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Vol 56 No 15

Published 23rd July 2015


Coming to America – the sequel

After three days of meetings with President Obama and his government, President Buhari has repaired the ailing relationship

It was organised rapidly but President Muhammadu Buhari’s first official visit to the United States on 19-22 July made serious progress on security, anti-corruption and energy agreements. Initially, Buhari’s government had wanted US President Barack Obama to include a stop in Abuja on his trip to Kenya and Ethiopia in the week ending 25 July. Nigeria’s veteran ambassador to Washington, Ade Adefuye, had started the negotiations (AC Vol 56 No 14, The clock ticks faster).

US officials argued that the first meeting between the two men would have to reset the relationship between the two countries and work through a clearly defined set of issues. Buhari’s office was told that his delegation – a combination of top civil servants, top military and intelligence officers, and a few state governors – would get access to a far broader range of expertise if they visited Washington. Buhari later gave Obama a personal invitation to visit Nigeria before the end of his presidency in January 2017, Africa Confidential hears.

Both sides made much of the businesslike style of the visit. At 33, Buhari’s delegation was relatively small by Nigerian standards. Nigerian journalists delighted in reporting Buhari’s displeasure on encountering Tony Elumelu and Jim Ovia, two leading bankers seen as close to ex-President Goodluck Jonathan’s government (AC Vol 55 No 19, The fire this century). Buhari’s instructions were to keep all the bilateral meetings as small as possible, Africa Confidential understands, with a clear agenda and outcomes to negotiate. That’s in sharp contrast with the delegation of over 100 that Jonathan took to the USA after his election and which prompted complaints about long rambling encounters.

Washington did not entirely forsake diplomatic pomp: it put up Buhari at Blair House, the official guest house opposite the White House, usually reserved for leaders on state visits. The last time that a Nigerian leader stayed there was in 1961, when the late Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, the first Prime Minister after Independence, visited President Kennedy.

After his meeting with Obama on 20 July, Buhari and aides met Vice-President Joe Biden, cabinet secretaries, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and the US Chamber of Commerce. Of particular importance, Buhari met Attorney General Loretta Lynch and his team worked through their plans to repatriate as much as possible of the estimated US$150 billion of stolen state funds reckoned to have been diverted by corrupt Nigerian officials and placed in US financial institutions. Buhari told Nigerians in Washington that these efforts would target the inflated procurement contract scams and trade mispricing, as well as theft of crude oil, which he reckoned was running at 250,000 barrels a day.

This was Buhari’s fourth foreign trip since he was sworn in on 29 May. The previous ones took him to Niger, Chad, South Africa and Germany, where he first met Obama, at the Group of Seven summit in June. He has been plugging the same message: his priority is fighting corruption and terrorism.

Certainly, Boko Haram is not the all-conquering ground army that at the beginning of the year overran a Nigerian military base on the edge of Lake Chad. Yet its capacity to cause death and terror remains undiminished. An estimated 600 people have been killed since Buhari took office on 29 May. The terrorists are sending girls – some younger than ten – into crowded places and remotely detonating bombs attached to them. In his piece in the Post, Buhari said that the use of soft targets was yet more evidence of ‘the degrading of Boko Haram’s capabilities as a fighting force.’

The sluggish economy also causes concern. The international oil price hovers at around $60 per barrel, half what it was until the middle of last year, when prices began to plunge. Faced with a drastic reduction in their receipts from the federal government, 23 of Nigeria’s 36 states – most of which are almost wholly dependent on that monthly allocation – owe staff months of back-pay. That crisis has forced Buhari to offer the states a bailout package.

Local business barons want Buhari to speed up economic policy-making and to bring in local and foreign experts: development banks, ratings agencies, business executives, potential investors. They want him to counter the idea that he is anti-business and overly nationalistic.

On corruption, the signals has been stronger: it’s clear the Sheriff is in town. Dividend and tax payments from Nigeria’s investment in Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas Company Limited have made their way into the Treasury for the first time ever. During the Jonathan years, the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) and its subsidiaries routinely failed to remit revenue to the federal account. Many in Abuja say that the delays in appointing a cabinet are partly due to the fact that many of the original recommendations for cabinet positions have failed Buhari’s personal integrity test.

At the same time, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) has been busy examining the records of previous office holders. High-profile targets include former governors of Jigawa, Imo and Adamawa states, and Stephen Oronsaye, a former Head of the Federal Civil Service and member of the recently dissolved NNPC Board.

Dasuki’s sinking star

We hear the EFCC may now lay corruption charges against former National Security Advisor Sambo Dasuki, as well as Gordon Obua, Jonathan’s Chief Security Officer, who this week was forced to deny media speculation that he was dead (AC Vol 56 No 4, Democracy delayed). On 17 July, the secret police, the Department of State Services, searched three of Dasuki’s residences (two in Abuja, one in Sokoto). His military guards resisted arrest, leading to a tense stand-off that lasted ten hours. Eventually, the DSS gained access and made away with several guns, luxury bullet-proof sport utility vehicles and $40,000 in cash.

Few are surprised by Dasuki’s fate. It was 30 years ago almost to the day that Dasuki and a group of fellow midranking army officers walked into Dodan Barracks in Lagos and arrested Buhari, then military Head of State, at gunpoint. They were the key players in the coup by Gen. Ibrahim Babangida which overthrew Buhari. The EFCC investigations are expected to swing to other military chiefs as well. Buhari wants the military leadership to account for its use of the annual $6 bn. security budget over the past four years.

Buhari has earned praise for his choice of replacements: a National Security Advisor, Major Gen. (rtd.) Babagana Monguno from Borno State, where Boko Haram emerged more than a decade ago, and a Chief of Naval Staff, Rear Admiral Ibok-Ete Ekwe Ibas from the Niger Delta, where illegal oil bunkering still thrives. Monguno is young and cerebral, with a passionate interest in military history, and he wants urgent improvement in the military’s information technology skills. He is said to favour working closely with India and Britain on retraining programmes.

Considering his military background and his closeness to the President, some had assumed that Lieutenant Gen. Abdulrahman Dambazau, army chief between 2007 and 2010, would replace Dasuki as National Security Advisor (AC Vol 56 No 13, A nation in waiting). In 2014, he was named to a senior position on the APC Presidential Campaign Council and has since played an influential role in coordinating the President’s personal security. Dambazau is now tipped for Defence Minister in September.

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