CFR Master Class Series With John Campbell

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Ralph Bunche Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies, Council on Foreign Relations; Former U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria (2004-2007); @JohnCampbellcfr


Vice President, Deputy Director of Studies, and Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies, Council on Foreign Relations; @shannonkoneil

O'NEIL:  Great. Thanks, Teagan. I'm Shannon O'Neil, Vice President here at the Council on Foreign Relations and welcome to you all and for many of you, welcome back to our CFR Masterclass Series. And as many of you know, this is where we try to go beyond the headlines and look at a particular country, look at a region or look at an issue in depth with one of our senior fellows. So today's topic is Nigeria. And to lead us in this discussion, we have a foremost Nigerian expert John Campbell.

John is here with us as the Ralph Bunche Senior Fellow for Africa. And before joining CFR, he spent three decades in the Foreign Service, some of those years as Ambassador to Nigeria. John has written not one, not two, but count them three books on Nigeria. The latest one which is titled Nigeria and the Nation of State: Rethinking Diplomacy with the Post-Colonial World. This is going to come out in November, on November 16. So you're getting a sneak preview here of what he's going to talk about in these remarks. So I'm going to turn it over to him for the next eight to ten minutes to talk a bit and set the scene and then we will open it up to a broader discussion with all of you members. So please, John, go ahead.

CAMPBELL:  Thank you so much, Shannon. Let me provide a little context for Nigeria and its relations with United States. The first point to make is that Americans traditionally have paid relatively little attention to Africa. We were never a colonial power. The two biggest colonial powers France and Great Britain were allies of ours during World War I, World War II, and the Cold War. Hence a certain hesitancy to get involved with Africa until the wave of independence broke in 1960. Further, Africa contributes only about 2% to world trade, and American investment there is small. While there were a few exceptions, notably Congo and Angola, by and large both Republican and Democratic administrations, essentially walled Africa off from the Cold War competition.

All this having then said, why should we be engaged now and I really have three reasons for you. The first is African demographics, the second is the consequences of climate change, and the third is the Jihadi threat. And then I would, I guess I should also add the emergence of new diseases. Africa's population is exploding. It's already 1.2 billion, compared to 579 million in North America. The UN projects that Africa's population will double to 2.4 billion by 2050. The continent is disproportionately and negatively impacted by climate change. The Sahara is moving south, water levels are rising in the Gulf of Guinea faster than any place else in the world, and in Nigeria now 40% of arable land is now subject to drought. Population pressure is leading to environmental degradation that in turn facilitates the emergence of new diseases. The emergence of HIV and Ebola appear related to the destruction of the rainforests in ways we still don't understand very well. And COVID-19, though is not of African origin, but COVID-19 reminds us that we're in the era of new diseases.

And finally, African flight from poverty, disease, hunger, and violence is increasing. Already Africans are the largest component in the migration across the Mediterranean to Europe, and it's not just Somalis and Libyans. These factors are shaping Nigeria. It's by far the largest country by population in Africa. As recently as a decade ago, it was a major oil producer, and had Africa's most powerful military. It played a leading role in the United Nations and was the founder of the African Union. Cooperation between Washington and Abuja, on mutual issues of concern was very close. President Obasanjo was in fact the first African leader to call on President Bush in the aftermath of 9/11. Now, the army is in shambles. International oil prices, the financial mainstay of the government have declined. Nigeria is even closing some of its overseas diplomatic posts. It was once a major supplier of UN and AU peacekeepers; it now provides only a total of 200. There are anecdotes of soldiers being sent into firefights with Jihadis with only 30 bullets. No surprise soldiers and police are declining to re-enlist.

So what happened? From a 40,000-foot perspective, accelerating population growth, increasing poverty and a brain drain are important. Nigeria's population now is upwards of 200 million. The UN estimates the country's population will approach 450 million by 2050, at which point it will displace the United States as the world's third largest country by population. It goes without saying that it is very hard to foresee how Nigeria will feed 450 million people in 2050. The country has no population policy. Military governments tried to impose one, but gave up concluding that the social and cultural barriers were too high. Nigerian big men continue to father 20 to 30 children or more, because doing so enhances their prestige and exploding population, flooding, drought, and civil unrest promote pervasive poverty.

