“Look at what tribalism has done to a country like Nigeria” Barack Obama once reportedly said rhetorically in exasperation - but it’s unclear if that intense disappointment feeds his foreign policy.
For after America’s President Bill Clinton expelled five Nigerian Army officers undergoing training in 1993, Nigeria’s relations with America are yet to fully reset. At that time, $450,000 worth of America’s International Military Education and Training (IMET) assistance for Nigeria was cancelled alongside.
Later on, America imposed three separate and consecutive sanctions on Nigeria - the latest being the military one reported in May this year by the local media to have been imposed by President Barack Obama for what America frothily criticises as “violations of basic rights of citizens” in Nigeria.
That latest sanction followed Nigeria’s three-day military operations, beginning 16th April, against Boko Haram armed militias in Nigeria’s rustic north-eastern town of Baga, situated 200 kilometres from the Borno state capital, Maiduguri.
President Barack Obama reportedly pledged to withdraw United States’ future assistance for the Nigerian military in consequence of it, in line with United States Congressional law, but the reaction from the Nigerian Army has been self-justification.
“The elites of northern Nigeria are responsible for the deliberate mis-information that hundreds of people died in Baga where Boko Haram and the military clashed,” said an official Nigerian Army statement.
“Northern Nigerian elites are against the Military Joint Task Force. Their hostile and antagonistic perception of the JTF; the demand for its withdrawal, the deliberate fabrication of stories, are all calculated to soil the image of the (Nigerian) military“, the Nigerian Army further said.
“What the nation needs at this time is national cohesion through guided comments by the elite, not the mischievous support for a terrorist organisation whose ideology is nothing more than seeking the destruction of the country,” the Nigerian Army statement angrily concluded.
In his own separate reaction of 25th April, Brigadier-General Austin Edokpaye, Commander of the Nigerian Military Joint Task Force, narrated what he said happened in Baga. “One of our soldiers was beheaded by the terrorists in Baga community of Kukawa Local Government area of Borno State,” he said.
“The (Boko Haram) terrorists then took cover in the Baga community after the dastardly act. At another time, soldiers were ambushed by the (Boko Haram) insurgents during which a soldier was killed and the terrorists then shielded by members of this same Baga community. The terrorists had long ago imposed certain taxes on the people of Baga community. We then had this information that the terrorists were shortly preparing to attack us. We confronted the people of Baga community with this information but they denied it,” Brigadier-General Austin Edokpaye, explained.
But neither the American Consulate nor the U.S Embassy in Nigeria is persuaded by Nigerian Army’s narrative or its explanation of the Baga military operation in which no fewer than 185 civilians died - according to Human Rights Watch, a death toll fiercely denied by the Nigerian Army, which disputes it as “grossly exaggerated”.
In the first week of May this year, Nigerian defence officials along with certain cabinet members were ordered by President Goodluck Jonathan to meet with the visiting United States military investigators in Abuja and rebut the claims of “excessive force” by the Nigerian Army, using satellite images of the aftermath in Baga as evidence.
At about the same time, a separate American Investigation unit was meeting with the Nigerian Ambassador in Washington D.C, but after collecting as much facts and explanations as possible, the United States government is yet to say it has reviewed or reversed its stance that certain “violations of basic rights of citizens” occurred in Baga.
These asperities of differences over the Baga military operations notwithstanding, America and Nigeria maintain somewhat good relations on other matters, even including military issues.
For only recently, America made equipment transfers to Nigeria of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Chase and the NNS Thunder, and also participated overseas in joint missions with Nigeria, besides coming to Nigeria for medical civic action programs in Benue state.
But laden with four consecutive sanctions in the last 20 years, Nigeria struggles nervously to win back the hearts and minds of United States government and tap into America’s 16 trillion dollar-size economy.
However, Barack Obama had early on expressed dis-appointment with Nigeria’s failures as a nation-state, to further dissuade him from leading an enthusiastic move to reset what’s become both countries’ historically fractious relationship.
Barack Obama has so far intentionally avoided visiting Nigeria on his African tours since taking office in 2008. "If in three years and seven months I am not in Kenya, then you can fault me for not following through on my promise," Barack Obama promised in Soweto, South Africa, on 28th June this year, but made no similar commitment to visit Nigeria at anytime.
Nigeria, regardless, continues to worm its way - with the Nigerian President, Goodluck Jonathan, accepting two invitations to hold side and bilateral meetings with President Obama in Washington D.C. Unfortunately, President Jonathan’s endeavour aside, Nigeria’s national efforts are un-matched by concrete steps the American government is willing to chalk up as Nigeria’s change for the better.
“We are not impressed with Nigeria’s war on terror, “said Terence P. McCulley, the current United States Ambassador to Nigeria, a few weeks ago, to reiterate a point the United States government has been consistent on since 2003.
Notwithstanding its consistency though, the United States foreign policy toward Nigeria has lacked clarity, and so far, America’s demands on Nigeria on how to fight terror are blurry. Un-surprisingly, Nigeria is at sixes and sevens and unable to make sense of America’s cocktail of demands.
