14 September 2017

Nigeria: Giving Fresh Impetus to U.S-Nigeria Relations

Last year's change of political leadership in the United States has fuelled fears that the existing cordial relationship between the country and African nations, especially Nigeria, could be negatively affected. But a recent visit by an American congressional delegation to improve relations between the two countries has erased the fears.

Despite being a member of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), a 125-member global organisation of nations with no affinity to any power bloc, Nigeria's relationship with the United States in terms of trade, socio-cultural and religious interactions of the populations and at diplomatic levels, which was established immediately after the country's independence in 1960, has remained a good one.

The relationship has been mutually beneficial with the U.S taking more than a cursory interests in Nigeria's sustenance of democratic culture and provision of aids and supports for humanitarian endeavours while a growing number of Nigerians resident in America are contributing greatly to the development of their host country.

Sharing the same attribute of multi-ethnicity and social plurality, Nigeria fashioned its governance system and democratic aspirations after the U.S, which undoubtedly is the most advanced democracy in the world.

According to data provided by Bloomberg, the U.S is Nigeria's third biggest trading partner after India and China with volumes between the two countries reaching $6.8 billion in 2016 while the State Department records put the country's direct investment to Nigeria at $5.5 billion, mostly from oil and gas, in 2015.

Two months ago, the American government, in its supports for the anti-corruption war of the Muhammadu Buhari administration, introduced some measures to assist anti-graft agencies gather intelligence about corrupt practices among low-cadre Nigerians to stamp out the menace.

The anti-graft support, which was also part of a bilateral agreement between the two countries in the 1989 Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT), is also yielding results in the confiscation, by the U.S government, of proceeds of crime traced to Nigerian officials hidden in America.

Apart from being the closest ally to Britain, Nigeria's colonial masters, the U.S, as the largest concentration of black people outside Africa, shares common interests with the most populous black nation, which, all things being equal, should be providing leadership for the African continent.

In broader perspectives, the U.S, through several administrations, has been coming out with policies to promote trade and socio-economic and political cooperation with the 54 countries of Africa, many of which benefit Nigeria.

Some of these policies include the African Growth and Opportunities Act (AGOA) of the Clinton administration which targeted improving trade relations between Africa and the US and the Bush administration's President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) to provide support for the management of the AIDS pandemic. There is also the Power Africa and Young Africans Leadership Initiative (YALI) introduced by the Obama administration.

But since the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States on January 20 this year, the fear that his administration might damage the existing relationship between the U.S and Africa, has continued to grow. During his pre-election campaigns, the then candidate of the Republican Party was depicted in the social media as a politician who, in the defence of his perception of American interest, would not mind sacrificing the country's friendship with others, particularly in South America, Africa and the Middle East.

The plan of his administration in the declaration of travel ban against some countries in Africa and the Arab World, fresh proclamations against lenient immigration policies of his predecessors and decisions to reduce aids and humanitarian support for poor and developing countries, are clear threats to U.S relations with many countries especially in Africa.

While the Trump policy of "America First" has been drawing condemnations from across the globe, especially from traditional allies in Europe who look up to U.S to continue to provide leadership for the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) countries, flashes of xenophobia are being recorded in the country in ways that exposed a hitherto hidden side of the American society.

The fear of majority of Nigerians who clearly identified with the Democratic Party in the election that produced Trump was that the American President might end up promoting anti-black sentiments in a country that many look up to as an example of a perfect multi-ethnic plural society.

This fear was however doused last week when an eight-member congressional delegation from the U.S, made up of Senators and Representatives from across political party platforms, visited Nigeria to offer assistance in improving relationship between the two countries.

Led by Senator Christopher Coons of Delaware, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Africa and Small Business and Entrepreneurship, the delegation also included Senators Garry Peters of Michigan and Michael Bennet of Colorado. Others are Reps. Lisa Rochester of Delaware, Terri Sewell of Alanama, Barbara Lee of California, Frederica Wilson of Florida and Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania. All members of the delegation belong to Democratic Party except Dent who is a Republican.

The delegation visited Boko Haram-ravaged Northeastern Nigeria where they had interactions with security forces prosecuting the anti-insurgency war and political leaders on how to handle the ensuing humanitarian crisis and maintain peace in the area.

Coons, who was reported in May 2014 to have said that Nigeria acted "too late" in the search for the abducted Chibok girls, however praised the Nigerian government for its efforts in containing the insurgency with a pledge that the U.S, which recently approved sales of sophisticated military equipment to the country to prosecute the war, would be ready to do more.

According to him, "The U.S is strongly supporting the hard work of the military in combating terrorism and we are glad for the opportunity to know how we can support Nigeria in combating terrorism."

The delegation, after being briefed by the American Ambassador to Nigeria, W. Stuart Symington, also met with both the executive and legislative arms of Nigerian government where they explored further areas of interests that could strengthen bilateral relations between the two countries.

After meeting with some selected Civil Society and faith groups on the need to protect the country's democracy and prevent religious tension, the delegation moved to Lagos, Nigeria's commercial capital, where they met with captains of industries, including Aliko Dangote, President of Dangote Group and Tony Elumelu, Chairman of United Bank For Africa (UBA), on how to improve trade and investments relations between the two countries.

One of the identified hindrances, according to Coons, was Nigeria's tight monetary policy that created scarcity of foreign exchange which he said could be improved upon "if the country return to a floating currency." He noted, however, that the Nigerian government has taken other steps to make the country more attractive to investors saying, "The Buhari administration has made significant progress in addressing some of the structural challenges, both security and economic challenges, that were a barrier to more active American investment."

A visit to the Egbin Thermal Station to familiarize the delegation with Nigeria's electricity power situation for necessary assistance also preceded an American Business Council Roundtable where solutions were proffered to inhibitions hampering good business environment between the two nations.

At a reception for the delegation to end the trip, which also took them to two other West African countries, Ghana and Gambia, Coons specifically addressed the fear that the Trump administration's handling of American foreign affairs would lead to frosty relationship with Africa.

While addressing a rich gathering of top diplomats and businessmen, Coons said, "There are some things that have happened in our politics, our elections, that might make people question whether there will be a big change in our future, in our relationships with Africa, and we just wanted to remind you that some of the greatest things in the American partnership with the 54 countries of the amazing continent of Africa have endured from president to president.

"What's the theme here? That across presidents, Democrat, Republican and then Democrat, we work together to sustain our partnership with Africa. And so, don't expect some sudden change in our direction, don't expect that suddenly with a new president, there will be a new priority, and it will not be Africa.

"Know that all of us served before our current president, and hope to serve after our current president, and that the relationship between the United States and Africa has been strengthened by those who have visited a dozen times, and those who are visiting for the first time. Know that you have in the United States, and those who are before you today, a deep and enduring friendships."

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