Within two days of being sworn in as the U.S. ambassador to Nigeria in Washington, D.C., I arrived in Abuja, Nigeria's capital, on May 20, 2004. Five weeks later, I presented my credentials as U.S. ambassador "Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary" to Nigeria's president Olusegun Obasanjo at Aso Villa, the presidential executive compound. Until that ceremony, like any other newly arrived ambassador in Nigeria, I was a diplomatic nonperson: no public appearances or media, and no official calls. As the chief of protocol told me, "Your Excellency, you must be very, very quiet."
For elite Nigerians, ceremony and protocol are valued and enjoyed. Under diplomatic practice codified in seventeenth-century Europe, an ambassador "stands in" for the chief of state and outranks all others of his nationality in the host country, except when his own chief of state visits. Nigerians are punctilious about observing this protocol and often treat ambassadors with exaggerated courtesy. So, they saw an ambassadorial credentials presentation as the appropriate occasion for an affirmation of Nigeria's international importance.
The practice in Nigeria is that groups of three to five ambassadors on the same day sequentially present to the president their own chief of state's letters of credence and recall, their "credentials." The new Russian ambassador was already waiting when I arrived in Nigeria, and when our Dutch colleague came, the ministry of foreign affairs and the presidency set an early date for the three of us.
On the big day, the ministry collected me in a black Mercedes with a friendly protocol officer charged with the care of foreign diplomats. A separate Mercedes collected my accompanying party. The vehicles arrived at our chancery forty-five minutes late. I had already learned that, while diplomats must always be on time, Nigerian official events almost never were during the Obasanjo presidency.
The three ambassadorial parties joined up at the Officers' Mess adjacent to Aso Villa. We waited together in a large room in need of a paint job. A huge television screen flashed African proverbs. The lighting was fluorescent and out-of-date wall calendars were the principal decoration. The furniture was reminiscent of Chairman Mao photo ops. "Minerals" (soft drinks) were set out on a table, accompanied by a bottle opener but no ice. A soon-to-be ambassadorial colleague observed that the scene "was not what he had expected." That was before his trip to the unisex facility, accessed through a room with an unmade bed and an empty brandy bottle. (He urged the rest of us to take a look, which we did.)
After an hour or so of waiting together, each ambassador and his party in turn were driven to Aso Villa for individual credentials presentations. The contrast to the Officers' Mess was complete. The crisp uniforms and salutes, the national anthem played beautifully by a military band, presentation of arms, and inspection of troops would have done proud the Fort Myer Headquarters of the Military District of Washington. Leather and brass had a high shine. Nothing needed painting or a scrub. I found the same dignity and military precision inside the hall of the Villa, where the actual presentation took place. The president and the foreign minister were magnificent in full Yoruba regalia, while we diplomats looked like pin-striped sparrows. Following the ceremony so reflective of the military essence of this ostensibly civilian government, each newly accredited ambassador had a private conversation with the president. It was all over by noon, and then I went to work in public. That afternoon I gave my first press conference.
I soon found that the mood had changed since I had first served in Lagos, then the capital of Nigeria, from February 1988 to July 1990 as political counselor to Ambassador Princeton Lyman, and subsequently to Ambassador Lannon Walker. Then, optimism was in the air among the embassy's usual contacts, despite the overthrow of Nigeria's Second Republic in 1983 by the military, failing oil prices, and high inflation. Nigerians and the diplomatic community failed to see that military governance was creating an increasingly ubiquitous culture of corruption.
Military chief of state Ibrahim Babangida appeared to adhere to an active strategy of restoring civilian, democratic government, and a concomitant economic reform initiative, the Structural Adjustment Program (SAP). Babangida's SAP owed much to reform programs advocated by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Nevertheless, he could assert that his SAP was "indigenous" and not "imposed" by outsiders. Babangida's SAP appeared to accomplish what a conventional structural adjust program of an international financial institution would do. For example, it largely eliminated the black market in Nigeria's currency. Today, Babangida is blamed by Nigerians for the destruction of the country's middle class by his austerity measures during a period of relatively low oil prices. Then, however, among Nigeria's friends in the diplomatic community, the disquiet was that another military coup might oust Babangida and set back both the political and economic reform programs.
