The inauguration of Mr. Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States of America on 20th January, 2021 and the policy changes so far enacted by the new President represent a forceful repudiation of President Donald Trump and his belligerent, isolationist ‘America first’ policy. As President, Trump pursued divisive domestic policy, pandering and stoking his base of largely white nationalists and evangelical Christians. In international affairs, Trump antagonized friends and allies and gravely undermined the pivotal transatlantic alliance that has been the foundation of US security and foreign policy since the end of World War II.
In the Trump era, Africa fared even worse. Some say that in the four long years of his presidency, Africa never featured on his policy radar, except in derogatory stereotyping. Early in his presidency, Trump roundly rejected the idea of state-building, a euphemism for long standing US policy of providing development assistance to Third World countries. Trump’s rejection of a policy that has been one of the enduring features of US partnership with African countries unsurprisingly set the stage for what has turned out to be a particularly low point in US-Nigeria relations in decades.
Against this backdrop, Nigerian public officials and foreign affairs analysts have been quick to celebrate the Biden’s presidency as offering an opportunity to revive a broken relationship that had long been touted in US policy circles as one of the most consequential in Africa. It is not only Nigerians that are optimistic about the Biden presidency. Indeed, World leaders have welcomed Biden with open arms, a recognition that regular order has finally returned to the White House after four turbulent years of norm-breaking by Trump.
So far, Biden has not disappointed. In his inaugural address, the new US President pledged a restoration of America’s global leadership, beginning with repairing frayed relations with allies. He declared, “here’s my message to those beyond our (America’s) borders. We will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again,” adding “we will be a strong and trusted partner for peace, progress, and security.” In an uncharacteristic rejection of the hubris that has long been the Achilles heel of US foreign policy, Biden assured the world that “he US will lead, not merely by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.”
In one of his first acts as President, Biden promptly took the US back into the Paris Climate agreement and reversed US withdrawal from the World Health Organization (WHO). He also scrapped Trump’s controversial travel ban on citizens from seven Muslim and African countries and vowed to place racial equality at the heart of his administration’s policy making. These are breathtaking policy changes unimaginable only a few weeks back.
It is, of course, not insignificant to mention that Biden has already appointed three Nigeria-Americans to senior positions in his administration, the most notable being Adewale Adeyemo,who would be Deputy Secretary of the Treasury upon confirmation by the US Senate. The Biden-Nigeria love affair was accentuated in a trending video that plays out a telephone conversation between Biden and a Chicago-based Nigerian supporter and his family, in which Biden is heard saying nice things about his interlocutor and his country, and making the point that he knows Nigeria very well. These are reassuring steps and images that could provide entry points for Nigeria’s engagement with the Biden administration.
As a long serving US Senator and Vice President, Biden is familiar with Nigeria and the country’s security, governance and economic challenges. The same is true of several of his top nominees, including Antony Blinken, the Secretary of State, Susan Rice, Domestic Policy Adviser, and Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Ambassador to the United Nations, all of whom, like Biden himself, are alumni of the Obama administration.
The Biden administration’s familiarity with Nigeria, unlike the insular Trump administration, must not be left to lie waste. The smart thing for the Buhari administration will be to leverage this goodwill to extract the best possible outcomes for Nigeria. Towards this objective, no issue is more urgent than the revival of the stalled Nigeria-United States Bi-national Commission (BNC).
At a 2012 BNC meeting at Washington DC, Hilary Clinton who, as US Secretary of State, helped designed the BNC,described it as “our (US) flagship agreement for bilateral cooperation on the entire African continent.” As the overarching framework for US-Nigeria relations, the BNC was designed to provide a regular platform for senior officials of both countries to engage on issues identified by both governments as critical in the relationship. In the decade since this cooperation mechanism was formalized, shared priorities have been security cooperation, economic development, and governance and democracy. Significantly, these issues align with the security, job creation, and anti-corruption priorities of the Buhari administration.
The revamping of the BNC, after a pause under the Trump administration, not only will signal that bilateral relations are back on track, but earn the Buhari administration political mileage in Washington DC. Reviving the BNC should not prove difficult, given that Biden and key members of his national security and foreign policy team were the architects and drivers of the BNC process during the Obama years. Notably, Antony Blinken, as Deputy Secretary of State at the Obama State department, co-chaired with Foreign Minister, Geoffrey Onyeama, the 2016 BNC held in Washington DC.
Under the Obama administration, it was fashionable for senior US government officials to play up the US-Nigeria partnership as the most important in Africa. The common refrain was that Nigeria is too important to fail, implying a policy imperative on the part of the US government to take extraordinary measures to support Nigeria in the critical areas of security cooperation, economic development, and governance. Given that these challenges are not less now than they were way back in 2010 when the BNC agreement was signed, the Nigerian government can do no worse than challenge the Biden administration to walk its talk.
To be sure, it may seem naïve to imagine that the BNC is the silver bullet to resolve the conundrum of Nigeria’s security and economic malaise. Far from it, not least because doing so would be to put all of Nigeria’s eggs in one basket. As a matter of strategy, the Buhari government would be smart to deploy other tools and engage other partners to try to fix Nigeria. What makes the US partnership particularly attra
What then should be Nigeria’s response to the opportunities that come with the Biden presidency? The Federal government appears ready for the challenge, with the assigning of Dr. Uzoma Elizabeth Emenike, a veteran diplomat, as Nigeria’s ambassador to the United States. This is the right first substantive move. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs must now move fast to ensure she presents her credentials as soon as possible and also empower her with a strong team of officers. Once in place, the ambassador and her team will be to cast their nets wide beyond the State Department, given that the US foreign policy establishment consists of a diffuse cast of officials and institutions that also include members of Congress and Africa/Nigeria specialists on the National Security Council at the Whitehouse, amongst others.
At the strategic level, President Buhari should, at the earliest opportunity, consider extending an invitation to Biden to visit Nigeria or, in the alternative, explore an early possibility to visit the US President at the White House to make the case for elevated engagement of both governments to promote shared priorities.
One core tenet of foreign policy is that countries act in their perceived self-interest. National sovereignty and independence demand it. However, the world recoiled from Trump’s ‘America first’ policy not because he invented some vile, alien concept, but only because it eviscerated international cooperation and partnership, principles that are not incompatible with the pursuit of the national interest.
As Nigeria seeks to reset Nigeria-US relations, our officials need to keep in mind that, while the Biden administration may be philosophically and temperamentally attuned to international cooperation, America’s national interest will not fundamentally change because a new administration has displaced the old, no matter how despised the old administration was. The European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) stressed this point when, while welcoming Biden’s Presidency, warned that “Americans have a new president but not a new country.”
As in all strategic relations, Nigeria would do well to retain a clear eye about the promise and limits of international cooperation and solidarity; about what it can and must do all by itself, when to call in help, and how much help could help solve a clearly defined problem. In other words, Nigeria must be more strategic in its diplomacy and adaptive to new challenges. Going forward, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will need to reinvent itself, including by prioritizing reporting and the timely transmission of rigorous analysis and assessments of events in foreign countries by our diplomats. Only by so doing can Nigeria’s diplomacy benefit the policy making process.
Dr. Gbara Awanen, mni, a retired Foreign Service Officer, was Head of the Political Section at the Embassy of Nigeria, Washington DC, from 2014 to 2017, and is the author, most recently of Fragile States and the Crisis of Regionalism in West Africa