The United States and Nigeria’s Struggling Democracy

On March 6-8, 2017, a Forum Series on Democracy and Insecurity in Africa took place in Evanston and Chicago, Illinois. The featured speakers were Professor Wale Adebanwi, Ambassador John Campbell, and Professor Attahiru Jega. [1] At the time of these forums, uncertainty was growing in Nigeria. President Mohammadu Buhari had been away in London on medical leave for several weeks and the nature of his illness remained undisclosed. [2] The plunge in global oil prices had further depressed the economy, and a misguided currency policy had benefited select individuals while fueling inflation and aggravating other problems.


A few months before the midway point in Buhari’s tenure, Africa’s largest democracy and economy seemed adrift. The rise of illiberalism and autocratic nationalism, endless conflicts in the Middle East, and the upsurge in cyber and other unconventional warfare were generating a sense of global disarray. Moreover, the United States, Nigeria’s most important external partner, had embarked on an uncharted course. Its new president, Donald Trump, had recently come to office with minimal policy commitments towards Africa. Meanwhile, the oft-announced victories against Boko Haram were undermined by continuing atrocities, attacks on the teeming camps of impoverished displaced persons, and revelations of massive pilfering of counter-insurgency funds by senior government officials.

In an interview with Prof. Adebanwi and Amb. Campbell on March 7, Jerome McDonnell of WBEZ/NPR’s Worldview program raised many issues discussed in the forums and among Nigerians themselves. They highlighted leadership concerns and group dynamics evoked by an ailing president and his dynamic deputy from different nationality groups. [3]

Listen to the Interview


McDonnell: There are several forums concerning Democracy and Insecurity in Africa taking place in Evanston and Chicago. Professor Richard Joseph of Northwestern, whom we talk to frequently on this program, is in the middle of all of them. You can find details on his AfricaPlus blog. We are going to talk with two of the participants with a focus on what’s happening in Nigeria. Wale Adebanwi is a professor at the University of California-Davis, and one of his recent books is Nation as Grand Narrative: The Nigerian Press and the Politics of Meaning. He is also the author of Authority Stealing. Thanks for joining us, Wale.

Adebanwi: Thank you very much.

McDonnell: Ambassador Campbell is also with us. He is a Senior Fellow in Africa Policy Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations where he oversees the “Africa in Transition” blog. Amb Campbell was a senior American diplomat in South Africa and U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria. He is the author of Nigeria: Dancing on the Brink and Morning in South Africa. Thanks for joining us.

Campbell: Pleasure to be with you.

McDonnell: I wanted to ask first about leadership in Nigeria because the President, Muhammadu Buhari, left the country on January 19 for treatment for an undisclosed illness. He has been in London since then. There have been rumors about this. It strikes people in the United States as strange for a country’s leader to leave for such a long time and not disclose his health problems. Ambassador Campbell, I noticed on your blog a list of African leaders who had done the same thing in recent years. It seems to be the modus operandi.

Campbell: That’s right. Certainly in Nigeria and elsewhere in Africa, there is not the cultural requirement that you make public the illnesses from which you suffer, and the treatment you are undergoing. When you combine this with the practice of going overseas—normally the UK, France, or South Africa—for medical treatment, what President Buhari did is not that unusual. What is unusual is the length of time that he has been gone.

McDonnell: This is something that also happened recently in Nigeria’s past. Umaru Yar’Adua, one of the previous presidents, went to Saudi Arabia and didn’t disclose a lot about his health, and then he passed away. [4] Prof. Adebanwi, since Nigeria has such a delicate balance among its political and ethnic groups, could you address what is going on now with Muhammadu Buhari, and what could happen if he were to leave the scene?

Adebanwi: Yes. It would certainly affect the balance of things. For now, we do not know his condition. His spokesmen assure us that he will return to the country soon. When he left, a date was given for his return. Certainly, there is a lot of tension in the system. As you mentioned, there is the geopolitical, regional, ethnic balance that comes into play regarding power. This time we have a northern Muslim as president and a vice-president who is a southerner, a Yoruba, and a Christian. [5] So, if something were to happen to affect this balance, new alliances will be made. There are maneuvers taking place among those interested in the highest office in the land.

McDonnell: It is interesting that Muhammadu Buhari is someone who ran repeatedly for office. He was a military leader and was elected president on his fourth try.

Adebanwi: Yes.

McDonnell: His vice president, Yemi Osinbajo, is someone who has never been in politics. He has been an academic, a law professor, and someone who has not had a lot of experience in politics.

Adebanwi: Actually, he served as Attorney General of Lagos State, a very important state, so he has had experience in public office. For most of his life, Mr. Osinbajo has been an academic. In his legal practice, he rose to the position of Senior Advocate of Nigeria. Although he is not a typical politician, he has actually had experience in government.