In one breath, America wants the Nigerian military to muscle in and double down on Boko Haram militias, and yet in another breath, America wants the High Courts in Nigeria to decide the guilt of Boko Haram militias - a liberty America has not conceded to the 166 remaining terror suspects held without trial in Guantanamo Bay since the year 2002.
On top of that, America tacks a demand that socio-economic reforms must be impossibly started amid a war in Boko Haram-held territories in Nigeria’s north-east.
Now, next thing worse for bilateral relations than America’s diplomatic ambiguity is Nigeria’s adverse image inside America itself.
“In his article in the Sept. 25 issue of "The New Yorker," Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., of Harvard University, quotes the retired General Colin Powell as saying that: "Nigeria is a nation of 90 million people with enormous wealth. And what they could have done with that wealth over the last 20 years--they just pissed it away. They just tend not to be honest. Nigerians as a group, frankly, are marvellous scammers. I mean it is in their national culture,” the ex-American Joint Chief of Staff Chairman, General Powell, is reported to have said.
Similar adverse opinion mirroring General Powell’s has been equally caustic on Nigeria’s officials’ stealing and the country’s consequent failing economics.
“The naira, the Nigerian currency, was worth $2.00 in the late 1970s; now it's worth one penny,” the Chicago Tribune wrote on June 9, 1998, a day after General Sani Abacha - described as a “dapper man” - was believed to have been poisoned to death inside the Abuja presidential villa.
Loathed overseas as a laggard, Nigeria did itself no favours when it also lost out to less endowed but better organized African countries, like Botswana - which witnessed 6% growth in the first quarter of this year alone on America’s tariffs free African exports - under the United States’ African Growth and Opportunity Act of May 18th, 2000.
Nigeria’s failing economics and stealing apart, the actual rub in Nigerian/American bilateral relations is global security, especially with America’s crude oil imports from Nigeria scaled down by 40% today, making trade a little less important, as America increases its domestic oil production.
In 2003, the United States Ambassador to Nigeria at the time, Howard F.Jeter, had warned of imminent Al Qaeda invasion of Nigeria. “Nigeria faces a real threat of terror attack from Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network,” Ambassador Jeter told Daily Independent newspaper in Nigeria on 15th June, 2003.
But Nigeria’s President Olusegun Obasanjo was likely heedless and probably took no permanent counter-measures, despite that Osama bin Laden himself had at about the same time, in a video tape, called on international Mujahedeen fighters to head for Nigeria.
When President Jonathan later resumed office in acting capacity seven years later, he announced there was no Al Qaeda threat whatsoever in Nigeria; meaning that he (Jonathan) did not inherit any on-going counter-terrorist plan or outfit from the preceding Obasanjo regime.
It took a nocturnal visit to the Abuja presidential villa by the then United States Ambassador to Nigeria, Robin Sanders, in February 2010, to slap the wrist and caution President Jonathan over his mistaken appreciation of Nigeria’s Islamic terror threat from the Maghreb.
Following that night’s meeting, America’s foreign policy toward Nigeria remains ambivalent, rather than clear, partly because elite opinion of Nigeria inside America itself remains negative since 1995, to cause America’s foreign policy toward Nigeria become more or less sclerotic today.
Indeed, years later in 2003, and two months before President Obasanjo nearly had a near spat with the U.S Ambassador Jeter at a midnight presidential villa meeting in Abuja on the 25th of March over United States President G.W’s Bush’s invasion of Iraq, over some fictive “weapons of mass destruction,” President Olusegun Obasanjo himself badly irritated the United States government.
Believing he had a role to play on Iraq, President Obasanjo along with President Mbeki of South Africa, penned a joint letter to America’s President G.W Bush, to dissuade America’s Iraqi invasion by calling for Iraq’s voluntary dis-armament as pre-condition for the “coalition of the willing” to dial back.
Presidents Obasanjo and Mbeki then invited President Wade of Senegal to co-sign the letter, which President Wade did, but paradoxically, a day after President Obasanjo dispatched the letter signed by the three of them to President G.W Bush in the White House, President Wade quickly wrote another letter to counter the joint letter he’d co-signed with Obasanjo and Mbeki, and delivered his own separate letter as apostasy, which he’d solely signed and addressed to President Bush the next day.
President G.W Bush expectedly forgave President Wade for his “indiscretion”, but not Presidents Mbeki and Obasanjo - for dabbling into “a sensitive American security issue”.
To put his disgust at the duo across, President G.W Bush asked a middle-level American civil servant working in the White House to phone the Abuja presidential villa and demand to speak to President Obasanjo, directly, for poke-nosing like a busy-body on Iraq.
That diplomatic insult was telling on President Olusegun Obasanjo – who instantly got the message.
“I was really harangued by that White House worker,” President Obasanjo moaned and groaned as he later complained and confessed to the United States Ambassador Jeter at their 25th midnight March meeting where Obasanjo promptly pledged to forthwith remove himself from the Iraqi invasion in a policy retraction most pleasing to U.S Ambassador Howard Jeter.
“After that, Obasanjo will do well to take his own advice and focus on his bevy of problems at home”, Ambassador Jeter sarcastically reported to President G.W Bush in the United States, exultantly.
…………………….Seyi Olu Awofeso is a Legal Practitioner in Abuja