Monday, April 2, 2018 1:35 pm
Trump’s new national security team signals a more muscular and unilateralist US foreign policy. What will this mean for Washington’s security engagement with Nigeria?
By Muktar Usman Muktari-Janguza
Officials in Abuja expect Nigeria to be the focal point of Washington’s Africa policy. Early signals from the Trump administration seemed tentatively encouraging in this regard.
Trump’s phone call to Buhari in February 2017, his first to a sub-Saharan African leader after becoming President, where he pledged to “expand the strong partnership” between the two countries, expressed “support for the sale of aircraft” to aid Nigeria’s war effort, and “emphasized the importance of a strong, secure, and prosperous Nigeria”, was positively received in Aso Rock.
Nigerian officials meeting their counterparts in Washington in the early weeks of the Trump Presidency got much the same impression.
“The early feelers we are getting may well be that we may even have a stronger, more strategic relationship with the Trump government than we had with the Obama government”, speculatedOkechukwuEnelamah, Minister of Industry, Trade and Investment, at a discussion on investment in Nigeria at a US-based think-tank. “They [i.e. the Trump Administration] seem to understand better that Nigeria is very strategic to Africa. Nigeria was treated as one more important country under President Obama”.
Tillerson’s truncated trip to Nigeriaunderscores the naivety of this early expectation that a Trump presidency will treatAbuja as an important strategic partner. That Tillerson had already lost his job before he touched down in Nigeria suggests that President Buhari met a mere pensioner as opposed to the Secretary of State with the authority to speak for the White House.No country will treat a key partner with such discourtesy and diplomatic carelessness.
On the other hand,Trump’s appointments of Pompeo as Secretary of State – subject to Congressional approval – and Bolton as National Security Advisor provides opportunities for deepening security cooperation between Washington and Abuja.
The US is a key security partner for Nigeria.Security cooperation between Nigeria and the US suffered during the Presidencies of Obama and Goodluck Jonathan due to human rights and corruption concerns. Obama famously blocked Israel’s sale of US-made attack helicopters to the Nigerian army and suspended the sale of 12 aircrafts to the Nigerian air force. Goodluck Jonathan, for his part, retaliated by cancelling a US training program for the Nigerian army in December 2014.
Trump’s decision to resume the sale of the 12 suspended aircrafts to the Nigerian air force points to a more pragmatic approach to security cooperation.
The appointments of Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State and John Bolton as National Security Advisor – both of whom are conservative hawks – will reinforce the counter-terrorism and security focus of Washington’s engagement with Nigeria.
At a discussion on national security while he was CIA director in April last year, Pompeo noted the “big counterterrorism threat” across the continent.
Similarly, Bolton’s admittedly limited comments on Africa has often focused on terrorism. More significantly for Abuja, he has often called for greater support Nigeria. In an article written for Fox News in May 2014, a month after the Chibok abductions, he argued for stepped-up counterterrorism cooperation with Nigeria. More recently, in a January op-ed in The Hill, a DC-based political newspaper and website, Bolton argued that of the terrorism threats to US interests in Africa, “Boko Haram’s threat to Nigeria’s stability and unity is the most significant, especially given Nigeria’s substantial oil reserves”.
With Pompeo and Bolton occupying important national security positions in Trump’s Cabinet, Abuja has a good opportunity to bolster security collaboration with Washington in the war against Boko Haram in the Lake Chad region.
Additionally, Trump’s instinctive distaste for nation-building is shared by Pompeo and Bolton. In his provocatively titled memoir “Surrender Is Not An Option”, Bolton observed that “Africa needs a concept for ‘graduation’ from peacekeeping operations, which many African diplomats recognize, to reassert its abilities to resolve its own problems”. This view fits in perfectively with Nigeria’s own belief in ‘African solutions to African problems’ whereby external powers only provide the needed support to strengthen Africa’s capacity to solve its problems.
Finally, Pompeo’s appointment as Secretary of State should be cautiously welcomed in Abuja because the credibility of his commitments will not be in doubt. His close relationship with Trump means we can be sure that when he meets Nigerian officials, he speaks with the authority of the White House.
Abuja, however, must recognise that at the core of President Trump’s ‘America First’ world view is a transactional approach to foreign policy. In other words, Trump is unlikely to be receptive to appeals for support based on calls for international solidarity. The populist wave which brought Trump to power – with its deep scepticism of foreign aid – makes it unlikely Trump will suddenly embrace internationalism. Abuja must therefore articulate its needs based on US national interests and must be prepared to give something in return. The days of Abuja presenting Washington a “wish list” for aid are over.
Muktar Usman Muktari-Janguza, Geopolitical Analyst.