Ekekwe: Nigeria don’t count in US’ strategic agenda beyond war on terrorism
The Director, Claude Ake School of Government, University of Port Harcourt, Professor Eme Ekekwe, in this interview with KELVIN EBIRI, asserted that there is no economic or diplomatic reason for the American Secretary of States, Rex Tillerson’s visit to Nigeria, and some other African countries beyond checking international terrorism and trying to counter China’s growing influence in African, stressing that there is no other strategic interest that Africa serves for America at this juncture.
What is your assessment of President Donald Trump’s foreign policy on Africa?
To the extent that President Donald Trump has any idea of what foreign policy is, I think it is focused mainly on the fight against terrorism and this is the context in which we have to see America’s involvement with African countries. If you look at the world’s economy, Africa unfortunately has little significant resources that are critical to moving the world economy. But because we have poor control of these resources and our inability to apply the resources from our environment to develop ourselves and restore the dignity of the Black man, we therefore count as insignificant factor for major players like America. If you come to the economic level, countries like Nigeria export oil to the United States, but that is something for which America has other sources. It is not something we can use to hold them to ransom. So, the only interest they have, in my opinion, for now, is this issue of international terrorism. And those countries that the Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson is visiting are countries, which one way or another are linked to that problem.
For Trump and his administration, the thing is can you nip this in the bud; can you (Tillerson) work with them in certain countries to bring this problem under control. And some of these countries are Nigeria, Chad, Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Kenya. And if you can work with these countries to contain this problem at this level, then, America would have been the beneficiary because the fear is that these terrorist groups might export their skills, ideas to hurt American interest even on American soil. We saw the attempt that was allegedly made by a Nigerian, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, to bomb an airliner on Christmas Day 2009. So, there is something here that says it is possible for persons from this part of the world to export, or to become vulnerable to Al-Qaeda, ISIS to export their ideas to Europe and North America. If Trump and American foreign policy can stop that, that to me is their primary aim. I don’t know if there are other strategic interests that Africa serves for America. Remember also that Trump’s whole idea of America First seems to be a retreat and that retreat is creating or going to create some gaps and that is the second part of what has brought Tillerson here. That gap will be filled by China. China has been very aggressive in Africa in the last 10 years or so, and America would like to have a degree of influence among key African countries like Nigeria, Ethiopia, and Kenya. But I am surprised that he is not going to South Africa.
In the Middle East, they have more or less vacated the field for Russia unwittingly by not actively engaging in Syria and Libya. I see Tillerson attempting to say, is there something we can salvage by way of influence in this continent? Secondly, is there anything we can do now to check the possible spread of terrorism to other countries? If these countries become destabilised, where will the refuges be heading? They will be heading to the United States and Europe. So, if they can nip this problem in the bud, better. That is part of the reason for Tillerson’s visit. Otherwise, I don’t see any economic or diplomatic reason for this visit that he is making beyond, checking international terrorism and trying to be a counter influence to China’s growing influence on the continent.
As America canvasses for her strategic interest, what should be Nigeria’s bargaining position?
If I were one of the makers of Nigeria’s foreign policy, any support we can get from the United States to check terrorism, I will go for it. Not because it benefits America, but because it benefits us. Lets face it; we have not been efficient as we should be in managing Boko Haram. And as we are dealing with Boko Haram, we have the so-called herdsmen problem also exacerbating. These are things that so long as they continue to fester, this country will not develop.
Look at how much money we are spending in the North East and on security. Those are resources that could have come in handy for the development of our people, and we cannot do that because we are fighting insecurity. So, we have every reason to collaborate with them to solve this problem from our own point of view, not because we are solving it for them. We should collaborate with them to fight terrorism, but we should also be pressing with them that the development of Africa is tied to developments in the world economy.
America has been a very rapacious country, and also been too accommodating to corruption. Even American companies operating in Nigeria are implicit in corruption; unfortunately we have not done our own homework in that area. But that is an area we ought to be pushing them. Just as their goal is security, our’s should be security and development. We need to tie all those things together to see how we can get from them, the resources we need to develop our country and secure our borders. That is one.
