At the invitation of the Obama administration, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari is making an official visit to Washington, D.C. from July 20 to July 24. The visit is an opportunity to reset a bilateral relationship that had chilled under former President Goodluck Jonathan, in part because of the Nigerian security service’s human rights violations in the fight against the Islamist insurgent group Boko Haram, and in part because of vocal criticism from the Jonathan administration that the United States was not doing enough to help in the struggle against Boko Haram. Now, an indication of the importance of the visit to the Obama administration is that President Buhari will be staying at Blair House, the official guest house, even though this is not a state visit, which are usually arranged long in advance and more ceremonial than substantive.
Nigeria matters to the United States. It is by far the largest country in Africa by population, has the continent’s largest economy, and has been an important strategic partner for the United States. However, Nigeria also faces difficult challenges. Its Boko Haram insurgency destabilizes it and its neighbors. Domestic corruption is rampant. In the March elections, Buhari campaigned on a platform of restoring Nigerian security and fighting corruption, but now the Nigerian electorate’s expectations about what he can accomplish in the short term appear unrealistically high.
In the Obama administration, Buhari has special credibility because he was elected president in Nigeria’s freest elections since the 1999 restoration of civilian government. The Obama administration has hailed them as a major step forward for Nigerian and African democracy. Buhari is also the first opposition candidate to be elected president in Nigeria’s history. According to official statements, President Buhari will meet separately with President Obama, Vice President Biden, the secretaries of state, treasury, and commerce, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, the deputy secretary of defense, and the U.S. trade representative. As for Congress, President Buhari will meet with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Congressional Black Caucus. President Buhari will also make formal speeches at the Corporate Council for Africa and at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. This is an exceptional turnout for Washington, D.C. in July and with Congress in recess.
In keeping with his emphasis on simplicity, President Buhari’s delegation will be very small. He will be accompanied by five governors, including that of Borno state, which is where Boko Haram has been most active. Buhari has thus far made no cabinet appointments. Accordingly, he is traveling with the permanent secretaries (senior civil servants that run departments in the absence of cabinet ministers) of defense, foreign affairs, industry, and trade and investment.
According to official Nigerian spokesmen, President Buhari’s agenda is to advance bilateral cooperation in combating Boko Haram, to encourage growth in U.S. trade and investment in Nigeria, and to garner support for his signature “war on corruption.” Mirroring that agenda, the White House press secretary said, “President Obama looks forward to discussing with President Buhari our many shared priorities including U.S.-Nigeria cooperation to advance a holistic, regional approach to combating Boko Haram, as well as Nigeria’s efforts to advance important economic and political reforms that will help unlock its full potential as a regional and global leader.”
The Buhari visit provides the opportunity to advance the bilateral relationship. However, it is unlikely to be the occasion of dramatic announcements or initiatives.
The day after President Buhari departs Washington, President Obama leaves for Ethiopia and Kenya. Obama has been criticized for visiting two countries that, while U.S. allies on security issues, have questionable human rights and elections records. Some African watchers have questioned President Obama’s omission of Nigeria on his trip, especially following the successful March elections. The Buhari visit to Washington may address those concerns.