Optimism about Babangida, however, proved to be a mirage. Nobody foresaw that the military chief of state would annul the democratic elections of 1993, regarded as the most free and fair in Nigeria's history. Babangida thereby paved the way for the dictatorship of General Sani Abacha that made Nigeria an international pariah, in large part because of well-publicized human rights abuses. In hindsight, observers from Nigerian civil society and the diplomatic community overestimated Babangida's commitment, and that of the military, to democracy. The reality proved to be that the military and the security services intended to remain in charge.
By the time I returned to Nigeria as ambassador in 2004, fourteen years after I had left, the country had been portraying itself as a civilian democracy for five years. The last military dictator of Nigeria, General Sani Abacha, died in 1998, leading to the transition to an ostensibly civilian government under Olusegun Obasanjo in 1999. Oil prices were high, and they kept going up throughout my time there. Judicial murder of enemies of the regime that so marred Nigeria's international reputation under Abacha had ended. Politically motivated jailings had also declined. Yet, the national mood was pessimistic, as reflected by those with whom diplomats talk. The population looked visibly poorer than I remembered. Personal security was probably worse. In 1998–1999, Nigerians and foreign friends believed that a democratic, civilian government would transform the country. By 2004, the new political dispensation had apparently changed less than had been hoped for in the heady days after Abacha's suspicious death. In fact, there was significant continuity of personnel between the Abacha regime through Obasanjo's Fourth Republic (1999–2007) and into the subsequent Yar'Adua administration. While Obasanjo's government was civilian and democratic in outward appearance and the military had "returned to the barracks," the president surrounded himself with retired military officers. The "command" political culture at Aso Villa resembled a military installation, as illustrated by our ambassadorial credentials presentation ceremony.
Obasanjo's style and quality of governance appeared to be little different from the military norm since the end of Nigeria's devastating 1967–1970 civil war. Widespread, popular disillusionment with the federal government would subsequently manifest itself in the low voter turnout for the elections of April 2007, probably the least credible in Nigeria's history, as well as the indifference to the electoral outcome. The contrast between Nigerian apathy and Kenyan popular protests over electoral fraud only eight months later was noteworthy.
The presidential elections of 1999 and 2003 that put Obasanjo in power and kept him there had been flawed. On the heels of those of 2003, the president (or his close associates) started work to repeal constitutionally mandated term limits so he could retain the presidency through rigged elections for another term, to start in 2007. The prospect was that he would remain in office indefinitely, the "Robert Mugabe" option, as it was sometimes called. If a regime is democratic if it holds credible elections in which the opposition has some chance of winning or taking office, Obasanjo's Nigeria was far from democratic, and the possibility of change anytime soon appeared remote.
Challenges to Governance
Governance, let alone democracy, faces grievous, structural challenges in Nigeria. The country is home to about 250 different ethnic groups, each with its own language. The three largest, the Hausa-Fulani, the Yoruba, and the Igbo, together are less than two-thirds of all Nigerians. Estimated at 150 million, the population is growing and urbanizing rapidly, though the majority still live in the countryside. (Greater Lagos, with a population estimated by former state governor Bola Tinubu and numerous demographers at seventeen million, is already one of the largest cities in the world.) In terms of usual measurements of income, Nigerians are very poor, with wealth from oil concentrated among a miniscule number of ogas or "big men." The country is bifurcated between Christianity and Islam (similar to other African states bordering the Sahel such as Sudan, Côte d'Ivoire, and Ghana), with the South predominately the former; the North, the latter. Both religions are militant, and the explosive expansion of Christianity in the North contributes to destabilizing the Islamic political and social status quo.
Nigeria is run by competing and cooperating elites supported by their patron-client networks, ethnic interests, big business, and the military. With the withdrawal of the military from active governance, none is strong enough to impose a specific direction in governance. Consequences include a chronic inability of the political system to address Nigeria's problems and the progressive alienation of nonelite Nigerians. With honorable exceptions, Nigerian elite behavior is too often self-interested, lacks a national focus, looks almost solely for short-term advantage and is distorted by competition for oil wealth. Whether military or civilian in form, the government reflects the paralysis of the country's fragmented elites.
