Five Recommendations to the USG on Engaging the Buhari Administration

Yesterday, after a hard-fought election, Nigerian President Gooduck Jonathan conceded to General Muhammadu Buhari, a former military and four-time presidential candidate. Buhari will take office May 29. His party is the All Progressives Congress or APC.

Nigeria is by many measures (population, economy, cultural production, etc.) the most important country in Africa, and it is a key partner for the United States. Under Jonathan, the U.S.-Nigeria relationship has been strained at times. Buhari’s presidency will offer an opportunity for a fresh start.

The issues the two countries can work on together are obvious – countering Boko Haram, strengthening democratic institutions and economic development, etc. But just as important as the substance of the partnership will be its form. Jonathan often seemed isolated behind a wall of sycophants, which made him difficult to reach – not that the U.S. has major leverage over Nigeria in any event, but it’s even harder to have influence when you don’t have a strong relationship. Here are a few basic suggestions about how to get off on the right foot with Buhari and his administration:

  1. Treat Buhari as an equal. Don’t start the conversation with a list of “asks” or “advice” that are in reality just demands. Talk to Buhari the way you would expect a foreign leader to talk to the United States. Send someone very senior (cabinet rank at least) to his inauguration. And President Obama should visit Nigeria at some point in 2015 or 2016. In light of this election and this historic transition, the old justifications for not visiting (worries about seeming to endorse the incumbent, tolerate corruption, etc.) no longer seem strong enough to warrant ignoring Nigeria.
  2. Engage Vice President-elect Yemi Osinbajo early and often. Buhari’s allies in the South West played a major role in his election – perhaps even making the difference between 2011 and 2015. Osinbajo will be that southwestern cohort’s most senior formal representative in Buhari’s government. As an accomplished politician in his own right (he was Lagos Attorney General from 1999-2007) and an influential Christian leader, he will likely play a stronger role in Buhari’s government than outgoing Vice President Namadi Sambo played in Jonathan’s. If I were a US policymaker, I would figure out what issues Osinbajo cares about and stay in touch with him about them. In other words, don’t just call him when you have an ask – cultivate a real relationship, and not just an ad hoc one managed by the Embassy in Abuja. A congratulatory phone call from Vice President Biden would be a good way to start.
  3. Keep in close touch with Bola Tinubu. If Osinbajo is the southwest’s formal representative in the next government, former Lagos Governor Bola Tinubu was the campaign’s mastermind and will likely remain the APC’s informal leader. As such, he will likely have an influential voice in shaping the government’s decisions, especially with an eye to politics and 2019. This relationship, too, is worth cultivating and maintaining. A quarterly call from Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Linda Thomas-Greenfield to Tinubu would give Washington a strong line to the new administration’s political nerve center.
  4. Bring all the governors to Washington. It’s not just about engaging the federal government – sub-national actors, especially state governors, are hugely influential in Nigeria, including on security and development issues. In March 2014, the U.S. Institute of Peace brought most of the northern Nigerian state governors to Washington for a symposium and for meetings around town, including with National Security Advisor Susan Rice. Given that many of the governors elected on April 11 will be new faces (due to term limits), it would be wise to repeat the endeavor, and this time by inviting all thirty-six governors.
  5. Continue to think long-term about Boko Haram. The final weeks of the presidential campaign saw some military progress against Boko Haram, although the effort was marred by the murky quality of some information (making it unclear whether some towns had really been recaptured or not) and by the complaints of Nigeria’s neighbors that Nigerian forces were not coordinating with them effectively. Hopefully Jonathan will sustain the gains and improve the regional coordination in his final weeks in office, and then Buhari will consolidate the progress and address any remaining problems of coordination after he is inaugurated. Even in this best case scenario, however, long-term challenges will remain: preventing Boko Haram from regrouping, prosecuting and/or reintegrating its fighters, holding security forces accountable for abuses, addressing joblessness and underdevelopment in the northeast, etc. There is even a danger that a moment of euphoria over recapturing territory could divert attention away from these long-term issues and encourage a premature declaration of victory. Washington should give the new administration time to breathe, but should from time to time respectfully remind them that the goal is not just to defeat Boko Haram, but also to prevent it – or anything like it – from re-emerging in the years to come. As I said above, though, a conversation like that can only happen if deep relationships are cultivated from the start.

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