Nigeria now has in absolute numbers, the most people severely impoverished in the world, more than in India, which has six times Nigeria's population. Public services, I'm sorry, public health services are overstretched. No surprise, the average lifespan of a Nigerian is 50 to 53 years, compared with an American lifespan of 78 to 79 years. In other words, Americans live almost a generation longer than Nigerians. And of course for the Japanese and the Scandinavians, the differences are greater. The number of Nigerians internally displaced by war insurrection is in the millions. Nobody really knows how many. Meanwhile, out migration, especially those with some education, is accelerating. Nigeria is now a major exporter of Christian clergy, and medical doctors are also exported, as a visit to any emergency room of an American big city hospital will show.

But there are more immediate factors to Nigeria's decline. First, and perhaps the most important are security challenges, Jihadi insurrections in the northeast, which we often call Boko Haram, conflict over water and land use in the middle of the country, a low level insurrection in oil producing areas, and there is a nationwide crime wave, particularly involving kidnapping. Poor people are being kidnapped, and if you own a pig, you can pay a ransom. Why? First of all, pervasive popular distrust of government. Nigeria is not really a nation state in the conventional sense of the term. Instead, its government has been captured by an elite cartel that exploits government revenue for itself and is largely indifferent to the population. The population, in turn, to a remarkable extent is indifferent or alienated from a government that provides few services. Polling data shows that national identity is extremely weak. Probably the weakest in Africa. Chinua Achebe, the celebrated Nigerian author has summed it up very nicely, I think, by saying there's nothing wrong with Nigeria, except its leadership. People turn to family, ethnic group, and religion in a time of trial, not to the government.

All right, how did this come about? My answer is basically history. Nigeria was created by the British for their own convenience. They incorporated into a single state 350 ethnic groups never before part of a political entity, and divided between Islam, traditional African religion, and Christianity. British governance was based on a strategy of ethnic and religious divide and conquer. Independence was driven not by the Nigerians, but by the British. Unlike in Algeria or Kenya or the United States, there was no independence movement that crossed ethnic and religious boundaries. Independence was followed by ethnic strife, military coups, anti-Christian, anti-Igbo, pro-pogroms in the north and civil war, the Biafran War, which left some 2 million people dead. Civil war was followed by a generation of weak military governments at just the time oil revenues soared. Oil money and weak institutions led to the virtual institutionalization of corruption.

For the benefit of the elite cartel, ethnic and religious differences festered. However, there was no repeat of the civil war. A transition from military to civilian government in 1998-1999 was more apparent than real little change for most Nigerians. There were forms of democracy with regular elections, a federal system, an ostensibly independent judiciary, but the reality continues to be that what power there is, is centralized in the presidency and the cartel that has run the country since the end of the civil war, whether the government is ostensibly military or civilian. But that power is ebbing to regional politicians and to religious and traditional leaders as the central authority weakens.

But Nigeria remains the giant of Africa. It's the only country with the heft to partner with us on issues of mutual concern. The Nigerian chattering classes talk about the division of Nigeria into a number of countries. Yet the population is ethnically and religiously mixed enough that partition could lead to violence equal to that of India and Pakistan in 1947-1948. Nigeria is truly too big to fail. But the question is, how should our relationship, that is to say the relationship of the United States, reflect these current realities? How should any administration in Washington interact with the Nigerian government, but also with the much broader Nigerian public? That's a challenge for American diplomacy. And I'll stop there.

O'NEIL:  Great job. That's so much to begin with. And let me just turn to Teagan to remind people how to ask the questions and then I'll come back to you with the first question.

STAFF: (Gives queuing instructions)

O'NEIL:  Great. So let me ask, you made a really convincing explanation of you know why the Westphalian state that we think about in Europe or the United States or other parts of the world isn't a reality there. And tell me a little bit about this, is this just, in Nigeria alone in this or talk maybe a bit about since you've been all over Africa in many different, with many different hats, is this something that we see more broadly on the continent or is Nigeria really special in this regard?

