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.

The Buhari Challenge: Making Nigerian Democracy Work

By Richard Joseph

Nigeria’s president-elect, Muhammadu Buhari, has few illusions. He has been in and out of power at the highest level since the 1970s. He has already spoken boldly about tackling corruption and the Boko Haram insurgency. And he recognizes the need to rebuild fractured ties among Nigerian communities and between Nigeria and its global partners.

It can be expected that the United States will no longer be blamed for not providing enough armaments for Nigeria’s ineffective armed forces. No longer should the giant of Africa depend on a small autocratically-run neighbor, Chad, to reclaim its border towns from the insurgency. And no more should office holders pilfer public funds with impunity while their people lack clean water, electricity, and gainful employment.

The clock is ticking. Nigerians were forced to wait six weeks to register their judgment on the Goodluck Jonathan presidency at the polls. They must wait another six weeks to witness the ceremony in which power will be transferred to the new head of state. However they voted on March 28, and in state-level elections on April 11, Nigerians must now rally behind Mohammadu Buhari and the drive to reduce regional, ethnic, and religious tensions.

The Nigerian transition could echo the assumption of power by Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress in South Africa and the building of a rainbow nation. In myriad constitutional exercises over a half-century, the core principles intended to guide Nigerian party politics were identified. It is now up to Buhari and the political class to make the federal democracy work in the interests of a much abused population.

Continue reading

Nigeria’s 2015 Elections: Prologue to the Past?

By Richard Joseph

In the 45 years since the Nigerian civil war ended in January 1970, Nigeria has often seemed on the verge of making significant political advances. While its population soared, however, the country stumbled through one contentious electoral exercise after another, interspersed with military rule. The recent 2015 elections, which elevated Muhammadu Buhari to the powerful presidency, have produced a significant shift in control of national and state governments from the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) to the All Progressives Congress (APC). The PDP had been the dominant party for 16 straight years.

Continue reading

Nigeria: The Global Significance of Buhari’s Victory

By Richard Joseph

Muhammadu Buhari’s convincing defeat of incumbent Goodluck Jonathan in the Nigerian presidential election is an event of global significance. To his credit, President Jonathan promptly conceded defeat, thereby discouraging any attempt to impede the transfer of power.

APC supporters celebrate Buhari's win in Kano, Nigeria (Source: Reuters/Goran Tomasevic)

APC supporters celebrate Buhari’s win in Kano, Nigeria (Source: Reuters/Goran Tomasevic)

Continue reading

Boko Haram and Nigeria’s 2015 Elections: A Fighting Chance for Democracy?

By Brandon Kendhammer

One thing has been certain about Nigeria since the overthrow of the post-civil war military government in July 1975: No one knows what will happen next. Stability has eluded the country under both military and civilian administrations. Brandon Kendhammer, a rising scholar of this bewildering but vital country, provides guidance through the thicket of uncertainties on the eve of the elections on March 28 and April 11, 2015. On February 8, 2015 an ostensible civilian government had its chief security official, a career military officer, declare that democratic elections should be postponed. A former military, and civilian, president, Olusegun Obasanjo, has campaigned openly for the defeat of President Goodluck Jonathan, whom he steered into the country’s highest elected office. The likely beneficiary of Obasanjo’s denunciation of Jonathan is the latter’s main electoral opponent, retired general Muhammadu Buhari who also served as a military ruler.

To cap it all, a jihadist insurgency – which should have been defeated several years ago by Africa’s largest army – has terrorized large swaths of the country’s northeast, exploded bombs within and outside this sphere, and obliged the government to permit the troops of its smaller neighbors to join the fight on its own soil. Boko Haram, long dismissed as a local phenomenon, achieved heightened notoriety when its declared allegiance was accepted by the Islamic State. The respected Chairman of the country’s “independent” electoral commission has been obliged by security and military leaders to retract his opposition to postponing federal and state elections. Meanwhile, reports of mega-corruption and mega-thefts of crude oil gush forth. Will Boko Haram be defeated? Will Nigerian democracy advance or retreat during the 2015 national elections? Nothing is certain at present in Nigeria but uncertainty.

Continue reading

Militant Islam and Democracy in Nigeria: A Forum on Boko Haram and the 2015 Elections

By Rebecca Shereikis, Ibrahim Hassan, Richard Joseph, Brandon Kendhammer, and Rotimi Suberu

Nigeria is embroiled in military and political struggles in which its future as a stable, prospering, and constitutional democracy is increasingly challenged. On February 11, 2015, a group of leading scholars spoke at the Program of African Studies of Northwestern University, under the sponsorship of the Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa (ISITA). Created by the esteemed Islamic scholar, John Hunwick, ISITA has conducted pioneering research on Islam in Africa since 2000.

