BY LADI OLORUNYOMI
PREMIUM TIMES, NIGERIA
MAY 10, 2017
(Nigeria Embassy, Washington, DC)
The prolonged absence of an accredited diplomat to oversee Nigeria’s affairs in the United States is taking a toll on the relationship between the two countries. It has been 18 months since then outgoing ambassador, Adebowale Adefuye, died unexpectedly in Washington DC. The Buhari administration has not designated a candidate for the position and has not offered reasons for not doing so.
The administration’s inaction and silence has been a source of concern in official Washington since the waning days of the Obama administration; it is becoming more so now in the transitional period of the Trump administration.
On its part, the Nigerian diaspora community has criticised President Muhammadu Buhari for slowness to fill this strategic position.
PREMIUM TIMES’ sources among Washington insiders reveal that Obama State Department officials may have scaled down interactions with Nigerians as they were putting final touches to their foreign policy legacy. Many of them had good impression of Ambassador Adefuye, they had a close working relationship with him even when relationship between Presidents Obama and Jonathan was reportedly cold.
Some of them attended the memorial service for Mr. Adefuye in September 2015 in the hope of continuing the détente with their Nigerian counterparts, they were disappointed by Mr. Buhari’s failure to appoint a new ambassador immediately. Nigeria had a lot of goodwill and diplomatic capital in Washington back then. Some Obama officials felt that the “Nigerians did not leverage their influence in Washington” in the last year of the Obama presidency by failing to accredit a lead diplomat.
Unlike his Nigerian counterpart, the former American president appointed W. Stuart Symington to replace James Entwistle as soon as the latter’s tenure as U.S. ambassador in Abuja ended in July 2016. The American President’s quick action underscored the Buhari administration’s failure to maintain steady bilateral relationship.
That failure is now having huge consequences for U.S.-Nigeria relations under the Trump administration.
PREMIUM TIMES/ sources among highly placed Washington insiders say the Buhari administration had a shot at making “a strong, positive impression on the politically inexperienced Trump” but lost it when it did not plant a diplomat to make the rounds on Capitol Hill as the new administration was getting down to business.
Being one of a few African countries that Rex Tillerson, oil baron now Secretary of State, is familiar with, a “credentialed Nigerian” could have put the country’s interests at the top of Mr. Tillerson’s agenda in his early days at the State Department. Washington political insiders now say the absence of an ambassador may have cost Nigeria that chance.
The greatest evidence of that loss is the recently postponed U.S.-Nigeria Binational (BNC) High Level Meeting that was scheduled for the first quarter of this year.
An official source in the Bureau of African Affairs revealed exclusively to PREMIUM TIMES that the Trump administration “in consultation with the Government of Nigeria” decided to “postpone the BNC to a later date”.
No reason was given for the postponement and a new date has not been announced.
“We do not have any further updates on timing at this point”, our source added.
The BNC is a collaborative forum founded during the first term of the Obama presidency. Its stated mission is “to build partnerships for tangible and measurable progress on issues critical to United States’ and Nigeria’s shared future”.
The aborted meeting would have been the first between Trump’s foreign policy officials and their Nigerian counterparts.
Without “further updates”, the postponement can be seen as either an early indicator of future shift in U.S.-Nigeria relations under Trump or one of the much-publicized hiccups of the new President’s transition. Either way, a credentialed Nigerian representative could have influenced a different outcome, says Carl Levan, expert on U.S.-Nigeria relations and associate professor at American University in Washington DC.
“There are problems and misplaced priorities on both sides”, he said of the postponed BNC meeting, “if Nigeria had an ambassador, he or she could encourage the State Department to make this [BNC meeting] a higher priority”.
Officials at the Nigerian Embassy in Washington DC see things differently however. They dismiss any insinuation of possible downgrade in U.S.-Nigeria relations as baseless speculation.
“We are talking on a daily basis”, a source at the Embassy revealed to Premium Times, “dialogues on a vast range of issues are ongoing”.
Our Embassy source insisted that the BNC is only “a structured consultative process” that serves the entire Nigeria-U.S. relations “not a separate mechanism”.
Postponing one BNC meeting “is not indicative of a breakdown in bilateral cooperation”, the source insisted.
Nigerians in U.S. diaspora community are not so conciliatory towards the Buhari administration however, especially residents of the capital metro area who either work with federal, state and local governments here or interact with official Washington frequently.
Premium Times’ sources among informed professionals of Nigerian descent blame the prolonged absence of a lead diplomat in the U.S. on their home government’s “inefficient and antiquated style” which was also manifested in Buhari’s recall of about 20 ambassadors in 2015 most of whom were serving in G-20 countries. They see this as a “wholesale setback” for Nigeria’s relations with G-20 countries and “unnecessary politicisation of diplomatic appointments.”
“Why would you retire 20 ambassadors at the same time, appoint new ones at the same time and have them all vetted at the same time?” one asked, “it is not cabinet appointment”.
Echoing Obama State Department officials, our Nigerian-American sources agree that the prolonged vacancy at Nigerian Embassy in Washington DC is an indication that the Buhari administration is not investing enough effort into U.S.-Nigeria relations.
“If you value the relationship, you don’t leave the position empty for two years.”
Professor Levan sees bigger cracks growing in U.S.-Nigeria relations going forward with the continued absence of an ambassador and the failure of this first chance to get Trump and Buhari’s officials in the same room.
“It is leaving various aspect of U.S.-Nigeria relations without a larger vision and a larger understanding about continuity and change. There is no clear statement about what is going to stay the same, what the current priorities are and how those priorities stand in relation to past commitments” Mr. Levan said.
Other Washingtonians actually believe Trump Africa policy already lacks “a larger vision and a larger understanding”. They point to his proposed budget which cuts thirty-eight percent off funding for American programs and agencies on the continent, including USAID, vis-à-vis the recent sale of Super Tucano aircraft to Nigeria.
USAID delivered more than $300m worth infrastructure and humanitarian assistance to Nigeria’s troubled North-east region within the past year and a half.
While Mr. Levan says that the budget puts “everything USAID has done or helped coordinate for Nigeria at risk”, other sources point at equally damaging cuts that impact American businesses in Nigeria and other emerging markets. It eliminates funding for Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), reduces expert staff at U.S. embassies and technocrats at State, Commerce and Treasury Departments in Washington DC; these crucial support structures are part of the organic link between the U.S. and Nigeria as they give American businesses competitive edge in the Nigerian emerging market and help create jobs in the United States.
Another vital U.S.-Nigeria connection that may soon be lost is security cooperation programs which improve performances of law enforcement and military personnel whose hardware needs lead to purchases of heavy equipment such as the Super Tucano aircraft.
If Trump’s proposed budget passes as it is, Chris Beatty, Washington DC-based consultant on emerging markets, see U.S. businesses in Africa losing ground to Chinese, Indian and Brazilian “state-owned entities and companies that have the support of large, state funded financing mechanisms”. Other Washington sources believe the 37 per cent cuts to foreign assistance in the proposed budget will be negotiated down to a lesser amount. “Proposing a 37 per cent cut is probably just a tactic to make it easier to swallow a ten percent cut,” a source said.
U.S.-Nigeria relations may still need some kind of a jumpstart irrespective of whatever fate befalls the Trump budget.
Professor Levan thinks the Buhari administration, now in the custody of Acting President Osinbajo, should “send a very strong message” to the Trump administration that while “we see the United States as a partner in Nigeria’s development, we value cultural exchange as much as economic exchange.”
But, “I think it is really hard for Nigeria to do that without an ambassador who can go down to Capitol Hill and visit with members of Congress and make the case for foreign aid in Nigeria,” he said.