CAMPBELL:  Well, we certainly see other examples of it. Congo is a good example, various times Angola has been. I would say that the appropriateness of a sort of Westminster model of what a state is supposed to look like, in many parts of the post-colonial world doesn't fit very well. That being the case, where did the Westphalian model come from? Well, in 1960 when the wave of decolonization washed over the continent, essentially the Westphalian model was the only one on offer. It was the way international relations were organized. It was the way the colonial powers were organized. And I think this is important, it's the way multilateral organizations like the UN or let’s say the World Trade Organization, were also organized.

So in other words, after independence, if you were going to function in the modern world, you had to function along the lines of a modern nation state. And the trouble is that those states were largely created by the colonial powers for their own convenience and without consultation of the people who were actually living there. And so national boundaries ran across ethnic language, religious, a whole host of things. Plenty of Nigerians at the time weren't terribly interested in the establishment of a Nigerian state. What they were interested in was Pan-Africanism. The notion of an Africa that in fact was organized according to different criteria, and one that suited African realities better, hence, the deep interest in the organization for African Unity or the current African Union.

O'NEIL:  Okay, let's go ahead and take the first question.

STAFF:  Our first question will come from Fred Hochberg.

Q:  Hello, Shannon. John, if I can call you that, you know, I chaired the Export-Import Bank for President Obama for eight years. We had a big initiative on increasing exports to Sub-Saharan Africa. I made many trips. And I totally concur with you. I mean, the amount of trade and interest on the part of U.S. companies in Sub-Saharan Africa in particular was slight. And particularly-


Q:  -if you took out companies, if you take out Boeing and GE, it's almost non-existent. (Laughs)

CAMPBELL:  And the oil companies.

Q:  And the oil company, yes, the oil companies. So it was very frustrating. Do you have any, what would it take to get more U.S. companies to see the opportunity here that they seem to be, you know, I found them very parochial and just, you know, a handful of operate there, but many just didn't. Either so it's too hard to deal with or too insurmountable. What do you think it would take to sort of change that paradigm?

CAMPBELL:  It's going to take a long time to change that paradigm. But there are things that African countries can do that would make them, themselves more attractive to foreign investment and trade. Rule of law. It's striking that the country with the strongest tradition of rule of law, which is South Africa, is also the country which you would know better than me, but the last time I looked, had more American companies present than any other African country. Rule of law means that you have to be able to sue. You can sue all right in Nigeria, but it takes years and years and years for the suit to make its way through the judicial system.

Then there's the question of security. American business people are timid about going to too many parts of Africa simply because they're afraid something might happen to them. Well, right now, in Nigeria, by far the largest African country, something indeed might happen to them. Yet, that's not an issue that we outsiders can do very much about. I was familiar with your work under the Obama administration, and very much praise it because your constant travel there and reporting back to a variety of different American audiences, over time, that actually has an impact. The trouble is that it's not instantaneous and we Americans tend to want, if we see a problem we want to solve it right away. But I think culturalizing American business to look at the opportunities in Africa is something that's going to take a long time. But progress can be made pretty much doing much of what you did.

O'NEIL:  John, let me ask since you have this book now, that this idea that Nigeria is not a nation state, not in the way that we think about it.


O'NEIL:  But you know, what you're sort of saying is that to make American companies feel comfortable, you need a rule of law, that the Americans recognize or Europeans recognize, which is one that, you know, has contract law—

CAMPBELL:  That’s right.

O’NEIL:  —that play a role that they play in nation states, right, three branches of government and the courts have independence, and play the role, I mean, is there a way to not have a nation state and still have the rule of law that American companies will expect or is that, is there something more fundamental there?

