Reflections on the Blinken’s visit

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Akin Osuntokun

“In recent years, many thousands of civilians have been killed in attacks led by Islamist Boko Haram and Fulani militias in northern and central-belt states. The underlying drivers of conflict are complex, yet targeted violence and the perpetration of atrocities against predominantly Christian communities suggest that religion and ideology play a key part” – The British House of Lords

There are several perspectives from which we can look at the position of the American government on the management and mismanagement of religious conflict in Nigeria as expressed by the American Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, on his recent trip to Nigeria. One is sheer incompetence. This perspective emanates from the implausible disastrous mismanagement of America’s exit from Afghanistan some months ago. Beyond the responsibility of the buck stopping at the table of the president, the professional responsibility was that of same Antony Blinken in his capacity as the Secretary of State. The following is a collage of typical assessments of the withdrawal by American senators “The withdrawal was a dismal failure,” an “ineptitude” that has cost the United States international credibility.

“There’s not enough lipstick in the world to put on this pig to make it look any different than what it actually is. The execution of the US withdrawal was clearly and fatally flawed”.

Another perspective is the comparative African foreign policy of the Democrats and Republicans. I have always struggled to rationalise the relative detachment of the presidency of President Barack Obama from Africa and the sum of his African foreign policy. The kernel of my sympathetic understanding however is that Obama’s utility for Africa transcended the quantification of the material impact of his presidency on the continent and assumes the proportions of the vicarious honour and validation his incumbency confered on Africans by the unique attainment of being elected the first African-American President of the United States; and acquiting himself with distinction and dignity in his eight years in office.

Whereas the argument for President George W Bush would easily find traction in concrete African foreign policy achievements. The typical assessment is that “Bush has high approval ratings on the continent on account of a number of significant initiatives including his focus on alleviating major heath challenges facing the African people. In 2003, he launched the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), which was then the largest single effort by any nation targeting a specific disease. Bush equally led the push for the G-8 nations to demand the multi-lateral debt relief initiative (MDRI), which encouraged the IMF, World Bank and the US to reduce the debt burden of highly indebted poor countries. Bush also successfully passed reforms that converted poor country debt into grants”. Conversely President Bill Clinton almost destroyed his legacy with the near fatal error of granting a waiver to the life president aspirations of General Sani Abacha (Nigeria’s most notorious military dictator). He made the most infamous gaffe on a visit to South Africa in 1998 where he said “If he (Abacha) stands for election, we hope he will stand as a civilian. There are many military leaders who have taken over chaotic situations in African countries but have moved toward democracy. That can happen in Nigeria … sooner rather than later I hope.

It is human to be wise after the event but we recall that 17 years later, the Obama administration was at the forefront of rooting for the election of Major General Muhammadu Buhari as president in 2015. To this end Obama famously and pointedly snubbed Nigeria on his visit to Africa in 2013 and politically undermined the effort of President Goodluck Jonathan at making a significant headway in fighting Boko Haram terrorism by obstructing the sale of American military hardware to Nigeria. To coordinate the propaganda warfare against Jonathan was none other than David Axlerod, Obama’s chief political handyman. If President Donald Trump improbably enjoys a significant support base in Nigeria today, it all boils down to the backlash of perceived Obama’s (and the Democrats) role in facilitating the ascedance of Buhari to the Nigerian presidency. Working to the answer, Secretary of State John Kerry practically assumed the role of announcing the results of the Nigerian presidential election of 2015 even before all the results came in.

As I noted elsewhere, ‘the perception of President Donald Trump which borders on admiration and identification, among a critical segment of the Nigerian intelligentsia, is puzzling. Rather than judge him on his merits as president, the admiration they have for the American President, springs from a deep disappointment with his predecessor, Barack Obama-specifically for the role he played in facilitating the election of incumbent Nigerian President, Muhammadu Buhari’.