McDonnell: Ambassador Campbell, can you tell us a little more about Osinbajo? It was stated in Foreign Policy that he should stay around because he is more energetic than Buhari. Buhari has been notoriously slow in decision-making. Osinbajo seems active, going places that Buhari didn’t visit, and he’s trying to boost the economy.

Campbell: Agreed. He has a reputation of being highly competent. In terms of keeping the trains running on time in the absence of the president, he appears to be doing a good job. An important difference between his circumstances, and that of Goodluck Jonathan as vice president during Yar’Adua’s illness, is that when President Buhari went to London, he formally signed over authority to the vice president for the period of his absence. This is now mandated by Nigerian law so the situation is legally regular.

McDonnell: Do you think that the economy needs some more attention and more focus at the top? Is that something that is vital right now in Nigeria? The country is experiencing its biggest recession in twenty-five years.

Adebanwi: Absolutely. And this has not been done in the nearly two years that Buhari has been in power. There is need for an economic commission that can address this fundamental crisis. As you will notice, another matter that was flagged in a Financial Times story is how Nigeria’s currency, the naira, has appreciated in the weeks since President Buhari left. The many reasons for this have been publicly discussed. But there are also important reasons less in public view. The important fact is that the economic crisis has not been seriously addressed by this administration. Some people are hoping that in this interim period, while the president is away, perhaps the vice president can tackle it.

McDonnell: Why is it important that the Nigerian currency increase in value?

Adebanwi: There are speculations that the absence of the president has affected networks of persons who benefit from a weak currency. Nevertheless, there is a consensus among prominent economists, and the Ministry of Finance and the Central Bank, that the fiscal side of the economy has not been managed well. President Buhari has ignored calls for change in the leadership of the Central Bank. Perhaps if the acting president is there long enough, he might be able to make that change. Or, if Buhari returns and notices the improvements during his absence, he might be persuaded to move on this front.

McDonnell: Ambassador Campbell, what do you think about the leadership issues in Nigeria? A lot of time, it seems that they are focused on one person, and what this single person can do. Some people might think: “Wouldn’t it be great if the vice president took over?” Or is there too much emphasis on: “This guy will get us out of it?”

Campbell: Leadership in Nigeria is very much a matter of personality. Politics is highly personalized in Nigeria and it has been so for a very long time. I would also point out that it is difficult in any country to move politics from being a matter of personality to being a question of principle and policy. That’s a hard transformation to make.

McDonnell: Wale, do you want to weigh in on that?

Adebanwi: Yes, I think what Ambassador Campbell says is true for much of Nigeria’s political history. In the First Republic (1960-66) —and to some extent the Second Republic (1979-83) —we actually had a few parties that sought to be based on certain principles or core ideas. But the general history has been that politics is largely organized around the person who becomes president. Of course, the American presidential system gives a lot of leverage to the president. The difference in the U.S. is that institutions put limits on presidential power. In the case of Nigeria, where there is low institutionalization, the power and leverage of the president is magnified. Everything is organized around the presidency. The challenges we faced in the past two years are largely defined around the nature and limitations of the president.

McDonnell: I wanted to turn our attention to the United States and Nigeria. President Obama seemed to raise Nigeria, and Africa in general, to a higher level of attention in his administration. He seemed focused on the security relationship with Nigeria in view of Boko Haram, and he brought significant resources to the area. He also seemed interested in leveraging foreign aid to produce better outcomes. Ambassador Campbell, how would you assess the Obama administration’s record in Nigeria?

Campbell: Historically, Washington has viewed Nigeria as our most important strategic partner in Africa. While I was ambassador there, we were importing one million barrels of oil a day from Nigeria. Nigeria was very active in peacekeeping operations in West Africa. Further, Nigeria was following a trajectory towards democracy, which was very much in accordance with our own values. In the present crisis, set off essentially by the Boko Haram insurgency in northeastern Nigeria, Nigeria’s international role has diminished. The government’s focus has been much more on internal challenges than what is going on in West Africa. Under these circumstances, I think the Obama administration has followed a calibrated policy that promoted U.S. interests in Africa but was also aimed at strengthening the country’s democratic trajectory.

McDonnell: Professor Adebanwi, do you have reflections on how the U.S. went about its business in Nigeria?

Adebanwi: I agree with the Ambassador. What’s important is the kind of changes we might witness during the Trump presidency in attitudes toward Nigeria. There has been talk about giving greater assistance to Nigeria in fighting Boko Haram. If you remember, when the U.S. announced its intention to assist Nigeria militarily during President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration, there were serious problems regarding how to deal with the Nigerian Armed Forces and the country’s security apparatus. The U.S. took a cautious approach. As the Ambassador mentioned, interactions have improved under President Buhari. But I think that situation could change now. There has been some success in the fight against Boko Haram in recent times.