The 2015 workshop was organized by ISITA’s Interim Director, Rebecca Shereikis, who also prepared the report on this important exchange of ideas. AfricaPlus will provide an arena for pertinent academic scholarship and incisive policy commentary as Africa’s most populous country, and one of the world’s complex pluralist democracies, goes through the twists and turns of contentious electoral politics and intensified counter-insurgency warfare. Militant Islam is now a global challenge. How well Nigeria responds to it, while strengthening its multi-religious and democratic institutions and cultures, is of profound significance to its people, the African continent, and the world community.

Continue reading

Muhammadu Buhari or Goodluck Jonathan? Nigeria’s Fateful Choice

By Richard Joseph and William Miles

One week before Nigerians expected to vote on retaining Goodluck Jonathan as president, or removing him for Muhammadu Buhari, the Electoral Commission was forced to postpone the election. Military and security officials insisted on having six more weeks to try and decimate an almost six-year insurgency. The gamble is clear: Jonathan’s chances, and that of his political associates, could depend on whether Nigerian armed forces, bolstered by neighboring troops, can make major gains in combating the jihadists. 

In anticipation of the election, Richard Joseph was interviewed on February 5th by Alexandra Salomon of WBEZ/NPR in Chicago. She raised in her first question the prospect of a postponement of the elections. Goodluck Jonathan is now widely known, but Buhari is much less so. An edited transcript of the interview is provided here followed by a commentary from William Miles who reflects on his personal meeting with Buhari. Crushing Boko Haram has now been given precedence over defeating Buhari’s multi-party alliance. The military and political contests will intensify in the national cauldron known as Nigeria.

Continue reading

Defeating Boko Haram is a Global Imperative

By Richard Joseph

Militant Islamism has expanded in northern Nigeria over decades. Its trajectory can be traced because of the central role played by Wahhabi religious institutions in Saudi Arabia in the propagation of Salafist Islam. This process has included the training of clerics, the funding of mosques and schools, and the cultivation of dynamic leaders. The gifted scholar and preacher, Ja’far Mahmoud Adam, became the prime propagator in this network in the mid-2000s. He was killed on April 13, 2007 after virulently denouncing the more extreme views of his protégé, Mohammed Yusuf. When Yusuf and hundreds of his followers were killed by Nigerian police forces in July 2009, the movement went underground. It re-emerged in 2010, popularly referred to as Boko Haram, ready to wage jihadist war against the Nigerian state, Western education, and national and international institutions. It has since adopted every tactic available to contemporary insurgent and terrorist organizations. There are no limits to its brutality as it has targeted school children and very ordinary folk. Its vociferous leader, Abubakar Shekau, taunts the Nigerian government for its inability to crush his movement. [1]

New and sustained reflections are needed about a movement that now poses a dire threat to the Nigerian nation, its federal democracy, and neighboring countries. It has become part and parcel of militant global Islamism. To this end, AfricaPlus makes available the second and final part of a November 3 interview of Richard Joseph by Jerome McDonnell of WBEZ, Chicago, followed by a commentary on American and Nigerian collaboration.

Continue reading

Chibok Girls Freedom and Boko Haram Ceasefire: Seeing is Believing

By Richard Joseph

Boy with #bringbackourgirls sign at protest

A #bringbackourgirls protest in New York City, May 3, 2014. Photo by Michael Fleshman, CC BY-NC 2.0.

The announcement by senior Nigerian military and government officials that an agreement has been reached with Boko Haram for the release of more than 200 kidnapped Chibok girls is welcome, although it has understandably been greeted with considerable caution. And news that a ceasefire has also been agreed, and that further negotiations will take place, is another positive development.

But this is a case when we will actually need to see the girls emerging from their six-month confinement before we can truly believe.

After all, it was only recently that it was announced that Abubakar Shekau, reputed leader of the jihadist group, had supposedly been killed… again. Yet Shekau, or someone claiming to be him, probably lives on in a country where much political, economic and now military affairs take place in the shadows.

Read the full oped at CNN

Nigerian Pathways: Towards Stability, Security, and Democratic Development

By Richard Joseph

July 23 marks 100 days since the Chibok girls were abducted. The Boko Haram insurgency has brought to world attention the shortcomings of Nigeria’s army, police, and other security services. President Goodluck Jonathan is seeking $1billion in external loans to enhance their capacity. His government has shifted from one bold declaration to another: a state of emergency, total war, and now adding more funds to the billions already poured into these services. There is an urgent need for a comprehensive strategy focusing on the wider Nigerian predicament as well as the opportunities for sustainable progress. This essay and others to follow will address this need.

Untitled by Issek of Cameroon

Continue reading