To further endear himself to Nigeria was the visceral dislike Trump telegraphed to Buhari on the latter’s ingratiating visit to America shortly after he assumed office as American president. His perception of Buhari, as reported by the Wall Street journal was “lifelessness” and he gave a directive he would not be disposed to receiving the Nigerian President in the near future. As a matter of fact were it not for the obligation America owed Nigeria for the purchase of the Tucano fighter helicopters, he probably would not have found any reason to grant audience to Buhari in the first place. At the behest of the Nigerian Christian lobby and in recognition of Buhari’s bias in the near genocidal Fulani militia violence against the Christian communities of the Middle Belt region, he wasted no time in designating Nigeria a violator of religious freedom.

Given its newly acquired reputation from bungling America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, the reason for delisting Nigeria from the ranks of religious liberty violators may be no more than the simplistic reason of disowning Trump especially against the backdrop of the exorbitant mindless adoption of Trump’s America’s withdrawal-from-Afghanistan calendar.

Yet another perspective is the counterpoint of a strategic diplomatic bargaining in which a process is initiated with a view to softening the ground for consequential engagement on other significant matters of common interest. The tragedy of contemporary Nigeria is that the country has, once again, lapsed into the default position of escalating political crisis in which the government is the major agent provocateur.

In the tradition of the Abacha precedence, Nigeria is confronted with a fraught scenario of how best to manage the exit of another bull in the China shop. The Yoruba captures it in the saying that ‘ka pe were ni baba, ki o le je ka ri ona koja’ which means cajoling the madman with pretentious respect so he may grant us a leeway out of the corner we are boxed into. This rationale is, of course, assuming the best case scenario of (a good faith motivated) American concern for the wellbeing of Nigeria. Such scenario could be the need to anticipate and preclude the unintended consequence of stimulating and radicalising irascible passions along the religious divide to which northern Nigeria is prone. If this were the case the question then arises – should this anticapatory deescalation be undertaken at the expense of the Christian underdog?

The attribution of idealistic motivation to Blinken is highly improbable and exposes me to the charge of incredible naivety. But then didn’t the Americans forbid the use of the Tucano fighter helicopters from being used by the Nigerian government for any purpose other than fighting terrorism in the North-east? Reacting to a question on whether the Tucano fighter planes might be deployed against secessionists in the South-east, the American government official inserted the preclusion in this diplomatese “We are pleased to deepen our security cooperation with the Nigerian government. I think we made it very clear our expectations about this platform where it would be used and in the right way and we are always raising concerns when we have them and that it’s true with all our security partners around the world”.

Back to reality, the question was put to Dele Farotimi the other day by the South African broadcasting corporation, SABC, to second guess the ulterior motive of the Blinken outreach or if in fact there is one. It is indeed naive to assume that America would act in any respect other than the dictates of what it deems its own self-interest yet you do not need to be a friend of Nigeria to come to terms with the fact that the Nigerian status quo is not sustainable-with a compelling potential for the situation to unravel and spiral out of control. For the international community especially the unwilling potential hosts of resultant tens of thousands of Nigerian refugees such a prospect is a nightmare scenario. And the kind of refugees I have in mind are not your run of the mill desperadoes but those with enough valid documentation to emigrate with the near certainty of remaining in situ in the American haven. Not to talk of our British next door neighbour who should realistically expect a minimum of one million legal Nigerian settlers. Noted the former American ambassador to Nigeria, John Campbell, “Nigeria’s security challenges are already destabilising the West African region in the face of resurgent jihadism, making the battles of the Sahel that much more difficult to contain. And spillover from Nigeria’s failures ultimately affect the security of Europe and the United States”.

In the unlikely event that Mr Blinken has not read the report provided by Campbell for the American Council on foreign relations here are other indicative excerpts: “Nigeria has long teetered on the precipice of failure. But now, unable to keep its citizens safe and secure, Nigeria has become a fully failed state of critical geopolitical concern. Its failure matters because the peace and prosperity of Africa and preventing the spread of disorder and militancy around the globe depend on a stronger Nigeria. Indeed, thoughtful Nigerians over the past decade have debated, often fervently, whether their state has failed. Increasingly, their consensus is that it has..Nigeria now confronts six or more internal insurrections and the inability of the Nigerian state to provide peace and stability to its people has tipped a hitherto very weak state into failure.”

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