Nevertheless, control of the federal government means access to oil riches by the political victors and their clients. This encourages the elites to hang together. Many Hausa-Fulani told me that the North's escalating poverty has resulted from its declining access to oil because of its loss of the presidency to Olusegun Obasanjo, a Southern Christian Yoruba, following the death of the Northern Muslim Kanuri, Sani Abacha. Their solution to Northern poverty was to recapture the federal government. This they did in the rigged elections of 2007 and the presidency of Umaru Yar'Adua. But, they lost it again when Yar'Adua died in May 2010 and the vice president, Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian Ijaw from Southern Nigeria, became president.
Northern elites did play an important role in selecting Obasanjo to be the chief of state following Abacha's death. Their understanding had been that the presidency would revert to the North following one term. That did not happen in 2003, when Obasanjo, with some Northern support, manipulated the ruling political party to remain in office for a second term. By the time of my arrival as ambassador more than a year later, much of the Northern establishment felt politically marginalized and aggrieved by Obasanjo. Many feared that he intended to remain president for the rest of his life. That concern was a theme of Nigerian politics throughout my ambassadorial assignment.
In the oil-rich Niger Delta, there is also a deep sense of grievance against the Nigerian establishment in general, and President Obasanjo in particular. The population has benefited little from the billions of dollars produced by oil and resents the federal government's insensitivity to its traditional patterns of local governance. And politicians are not above facilitating and exploiting Delta violence for their own, narrow interests.
Popular alienation and a fragmented establishment has contributed to Nigeria becoming one of the most religious and, at the same time, one of the most violent countries in the world. In 2010, the International Society for Civil Liberties and the Rule of Law estimated that the number of those killed since 1999 "outside the law in Nigeria might have increased to 34,000." That total includes 160 political assassinations and over 13,500 killings resulting from ethno-religious and intercommunal violence. Earlier, Human Rights Watch, a respected nongovernmental organization (NGO), had estimated that at least eleven thousand deaths between 1999 and 2006 in Nigeria could be attributed to religious and ethnic strife. Officials usually understate such mortality statistics. One NGO-affiliated observer, referring to the sectarian conflict near Jos in 2010, told me to multiply the official statistics by at least five to approximate the true number of victims.
During the Obasanjo years, as it is today, violence was often sparked by competition for scarce resources such as water and land, or was the result of a struggle between competing elites. It was exacerbated by weak government that too often lacked the means or the will to control its spread. While most of the violence has appeared to be indigenous, Nigerian security operatives have argued in open court that there were al-Qaeda affiliates in the North. Some police told me that they were fearful that popular support would grow for radical Islamic groups opposed to the present system and possibly linked to al-Qaeda. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, arrested in Detroit for a failed terrorist attack on Christmas Day in 2009, is representative of what some in the security services feared, though he apparently had had no contact with al-Qaeda when he was in Nigeria.
Officially sanctioned violence is shocking in its magnitude and reflects the weakness of government institutions. For example, then–acting inspector general of police Mike Okiro boasted to the press in mid-November 2007 that, during the three months he had been in office, 785 "suspected armed robbers" had been killed by the police, without any judicial procedure. He also said that, during the same period, an additional 1,600 suspected armed robbers had been arrested and charged. It is widely believed that the police kill thousands each year, a reason they are so hated. Okiro's boast lends credibility to that belief.
Despite growing alienation between the Nigerian people and their increasingly impotent government, by 2004 Nigeria had become crucial to the longterm well-being of the United States. It supplied almost 11 percent of U.S. imported oil, and its natural reserves are huge. Some American policy makers have become intrigued with the possibility that Nigeria and the Gulf of Guinea could help reduce significantly U.S. dependence on Middle Eastern oil. Consecutive American administrations have seen Abuja as the indispensable U.S. diplomatic and security partner in Africa on issues of mutual concern, including opposition to military coups, the ending of the civil wars, and the restoration of peace and stability in conflicted regions. Nigeria has long been one of the largest contributors of troops to United Nations peacekeeping missions around the world. The American expectation has continued, at least until recently, to be what it had been for more than a decade: that Nigeria would carry the water on African regional issues where the United States could not, or would not. Hence, Obasanjo's friendship and cooperation were seen as valuable, even indispensable.