Two, we should also explore how we can work with them to create a kind of environment that will allow the resources that are produced here to stay here, instead of being frittered out sometimes, unfortunately by our own nation into foreign economies. For me, those are areas I will be seeking for collaboration with the United States. Anybody looking for more serious intervention like increase in aid will certainly not get it from the Trump administration because we don’t count in their strategic picture beyond the fight against terrorism. For economic development, we also don’t count because even our oil, which comes from the Niger Delta, they can get from other sources. Your other resources like zinc, copper, aluminum, which are imported in the armament industry, they are not getting them through state resources, but through the instrumentalities of multinational corporations and that is where you need to come in to have them push that those people do not engage in environmental unfair practices.
Has America anything to lose by China’s growing influence in Africa?
Diplomatically and economically, yes they do. If the resources that are available on African continent are eventually unavailable to American companies, they will lose. The American State at such is not the loser, but because these resources are not available for its economy to develop. That is where the sense of loss comes in. It is for the same reason that China is in Africa. China was not a colonial power here; same with America, but America rode on the back of Britain and France into Africa. When America entered especially the Congo, which is very rich in resources, they made sure that they planted their own stooge, Mobutu Sese Seko in power. So, these are the kinds of influences that they have and these are the kind of losses that they don’t want to sustain. They want to create an environment that will enable their multinational corporations to operate without the state coming in at all, directly. China on the other hand wants to create an environment where their state-owned companies, as opposed to private companies in America, come in to exploit these resources and take them back to China. It is the same imperialism whether it is from China or from America and that is where for me African countries need to be clear-headed in who they are dealing with, and what they are dealing with. There is an interest that America has in checking the influence of China in Africa.
What has Tillerson got to offer Nigeria and other African States?
At the moment, I don’t see what he will really offer, and that is where the kind of demands we make must be in response to his demands. His demands will be, ‘we need to work with you or we need you to work with us to check terrorism, because it is not good for you and certainly not good for us.’ Yes, I will agree it is not good for us and not good for you, but you see, there are certain conditions that are creating this terrorism; lack of development and great inequalities. One of the reasons for this lack of development and inequality is that resources available in our economy are being frittered out through corruption. We should tell Tillerson, ‘we need you to check American companies that are doing business in our country so that corruption level is reduced and more resources will stay here. We need you to also ensure that trade practices are fairer. America has been dealing with Africa as though they are dealing with a child. Beginning from President Clinton, we had what was called the African Growth and Opportunity Act, or AGOA, which was supposed to encourage growth in Africa. When you look at AGOA, you will see that they are looking at agriculture products. The same products that they want to encourage you to export to America, there certain standards established in America that make it impossible for you to bring take those products to America. For instance, you cannot take palm oil to America because they have reasons why you shouldn’t bring palm oil because they want to use some other kind of oil available in their own economy.
So, is there any way we can look in those areas and relax some of those conditions in order to encourage development here? But, those are not going to be on Tillerson’s table because he is coming here for a very limited agenda and that agenda as I see it now, is security, and international terrorism. It is up to us to push beyond where he is coming from and go to something that is in our interest, which is tied to this issue of terrorism. We need to tell him that if we don’t develop, you will be creating a fertile ground for terrorism because resources are leaving our shores to their own shores. They are not going about to open the gate and say come on in, but are there ways which we can force them to begin to create an environment that is more conducive to us? Those are area we need to explore.
In what specific ways can the United States help Nigeria to combat Boko Haram insurgency?
There are three areas. The first will be in intelligence gathering because terrorism has to do with very fluid movement, and there is no telling where it will strike at any moment. Unless you have a very strict or fairly accurate information, intelligence about movements and implication of those movements, you may not be able to tackle terrorism effectively. In my opinion, intelligence is key. If you don’t have intelligence, the enemy could be right under your nose and you will not know it. With the way intelligence gathering has gotten more sophisticated like the use of drones to gather intelligence and to spot movements, it is heart-rending that in the 21st century, hundreds of schoolgirls are kidnapped and we still cannot find where they are. That suggests to me that our intelligence and information gathering is poor. It is either that or there is a collaboration that makes it difficult for that information to come to the right quarter at the right time. So, we need to review our intelligence apparatus to be sure that it is up to date and the Americans can be helpful in this regard.
