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Buhari recently hosted foreign diplomats to a dinner where he admonished them to stay neutral in the 2023 race. The warning is rooted in persistent distrust of US intentions following a series of controversial interventions in the politics of Africa’s most populous country.
In March 2015, President Goodluck Jonathan was fighting the toughest battle of his 16-year political career. Since 1999, he had served as deputy governor, governor, vice president and then president, defeating a powerful cabal and influential northern elements along the way. Politically, he had seen and won it all. Or so he thought.
But the 2015 presidential election was different. This time around, he not only had to contend with the powerful northern oligarchy but also with the world’s most powerful leader, US President Barack Obama.
In an unusual video message to the Nigerian people on 23 March 2015, Obama called on them to “help write the next chapter of Nigeria’s progress” by casting their votes. The choice of words was widely seen in Nigeria as a repudiation of Jonathan, with whom Washington had repeatedly clashed over democratic backsliding and military excesses in the fight against the Boko Haram insurgency.
The previous month, Jonathan had come under US criticism for postponing the elections initially scheduled for 14 February by six weeks. The given rationale was to give Nigerian forces time to root out Boko Haram fighters who had made parts of the northeast ungovernable and inaccessible to electoral officials.
In his 2017 book titled ‘My Transition Hours’, Jonathan accused Obama of conspiring against him.
They will go back in body bags because nobody will come to Nigeria and tell us how to run our country.”
“Those who understood subliminal language deciphered that he was prodding the electorate to vote for the opposition to form a new government,” Jonathan wrote. “The message was so condescending, it was as if Nigerians did not know what to do and needed an Obama to direct them.”
He also condemned Washington for sending then-Secretary of State John Kerry to meet with Jonathan and Buhari, his opponent from the All Progressives Congress, with a view to ensuring that the poll was not postponed.
“I can recall that President Obama sent his Secretary of State to Nigeria, a sovereign nation, to protest the rescheduling of the election,” Jonathan wrote. “How can the US Secretary of State know what is more important for Nigeria than Nigeria’s own government?”
Seven years later, senior sources in Nigeria’s intelligence services insist to The Africa Report that then-Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Obama’s political strategist David Axelrod were part of a US team pushing for Buhari’s election. Today of course Blinken is secretary of State.
Even as the votes were still being counted, Kerry and his British counterpart Philip Hammond condemned “disturbing indications” of Nigerian political interference in the process and sent out a strong warning. Jonathan would go on to congratulate Buhari even as the votes were still being counted, marking the first time a sitting Nigerian president was defeated.
Visas and threats
The 2019 election at the end of Buhari’s first term witnessed its own accusations of western involvement.
The US and the UK separately threatened to impose visa restrictions on anyone found to have rigged elections or promoted electoral violence. Washington and London also released statements condemning the decision of the Buhari administration to remove Chief Justice Walter Onnoghen weeks before election day in a country where the judiciary is often the final arbiter of contested polls.
The Donald Trump administration said it was “deeply concerned by the impact of the executive branch’s decision to suspend and replace the Chief Justice and head of the judicial branch without the support of the legislative branch on the eve of national and state elections.”
Amid calls by the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) for the US to intervene, Kaduna State Governor Nasir El-Rufai, a member of the ruling APC and a Buhari ally, issued a threat on live television.
“We are waiting for the person that will come and intervene,” Rufai said. “They will go back in body bags because nobody will come to Nigeria and tell us how to run our country.”
The Nigerian Ministry of Foreign Affairs also issued a strongly worded statement condemning the US, UK and the European Union for their comments on the removal of the chief justice.
“It is indeed unfortunate that foreign missions would align with the opposition and seek to negatively interpret actions by the Federal Government, no matter their positive basis and intention,” the ministry said.
Atiku’s short-lived victory
Another issue that dominated public discourse during the 2019 presidential election was the Trump administration’s decision to grant a visa to the PDP’s candidate, former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, so he could meet with US lawmakers and diplomats. Abubakar had been unable to visit the US for more than a decade because of his alleged connection to a pair of US corruption cases.