CAMPBELL:  No I think it is, I think it's at least partially possible. I like to think of Nigeria, for example, as a place where government authority, something that approaches what a modern state looks like, is like islands in a sea of ungoverned spaces. But some of those islands are pretty big. For example, the Lagos-Ibadan-Abuja corridor. Now, when you're there, you're in the modern world. Internet, a worldwide communications, a growing and dynamic civil society. It's a place where, if I could wave a magic wand, I would increase American support for the court system, I will try to improve contacts between Nigerian professional organizations, particularly the Bar Association, and their American opposite numbers. This is a very different world from the area around Maiduguri, which is consumed now with the Jihadi insurrection. It's also very different in the middle of the country, where there's vicious conflict over land and water, which often assumes a religious or ethnic coloration.

O'NEIL:  Okay, the next question.

STAFF:  We will take our next question from Katherine Kelly.

Q:  Hi, I work for the DOD the Africa Center on building rule of law in the African security sector. So what has already come up has been very interesting to me. I follow your blog, Ambassador Campbell, I was struck by the recent piece just at the end of last week by Nkasi Wodu on—


Q:  — banditry and how that feeds into organized crime that we're seeing that harms civilians in northeastern Nigeria. And so essentially, you know, it's arguing the military in particular needs to build community trust, which is another part of grassroots elements of the rule of law, and needs to work maybe with vigilantes and the community leaders to do some early warning on this threat. And I think, I was struck by the argument that the military would do better perhaps to focus on countering the trafficking of small arms and light weapons as part of their endeavors. So I wanted to ask, what measures do you think the Nigerian military could take to sort of reorient itself in this direction around building grassroots rule of law, meaning trust from citizens and in the institution, and also to better coordinate this fight against small arms and light weapons trafficking is suggested?

CAMPBELL:  It's a huge problem. When you're talking about the military, you've got to start with the fact that very often the soldiers aren't paid or they're paid months late. You have to start with the fact that they're under equipped. They are certainly very often corrupt, because that's the only way they can live, same is true with the police. So what you have to do is you have to rebuild the security services essentially from the top down, you have to fund them adequately, you have to hold the leadership accountable, and you have to lay out as a primary function of the security services, the protection of the Nigerian people that historically has not been their primary function. Their primary function historically has been to preserve and protect the regime that was in power, and that started under the British. In other words, to do as you suggest, which I entirely agree, requires wholesale restructuring of the security services and that can really only occur from the top down.

O'NEIL:  Great, let's take the next question.

STAFF:  We will take the next question from Hank Cohen.

Q:  Hello, John, thank you very much for a great presentation. One of the institutions you didn't mention was the press.

CAMPBELL:  I should have.

Q:  And that's very, from my point of view, it looks to be very lively and fairly independent. What would prevent someone like, say, with the name of Mohammed or Mohammed Trump, from using the press to prove to have a campaign, I'm going to drain the swamp and elect me. How does the cartel prevent that from happening?

CAMPBELL:  Well, there are a couple of things. Basically, it varies from country to country. In South Africa, for example, efforts by the Zuma administration, did do just that, failed because the rule of law was strong enough. In Nigeria, most of the major newspapers have connections with various political figures and very often slammed the news in a particular direction. Further, in some African countries, again Nigeria is what I know best, even where there is on the books freedom of the press, if a newspaper publishes something that the local big man doesn't like, then he sends a bunch of thugs over to knock over the press office. So there is a relationship between challenges to the freedom of the press, but also in the inability of the government to provide security.

O'NEIL:  Next question, please.

STAFF:  We will take the next question from Patricia Rosenfield.

Q:  Thank you very much Shannon, and John thank you very much for this very thorough, thorough except for a couple of I'd like to ask you. The grassroots trust question—


Q:  — made me wonder to sort of turning the perspective, because we've talked a lot about top down and American linkages at the higher levels. I've been in the field of philanthropy and currently also work at the Rockefeller Archive Center. But really, historically, and currently, the civil society strength in Nigeria is vibrant, despite all the challenges across the country. There's a lot of linkages across Africans, especially West Africa, but elsewhere and with the United States civil society organizations. So I'm wondering if building on those strong connections and the real talent, the intellectual talent in Nigeria and in the Nigerian diaspora, if there's a more possibly positive perspective, working up rather than working down that you might want to explore, even in the fields of philanthropy, the local philanthropists who created grant making foundations in Nigeria, some of them are making important inroads at the local, very local level. So they're building the trust and the capacity of institutions and participation at the local level. So how do we combine, how do we meld all those competing forces in Nigeria?