The second one has to do with training. I am not in the army, but my impression is that many of our soldiers have very little training in guerrilla warfare and terrorists operate like guerrillas. So, you need to train people adequately to respond in similar manner that the terrorists move. America has experience in this regard. Even though they didn’t win in Vietnam, which was their first experience in guerrilla warfare. Even though they lost the war, they learnt lots of lessons from the process.
The third area should be equipment. Look at the herdsmen, who carry AK 47 rifles, those are not cheap weapons you find just across the street. Intelligence is necessary to help in establishing the sources where these weapons are coming in. You need the military to have superior equipment that will help them deal with that problem. I have no doubt that if our soldiers have the necessary equipment, they will finish that job in a few months. Terrorism isn’t something you are going to defeat and thereafter say there will never be a suicide bomber in the next six months.
While America might be able to do some of that for you, there is another element necessary here that you must deal with yourself in terms of discipline, commitment and dedication. That is where the integrity of those, who are fighting comes in; that is where the realisation that you cannot send a Nigerian solider into battle very poorly armed comes in, because that is a human life. And we ought to do everything to protect lives, especially one that has volunteered to meet danger on behalf of all of us. In summary, we should be seeking to get whatever support we can in intelligence gathering, security, training and equipment.
Won’t the government’s inability to prosecute those involved in arms scandal be an encumbrance to America’s reluctance to combat Boko Haram?
You are absolutely right, and that is one of the weakness we have going into a discussion such as this. There are certain basic things that we need to do to keep our house in order. You cannot come asking for things to be done for you or to seek collaboration for somebody to do something for you when at your own end things are not as tidy as should be. We have not unfortunately shown enough grit in the fight against corruption, whether it is in the military or their citizen collaborators. And that is what will weaken the hand of whoever is talking with Tillerson.
Take Halliburton for instance, America has been able to take some steps against their own citizens, but we don’t even know how many of our citizens are involved in the Halliburton case, and that is what makes this kind of discussion embarrassing for those, who have to be there because if you press for more training, the Americans will want the assurance that the weapons and tactics they bring will stay within and not be passed on to the other side. If you say give us equipment, they will want assurance that the equipment will not be used against the people, who should be using it against the terrorists. Those are things that will weaken our hands, but that does not mean we shouldn’t try.
We also in my opinion, need to sympathise with those, who are fighting corruption at that level. If Muhammadu Buhari were, for instance line up all those involved in the arms scandal and shoot them, we will be the first people to say you are a dictator, but the legal process is taking a very long process. I have a radical approach to fight corruption. If by the time I leave this job and you find out that I have accumulated more than my salary can afford even if I did not spent one kobo of it, take the rest of it. Let me be the one to go to court to prove my innocence. The legal battle is the other way round; it is the state that has to produce enough evidence that a person is corrupt, and the person is the one that should be saying, I am not corrupt. And once you don’t produce enough evidence to meet certain technicalities, you can’t convict, and until you convict, I am not guilty. I think it is the process itself that has become the problem and those, who are accused of corruption, are exploiting it. Their lawyers know it and the system knows it. They have technicalities, which they stand on to postpone and postpone matters and the corruption within the anti-corruption process does not help.
So, we are fighting two things at the same time- a system that is corrupt and probing people, who are corrupt, cannot give you quick result. We need to understand that and also know that this is going to be a problem that will take a long time to deal with. What would have been unacceptable would have been for us to do nothing, but the Federal Government still has to prove to us that it is doing everything honestly, with sincerity and integrity, but because of the nature of the system, the quick result we are expecting have not come out.
Does America desperately need the collaboration of countries like Nigeria in the fight against terrorism?
I don’t think it is a desperate need. A need, yes, but not desperate and that they can’t do without us. It is not that they couldn’t turn their eyes on Boko Haram, they could to the extent that America has declared war against terrorism and given the nature of this terrorism, there is no sector they can leave unattended. At least, from time to time, they will be paying attention to every sector. It is like in every war, when you think that this sector is quiet and the enemy will not strike from there, that is precisely where the enemy will strike from. So, the dynamism of terrorism means that you cannot rest on your oars even when you are dealing with them in Syria, Libya and other parts of the Middle East. You cannot ignore Africa. And the way those terrorists are moving, training people and sending them in different directions means that there is no sector that is unimportant. It is on account of that in my opinion that America wants Nigeria, Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Kenya to ensure that adequate measures are in place to deal with the problem.