Newspaper article International New York Times

Reset for Nigerian-American Relations

Newspaper article International New York Times

Reset for Nigerian-American Relations

Article excerpt

This week's meeting between presidents can repair past rifts and tackle major problems of terrorism and corruption.

Visiting the White House has become a rite of passage for newly elected Nigerian presidents. Olusegun Obasanjo was hosted by Bill Clinton in October 1999, five months after he was sworn in as Nigeria's first civilian president in 16 years. His successor, Umaru Yar'Adua, was a guest of George W. Bush in December 2007 after he assumed office. Goodluck Jonathan visited President Obama days after his May 2011 inauguration.

Now it is the turn of Muhammadu Buhari, who in March became the first opposition Nigerian candidate to defeat a sitting president. On July 20, Mr. Buhari, who first ruled Nigeria as a military general when Ronald Reagan was president, will meet with Mr. Obama at the White House.

As with most of the other first presidential meetings, it'll be a departing American president greeting a Nigerian counterpart who is just settling into office. (Nigeria's elections precede America's by about 18 months.) Not the ideal circumstances for building an enduring relationship, one might think.

Mr. Buhari's work is cut out for him. On Mr. Jonathan's watch, relations between the two countries deteriorated badly, culminating in last November's bitter lament by the Nigerian ambassador to Washington about the lack of United States cooperation with Nigeria in its war against the Islamist insurgency of Boko Haram. Citing concerns about human rights abuses, the American government hesitated to supply weapons to Nigeria's military.

The Nigerians turned instead to Russia and Ukraine, and to the black market in South Africa. They also canceled a joint military training program.

It is now up to Mr. Buhari to rebuild the relationship.

When he was the military head of state in the 1980s, Nigerian- American relations were at a nadir, largely because of Nigeria's disgust at Mr. Reagan's "constructive engagement" with apartheid South Africa -- and his lack of engagement with most of the rest of the continent.

In the discussions this week, Mr. Buhari and his team must project a confident stance, one that does not reinforce the donor- beggar default for relations between the United States and many African countries. Nigeria is too important a country to cast itself in that demeaning mold.

Unfortunately, Nigeria's last two presidents -- Mr. Yar'Adua and Mr. Jonathan -- were guilty in that regard, turning out to be leaders for whom the international community had little regard. When Mr. Yar'Adua visited in 2007, he told Mr. Bush -- to the embarrassment of many Nigerians -- that he felt "highly honored and privileged to be here and have the opportunity to share these few moments with you."

Mr. Jonathan's failing went beyond a lack of charisma; there was an intellectual incuriosity that belied his possession of a Ph.D. and manifested in cringe-inducing performances in interviews and diplomatic engagements. At home, the press tagged him "clueless." Those sentiments filtered abroad speedily. …

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