Until then, the APC had latched on to Atiku’s inability to visit the US to mock the PDP.
“Again, a challenge (that) the PDP presidential candidate, Atiku Abubakar, must take up is coming clean on the nagging issue of his travel ban to the US,” the ruling party stated. “Truly, we cannot have a fugitive occupying the highest office in the country. Our great country, Nigeria deserves better.”
The temporary waiver of Atiku’s travel ban followed a costly lobbying campaign. US officials said at the time that they were not endorsing him but were simply wary of antagonizing the country’s potential next president.
Still, Nigeria’s Minister of Information, Lai Mohammed, appealed to the US not to grant the request.
“We understand and appreciate the fact that it is the prerogative of the US to grant a visa to anyone who applies. However, we want the US to be neutral and be wary of taking any decision that will give the impression that they are favouring or endorsing one candidate over the other,” Mohammed said. “The impression must not be created that the US government is endorsing one particular candidate over the other.”
Atiku’s victory was short-lived, however. He lost decisively at the ballot box, with 41% of the vote to Buhari’s 56%.
With Nigeria’s next election less than 10 months away, the US, UK and EU have begun monitoring events closely.
As usual, western nations are expected to threaten visa restrictions and asset seizures against election riggers and their families. This could scare wealthy politicians who not only have properties abroad but also visit foreign hospitals for medical care (President Buhari himself has spent over 200 days in total seeking medical care in the UK).
Already, Buhari has begun sending out warnings to the diplomatic corps on the need to remain neutral.
“You are assuming your diplomatic responsibilities in Nigeria at a very interesting political period as Nigeria’s national elections are due in early 2023,” the president said while receiving letters of credence from several ambassadors in February. “As you settle down in the face of these developments, it is my hope that you will also be guided by diplomatic practice, to ensure that your activities remain within the limits of your profession as you monitor the build-up to and the conduct of the general elections next year.”
Barely two months later, on 28 April, Buhari hosted envoys and once again urged them to remain neutral in the forthcoming election.
Analysts say Nigeria’s position as sub-Saharan Africa’s most populous nation, largest economy and biggest producer of crude oil make it too important and strategic for western powers not to be interested in its election. They argue that a political crisis in a country of more than 200 million people would impact the entire continent.
David Aworawo, the head of the History and Strategic Studies Department at the University of Lagos, tells The Africa Report that Buhari understands the role of foreign powers in Nigeria’s elections.
“President Buhari is speaking from experience, having benefited from their support in the past,” he says. “He is aware of the fact that these international agencies and countries are doing a lot in influencing elections one way or the other. He knows that if they influence it this time, it will not be in favour of his government and the party in power but the opposition will welcome such because it would be to their advantage.”
Aworawo says foreign powers like the US will still play a role in Nigeria in 2023. He argues however that it will not be as direct and extensive as Obama’s intervention in 2015.
“There will be some influences here and there in 2023. It may not be as extensive as in 2015,” Aworawo says. “You know Jonathan was a gentleman and this was his approach to things. I don’t foresee this in 2023 because the government will take a firmer position on foreign agencies and governments that try to interfere in one way or the other.”
But former presidential adviser Doyin Okupe says the US and UK will continue to interfere in Nigeria’s affairs for the foreseeable future.
Okupe, who served two presidents and was part of Atiku’s presidential campaign organisation in 2019, said that foreign countries will continue to try to shape Nigerian politics and policy as long as Nigeria relies on them for financial assistance. The US for instance provides Nigeria with about $1bn in annual aid and is responsible for more than 80% of Nigeria’s HIV response.
“It is very strange because they don’t vote but they determine substantially the result of our voting through many channels,” Okupe says. “At the government level, Nigeria depends on them in many areas and this puts them in a position to influence government directive and policy.”
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