(LOS ANGELES TIMES JANUARY 13, 2018) -- Long before I arrived in the United States in 1997 on political asylum, I’d heard the apocryphal story of the visiting African who was asked by an American whether it was “true that Africans live on trees?”
The well-educated and well-spoken African responded: “Yes, it is true, and the U.S. Embassy is the biggest hut next to my hut!”
It was funny then, until my friend was asked that same question at her school in Washington. President Trump’s reported statement that when Nigerians see America they never want to go back to “their huts” is downright appalling.
I came here in exile as a young human rights lawyer who had been imprisoned and tortured by a brutal military dictator. In recent years, I have helped a number of victims of the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram come to the U.S.
These were simply Christian schoolgirls who had jumped out of Boko Haram’s trucks after they were abducted with hundreds of classmates from their school in the northeastern community of Chibok in April 2014. They were not here because of the American dream. They just wanted to be somewhere, anywhere, they could go to school and not be abducted, raped, converted to Islam or used as suicide bombers. Boko Haram has a set a world record for the most suicide bombers in history — 80% of whom have been women and children.
Ironically, Trump’s remarks undercut his position with a group that has traditionally favored him and the GOP. In Nigeria, Trump is popular for standing up to Islamist terrorism. Strangely enough, even people who dislike Trump are amused he beat former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who they blame for failing to take action against Boko Haram terrorism and ultimately for foisting Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim, on Nigeria as its president. The optic of former Obama advisor David Axelrod serving as a consultant to Buhari’s campaign was perceived as a Hillary/Obama endorsement of his candidacy.
Jos, the city in northern Nigeria where I was born, is also the birthplace of many missionary kids from America, Canada and England, many of whom are proud of this fact and have asked me if this entitles them to Nigerian citizenship. The oldest American high school on the continent of Africa is located there. The Chibok school, from which the 276 schoolgirls were abducted, was built by American missionaries 70 years ago last year.
Today, as Africa’s most populous country and biggest economy, Nigeria is the United States’ largest trading partner on the continent. Former Vice President Dick Cheney’s Halliburton and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s Exxon Mobil are just a couple of American companies that have extensive dealings in Nigeria, once the fifth-largest oil supplier to the United States. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and former President Clinton are other prominent Americans who have earned income in Nigeria through business transactions and speaking engagements.
For the Nigerian American community, it is simply disheartening that such hard-working immigrants with numerous academic achievements would be so derisively dismissed by the U.S. president. Hundreds of Nigerian medical doctors are helping sustain the U.S. medical system, which is in dire need of foreign medical professionals as longer-living baby boomers strain the system.
Among these are Dr. Bennet Omalu, who discovered the brain disease Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, which afflicts NFL players, as depicted in the movie “Concussion,” starring Will Smith. The condition has also been found to affect war veterans. Dr. Oluyinka Olutoye, co-director of the Texas Children's Fetal Center, performed a ground-breaking surgery on a fetus in utero — as reported by CNN — a procedure that could save babies who would otherwise be aborted.
For some of us who have worked on U.S.-Nigeria relations for years, it was not enamoring that one of the president’s first policy actions on Africa was to consider allowing elephant tusk hunting, apparently a favorite pastime of his son.
This reductionist approach to Africa, where China, Israel and the Middle East are making significant diplomatic and economic overtures, is unfortunate. In 2015, U.S. agricultural exports to Nigeria were worth $667 million, while Nigeria’s agro exports to the U.S. were a mere $32 million. These gave the U.S. a favorable trade balance of more than half a billion dollars!
One cannot quite fathom what Trump stands to gain by espousing such senseless, unhelpful, inaccurate and even racist stereotypes. Ignorance is not a defense, but at what point does ignorance become an offense?
There are tens of thousands of Americans living and earning incomes in Nigeria, and the U.S. Mission there is one of the largest and most lucrative — raking in millions of dollars in visa fees — on the planet.
Nigeria is a sought-after destination for many A-list musicians — including Beyoncé — who have performed at glitzy events, as well as prominent evangelical leaders who jet in for massive gospel crusades.
Sadly, Trump’s base has not advocated for refugee resettlement or direct aid for Nigerian Christians targeted by Jihadi terrorism.
Now more than ever, the U.S. needs less diplomatic walls and more bridges. Washington was recently stung by an overwhelmingly negative U.N. vote against the White House’s recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital. In a similar U.N. vote against Israeli “occupation” three years ago, Nigeria abstained after then-Secretary of State John F. Kerry phoned Nigeria’s president at the time, Goodluck Jonathan — a move that spared the U.S. a veto.
It is small comfort that the White House press office has not denied the comments. Indeed Trump’s profanity-laced tirade against “shithole countries” belies any denials. It also reveals a two-faced president who infamously told African presidents during a U.N. meeting last year that Africa had made his “friends rich.” Worse still, some immigrants see in Trump a semblance to the face of tribalist autocracy that they fled from.
It is a tragic irony that the week preceding his very first Martin Luther King Jr. Day as president, his divisive remarks speak of a nightmare world where young Norwegian and Nigerian boys are not equally welcome in America.
If I had a chance to speak to the president, I would inform him that Presidents Bush, Carter and Clinton are among his predecessors who have stayed at the Hilton Abuja. And it’s one of the biggest huts in Nigeria if he ever decides to come to Africa to golf or hunt.
Emmanuel Ogebe is a Nigerian human rights lawyer who practices in the United States.