McDonnell: You are referring to the fact that the U.S. was tying some of its military aid to standards on human rights and making sure the military did not commit abuses in its campaigns against Boko Haram.

Campbell: It was not a question, really, of military aid. It was a question of whether or not Nigeria would be permitted to buy, to purchase, U.S. military equipment, and concerns about a persistent pattern of human rights abuses by the Nigerian security services. These raised cautionary flags, both in Congress and the administration.

McDonnell: One thing that the United States does offer is fairly significant foreign aid to Nigeria. I was going over the foreign aid numbers. The U.S. offers assistance on things like education and to improve electricity on the grid. If you were cutting the State Department budget by 30 percent, you might end up cutting some of these aid programs?

Campbell: Indeed, you almost certainly will be. By far the largest portion of U.S. assistance to Nigeria is in the area of health, particularly HIV/AIDS. The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) actually dates from the George W. Bush administration. If the State Department’s budget is cut by between 30 and 40 percent, most of these assistance programs will dry up.

McDonnell: How would that affect Nigerian attitudes towards the U.S.?

Adebanwi: It will mean that the U.S. will have less leverage in Nigeria, and by extension, the rest of West Africa, Central Africa, and the continent. It would affect how the U.S. can draw Nigeria and the rest of the continent towards democracy, and the expansion of the civic space. It would not be a good development.

Campbell: Even beyond foreign assistance, there is immigration policy. The Nigerian Government issued a travel warning, just a few days ago, advising its citizens not to travel to the United States until American immigration policy is clarified.

McDonnell: And there are already around a million Nigerians in the U.S.

Campbell: We don’t know the exact number. The estimates range from one million to two million.

McDonnell: So there’s a lot of travel back and forth?

Campbell: A huge amount.

Adebanwi: It is also significant that this is the first time in Nigeria’s history that Nigerians are warned about traveling to the United States. It has always been the reverse.

McDonnell: Well, what goes around comes around. What is the wording of the statement? Is the government worried that Nigerians could be hurt here? Or that they could be expelled?

Campbell: There have been a series of high profile episodes in which prominent Nigerians, holding perfectly valid visas, were turned away at American ports-of-entry and sent back to Nigeria without explanation.

McDonnell: We’ll have to keep an eye on this. It goes down to the personal sometimes in these matters.

Campbell: It does indeed.

McDonnell: Thank you very much for joining us, Ambassador John Campbell, Senior Fellow in Africa Policy Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. You can read his “Africa in Transition” blog—it is quite informative—former U.S. Ambassador in Nigeria. Thanks for being with us. And Wale Adebanwi is a Professor at the University of California Davis. I understand that you are moving to Oxford University.

Adebanwi: Yes.

McDonnell: You’ve got an interesting position. You are going to be the Cecil Rhodes…

Adebanwi: …Chair on Race Relations.

McDonnell: And you’re the first person from Africa to be the Cecil Rhodes Chair at Oxford?

Adebanwi: No, actually the first black person. There has previously been a white South African in the position. So I’ll be the first black person, not the first African.

McDonnell: Rhodes is known as a big-time colonialist? And you are going there to assume that position?

Adebanwi: Yes, a very challenging thing. There’s a whole debate on that.

McDonnell: All right. Wale Adebanwi is a professor at the University of California, Davis, and moving to Oxford University. Thanks for joining us and talking about Nigeria and the United States.

Copyright © AfricaPlus 2017

[1] These were held at Northwestern University’s Department of Political Science, Transportation Center, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and the Institute of Politics of the University of Chicago. Support was also provided by the Center for International Human Rights of Northwestern’s Pritzker School of Law, the Program of African Studies, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Prof. Jega’s presentation was conducted by video from the Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University.

[2] President Buhari returned to Nigeria on Friday, March 10, three days after this interview. He resumed leadership of the government from his Vice-President, Yemi Osinbajo. Since Buhari’s return, Osinbajo has been accorded wider responsibilities, especially in the faltering anti-corruption drive.

[3] A panel discussion took place the evening of March 7 at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. The speakers were Prof. Adebanwi, Amb. Campbell, and Prof. Funmi Olopade of the University of Chicago, with Prof. Joseph moderating.

[4] In late 2009, Nigerian President Yar’Adua left for Saudia Arabia to seek medical treatment. He returned to Nigeria on February 24 and died on May 5, 2010.

[5] Yoruba-speaking Nigerians constitute the country’s second largest ethnic group, largely residing in the southwest. The largest is President Buhari’s, the Hausa-Fulani.

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