I’ve written two pieces on Nigeria recently, addressing very different topics. One, at The Maydan, looks at Shi’ism and anti-Shi’ism in Nigeria. The other, at World Politics Review, looks at the politics surrounding the question of President Muhammadu Buhari’s health. If you read either or both, I welcome your comments below.
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has been on extended medical leave in London since January 19, which has occasioned considerable anxiety and commentary in Nigeria and abroad. I wrote about the situation last week for Global Observatory, comparing Buhari’s absence to the absence of President Umaru Yar’Adua in 2009-2010.
I recommend two other takes:
- Chika Oduah, “Nigeria Proves a Missing President Isn’t Necessarily a Bad Thing” (I don’t necessarily agree, but the piece is well argued)
- Brandon Kendhammer, “The President Has Left the Country”
On February 13, President Donald Trump spoke by telephone with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari. Many observers, including me and Nigerian analyst Muktar Usman-Janguza, were impatiently awaiting for the White House to post a readout of the call, which it finally did yesterday. The delay, I should note, was offensive to some Nigerians in and of itself.
The main news coming out of the call was when Trump “expressed support for the sale of aircraft from the United States to support Nigeria’s fight against Boko Haram.”
There is a backstory here, dating to 2014, when the Obama administration blocked sales of US-made helicopters to Nigeria due to concerns about human rights violations by Nigerian security forces. As recently as December 2016, Nigeria purchased military aircraft from Russia and Pakistan after growing impatient with Washington.
Another part of the backstory, as former Ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell explains here, is that US security cooperation with Nigeria has also been limited for many years by the Leahy Amendment. The amendment prohibits US security assistance to foreign security force units that the US government believes have committed human rights abuses.
Some will see Trump’s offer to Buhari, then, as a change in policy, but I think this reflects more the momentum of the War on Terror (or whatever one is supposed to call it now) and the tendency of that momentum to wear down or override human rights concerns in the long term.
After all, in May 2016, the Obama administration expressed its willingness, pending Congressional approval, to “approve a sale of as many as 12 A-29 Super Tucano light attack aircraft to Nigeria.” (You can watch a demonstration of the Super Tucano here.)
The sale does not seem to have gone forward but, as the New York Times has reported, the willingness to approve it reflected a wider change of attitude in Washington toward Nigeria’s fight against Boko Haram. I believe two key moments that prompted that change: the kidnapping of the Chibok girls in April 2014, and the election of Buhari in March 2015. Those two events boosted those voices in Washington who argued that the US should ease its restrictions on security cooperation with Nigeria. Trump’s offer to Buhari is not a complete break with older policy, then, but rather a demonstration that those voices are continuing to win out over those who favor more restricted security cooperation.
This is the logic of the War on Terror, I believe: when policymakers or human rights organizations raise concerns about security force abuses, they will tend, over the long term and often in the short term, to be overruled by those whose primary concern in places like Nigeria is with killing jihadists. I would bet that a hypothetical President Hillary Clinton would have also eventually approved the sale of military aircraft to Nigeria. I say all this not to let Trump off the hook or to somehow praise him – I oppose Trump unequivocally – but to point out that some policy dynamics are bigger even than Trump.
Gambia held elections on December 1, and opposition candidate Adama Barrow won; long-time head of state Yahya Jammeh publicly conceded. That should have been the end of the story,* but it is not, for Jammeh soon reversed himself and demand a re-run of the election. The ensuing crisis has lasted up to the present.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is mediating in the Gambia crisis, with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari and outgoing Ghanaian President John Mahama as Co-Mediators. ECOWAS is working to solve the crisis before January 19, the constitutionally-mandated day when the presidential inauguration must take place. ECOWAS has suggested that if diplomacy fails, a military intervention is possible.
Jammeh is widely considered to be at least partly insane, and so some will chalk his erratic behavior up to psychological factors. But there is a rational explanation for at least some of his behavior: he wants guarantees of immunity before he agrees to step down.
Indeed, some of the opposition’s/transition team’s rhetoric may have frightened him in the days after the election, prompting the public reversal. Jammeh seems to fear what many would-be “presidents-for-life” fear: that he will be punished for crimes committed in office, and stripped of ill-gotten gains.
Barrow has publicly promised that Jammeh will not be prosecuted, and that Jammeh can remain in Gambia, and the opposition has told ECOWAS that it does not plan to prosecute Jammeh, but perhaps Jammeh disbelieves such promises.
