far as religious freedom is concerned.”

For the US, Nigeria’s preferred role is as regional hegemon, securing West Africa and the Gulf of Guinea…

However, one thing is clear, according to Page of Chatham House. “The Biden Administration possesses a more nuanced understanding of the drivers of conflict in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious country like Nigeria (and) this change in designation shows that the US is looking at Nigeria’s complex communal conflicts more holistically, rather than through a strictly religious lens,” he says.

Chris Kwaja, country director of the United States Institute of Peace in Nigeria, also expresses hope that Secretary Blinken will be “very clear and definitive about the kind of opportunities that exist for a US-Nigeria collaboration.”

“And such collaboration in the context of security should be around technical expertise and strengthening the capability of Nigeria security forces to deal with the present security challenges,” he says.

“It is not just enough for the US to provide (hardware and training to the military), the US should also get the Nigerian government to sustain or improve its own efforts in the area of delivery of mandates in terms of governance,” he tells The Africa Report.

Bottom line

Amid expectations that the security threats in Nigeria will take centre stage of US foreign policy towards the country, Nwaonu argues that the Biden administration will be preoccupied with the efforts “to maintain the status quo and prevent deterioration or any wild policy changes such as a pivot to China/ Russia.”

“They are aware there is little appetite for reform or improvement, so at best they will support the government to prevent a complete breakdown in law and order but with extremely low expectations,” he says.

“For the US, Nigeria’s preferred role is as regional hegemon, securing West Africa and the Gulf of Guinea… Considering how little time, resources and political will they are willing to apply to the problems of Nigeria, the US will most likely focus on ensuring that violence is contained and kept within Nigeria and against Nigerians as opposed to against US citizens or interests,” he says.

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