The bilateral relationship has become much more than oil, peacekeepers, and regional diplomacy. Beginning even before Nigeria's independence in 1960, American citizens interested in Africa had started to organize nongovernmental organizations. The Africa-America Institute, for example, was founded in 1953. Its mission has been African capacity building through advanced academic education and professional training. The African Studies Association was organized in 1957 to promote scholarly and professional interest in Africa. Over the next half-century, numerous other nonprofit organizations with a focus on Africa emerged. In addition, foundations with a worldwide reach, such as the MacArthur Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation, became active in Africa. While American organizations advocating for Africa have remained smaller than many of those focused on other parts of the world, they have come to constitute an important thread in the texture of America's relationship with Africa. They are particularly significant with respect to Nigeria because many of them focused on it their aspirations for the entire continent.
Nigeria and the United States have come to influence each other in myriad ways. I found the United States to be the standard against which many Nigerians judge their own country, and find it wanting. They associate the United States with "modernity," democracy, and respect for human rights. Nigerians regularly said to me that it is the "least racist" of the Western democracies and that "at least one million" of them had lived in the United States and returned home. During their American sojourns, some acquired American spouses, linking extended families in the two countries. Popular culture from New York and Los Angeles is ubiquitous in Lagos. Nigeria's legions of unemployed university graduates dream of a U.S. visa.
That Nigeria also influences American culture is often only weakly acknowledged in the United States. Yet, Fela Ransome-Kuti's "Afro-beat" and other musical styles of Nigerian origin have influenced American pop. Nigerians have also played successfully in the National Basketball Association and the National Football League, an important source of Nigerian national pride. Christianity also provides strong, sometimes controversial, linkages. The retired Anglican Primate of Nigeria, Archbishop Peter Akinola, is a bitter critic of the Episcopal Church in the United States over gay and lesbian issues and has encouraged schism within that denomination, thereby sharpening the differences between American liberal and conservative approaches to Christianity.
Over the next decade the Nigerian factor in American life is likely to increase. Anecdotally, the Nigerian diaspora in the United States may already number two million. It has been a successful immigrant community characterized by entrepreneurship, strong family ties, and an emphasis on education. Socially, it is generally conservative and evangelical or even Pentecostal in outlook. It is just starting to flex its muscles in local American politics.
Nigeria has potential to become an important U.S. trading and investment partner beyond oil and gas. Nigeria is currently the locus of the greatest U.S. investment in Africa. But it is almost solely in the petroleum industry. Yet, at present the level of nonoil and oil-related bilateral trade is low. The poverty of most of Nigeria's people has limited their ability to buy American-produced consumer goods, and the Nigerian government's trade and investment policies, often arbitrary and inconsistent, have discouraged American business. Nigerian enterprises have been slow to take advantage of U.S. programs, such as the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), designed to promote exports to America. The causes are complex but include the Nigerian elite's preoccupation with oil and related enterprises to the exclusion of other economic possibilities. With the exception of the oil sector, the political, security, social, and cultural bilateral relationship is more developed than the economic.
Dense international linkages also mean that failing domestic institutions can have a global impact. Diseases that incubate in Nigeria, where the public health system has all but collapsed, could spread worldwide remarkably quickly. The 2003 state-government suspension of the World Health Organization (WHO)–sponsored polio vaccination campaign in the North led to the disease's reinfection from Nigerian sources of nineteen other countries as far away as Indonesia. Avian influenza was ubiquitous, and the first human deaths from the disease in Africa were in Nigeria, as well as the probable first case on the continent of its human-to-human transmission. If the virus mutates so that it spreads readily from human to human in Lagos, its new form could likely be present in New York City within a week.