Given all that, I was struck by a report (French) on the Senegalese news aggregation platform Seneweb. The reporter claims to know Jammeh’s secret demands to ECOWAS, which are allegedly two-fold:
- Judicial immunity for Jammeh, his family, and up to 400 associates
- Financial immunity for Jammeh and his family for at least 20 years
The reporter goes on to say that ECOWAS’ offer to Jammeh is exile in a friendly country, where he would be expected to keep a low profile.
Who knows if any of this is true, especially the specifics. But I can certainly give credence to the general notion that Jammeh is negotiating, behind the scenes, for his and his associates’ immunity.
There also remains the possibility of a coup by military officers who fear that the transition, even if Jammeh secures his own protection, would leave them in the cold. Presumably ECOWAS is well aware of that possibility, and would react swiftly to a coup.
*My initial take on the election, I fear, was too rosy, but you can read it here.
BBC, August 29:
It is now three months since Muhammadu Buhari was sworn in as president of Nigeria and five months since he won historic elections, the first time an opposition candidate had won…But it took nearly two months for him to replace his security chiefs and so far he has only made appointments in about a dozen government offices.
While it is clear that President Buhari has shown that Nigeria can run without a cabinet, there may be an unacknowledged cost.
On the bright side, with the briefings he is getting from civil servants, the ministers, when they are eventually appointed, will find that their boss knows more about their departments than they do – and that should keep them on their toes.
Vanguard, November 10:
President Muhammadu Buhari on Tuesday, approved the appointment of new Permanent Secretaries in the Federal Civil Service.
This came some hours after the President sacked about 17 permanent secretaries.
Permanent Secretaries are, in theory, civil servants who are not political appointees. This does mean they are immune from political controversies, however.
As the BBC said, the months without a cabinet may have allowed Buhari to interact more directly with senior civil servants than presidents usually do. Apparently the president did not always like what he saw.
I’ve published a briefing at World Politics Review titled “Managing Expectations Could Be Toughest Challenge for Nigeria’s Buhari.” If you read it, I would be eager to your reactions in the comments below.
Washington’s map of the world still gives Africa much less importance than it is due, but U.S. policymakers do pay substantial attention to Nigeria. The Deputy Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, is in Nigeria and neighboring Niger this week. Blinken is there as part of a series of U.S. diplomatic engagements with the new Nigerian administration of President Muhammadu Buhari. In particular, Blinken is there to help prepare the ground for Buhari’s visit to the White House on July 20. You can read a brief statement about Blinken’s agenda here, and a biography of him here.
If I learned anything in the year I spent on a fellowship at the State Department, it’s that from the perspective of the U.S. government, trips abroad by senior State Department officials are a big deal. I doubt that more than one in two hundred Americans could name the Deputy Secretary of State at any given time, but inside the U.S. government, that person is a demigod. Whether the Nigerians and the Nigeriens perceive the Deputy’s visit as a big deal is, of course, up to them – but Washington is attempting to send a signal that it cares about Nigeria a lot.
The shadow of Boko Haram will hang over the trip. The sect’s violence has been horrific in recent months, including a wave of shootings and bombings in just the past week. Southeastern Niger has been suffering as well, as has Chad, though the latter is not on Blinken’s itinerary. The violence has confirmed grim predictions that neither the election of Buhari, nor the destruction of Boko Haram’s would-be Islamic state in northeastern Nigeria, would be sufficient to end the group’s violence.
Blinken is hosting a Facebook chat today at 10:45 am EST to take questions and comments on his Nigeria/Niger trip. Many people have already posted.
If I were advising Blinken, and if his trip is partly about scaling up U.S. assistance in one or more spheres, I would urge him to prioritize humanitarian relief over military aid. Hundreds of thousands of civilians are suffering in the Lake Chad region, and I believe that it would be more appropriate – and more productive – for the United States to help feed and resettle people than to offer military training and equipment. If all it took to defeat Boko Haram was a few more helicopters, a few more guns, and a few more months of training, Boko Haram would already be defeated. The Nigerian government and its military clearly face a long-term, multi-faceted struggle against Boko Haram; it will take time and sophistication on their part to unravel the Gordian knot, and no outsider can slice through this problem in one stroke. In the meantime, the U.S. government should help Nigeria’s neediest citizens. How better to show that Boko Haram is wrong about the West?