CAMPBELL:  I think there are a couple of things that we that we have to say. First of all, I would say civil society is strong in some parts of Nigeria, but not others. It is certainly strong in the Lagos-Ibadan corridor. It is much, much weaker in the middle belt and in the northwest, and in the northeast. With respect to philanthropy, particularly Nigerian philanthropy, I would like to know more than I do. I am always surprised at Nigerian millionaires or billionaires who will make extremely generous gifts to institutions in the UK or in the United States, why aren't they doing it in Nigeria? And when I've asked them, the response has been that they can't be certain that some future government will corral the money that they have given for their own purposes. So I think again, Nigeria as a state, as a country, is probably a unit of analysis that has to be broken down, and that the situation is very different and much more hopeful in some places than in others.

O'NEIL:  Let's take another question.

STAFF:  We will take our next question from Alan McGowan.

Q:  Hi, I teach Environmental Studies at the New School. Thank you very much for this interesting, somewhat grim assessment of the situation. You talked about Pan-Africanism. To what extent is it in the interest of the other African nations— Uganda, South Africa, Kenya—to assist in the establishment of a stable force in Nigeria? And what if anything, can they do?

CAMPBELL:  I don't think there is a practical matter, they can do very much. As you would know, Nigeria and Nigerians are not particularly popular in much of Africa. Their elites are very often seen as overbearing and traditionally as having thrown their weight around. You raised Pan-Africanism. And that's still a lively, lively topic in Nigeria. But I wonder the extent to which it is still possible, at least in the terms that people talked about it in the 1950s and in the 1960s. The elites of African countries, including Nigeria, all now have a stake in the continuation of the current system. Where I think Pan-Africanism still resonates, is below that level. I've had some really interesting conversations, for example, with high-school teachers about the ideals of Pan-Africanism and what could be done to realize them. But what they tend to fall back on is trying to strengthen Pan-African institutions like the African Union.

O'NEIL:  Next question, please.

STAFF:  We will take our next question from Catherine Marshall.

Q:  This is Catherine Marshall from Georgetown University. John you follow very much the conflicts in Nigeria. I'm interested in your assessment of trends, getting worse, getting better? And secondly, it's sort of a laboratory for peacebuilding, are there particular approaches that you think are admirable or ones that you think are less so?

CAMPBELL:  The ones I think that really work tend to be very much at the local level and involve local organizations. Perhaps the best known one here is a pastor and an imam. This is a strategy where when they hear of acceleration of ethnic and religious tension in a particular village, a pastor and an imam will go to that village as a team to attempt to reconcile, well attempt to understand and then to reconcile the differences. This seems to me to work particularly well. I didn't catch your first question.

O'NEIL:  Is it getting better? What are the trends?

CAMPBELL:  Oh the trends! No, the trends are getting worse. They're definitely getting worse and there's I think clear enough reasons why. First there has been the decline, the worldwide decline in oil prices means that the essential, pardon the pun, lubricant of the Nigerian economy is drying up. You add to that the disruption caused by COVID, the ongoing Jihadist activity in the north, where the Jihadists has made it very clear they have no interest in a ceasefire at all. So you put all that together, and I think that helps to account for this worldwide, this nationwide crime wave, which I think we probably don't spend enough time talking about because it is thoroughly demoralizing. People are really, really frightened about what could happen to they or to their loved ones to a much greater extent than was true say two or three years ago.

O'NEIL:  Let's take the next question please.

STAFF:  We will take the next question from Lawrence Bender.  Mr. Bender, please accept the unmute now button.