Obasanjo dominates this book as he has his country. Western friends of Africa thought they knew Obasanjo well from his first period as military chief of state from 1976 to 1979. He claimed as his legacy that he was the first African military ruler to voluntarily relinquish power to a civilian government. While out of office, and before he was jailed in 1995 by Abacha, he traveled extensively on behalf of the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group in search of a strategy for a democratic transition in South Africa. He was also a leader of the African Leadership Forum, promoting democracy, good governance, and anticorruption. His imprisonment by Abacha followed by plots to have him murdered lent him an aura of potential martyrdom for democracy. Obasanjo has publicly stated that he survived only through God's grace and the publicizing of his plight by former president Jimmy Carter.
As president of Nigeria, Obasanjo publicly valued his relationship with President George W. Bush. In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, he was the first head of a major African state to come to Washington to show his support. Hence, it is no surprise that when Obasanjo was chairperson of the African Union, from 2004 to 2006, the Bush administration turned to him on a range of African issues. Some, abroad if not at home, believed he had the potential to fill Nelson Mandela's shoes as Africa's preeminent statesman.
Yet, Obasanjo's administration did little to address the threats to integrity of the Nigerian state: the North's alienation from his government, the Delta's anger over the distribution of oil revenue, and the pervasive poverty of most Nigerians. Instead, his surrogates sought to amend the constitution through bribery and intimidation so he could remain in office for at least another presidential term. He participated in and supervised three corrupt elections, each worse than the last, in 1999, 2003, and 2007. While he created anticorruption agencies, he used them against his own political enemies. Nevertheless, their establishment bodes well for the future if they evolve into mainstays for the apolitical enforcement of the law.
When Obasanjo's attempt to retain presidential power by running for a third term failed, he succeeded in making his handpicked choices, Yar'Adua and Jonathan, the president and the vice president in 2007. Yar'Adua, the governor of the small state of Katsina dominated by a single ethnic group, the Hausa-Fulani, and with only a very small Christian minority, was shy, retiring, and in poor health. He had assiduously avoided the limelight. Nobody would have predicted that someday he would be president of Nigeria. Obasanjo could have had every expectation that he would remain in power, if behind the throne rather than on it. While Obasanjo was to be disappointed by Yar'Adua's growing independence the longer the latter held presidential office, for more than a year after Yar'Adua's inauguration the former president continued to exercise influence over the Nigerian government from his position as chairman "for life" of the ruling party's Board of Trustees. From his party perch, Obasanjo has successfully deflected calls by civil society for his indictment for personal corruption. In 2010, when Yar'Adua was dying, Obasanjo supported the National Assembly's extraconstitutional designation of Jonathan as acting president.
It has been unwise of friends of Nigeria to downplay internal developments in this perplexing country. Too often, American policy makers have alternated between ignoring or deprecating the "Giant of Africa" on the one hand and exaggerating its alleged achievements on the other. Then, too often, they turn their attention to Darfur or Somalia or whatever humanitarian crisis is being featured on network television that day.
More generally, the assets the international community devoted to understanding Nigeria have been limited. Consecutive American administrations have under-resourced the American embassy in Abuja and the consulate general in Lagos for a generation. Because of realistic security concerns, the "world's last remaining superpower" has no diplomatic presence north of Abuja, despite the fact that Kano and Maiduguri are centers of important changes in Nigerian Islam, with possible implications for West Africa as a whole. Diplomatic travel in the Delta continues to be curtailed because of an insurrection and expatriate kidnappings.
Yet, Nigeria continued to be the African country of greatest importance to the United States. Accordingly, during my thirty-eight-month tenure as ambassador, my goals were to strengthen democracy and the rule of law, reach out to Muslims and to civil society, encourage a resolution of the disputes in the Delta, and facilitate cooperation between the United States and Nigeria on regional issues and the global war on terrorism. The embassy managed an assistance program focused on health, education, democratization, and women that cost almost half a billion dollars per year by 2007. Though it was one of the largest U.S. assistance programs in sub-Saharan Africa, on a per capita basis it was the smallest, such is the size of Nigeria's population in comparison with other African nations.
