By Chris Olaoluwa Ogunmodede
President Joe Biden will need to combine prudence with creativity to forge a more productive relationship with Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country and its largest economy. Notwithstanding Nigeria’s relative decline as a power within Africa, U.S.-Nigeria ties remain extensive by regional and continental standards. But they’ve been stymied in recent years by tensions over political corruption, Nigeria’s difficulties in managing the threat from the violent extremist group Boko Haram and the human rights record of Nigerian security forces.
Nigeria’s importance to U.S. policy considerations lies in its large population, geographic size and economic heft, all of which have historically provided some anchor of stability to the West African region. In addition to bilateral fora that include a U.S.-Nigeria Binational Commission and a Commercial and Investment Dialogue, the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development allocated over $450 million in bilateral foreign assistance for Nigeria in 2020. This funding supported programs focused on health, good governance, agricultural development, law enforcement and justice sector cooperation. In addition, the Departments of Defense, Justice, Health and Human Services, and Homeland Security provided further technical and financial support of more than $50 million.
n other words, there is sufficient scope to thaw the relationship, if both sides can move past their disagreements over security and other issues.
In a sense, Biden has a low bar to clear. His predecessor, Donald Trump, never visited Africa, much less Nigeria, although Trump’s first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, did. Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari did meet with Trump during a 2018 visit to Washington, and Trump’s third national security adviser, John Bolton, set out a “Prosper Africa” strategy for engagement with the continent. But there was little substantive follow-up.
While the U.S. continues to be one of Nigeria’s major sources of foreign investment, activity largely remains concentrated in the financial and energy sectors. On democracy, human rights and anti-corruption, the Trump administration mostly looked the other way as all three regressed under Buhari. Nigeria’s armed forces even took to echoing Trump’s language, invoking his words as they shot and killed dozens of protesters in the capital, Abuja, in 2018, and dismissing condemnation of the October 2020 Lekki shootings that killed at least 12 peaceful demonstrators—during the #EndSARS protests against police brutality—as “fake news.”
The one substantive policy achievement Trump could conceivably claim—the Better Utilization of Investments Leading to Development, or BUILD, Act of 2018—was largely driven by Congress. And even there, the legislation is mostly a half-hearted response to China’s “infrastructural diplomacy” in Africa. To its credit, the Trump administration did hold up its pledge to place visa restrictions on individuals identified as having compromised the integrity of Nigeria’s 2019 elections.
Biden will now need to identify ways to improve bilateral ties. He will have his hands full, as difficulties in the relationship predate Trump. Multiple U.S. administrations stretching back decades have neglected to take the partnership seriously, preferring to focus on developing commercial relations while deferring to the United Kingdom, which ruled Nigeria until its independence in 1960, for guidance on political affairs. Having formed in the context of the Cold War, the bilateral relationship was initially shaped by Washington’s efforts to enlist Nigeria into its broader rivalry with the Soviet Union, and Nigeria’s efforts to maintain its—official—nonaligned posture.
Following the Cold War, the relationship’s priorities have shifted toward democratization, trade, private sector development and peacekeeping. For as long as the two countries have maintained diplomatic ties, however, the politics of oil and its predominance in the Nigerian economy have loomed large. This dynamic has often been a source of anxiety, most recently due to booming U.S. shale production, which has resulted in drastic cuts in American imports of Nigerian oil. Given that the U.S. was at one time the destination for nearly half of Nigeria’s oil exports, the impact has been significant.
A strong partnership between the U.S. and Nigeria would be mutually beneficial. But this can only happen with realism and sincerity on both sides.
There are other structural complications Biden must contend with. Nigeria faces multiple threats to its stability, with the Boko Haram insurgency, now in its third decade, primary among them. The conflict, which began in the country’s northeast, has killed tens of thousands, displaced millions, caused a prolonged humanitarian crisis and spread to destabilize the wider Lake Chad Basin region. Elsewhere, there has been a broader deterioration in security conditions involving kidnapping, cattle-rustling, farmer-herder clashes, militancy and vaguely defined “banditry.” Security cooperation between the U.S. and Nigeria has been constrained since the waning years of the administration of Buhari’s predecessor, Goodluck Jonathan, largely due to U.S. concerns over human rights abuses and Nigerian sensitivity to perceived American interference.
