By Ambassador Curtis Ward
There are many positives in United States–Nigeria relations. For the most part, the Obama administration and the Nigerian government enjoy very good relations; they share many common objectives and interests in West Africa and on the continent in general. There is a great deal of cooperation and collaboration on peace and security issues, as well as on economic relations. The U.S. supports the progress made so far by Nigeria in democratic governance. So, is there a problem in U.S.-Nigeria relations?
U.S. interests in West Africa, more so than that of the countries themselves, determine U.S. policies and relationships in the region. Nigeria, the most populous and militarily the most capable, is an important part of U.S. calculations for regional security and stability. A stable Nigeria is of utmost importance. Thus, political pressure is exerted on Nigeria to lead the region, not just militarily, but also in rule of law, democratic governance, human security, and human rights protection.
Nigeria’s social and political development require changes in the historical dynamic and relationships between northern Nigeria and the rest of the country; between Christians of the south and Muslims of the north; changes which create social and economic equity for all and ends marginalization of certain segments of the population. The government of Nigeria seems to embrace these changes.
The difference between what Nigeria wants and what the U.S. expects is the speed at which changes are made to implement appropriate ameliorating measures; and to stop the radicalization taking place, especially among the Muslim youth population of the north, as a result of these inequities. Unless this trend is arrested, Nigeria’s and the region’s future stability, social, political, and economic development are at risk. Though not threatened militarily, lack of access to critical natural resources is a U.S. national security concern.
The entire West Africa region is struggling with external security problems resulting from drug trafficking through the region and piracy in the Gulf of Guinea. At least one West African country is viewed as a narco-state. Internal domestic political and security issues threaten the stability of most. The political and security situation in Mali, though stabilized for now, remain tenuous.
Most African governments perceive U.S. interests in Africa with uncertainty. African governments cannot be blamed entirely for this confusion, as successive U.S. administrations and Congresses, have not always pursued a consistent policy towards the continent. U.S. policy is pursued on three tracts.
Firstly, there are continent-wide general policies which are in keeping with international expectations – humanitarian assistance; promotion of social, economic, and political development, rule of law, and good governance; protection of human rights; support for UN intervention in conflict prevention, and peacekeeping operations. Secondly, there are historical demands for easy access to Africa’s rich natural resources. Thirdly, there are geopolitical and geostrategic interests specific to U.S. national security.
Fueled by often-contradictory demands by the American public, and by some members of Congress, for accountability, especially in the areas of rule of law, good governance, and protection of human rights, it is the third tract that is most confusing. These principles affect U.S. foreign interests in Africa well beyond what most African governments care to admit. Crying foul, most Africans tend to reject application of these principles as double standards. However, although not always applied equally by all U.S. administrations, there is a level of consistency in U.S. foreign policy on these issues.
Over the past few years, Nigeria has faced major security challenges, now more so from the Islamic jihadist group Boko Haram in the north. In the wake of the near takeover of Mali earlier this year by northern separatist groups backed by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), U.S. and other Western countries have increased concerns about Nigeria’s ability to deal effectively with this extremist jihadist group. There are now strong indications that some of Boko Haram’s leadership has strong ties to AQIM and core al-Qaida. At least, there are elements of Boko Haram, which sympathize with the objectives of al-Qaida and are said to be cooperating with al-Shabaab in Somalia. There are credible views that members of Boko Haram have gone to Somalia for training.
The U.S. terrorist designation of three members of Boko Haram’s leadership, said to have ties to AQIM and other al Qaida-affiliated groups, helps Nigeria suppress outside support for the group. U.S. designation makes it more difficult for Boko Haram to gain support for their cause among the Nigerian diaspora and potential sympathizers outside of Nigeria, making the group less able to grow its capacity to operate outside of Nigerian territory. U.S. law makes it a criminal offence to provide material support to terrorist-designated individuals or groups, whether financial or otherwise. Financial institutions that facilitate the transfer of funds to designated individuals and groups face severe civil penalties in the U.S.
In as much as the U.S. State Department deferred earlier this year on designating Boko Haram an international terrorist organization, should Nigeria fail to degrade Boko Haram’s capabilities in the very near future, this could change. The recent al-Shabaab terrorist attack in Nairobi, Kenya could be the catalyst for a change in U.S. policy on Boko Haram. Such a decision by the U.S. would put more pressure on Nigeria, both internationally and domestically, to deal with the problems associated with Boko Haram, and could alter the domestic political dynamics in Nigeria.
President Barack Obama’s statement prior to meeting with President Goodluck Jonathan in New York, on 23rd September 2013, shed some light on U.S. concerns and signaled a possible future course for U.S.-Nigeria relations. President Obama referred to Boko Haram as “one of the most vicious terrorist organizations in the world.” According to President Obama, the U.S. wants to be cooperative with Nigeria through the process of capacity building to meet that “extraordinary security challenge,” but by doing so “in a way that is consistent with human rights.” He also stated that the U.S. “strongly believe that the best way to undermine the agenda of those who would do violence is to make sure that governments are responsive to the needs of people and following rule of law.”
Washington is pressuring the Nigerian Government to deal expeditiously with Boko Haram, not only militarily, but most importantly, to effect changes in the social, economic, and political dynamic of Nigeria. The U.S. wants Nigeria to pursue a “comprehensive security strategy that is not predicated on the use of force,” but one which “also addresses the economic and political exclusion of communities in the north.” The speed at which effective programs can be implemented to reverse history and level the playing field for all of Nigeria’s population is viewed differently in Washington than in Abuja. Policy-makers in Washington believe Nigeria is not moving fast enough.
The government must pursue efforts to neutralize Boko Haram and stabilize the northern region, while moving forward, simultaneously, with the social, political, and economic response. Nigeria is challenged to proceed, post haste, with the latter in a volatile and insecure environment. The Obama Administration is impatient and wants the Nigerian Government to move faster.