Much of the international community has overestimated its ability to influence through gentle suasion the pace of democratization and social and economic development in Africa. In addition, there are many competing priorities for American attention, and Nigeria has not received the sustained attention it deserves from senior policy makers. The bloodshed in southern Sudan, Darfur, and Somalia and the fate of Liberian ex-dictator Charles Taylor held their attention, not the shortcomings of elections preparations in Nigeria. As with former military chief of state Babangida, there was too much U.S. wishful thinking about the degree of Nigeria's political development and Obasanjo's personal commitment to fighting corruption and conducting free and fair elections. Worse, perhaps, American observers convinced themselves that Obasanjo and the Nigerian oligarchs wanted change and only needed U.S. expertise to bring it about, another echo of the U.S. view of Babangida in the 1980s. Too often, foreign friends of Nigeria preferred cheerleading to analysis. Instead of a healthy skepticism, there was a predisposition to take self-serving Nigerian official statements at face value, despite consistent embassy reporting to the contrary. Too many American observers saw Obasanjo as a beacon of hope on the bleak African landscape, rather than as the military politician he proved to be. So, the United States provided substantial technical assistance for the country's 1999, 2003, and 2007 elections. But I am aware of no Bush administration high-level conversation with Obasanjo insisting that those elections must be credible, free, and fair.
Dancing on the Brink
In the meantime, Nigerians have mastered the art of dancing on the precipice without falling over. Many of the elite are still convinced that Nigeria is "too big to fail." Such a view encourages the elites' unwillingness to address the issues that so trouble the country and may even promote their irresponsible behavior, such as the manipulation of ethnic or religious conflict for their own narrow political ends, over which they soon lose control. Successfully addressing issues potentially fatal to the state will require a political process that has the confidence of the Nigerian people. Since the restoration of nominally civilian government in 1999, that opportunity thus far has been lost.
Yar'Adua's foreign minister, Ojo Maduekwe, in a 2005 public lecture given while he was secretary of the ruling party, spoke of the possibility that Nigeria could become a failed state. Such a catastrophe would likely involve anarchy or bloody warlord competition leading to refugee flows that could destabilize the other much smaller states in West Africa. Democracy and the rule of law, fragile in Africa at best, would be set back profoundly, if only by the negative example Nigerian failure would provide other multiethnic, religiously divided states wrestling with poverty and underdevelopment. The international community would face a much greater humanitarian disaster than in Darfur or Somalia, if for no other reason than Nigeria's population is exponentially larger.
Nigeria's importance requires greater U.S. engagement, not so much with the Abuja government as with civil society. It is in the long-term interest of the United States to do more to directly support those Nigerians and their institutions that are working to establish a democratic polity and the rule of law. In the short term, this approach risks cooler relations with official Abuja. But closer U.S. identification with those working for democracy and the rule of law will, in the long run, strengthen the foundations of the U.S.-Nigeria bilateral relationship. Many Nigerians understood Obama's declining to visit Nigeria during his 2009 presidential visit to Africa as a sign that the United States was distancing itself from the Nigerian government. They took Obama's flyover as a gesture of support for those working for democracy and the rule of law. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's speeches to Nigerian civil society during her subsequent visit were also taken as highly supportive of democracy and the rule of law. On the other hand, many Nigerians are puzzled by the Obama administration's embrace of Jonathan, himself the beneficiary of rigged elections as vice president and designated acting president by the National Assembly through an extralegal process. The administration's stance appeared to contradict its principled support for democracy and the rule of law.
It is Nigerians who must build democracy and the rule of law in their own country. Their foreign friends can help only on the margin. It is axiomatic that credible elections and adherence to the rule of law would change for the better the relationship between Nigerians and their government and be the best guarantee against state failure. At present, Nigeria ranks perilously high ("bad") on the Fund for Peace's Failed State Index, and near the bottom (also "bad") of the United Nations Development Programme's Human Development Index. Whether Nigeria will survive as a democratizing state that can lift its people out of poverty or join the list of "failed" states must be of direct, immediate concern to the international community. Yet, it is the Nigerians who must move the dance back from the brink and fulfill the country's image of itself at independence as a huge multiethnic nation governed according to democracy and the rule of law.
Copyright © 2011 by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. All rights reserved.