The threats to stability, however, are not limited to security conditions. According to Nigeria’s bureau of statistics, 40 percent of Nigerians live below the national poverty line, with the country recently declared by the World Poverty Clock as the “poverty capital of the world.”
More than 13 million school-age children are reported to be out of school. Corruption, infrastructure gaps, a deteriorating education sector and an economy struggling to diversify away from oil production continue to hold back Nigeria’s economic potential. While the country has enjoyed more than two decades of uninterrupted democratic rule, this hasn’t led to wholesale gains in democratic governance. Last year’s #EndSARS protests are an illustration of broadening discontent, especially among Nigerian youth.
The picture is not totally bleak, and within these challenges lie opportunities, especially if Biden pares down his Nigeria agenda to realistic objectives on commercial relationships, governance and democratic stability.
The U.S. should leverage Prosper Africa’s Africa Trade and Investment Program, with a continent-wide budget of $500 million to $750 million, and the new Development Finance Corporation, which boasts an expanded investment cap of $60 billion, to boost private sector activity in Nigeria. Biden’s message likely won’t find a welcoming ear within the decidedly autarkic Buhari administration, but some state governors might be more receptive.
Biden should also make Nigeria a focal point of his global anti-corruption efforts, a plank he emphasized during the 2020 Democratic primaries. Buhari’s anti-graft war has mostly failed, in no small part due to the indiscretions of his own associates. The U.S. Democratic Party’s platform, adopted at last year’s convention, includes anti-kleptocracy initiatives including banning anonymous shell companies, tougher anti-money laundering requirements, disclosure of beneficial ownership, expansion of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, targeted sanctions and visa bans. These are all tools that could prove useful in combating illicit financial flows from Nigeria.
Biden is in a unique position to speak with authority on democracy promotion, having defeated a U.S. president who trampled on norms, weakened institutions and attempted to overturn the results of a credible election.
But he will need to avoid the usual moralizing and lecturing tone of previous U.S. administrations and instead encourage some inward reflection at home, linking efforts to combat democratic erosion in the United States to democratic accountability in Nigeria.
His emphasis on diversity in his administration will add symbolic weight to such an effort, and he has powerful champions for it in Vice President Kamala Harris and U.N. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the first and second Black women in their respective posts.
It is important to temper expectations with a dose of realism—Nigeria is unlikely to be a core Biden priority. A hard reset of the U.S.-Nigeria relationship can be effectively ruled out, and drastic changes from the Trump presidency are unlikely. But it helps to have a more sympathetic leadership at the State Department, USAID, National Security Council, U.S. Export-Import Bank and other key bureaucracies.
For all the battering that America’s image has taken under Trump, a majority of Nigerians still hold favorable views of America, and there remains a desire for the United States—governmental and nonstate actors alike—to move the relationship beyond security cooperation. And despite a deepening partnership with China, Nigerians still prefer America’s “development model” over China’s.
Biden’s decision to remove the visa restrictions that Trump placed on Nigeria as part of his ban on travel from certain Muslim-majority countries is a great first step in restoring goodwill. The U.S.-Nigeria relationship could be more robust, and a strong partnership between the two countries would be mutually beneficial. But this can only happen with realism and sincerity on both sides.
Chris Olaoluwa Ogunmodede is a foreign policy analyst, writer, editor and political risk consultant specializing in comparative authoritarianism and regional integration in the West Africa region. His work centers on the political institutions and foreign policy of members of the Economic Community of West African States.
He has extensive experience working across Africa with national and subnational governments, civil society organizations, diplomatic missions, development and multilateral organizations, and private sector firms, and he is an editor at The Republic, a pan-African global affairs publication. Follow him on Twitter at @Illustrious_Cee.