“Similarly, Nigeria is a country that has always been aligned with us on global affairs, and it has Africa’s largest economy and population. For President Obama not to visit Nigeria would be as if the American president did not visit the United Kingdom” – Dr Jendayi Frazer, (August 1, 2014)
It was the eve of the first ever US-Africa Leaders Summit and Frazer, the speaker of the above quotation was talking to an interviewer from the Council on Foreign Relations. What more was needed to take the statement as what was in store regarding US-Nigeria relations under Obama other than a former Assistant Secretary for African Affairs and the CFR?. A Nigerian leader might not have done what President Uhuru Kenyatta did when Obama went visiting Kenya in 2015 – dropping his arm around Obama’s back as if to say, well, you might be that big man over there in DC but here in Kenya, you are our ‘son’ and, as the president, I am obliged to throw a protective arm around you. Still, Nigeria is the African country demographically entitled to bid Obama farewell on behalf of Africa. Such would have a symbolic meaning beyond any and every material dimension of US- Nigeria relations. That is precisely what Frazer is also saying in her above statement.
So, in spite of indications of a topsy-turvy turn in relations between Nigeria and the US under the Goodluck Jonathan administration, some observers still looked forward to such a visit being accommodated somehow in the twilight of the Obama administration. After all, Nigeria’s Punch newspaper had drawn out four critical areas in which Nigeria and the US are comparable to a point that cannot be wished away. As quoted in the book, The Media Imagination in Nigerian Foreign Policy, these areas are these countries being the largest concentration of blacks in the world, they all practice presidential system, federalism and they have a history of a civil war each. Above all, there is a roaring expectation of Nigeria’s arrival in the great power club, be it through N-11 or MINT. And hobnobbing with existing great powers could be as important as the real processes to that destination. Nigeria’s ascendancy to that status could come sooner than the most optimistic minds might have projected. After all, none of the five countries constituting BRICs/BRICS did so from unproblematic pedigrees. Except China perhaps, they were each a problem state on the eve of the great transformation. Until Jim O’Neil shocked everyone into that consciousness, it wasn’t there.
This is the testimony of Celso Amorim who, as Minister of Foreign Affairs of Brazil between 2003 and 2011, was one of the intellectual architects of BRICS. He once told Aljazeera that BRICS as we know it now is a discovery, meaning that nobody was consciously planning anything of that nature until Jim O’Neill’s summoning. This is in the sense that the closest thing to BRICS before 2001 – India, Brazil and South Africa, (IBSA) was not based on the same criteria O’Neil used and which the world loved.
So, when they mention Nigeria today, it is not out of any illusion that it has got what it takes to be a great power. No, not yet. It is that everything that makes for a great power is there and if only the Nigerian elite could overcome its crisis of class mission. Hobnobbing with the US could help just as it could hinder that overcoming. The US is never going to simply solve Nigeria’s problems just like that. It could even hinder it at some point. With assets all over the world, the US can claim multiple grounds for action. But the dynamics of that interaction could produce intended as well as unintended consequences, depending on how much understanding the two countries create among themselves. Nigeria is an asset to any great power as the US in much the same way that the US could be a force for good in Nigeria. Beyond that, no power is ever so powerful to be everything. There is no time Nigeria might not need anything at all from the US and the US would not need anything at all from Nigeria. It’s going to continue to be that diffuse.
Against that background, and the Obama symbolism, an Obama visit would have been the high point of US-Africa relations. Nigeria, it cannot be over said, is in the demographic position to say farewell to Obama on behalf of Africa. In life, everything is symbolism. Symbolism could even be more important than ‘substance’. The involving nature of an American president’s travel might have robbed Nigeria an opportunity for a moment of emotional grandeur.
Nigeria is a bit complicated when it comes to attitude to US Presidents. Clinton was here. They called him the first Black US President. Nobody knew Obama was coming yet. And George W. Bush’s rating remained high in Africa as it went down in other parts of the world. Someone suggested it was Bush’s HIV/AIDS intervention. Then came Obama and the sentiments around the African origin. Some people even started raising funds in Nigeria for his campaign before the government slammed them in 2008.
It might have been taken for granted that Obama would visit Nigeria. If it was, that wasn’t outlandish. Jendayi was saying the same thing. The dynamics worked out differently. And according to the VOA, Kerry’s would be the last to Nigeria “by a major American official during the Obama administration”. So, what were Kerry’s messages from Obama? In his own words, here are few of them:
…Nigeria’s battle against Boko Haram will only succeed if it tackles the reasons why people join Islamist militant groups and if the government and its military gain people’s trust
…People join violent extremist groups for a number of different reasons – and some, obviously, do so against their will. But there are far too many who join the ranks of these organizations because they have trouble finding meaning or opportunity in their daily lives – because they are deeply frustrated and alienated – and because they hope groups like Boko Haram will somehow give them a sense of identity, or purpose, or power.
…We see this in every part of the world – whether we are talking about the Lake Chad Basin or the Sahel, or a village in the Middle East or a city in Western Europe, it’s the same. When people – and particularly young people – have no hope for the future and no faith in legitimate authority – when there are no outlets for people to express their concerns – then aggravation festers and those people become vulnerable to outside influence. And no one knows that better than the violent extremist groups, which regularly use humiliation and marginalization and inequality and poverty and corruption as recruitment tools.
…But let’s be very clear: Corruption is not just a disgrace and a crime. It is also dangerous. There is nothing more demoralizing, more destructive, more disempowering to a citizen than the belief that the system is rigged against them, the belief that the system is designed to fail them, and that people in positions of power, to use a diplomatic term, are “crooks” – crooks who are embezzling the future of their own people.