Q:  Thank you very much. My name is Lawrence Bender, I’m a movie producer in LA and I produced the movie An Inconvenient Truth with Al Gore. So I have a little bit of understanding of climate change in Africa. But my question is this. With such a small percentage of people in the United States having a passport and who wouldn't know Nigeria from the Congo— can I ask this? I'm not being facetious here. How—my question it's a big, it's sort of a broad question, which has probably no answer to— but after this next election, what would you do to advise the president about what we can do to help? And also understanding, what can we do here in America? And most people here don't really know much of anything about Africa. There's going to be so many things in the president's inbox, with most Americans not really caring about Africa one way or the other, even if course, we need to. So I guess that's my question.

CAMPBELL:  Yeah, I think those are very, very important points. My experience has been the same as yours that a large number of people that I come into contact with don't know the difference between Nigeria and the Congo. This is a fact of life. So given this reality, what could a new administration do? If I were asked to advise it, what I would say is it should shift the focus from security questions to soft diplomacy. In other words, there should be a great increase in exchanges in support for civil society.

There should be much less focus on military police, and for that matter, less focus on governments and more focus on religious leaders, journalists, academics, and one of my favorite groups, lawyers. Lawyers tend to believe in the rule of law, and it's easy to start a productive dialogue with them. I don't think it's realistic to talk about a huge increase in U.S. government resources being devoted to Africa for just the reasons you suggested. And there's not the political support for it in the country as a whole. Popular interest in Africa is a matter of fits and starts. And often when there's a peak, it has to do with some kind of humanitarian crisis or tragedy, things like the Lost Boys of Sudan, for example, which when that is either resolved or goes away, so do such popular interest.

O'NEIL:  I think we have time for one more question. So go ahead Teagan.

STAFF:  We will take our last question from Constance Freeman.

Q:  John, I thoroughly enjoyed hearing your discourse on Nigeria today. And I'm wondering what your thoughts are about the current state of coronavirus in Nigeria. But even more important, what the projections are into the future and what this will mean for Nigeria's economy and its progress?

CAMPBELL:  Thank you Connie for that because I think it's an immensely important question. My first point would be, I think nobody really knows how extensive coronavirus in Nigeria is. Statistics often tend to be aspirational rather than definitive. You end up falling back on anecdotal evidence such as reports from grave diggers in Kano that the number of graves they have been digging is three or four times what is normal.

But then let's go, let's take the issue that you've raised one step further. What are the steps that the Nigerian government has taken to try to contain the virus? Well, they're very largely the same steps that have been taken in the developed world: mask wearing, handwashing, maintaining social distance. But how do you do that when almost half of the population of the country is now packed into urban slums? How do you do that when running water is very hard to find? Nigerians want any kind of water that they can get. In a country in which 85% of the economy— such as an estimate— is informal, that is to say, is dependent on face to face contact, how do you maintain social distance?

In other words, to what extent is this response yet another example of adopting processes that worked well enough in the developed world but don't fit in Nigeria very well? But because they have been followed, and because a chunk of the economy was shut down, the economic consequences are really serious. So how is all this going to be resolved? Well, in other cases of epidemics, I won't say pandemics but epidemics, they burn themselves out. Because so much of the economy is informal, it can recover pretty quickly. The human tragedy is immense, but the long term consequences might be less than say they could be in the United States.

O'NEIL:  Well John, we have reached the end of our time with a lot more questions. So I think that's always a sign of a good conversation. And for that, I know everyone's joining me in thanking you. That was impressive deep dive, which we all very much appreciate.

CAMPBELL:  Thank you so much for having me.

O'NEIL:  It was great. So next week, please come back. We'll have Sebastian Mallaby talking to us about venture capital, its history, its present, and I hope he's going to pull out his crystal ball and tell us about its future. Since he's based in London. It's going to be one hour earlier, a little bit more than an hour early. We're going to do it at 2pm. So we'll see you then and most importantly, right now, please, everyone, join me and thank you, John. We really appreciate it.

CAMPBELL:  Thank you.

O'NEIL:  Take care.

CAMPBELL:  Bye bye.


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