President Buhari’s visit to the US shortly after his decision to stand for re-election next year is likely to play to his advantage during campaigning. While Trump is perhaps Buhari’s pocket ace his administration’s rather limp performance thus far might yet tilt the balance.
In April, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari became the first leader from sub-Saharan Africa to be entertained in the Oval Office by US President Donald Trump.
The working visit by Buhari, who arrived alongside a retinue of governors, ministers and business leaders, was aimed at repairing the alliance, whilst also seeking to improve bilateral relations.
Discussions between the two presidents appeared on the surface to be friendly and productive, with promises being made towards increased US military assistance in the prolonged conflict against the militant group Boko Haram, the repatriation of $500m-worth of stolen funds stashed in US bank accounts by corrupt individuals, as well as finding ways to mitigate the ongoing violence perpetrated by Fulani herdsmen against Christians throughout the country.
The trip elicited a divergence of opinions, due to the seeming ambivalence of the Trump administration about fashioning a coherent Africa policy, coupled with his widely-reported derogatory remarks about the continent. Chatham House Fellow and former US State Department official, Matthew Page, viewed the diplomatic parley as little more than a “photo opportunity that afforded two polarising presidents an opportunity to appear engaged, statesmanlike and in control”.
Buhari on the other hand, will view this trip as a success, with the recent declaration of his intention to run for a second term as President in 2019 seemingly boosted by his trip to the White House.
The perceived elevation of his international profile will put him in good stead as the campaign season commences, though negative opinions of his leadership thus far continue to reverberate.
Rebuilding an old friendship
Nigeria and the US have maintained strong and affable ties going back to the 1960s, with the two countries forging a close relationship in trade, security and geopolitical cooperation.
But in recent times the relationship had become strained, with the Obama administration in 2014 blocking the attempts of then Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan to buy military hardware in the fight against Boko Haram, citing the government’s poor human rights record as the reason.
The reset button on relations seems to have been pressed, with the confirmation of a reversal of the Obama-era blockade of arms sales and affirmation of the recently concluded sale to Nigeria of 12 A-29 Super Tucano light-attack aircraft.
Both presidents professed a respect for each other during the press conference, with Trump referring to Nigeria as “the most beautiful country”, whilst Buhari spared his host embarrassment by dodging a question in relation to the US President’s vulgar remarks about African nations, saying he was not certain Trump made the comment as alleged and “the best thing for me is to keep quiet”.
The issue of the killings of Christian farmers over grazing lands by the Fulani herdsmen – a semi-nomadic, pastoralist ethnic group to which Buhari himself belongs – was also discussed. In 2016, pastoral conflicts accounted for more deaths in Nigeria than Boko Haram.
President Buhari, often accused of not doing enough to tackle the issue, tried to minimise the conflict’s extent by calling it a “very long historical problem”; yet his US counterpart, playing up to his Christian evangelical credentials, declared: “We are going to work on that problem very, very hard because we cannot allow that to happen.”
In the area of trade, there was an element of confusion over domestic policy priorities, as President Trump urged Buhari to remove trade barriers to allow American agricultural produce into the country. This negates the Nigerian government’s attempts to diversify its economy, where increased exports of agricultural produce are of cardinal importance.
The trip’s positives included Buhari’s ability to court investors for Nigeria’s agriculture, aviation and transport sectors; with a deal worth $2bn being signed to revamp Nigeria’s railway system, with a consortium led by General Electric.
Though the Trump administration’s Africa policy thus far has been described by John Campbell, a former US ambassador to Nigeria and a senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations, as being “not clear or coherent”, given Nigeria’s size, wealth and geopolitical importance, the country is of increased significance to US foreign policy and Buhari knowingly leveraged this during the trip.
He is equally aware that the benefits of a seemingly strong friendship with the US President and increased international exposure could significantly help not only Nigeria, but his own re-election prospects.
In April, Buhari revealed perhaps the worst-kept political secret as he announced his bid for re-election in 2019, ending months of speculation. His declaration was greeted with wide trepidation as his first term has been beset by Nigeria’s first recession in 25 years. And his poor health has seen him spend a total of five months abroad, receiving medical treatment for an undisclosed ailment.
In addition, the inability of his government to end the various security threats within the country has compounded the negative impression of his administration. The Nigerian financial markets responded to the news of his re-election bid with a fall of 1.01% – a three-month low.
The President has argued that another term in office would provide an opportunity to engage in a more efficacious fight against corruption, with an estimated $10bn being recovered so far, yet the perceived ‘war on corruption’ has been deemed politically selective. The government has also touted the ‘degrading’ of Boko Haram’s threat as one of its successes, yet the group still operates in parts of the North- East, albeit in a reduced capacity.
Many view Buhari, who will be 75 by 2019, as being unfit for a second attempt at the Presidency, with his government being characterised by inertia, lack of policy initiatives and indecision.
But political analyst and Nigerian youth leader Bello Shagari believes: “Every new government is expected to make some mistakes in its first term but can make amendments in its second.”
The road to election in 2019 might not present Buhari with the same difficulties as it did in 2015, when he became the first opposition leader to defeat an incumbent in Nigeria’s political history.
His party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), though conflicted with internal power struggles at state level, seems fully behind him, with no sign of a challenger emerging. “Any such opponent would need to make a play for control of party structures and woo key party power brokers. At this stage, decamping to another party would be the only viable option for a prospective challenger,” Chatham House Fellow Matthew Page commented.
But the only realistic opposition, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP), which held the reins of government for 16 years, is still shell-shocked by the 2015 election loss and is yet to fully regroup since losing power, thus weakening any form of opposition in the country.
“A broad and strong opposition is essential to transfers of power in Africa. But with Buhari going for a second term and the PDP still rebuilding, this suggests that the next election will see the APC retain power,” said Nic Cheeseman, Professor of Democracy, University of Birmingham, UK.
Presidential elections in Africa’s powerhouse nation are always a turbulent affair, based more on political jostling, horse-trading and deal-making than on policies, ideas and performance. International endorsement is also vital and the cordial relationship being fostered between Nigeria and the US, alongside the tacit endorsement of Buhari by Donald Trump, will have a positive knock-on effect for Buhari from a political standpoint.
The 2019 elections might be less rigorous for the President, despite the underperformance of his first term. But with the elections less than a year away, the well-known unpredictability of the Nigerian political terrain might provide for some surprises.