Reviewing Nigeria-US relations under Trump and 2020 elections
The 2020 United States Presidential Election has come and ended, perhaps not completely gone as President Donald Trump has stubbornly refused to concede defeat. The ripples of the elections continue to reverberate around the world. No doubt, it was an ill-tempered and fiercely contested election, one that the United States has not witnessed in its over 250-year history as a democracy. The run-up to the election and its immediate aftermath were replete with features that usually define political contestations in developing democracies.
Inflammatory rhetoric, threat of violence, allegations of electoral malpractices, and refusal to concede defeat are some of the issues that dominated the political firmament of world’s acclaimed bastion of democracy before the election.
In Nigeria, the 2020 US election generated widespread interest. This is for obvious reasons. America remains a second home or desired haven for many Nigerians, high and low. It is on record that there are thousands of Nigerians living in the United States and contributing to that country’s economic growth and development.
Nigerians living in the US also contribute a substantial part of the over 20 billion dollar diaspora remittance back home on a yearly basis. American universities are hosts to thousands of Nigerian students pursuing undergraduate and postgraduate studies. At the bilateral level, Nigeria is America’s number two trade partner. Nigeria is also the third largest destination for US foreign direct investment. It is therefore not a coincidence that the electoral showdown between Mr. Donald J. Trump and the Democratic Candidate and now President-elect, Mr. Joseph R. Biden, dominated discussions in homes, offices, schools, on the streets, and in the media space in Nigeria.
A central theme of the debates by Nigerians was whether President Trump deserved a second term in office with respect to how Nigeria had benefitted or been deprived in his first term in office. On the one side are those who argue that Nigeria was worst-hit by Trump’s anti-immigration policies some of which were pointedly aimed at Nigerians. They also referred to America’s hostility to Nigerians heading or aspiring to head multilateral global institutions.
For instance, the US stood against the re-election of Dr. Akinwunmi Adeshina as President of the African Development Bank earlier this year relying on unsubstantiated, spurious, and unfounded allegations, using the words of the Ethics Committee that examined the allegations of unethical practices. Even after the Ethics Committee of the bank had exonerated Dr. Adeshina, the US representative on the Bank’s board, Steven Dowd, insisted on an independent review of the Ethics Committee’s report, a request that the Bureau of Board of Governors of the bank grudgingly acceded to, even when it ran counter to the provisions of the AfDB codes of governance.
Similarly, the United States is currently blocking the emergence of another Nigerian, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the Director-General of the World Trade Organization. This is in spite of her overwhelming endorsement by majority of member-countries. Beyond matters of direct bearing on Nigeria, other issues that were of interest and concern to those not favorably disposed to Mr. Trump was his perceived disdain for Africans and people of colour, generally. His failure or refusal to condemn systemic racism in America especially the brutality suffered by African-Americans in the hands of white police officers only reinforced this perception.
For a country that recently produced an African-American president in Barrack Obama, the resurgence of racism and white supremacist groups did little to endear Trump to many Nigerians. For instance, many considered his response to the Black Lives Matter protests that rocked many cities in the US following the murder of George Floyd by policemen early this year as an indication that the lives of black people do not really matter to him.
Before this, Mr. Trump had been diplomatic in his response to the ‘unite the right’ rally by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Georgia in August 2017. The protest was a reaction of the far-right white supremacists to the decision of the county to remove the statue of Gen. Robert Lee, a pro-slavery advocate, who led the Confederates during the American Civil War. While responding to the racial violence and tension that trailed the protest, Trump had remarked that ‘there are very fine people on both sides’ when prompted to condemn the action of the white supremacists. During the first Presidential Debate between him and Biden, the moderator, Chris Wallace, had asked Mr. Trump if he would categorically denounce far-right militant groups. He demurred before adding the famous line, ‘Proud boys …. stand back and stand by’ which many interpreted as an encouragement to far-right groups.
These are aside from the denigrating remarks of Mr. Trump against African countries which he referred to in unprintable expletives. He made the uncomplimentary remarks in discussions with some members of the US Congress while trying to justify his resentment of Africans immigrating into the United States. In fact, the American President was reported to have referred to Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari as ‘lifeless’ while reviewing the former’s visit to the White House in 2018 with some White House staff.
Conversely, there is another group of Nigerians who see Mr. Trump from a messianic prism – a leader who is God-sent to destabilise the entrenched machinations of the American establishment. While running for office of president in 2016 and throughout his presidency, Trump made and continued to refer to the presence of an imaginary deep state in America, a group of individuals that remotely controls the US bureaucracy and the levers of political power for the benefit of their members. This, among other conspiracy theories, promoted by the President endeared him to his political base almost with some degree of veneration. His stance against the LGBTQ community appealed not only to American evangelicals but also their Nigerian counterparts.
However, beyond these varied subjective views of the American President, it must be said that his administration accorded Nigeria substantial recognition and support, especially in the fight against insurgency. The immediate-past administration in Washington had refused Nigeria’s overtures to procure military hardware from America. It also blocked attempts to buy weapons from Russia citing poor human rights records of the Nigerian government. This refusal was based on a US law that forbids sale of lethal weapons to countries with records of human rights violations.
This made the Barack Obama administration unpopular with some Nigerians in the security sector who saw the action as emboldening the rampaging Boko Haram terrorists at that time. It was therefore a credit to Mr. Trump when he overturned the Obama administration policy and approved the purchase of Tucano fighter helicopters and other lethal weapons by Nigeria. Despite Trump’s gesture, there were still a few knotty issues around the sale of the Tucano helicopters. For instance, the American government did not approve the training of Nigerian technicians by US staff neither would they be allowed to be part of the maintenance crew.
As an indication of Donald Trump’s recognition of the important role of Nigeria in the African continent and especially in sub-Saharan Africa, President Buhari became the first leader in sub-Sahara Africa that he called on phone in 2017. President Buhari was also the first from the region to be hosted by the American President in 2018. The State Department and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) allocated the sum of $450 million in bilateral foreign support for Nigeria in 2020. The fund which is the highest to any African country is to support programs focused on health, good governance, agricultural development, and law enforcement and justice sector strengthening. This does not include substantial emergency assistance provided in response to the humanitarian crisis in the Northeast, or funds administered by other U.S. federal departments, such as the Departments of Defense, Justice, Health and Human Services, and Homeland Security.
However, there are some indications that may be pointers to the direction a Biden-Harris presidency will go with regards to Nigeria. One must note that Mr. Biden was an integral part of the Obama Administration as Vice President. It may therefore not be surprising if the Biden administration shows more interest in Nigeria’s domestic affairs especially as the country begins the process of electing a successor to President Muhammadu Buhari in 2023. The administration’s perception of the country’s human rights record may have implications for the kind of support or lack of it that may come our way. On immigration, it is expected that a Biden-led US government will be more welcoming of Nigerians to American soil.
The Trump administration has been a mixed bag for Nigeria and Nigerians. While the US became less welcoming of Nigerian immigrants, it has maintained and even exceeded much more than many are willing to admit. The Nigerian Government has enjoyed a relatively less combative relationship with America on the traditional issues of human rights. The US under Trump either by design or coincidence seems to have refrained from interfering in Nigeria’s internal affairs despite some uncomplimentary reports about the country’s leadership, some of which are exaggerated, though. It remains to be seen what direction this relationship will travel under the in-coming administration of Mr. Joe Biden.
• Oshodi, an African Affairs Analyst, is Special Assistant to Asiwaju Bola Tinubu. He can be reached via (Twitter: @ekometa).