Fresh from his electoral triumph in 2011, former President Goodluck Jonathan traveled to Washington D. C. where he would briefly meet President Barack Obama before heading for New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly High Level Meeting on AIDS.
At the event he shared a platform with former United States President Bill Clinton. After wishing him well, Clinton said to Jonathan who was turned out in his trademark caftan and black bowler hat: “I can tell you the Secretary of State (his wife Hillary) tells me your hats are always cool.” The diplomats and VIPs at the meeting cheered and laughed heartily.
“And I envy your name,” Clinton added to more laughter. “If I’d had a name like Goodluck, I might still be in office!” Four years later not even his uniquely optimistic name could help him cling to power – leaving Obama to welcome a new Nigerian president in whom the world invests the tall hope to deliver what Jonathan couldn’t.
No one would ever accuse Buhari of being a fashion plate, so it wasn’t his dress sense that his host went on about. He praised his character instead. In a continent where leaders have become notorious for graft, frivolity, fickleness and excess, it certainly was a plus that a Nigerian president was being celebrated as an example for Africa.
Towards the tail end of Jonathan’s tenure, much of the goodwill which he initially had with the US had largely evaporated. While the Americans were critical of his administration’s abysmal record on corruption, the greatest source of strain had to do with tackling the insurgency.
The much-hyped US offer to help Nigeria track down and rescue the Chibok girls collapsed in a cloud of controversy over how the armed forces handled the intelligence they received. Some say the body language of the local security leadership suggested they weren’t too keen on having American cowboys riding roughshod over them and taking all the glory.
Little surprise therefore that before the foreign helpers could parachute into our territory, the former Chief of Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshall Alex Badeh declared authoritatively that his forces knew where the schoolgirls were being held. Who knows, the handover notes received by the new service chief might just contain this top secret.
As the elections drew close, relations between Nigeria and the Americans grew decidedly chilly in the light of their pointed allegations of human rights abuses against our troops and refusal to sell us arms on those grounds. With his ratings tanking, a desperate Jonathan was forced to resort to unorthodox measures. The $15 million cash seizure debacle in Johannesburg was the outcome and the rest is history.
The speed with which the Americans invited President Muhammadu Buhari over, and the special welcome laid out for him, underscores how keen they are to mend fences with a traditional ally on the African continent.
In the course of his almost six-year stay in Aso Rock, Jonathan met with Obama three times but I don’t recall anything arresting that was said between both men beyond the anodyne diplomatese. Contrast that with the US president’s effusive praise for Buhari’s integrity and vision.
So at the level of symbolism, there was a sense that the visit went quite well for the president and his country. For the first time in a very long time, the narrative emanating from these parts was positive: a seamless transition from an incumbent government to the opposition and an anti-graft leader in a nation that has become notorious for corruption. Apparently something good can still come out of Nigeria.
But not everyone is swayed by the positive spin that has been put on the visit. Those who would have us believe Nigerians made a historic mistake by voting Buhari in March have been nitpicking. They point at everything from the gender insensitivity that saw the president travelling without a single woman in his team and having his son along for the ride.
But of greater significance is the claim that the four-day trip was a waste of money because it didn’t produce a promise to sell things like the potent Apache or Cobra helicopters for use against the insurgents in the North-East. That sense of dissatisfaction was enhanced by Buhari’s statement bemoaning the continued refusal of the Americans to sell us arms hiding behind the Leahy Law, which bars such transactions with nations whose forces are accused of grave human rights abuses.
The best way to determine whether the visit was a success is to go back to what Buhari outlined as his objectives before setting out. He was going to discuss military and defence cooperation as well as measures to strengthen and intensify bilateral cooperation against terrorism in Nigeria and West Africa. The administration’s war against corruption, as well as fresh measures to boost Nigeria-US trade relations were also up for discussion.
In all that was laid out before the trip, there was very little that was specific and nothing suggested that the delegation was going to force their hosts to sign on to sell us arms. Obviously, emerging from the visit with such a deal would have been a massive coup.
That said, it would be churlish not to acknowledge that the swift thawing of relations between the traditional allies was important. In the course of the visit, the World Health Organization (WHO), representatives of the World Bank, committed to spend $300 million to fight malaria in Nigeria.
In terms of numbers, that sum was dwarfed by the World Bank’s pledge to invest $ 2.1 billion for rebuilding the infrastructure devastated by the insurgency in the North-East.
Buhari has repeatedly stated his determination to recover monies plundered from the nation’s coffers by government officials and others. His plans received a boost as the Americans offered to track illicit money from Nigeria in all their jurisdictions.
Given what we now know about outrageous sums that found their way into private pockets in recent years, a nation that cannot pay its workers’ salaries should not sneer at any deal to recover monies running into billions of dollars. I suspect that such arrangements didn’t deliver much in the past because friends of Nigeria couldn’t find reliable and zealous partners in our political leadership to get the job done. In Buhari they sense they have a man they can do business with.
In the face of an insurgency that has received second wind with a wave of suicide bombings, a showpiece arms sales agreement would have been the icing on the cake. It is disappointing that it didn’t happen. It would have been expecting too much to think the Americans – no matter their desire for a fresh start with Nigeria – would rush into such a commitment with a seven-week old administration which still has a lot to prove.
For now it is convenient for them to hide behind the Leahy Law. Rather than waste energy griping and pointing out the hypocrisy of the Americans who have never allowed a little thing like human rights stand in the way when they want to sell arms to some of their ‘special allies,’ Nigeria should consider what her options are.
If we’re so enamoured of the Apache and Cobra attack helicopters, then we can begin to work to get off the list of countries categorised as human rights abusers. Buhari has committed himself to probing allegations made against the military by Amnesty International and has also pledged that under his watch, such practices would not be permitted. I’m sure that the US would be looking to see what concrete action he takes in this regard. Author of the act, Senator Patrick Leahy has suggested as much in his biting reaction to Buhari’s criticism.
The alternative is to take our cash into the market place. The US and UK are not the only countries that sell arms. France, Russia and China to name a few are big players in the global arms industry. All three are keen to extend their scope of influence in Africa and around the world.
All said and done, even if all Buhari achieved in Washington was the restoration of an old friendship, he should be applauded. Given her challenges, Nigeria needs all help it can get from friends around the world. That is far better than the hulking, sulking embarrassment it was fast becoming in the recent past.